Is It Time For The Bivouac Game Studio?
January 20, 2011 Page 1 of 3
[As big studios continue to encounter difficulties with production cycles, and outsourcing models create new challenges even as they solve problems, Tim Carter takes a look at an entirely different possibility for how teams can come together -- and disperse.]
A bivouac is a camp. A place people come together, physically, to live for a short duration. Often when out in the wilderness doing frontier work, such as prospecting or pioneering. A bivouac is not a permanent home to a community -- like a town or village -- but a temporary one.
Is it time now that game production, physically, be done in this way? Is it time for the temporary production studio -- the game development bivouac?
The Assumption of Remoteness
Recently I found myself in a discussion with some game developers over the core team / outsourcing model of game development.
I realized there is a fundamental assumption developers have regarding what contracting external developers must mean in terms of how people are physically situated in regard to each other. This article is to challenge that assumption -- that misassumption.
We all know what the core team / outsourcing development model means by now. (At least I hope we do.) A small team of core creators -- the leads and so forth -- live together while planning a game. They design, build the early prototype, and then get financing to bring it into production.
When the production phase is begun, external developers -- freelancers or production companies -- are contracted to do most of the bulk work, such as art and QA. These parties work remotely, in this assumption. Because of this, everything needs to be tightly coordinated -- and here is where this model runs into the greatest resistance.
There is a gigantic belief around this model. The belief everything needs to be done in a distributed fashion: that the core team stays in its office, the external contractors stay in their office(s), all these entities physically distant from each other.
The Problems of Remoteness & Closeness
The problems of remote development are well known by now. People working remotely don't work well together -- no matter how much emailing, messaging, Skyping they do. Distributed work just doesn't compare to in-person work. You communicate much more effectively face-to-face than remotely. Some communication means that technical people might dismiss -- namely body language, eye contact, and so on -- are very valuable, and vastly increase the ability of a team to coordinate activities. This is why good development companies want their people onsite.
However, the all-in-person close-development model tends to have a big box game studio connotation. It reminds one of cage-like, factory farm production -- giant studios full of hundreds or even thousands of people who crunch for half the year, running at a burn-out pace, unable to pursue their dream projects and so forth, without time between projects, and so on. Possibly laid off between releases when they are not needed. Well-known grievances.
So these are the two conventional pictures of these models -- core team / outsourcing versus close-development.
But is it not possible to combine core-team / outsourcing with close-development?
Another Example: From Film
The answer is yes: it is possible!
And we already have a well-established example to look at: film and television production. (Yes, I know I'll get in trouble as you'll say games aren't film -- but bear with me for a moment...)
There was a time, in the '50s and earlier, the film industry ran exclusively in a close-development, big factory model. But years have passed, and models have matured. The film industry now runs in a core talent / outsourcing model, in terms of business (and the support of core talent via that business) -- yet production is still done in tight physical proximity.
The writers, directors, producers, production managers, stars and so on, plan out their work in small offices. When done planning, they enter production proper, hiring many contracted entities -- such as camera, lighting, rigging, art department, costuming, and other external companies -- who work temporarily on this single production. But they don't do production remotely. Instead they rent a temporary studio space, move all the external parties into it, and do production together.
A good film/TV studio space will have many facilities specifically tailored for all of the various departmental needs (here is an example of such as space, in Toronto).
In the film/TV studio space, crews will build large sets and so on, and here most production work will be done. (A lot will be done on location too, out of the studio, but that's not really relevant here.) These companies may live in said space for several months, possibly even several years (during a TV series or major film franchise).
But the space is nevertheless temporary: eventually production will wrap and the contractors go their respective ways (on to new projects), freeing the production company of its overhead burden; free the core talent of its obligation to remain married to one studio regardless of its wishes.
As you may imagine this is something of a nomadic or gypsy-like existence. But it still can make for a very strong community. If you've worked on a film set for several intense months on a project you will develop contacts. And friends. These relationships won't be lost once production is over, despite the seemingly "wandering existence".
Furthermore, this embracing of the nomadic makes it possible for the film and television community to pursue a vastly diverse range of artistic projects -- allowing motion pictures to be an artistic medium that has commanded mainstream attention and respect.
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