[While "outsourcing" has a certain image in the minds of many, Virtuos -- one of the biggest outsourcing houses in the world -- is not precisely what you'd expect, and Gamasutra traveled to their Shanghai headquarters to find out more from CEO Gilles Langourieux.]
Virtuos was started in Shanghai by three partners -- including CEO Gilles Langourieux and production director Pan Feng, who spoke to Gamasutra at their Shanghai HQ about the shape of their business. Their goal is to provide sustainability to the marketplace in a time of rising costs, and their ambition is to remain a partner that companies feel there is value in working with.
The company was founded in 2005 by ex-Ubisoft Shanghai staff, and by the end of that year reached 70. Now, Virtuos has 600 staff across studios -- one in Shanghai and one in Chengdu.
While the company now develops games internally from the ground up, and also contributes to Hollywood films, the primary focus of the operation is outsourcing -- art and animation (from props through full levels) and also programming.
The work-for-hire development process has resulted in parts of games or full games -- from Activision's Monster Jam to the side-scrolling levels in Disney Epic Mickey.
"We shipped games on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, PSP, iPad, iPhone, PSN, we have a live demo that's on Facebook as well. So that's how many platforms we're able to touch," Langorieux told Gamasutra.
Why did Shanghai become such a center of this kind of development?
Gilles Langorieux: The history is that Shanghai has always been a city in China which is more open to the outside world. Beijing is more the center of excellence when it comes to engineering -- pure engineering and pure art, Beijing is the center of excellence. But when it comes to openness to new ideas and the open world, Shanghai comes first. And this is the reason why we selected it when we wanted to open the first game studios for Ubisoft in '97.
I think it's also why TOSE, which was the first Japanese company, selected it. I say it's this combination of -- there is excellence in China, but also there's more openness to culture. There was a tradition of movie production in Shanghai before the war and the revolution, and there are some cartoon companies and some local game companies which may have inherited a little bit of that tradition.
Art outsourcing is primarily thought of as something for major console-scale games. Your internal development seems to scale all the way up and down the chain for your products.
GL: We can take examples from games that we've shipped this year, it goes from helping a small developer like Ludia, I don't know if you're familiar with them; they do games based on TV shows like The Price Is Right, Family Fortunes.
So we have helped them adapt their games from the console platforms that they were originally developed for, to more online oriented platforms like the PSN or the iPad. So this is a fairly simple, compact project. It involves most of the skill sets -- producers, designers, engineers, artists -- but it's a short time frame; usually less than six months. And for us, that's a small and simple adaptation project.
On the other end of the scale, we shipped the new iteration of Monster Jam for Activision, which we developed on all the console platforms from scratch with technology which belongs to Virtuos. And that's a much longer effort; it's nearly a year of development for up to 150 people.
In between, you have a project like Sid Meier's Pirates!, which we recently redid for the Wii platform for 2K. The common theme is that there's an existing IP, and our client needs to do more with this IP on other platforms. That's the common theme. And they need a partner which is reliable.
Our strengths are about process, the size of the workforce that we can assign to a project, and the fact that we have mature leads who are able to take the games we do to a higher query level than what's usually expected of an actual developer.
What percentage of your staff is Chinese? And which percentage is Westerners?
GL: So out of the 600 employees, we have around 30 foreigners, so that gives us a 5 percent foreign, 95 percent local.
When it comes to your team structure, are foreign people primarily in lead positions? Or is it mixed?
GL: They're primarily in lead positions -- not exclusively in lead positions. For example, there are certain skill sets which are very difficult to find in China. One example is technical art, so we have technical artists coming from abroad. Another example may be concept art, there are some styles which would be more difficult to work on, so we have concept artists from the West. As a matter of fact, besides the foreigners we have in China, we also have a small studio in Russia.
We have that small studio in Russia where we have around 10 concept artists. And we also have a small studio in Paris where we have producers, engineers, and artists. So they help complement the skills that are difficult to find here, and they make us able to reach a different level from the level we would be able to reach if we were working only with the resources of one country.
Do you have Chinese staff in those kinds of roles?
GL: Yeah, don't get me wrong, half of our art directors are Chinese; almost all of our producers are Chinese; all our engineering aids are Chinese. So this is not a studio which is managed by foreigners; this is a studio where you have foreigners embedded in its international management team. And my two co-founders are Chinese, with Pan Feng and Chen Yu. So out of three co-founders, we are one third French, two thirds Chinese.