It takes great effort from both parties to succeed whenever you outsource anything complex or large-scale, but when you’re on the buy side, as a game developer, it’s easy to overlook what else you can bring to the table other than signing the checks. In fact, as a client, you can take several steps to help your service providers help you.
Few of the ideas presented below are complex or time-consuming to implement, but combined they make a big difference to your vendors, all for the better. And the more effort you make to keep your vendors happy, the more likely it is that they will return the favor by caring about the things that matter to you ‒ such as meeting deadlines and improving quality.
The way I see it, I want our vendors to be profitable so we can rely on them to complete the work we need from them, without any risk of jeopardizing the current project and so they stay in business until our next project, so we can work with them again. This saves us time and effort in the future because we don’t have to build new relationships, sign new contracts, or get an entirely new team up to speed. However, I definitely don't want our vendors to profit by overcharging us or cutting corners; instead, I want to make sure that we work together as well as possible so that everything runs smoothly. In my experience, most vendors would have no problem making a profit if it weren’t for periods without work or clients giving them a hard time, intentionally or not.
At the end of the day, when you’re subcontracting work to a third party (which is what “outsourcing” means) you’re dealing with another business, so money matters. Hence, it’s wise to look at yourself from your vendor’s point of view and really think about how the vendor’s business operates as opposed to your own.
To put it in very simple terms, we game developers basically make and sell games to bring in revenue, and our biggest financial risk is that the cost of producing these games is not covered by the number of units sold, while service providers (i.e., vendors) stay alive by keeping their employees busy creating content for us, so their biggest financial risk is underutilized employees.
This is the most important thing to remember as a developer when you outsource, and knowing this makes it easier to predict how your vendors will respond and react in most situations.
Idle staff keeps vendors from making a profit and they have to make profit one way or the other to stay alive. So, if you can help them avoid idle time, for example, by not requesting a team on a certain date only to postpone the start at the last minute, or not ramping down your external team abruptly, or not stopping production midway for days/weeks, then you are less likely to become a profitable client by other means, such as through higher rates, higher time estimates, or less experienced members being added to your team in greater numbers. You are also less likely to make yourself unpopular as a client; if you become unpopular, you might receive much worse terms in the future.
The key is to let vendors make money by simply doing their jobs, meaning they keep their staff busy and charge you their normal margins; thus, they are not forced to look for other ways to profit because you’ve burned their money due to poor planning, late changes in resource requirements, or canceled work orders. Instead, you help them run things smoothly so they find profit through a stable flow of work for a longer period of time.
For instance, it helps if you let a backlog of briefs build up before you start up your external production; do this and then track how many un-started assets your vendor has so you know well in advance when it’s time to prepare more work for outsourcing. Ideally, you also want to provide a minimum of two “tasks” for every external employee; these employees can then jump between assets or objects while waiting for feedback or as soon as one is completed. You should try to maintain this work load for as long as possible, until it’s time to ramp down and cease production.
Then, as soon as you know that no more briefs will be sent out and the external team can be ramped down, you should tell your vendor. Send an email or pick up the phone and let the vendor know things are coming to an end so that the vendor can plan accordingly (e.g., by gradually moving artists to other projects).
If you don’t do this, you cause unnecessary stress for your vendors and yourself. They risk losing money if they believe more work is coming and thus maintain their team for you, only to see them idle. They will likely be forced to shift people to other projects, which could be problematic if you hoped to maintain the same team and its capacity, if you spent lots of time training the team for your project, or if you want to work with the vendor again and therefore want to maintain a good business relationship.
For similar reasons, you should review assets and return feedback and approvals as quickly as possible so you don’t become a bottleneck for the vendor. Set high expectations internally on turnaround times and make it crystal clear that other people, most likely a lot of people, are depending on your team to not slow them down. And while there is little we can do to speed up the creation of assets once the wheels have started turning externally, one thing we can do is NOT slow things down or get in the way.
While game developers can spend years (and thus big money) working on a project before it’s launched and revenue starts coming in, this is not the business model of most service providers. For them, positive cash flow is important from day one, and it may even be vital. Few vendors have cash reserves large enough to sustain long periods without paying projects. This is more important than ever when working with individual freelancers who may rely on your paycheck to feed their families.
With this in mind, have your purchase requests ready in advance, make sure you’ve cleared your budget before you get started, and pay your invoices on time. If you can, consider making payments early, even in advance.
The effort required to make payments early is equal to that of making payments late, so you might as well set yourself apart from most other clients who tend to be late with payments or require multiple reminders from vendors for payment covering work completed long ago.
Making payments early rather than late is highly recommended, unless the sums are so large you’re earning significant bank interest by holding the money until the last minute or you’re using the payment as a carrot by postponing it until the last due date. But if you try to leverage your control over payments as a carrot, you should be very careful! This tactic may not be as effective as you think. The way I look at it, it’s like tipping in a restaurant: You’re more likely to receive good service if you tip your server up front instead of waiting until the end of the meal. It will cost you the same money, time, and effort. However, there is a big risk that you will have to “pay” more by enduring worse service if you hold off.
In case your vendor appears to have forgotten that it should be paid, perhaps by not sending an invoice after work has been completed, just send a reminder. The vendor will realize it sooner or later anyway. If you don’t send a reminder, you risk ruining their trust or appearing unprofessional for not keeping your commitments (and on-time payments tend to be part of standard contracts).
You might even consider bringing your service providers more business, especially if they are smaller and less known. Unless you’re fully relying on a vendor and really need them constantly, don’t be afraid to help ‒ or at least not hinder – by introducing the vendor to more clients. Even if you won’t need the vendor for another year or two, it’s still in your best interest to help them stay in business until then.
You don’t need to become a spokesperson for your service providers, but you can still offer them credits in-game and set up service agreements that cover other studios that are part of your umbrella organization (in case you’re a subsidiary of a major publisher, for example).
You have little to lose as long as you’ve secured your own resources, or just finished a project and no longer need the vendor’s services for a while, or don’t make life too easy for your direct competitors. And if you’re smart about this, you can trade these recommendations for things that are more valuable to you as part of negotiations, making it a win-win situation.
Even when you work with the best, things will go wrong occasionally, and when they do it’s recommended to assume things have been misunderstood or poorly communicated by you rather than blaming your vendor as a default reaction. Even if it isn’t your fault, the vendor still provides work for you and your game, so it’s sensible to get the problem sorted without the risk of hurting yourself indirectly.
Be hypersensitive to the culture of your service provider if it differs from yours. Never accuse or embarrass anyone in front of others, and be mindful that emails sent to more than one person or an email group could easily do so. If in doubt – or if things have gone horribly wrong – talk to (don’t email) the general managers or studio heads who are better equipped to handle criticism and also know how to trickle the feedback downward if necessary.
If you’re a Westerner working with Chinese vendors, for instance, you need to be aware of their concept of face. You don’t need to understand it, nor would you most likely even if you tried, but it’s enough that you’re aware of its existence and your own inability to grasp it fully. If you are at least aware of this, you will be less likely to embarrass yourself or anyone else unintentionally.
Regardless of where in the world your vendors are located, it helps a great deal to visit them in person and even stay with them for an extended time while they are working for you, even if they are across the street. This is extremely valuable to both parties as it tends to accelerate the production pace significantly when communication is direct and in person, and it also helps in avoiding a lot of the unnecessary work normally involved in preparing deliveries. Having a representative or two from your studio on site at your vendor’s place of business makes it easier for your external team to meet your project’s requirements, which obviously benefits you directly, but it also avoids a lot of unnecessary work on the external team’s end as fewer things will go wrong and require rework, which benefits you too, albeit indirectly.
If you’ve ever worked on site with a vendor, or just visited for a while, you’ve probably noticed that a lot more questions are asked in person than are asked if you are working through emails or phone calls. The many questions that vendors tend to ask in person are always there, but voicing them is often easier in a face-to-face conversation, and it’s really in everyone’s best interest for as much information as possible to be revealed and confirmed.
Speaking of questions, whenever they do arise, or when assets are reviewed and feedback is provided, your focus should be on the solution that you want implemented, not just pointing out the problems. And it’s very useful to highlight good, perhaps unexpectedly innovative, solutions already provided. Don’t take good things for granted if you want to see more good things. That goes both for good questions and for clever solutions for services provided.
The main takeaway here is to remove the guesswork for your vendors. If they have to guess what or how you want something done, you risk that they end up choosing a suboptimal solution that will cause further production delays because it requires significant rework after you see it executed.
Something I like to provide is what I call “meta-feedback.” It’s basically “feedback on the feedback” and a great way to make the production run even more smoothly over time. All it involves is keeping track of recurring problems on both ends and implementing checks and balances to eventually fade them out, for example, by improving your briefs, specifications, workflows, or tools, and/or by redirecting your quality assurance efforts to where they pay off the most.
The biggest challenge in outsourcing is the inherent disadvantage that anyone will have simply by working remotely and thus being disconnected from the obvious sources of information about the project, such as meetings and internal email threads, but also because these team members are disconnected from the less obvious channels where the most ideas actually flow ‒ ideas that are communicated indirectly or casually, such as in conversations inside the office or by merely glancing at the latest game build running on a colleague’s machine.
Just how much information we as developers receive this way and take for granted is immense. However, to further complicate things, the vendors you work with usually have multiple clients and work on different projects, for different platforms, with different art styles, and different technical specifications as well! Hence, what is obvious to you and your team is likely not obvious or even vaguely clear to anyone else.
So, even if your vendors want to go the extra mile for you, it’s hard for them to do so without knowing where they’re supposed to be going, like what or why you are working on something. Thus, sharing as much information as you can is vital. Share everything from the type of game you’re making to how content should be produced (i.e., workflows), how it will be used in-game, and why you’re giving certain types of feedback for particular assets, including why exceptions are made occasionally.
Providing all this information once is not enough, you also have to keep the information up-to-date and be willing to repeat it and remind the vendors of it. Holding regular meetings with your vendors, as opposed to talking only in emergencies, also helps them feel comfortable asking about things they may think are not that important, but turn out to be critical. Not to mention, circumstances always change a lot in game development; for example, the story may change so that new characters are needed or old characters become obsolete, or a level may be cut so a big batch of environment assets are not used anymore. When you learn about these changes, remember that your service providers will not have a clue about them because they are out of the loop, but it’s possible their work will also be affected in one way or another.
When you make an effort to share information with your vendors remotely, take some time to think about what is likely to happen, or not happen, on the vendors’ end: While you’re visiting your vendors, this is something you should investigate and consider. You should know what happens to files, documents, emails, and other types of information that you regularly send. Who receives it, what does the recipient do with it, where does it go, and when?
You’ll probably realize that it would be a good idea to zip all the files you’re uploading and minimize the amount of text that must be translated along with a thousand other details. Experience will help you anticipate a lot, but you can only anticipate so much compared to actually looking into how your vendor operates.
Just as you should share as much information as you can, you should also share as much technology as you can if it would help your vendors produce better work ‒ and look into what else you can develop to make their jobs easier. If you’re outsourcing a lot of your game’s content, don’t make the mistake of neglecting this area because you’re suddenly farther from the art team, for example. The vendors are still making assets for your game, and if they’re making a lot of these assets, providing great tools for them should be your priority.
Although, remember that you still need to develop these tools and test them in the context in which they will be used ‒ which is not internally. You need to take into account that the users will be a remote team that probably has a different IT infrastructure with different software and hardware than you do. Hence, anticipate and seek out any weak spots and help resolve them, including the fundamental uses of technology, so that you don’t end up with a pipeline that requires your vendor to use old legacy software or connect through a VPN tunnel to your local server and then upload/download files at 5-10 kb/sec ‒ with server time-outs if transfers take more than two hours ‒ forcing them to stay up all night to complete data deliveries etc.
Just as most vendors will stay up late to complete file deliveries if they are forced to, most vendor representatives will pick up the phone even if you call them on a Friday evening at 11 p.m., but you’re not going to make yourself popular as a client if you do this (although they will not tell you this if they’re professional). However, on the rare occasions that you feel it is advisable to wake people up in the middle of the night, at least consider whether it’s really necessary; if not, you might want to spend this type of capital on a real emergency. This also means taking into account your vendor’s time zone and not (accidentally) calling in the middle of the night as if you’re experiencing an emergency when you’re only looking for a quick update.
For similar reasons, you should consider that people in developing countries usually don’t have multiple weeks of vacation or plenty of national holidays each year and thus respect them when they do have a chance to relax. Many of us are spoiled with the benefits we have in the West and easily take them for granted, but regardless of where your vendor is located you should be aware that holidays at least differ across the globe and try to proactively take that into account when planning your external production tracks.
On the other hand, this also means that you can take advantage of this circumstance; just because you and your team are about to have a few days off doesn’t necessarily mean that your vendors will. In fact, they probably won’t be off and would be more than happy to work while you’re away if it’s business as usual in their country. Once again, be careful not to let your vendors run out of work because you’ve overlooked this discrepancy and assumed they also had time off.
At the end of the day, even when work is being outsourced, we game developers have more influence of how smooth and successful it goes than first meets the eye.