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An Examination of Outsourcing: The Developer Angle
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An Examination of Outsourcing: The Developer Angle

August 7, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

But despite the advantages of outsourcing, Seropian is quick to admit that there are also high hurdles, all of which he's encountered in Wideload's five-year history.

High atop that list is what he calls "simply process" -- which includes setting expectations very clearly and providing outsourcers the tools they need to succeed.

"To make it work, you need to treat the outsourcers -- who may be halfway around the world -- like they are on the team," he explains. "And, for us, that means getting them into our source control system, allowing them to preview their work in mid-game as we are previewing our work, and providing them with a pipeline of assignments and feedback and expectations."

"For instance, we tell them that when they do a character model, we usually review it about 20 times before we call it done. Because, if we don't say that, when they get to the fifth iteration, they're going to be like 'Ah, come on, man. Isn't it done yet?'

"We're talking about a lot more here than just having good communications," Seropian notes. "It's treating them like they're working in the same room as you are. We have come to understand that and to build it into our culture that we aren't going to succeed if the outsourcers don't knock the ball out of the park. We have to do everything possible to enable them to do that."

At Kuju Entertainment -- one of the UK's largest independent developers, and owners of the Zoe Mode (Crush), Headstrong Games (Battalion Wars) and Doublesix Games (Geometry Wars Galaxies) -- president Jonathan Newth rates outsourcing a "seven" on a scale of 1-10 reflecting its importance to his company's success.

While, an average of 20% of Kuju's artwork is done elsewhere, there are some games -- Electronic Arts' Rail Simulator, for example -- where almost 80% was outsourced. And Newth aims to bring the average up to about a third.

"The number one reason -- by a significant margin -- for our using outsourcing is that it has minimized our fixed costs and given us flexibility in scaling our resources up and down," Newth explains. "We certainly couldn't consider always keeping a full set of teams on staff and trying to time it so that, as one project ends, another one is ready to start. Instead, we maintain a core team of skilled staff and then we increase or decrease resources as we need them. This has enabled us to bid for projects we otherwise couldn't even consider."

In addition to resource flexibility, outsourcing serves up skill sets that may not exist internally at Kuju.

"There are some areas of animation and character creation, for example, that we prefer to outsource simply because we know outsourcers who are capable of producing exceptionally high quality work in these areas -- as high quality as we could produce internally and, in some cases, with creativity and experience we might not have in-house," Newth admits.

Kuju -- which creates about a dozen games annually -- is comprised of six studios in the UK and one in San Francisco with a total of about 330 people on staff, about half of whom are permanent and half are fixed contractors. Then, on top of that, Kuju works on a fairly regular basis with about 20 people who are outsourcers.

The company, which was founded in 1998, began outsourcing its art, music, and voiceover almost from day one and, over the last few years, has been trying to outsource code as well.

What has also changed over the years is the ease with which Kuju is able to find skilled outsourcers.

"When we started looking at outsourcing, there were fewer around and we knew much less about the whole process and so it cost us a lot of money just to move along the learning curve," Newth recalls.

"The process we used was to do some research, create a long list of, say, five to seven outsourcers for each separate project, and then do due diligence on everything from their network security, what kind of insurance they had, how long their staff had been with them, and so on. Then we checked references."

"When the list had shrunk to maybe three to five outsourcers, we sent them our standard RFPs and gave them each a test which was an asset or an animation which we would normally have done in-house. Typically we ended up with two or three outsourcers on the project in order to spread the risk."

Today the process is much simpler. Kuju has its list of trusted partners and selection is based on costs, among other factors.

Newth believes that eventually Kuju might head down a larger "distributed development" path, perhaps not on art but possibly on bigger projects where it might try outsourcing scripting or actual code.

"We have certainly had some of the senior members of the outsourcing teams on our site at the start of a project so they can get to know the job and the team they are working with and to understand that they are a big part of the work we're doing," says Newth. "So I guess we've gone part of the way down that road already."

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