That seems like it could become quite complicated, particularly as games can tend to have very distinct visual styles, right? So if you're ramping up and down and trying to keep people working on many projects.
GL: That's why we're running after scale; that's where we always run after scale. Scale was an issue at the beginning of the company. When we needed different skill sets, producing characters requires different skill sets from producing vehicles or for using prop artists. If you only have a team of 20 artists, you're not going to be able to work across different types, and it's going to be even more difficult to work across different styles.
With scale, we were able to specialize our teams of artists. And we have 60 artists who do only characters, we have 100 artists who work only on environment, and we have 30 artists who produce only vehicles. And within those categories, we even have different leads who have different styles attached to them. That only comes with scale.
Do the staff find that satisfying? To have that high specialization?
GL: What they find satisfying is to have the option. They work in a company where there's probably a larger variety of client project styles than any other company in China, maybe even any other company in the industry. So they have the option.
You ask a good question, do artists want to produce the same type of characters over and over again? No. Because we work across so many different types of projects, we can give them the opportunity to evolve or to change, which is not the case when you're working, for example, on a large scale MMO of the same style for five years in a row. You see?
The local market kind of products.
GL: I'll give you just one number, but in 2010 we received over 30,000 applications. Why are so many people applying to our company? It's precisely because they know that this is a unique teaching ground. There's opportunities to work from anything from a Facebook game all the way up to advanced CG effects, a lot of Hollywood movies. Not everyone Is going to do this, but given the right motivation and skill sets, the opportunities are there.
Do you find that the skillsets in a local area for recruitment are what you need?
GL: So I've always, you know, from the first day that I came to China in '97 I've always been extremely impressed at the level of art schools in China and engineering schools in China. For engineering, the level in math and physics in particular, for art the level in traditional drawing, painting, sculpture and art history; even Western Art history that they are giving in the schools. And this is why we've been successful at growing the pool.
Do we rely only on Shanghai area recruitment? Absolutely not; we recruit all over the country. I was talking to our team yesterday, last year our recruiting tour took us to ten different cities, and we visited nearly 100 different institutions. So that's how extensive the search is all across the country. And only 40 percent of our staff is Shanghai native; 60 percent are coming from out of Shanghai. So we really try to leverage the China pool, and not just the Shanghai town pool.
Do you primarily recruit graduates from Universities? Or do you also recruit from other development companies and other art companies, the way that you might find typically in America?
GL: Yeah, we also recruit from other companies, but the level of experience out there is very limited, so out of the 200 people we recruited last year, I think 60 of them had prior experience and all the rest were fresh graduates.
For the fresher graduates, we have specific training plan, we even opened a training school and we'll show you how we're set up for this. Because the skills they have coming right out of school are not always enough to quickly get into production, so we have them come in, spend three months to be trained on actual, real life cases of increasing difficulty. And after those three months, we select the ones who meet the production criteria before hiring them for good. So we're one of the earliest to adopt this kind of selective training program.
Do your dropouts go work at competitors?
GL: Exactly -- they have no problem whatsoever finding work. Outsourcing in China represents only 10 percent of the gaming production scene, and 90 percent is online game, MMO, casual game production. So these companies are also hiring a lot of talent, and also training a lot of talent.
Code outsourcing doesn't have a good reputation.
GL: So this is something that we've been strong proponents of from day one. You can outsource much more than art, including code, given the proper setups. We've set up the company with a number of security and IP production measures from day one so that clients will feel secure doing this.
We were probably the first company in China to receive source code from major publishers and to work on them. We've had, and we still have, engineers here working as an extension of the central technology groups of some of the major publishers. R&D outsourcing, code development outsourcing, is fairly new to the games industry but it's absolutely not new to the software industry in general. Microsoft, IBM and HP have thousands of Chinese coders working in Chinese outsourcing companies on their code for them today.
So if it works for the general software outsourcing industry, there's absolutely no reason why it could not work for the games industry. It's just that the games industry is less mature from a development practice standpoint, so a number of processes need to be put in place, some IT setups need to be put in place, and also mentality needs to evolve so that this becomes an accepted practice in the games industry as well. But we're doing it today, and it's growing.
So you manage the overall efforts? Or just game development efforts specifically?
Pan Feng: Overall. So we've got two teams of producers. One team is in charge of development projects; the other is in charge of all the art, animation outsourcing.
Is it challenging to oversee both of those things in the same company? Is it more about just overseeing the managers who have their own specialties?
PF: There are plenty of challenges in managing both activities, but the two teams of producers, they are quite independent. So in most cases, I'm providing them with support like noticing and helping solve problems. They are pretty much running purely by themselves, because they've been in this industry for quite some time and they have the experience. Yeah, there are a lot of challenges, but I still manage.