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Letting Go Of Game Contractors
by Kimberly Unger on 08/11/10 12:31:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It’s a hard decision, letting go.  We are designed to adapt, millions of years of evolution encouraging us to make changes, to take that one giant leap forward.  Yet somehow it’s still the hardest thing in the world to make a change.

How do you know when it’s time to let go of a contractor?

Its a really hard thing to sort out, I suspect even for the experienced producers.  You have somebody under contract to complete a piece of work, usually that is clearly laid out with milestones and checkpoints.  How many milestones should they miss before you regard them as a liability rather than an asset? 

Bringing new people up to speed takes time, and often takes you back to ground zero, as new programmers often are more comfortable rewriting the code to suit their style and artists all have a different method of creating that gives them an end result they can work with quickly and efficiently.

This is one of the places where having a weekly staff meeting can be a bonus, even if you are working with contractor.  It’s one of my weakest points, I admit.  I hate “bugging” professionals, even if I’m paying them, but my recent experience has shown me that there’s a certain amount of nagging necessary, even expected if the jobs going to get done at all, let alone done on time.

After working through this particular project, though, I have had to make a number of changes to the way I do business.  Some of them, in my POV, are unfortunate ones.  Paying on completion of a contract is standard business. 

I’d rather be able to help my creatives out, pay as you go, but thus far I’ve been burned by this at least three times during the course of this game, in all cases the contractor in question ditching halfway through (sometimes actually saying "I'm out" sometimes just vanishing into the ether), leaving me with half the budget and only a portion of the work done.  Now, you may say, “Hey, half the work is done, you have half the money, so what’s the problem?”

The problem here is ramp-up time.  It takes time (paid time) to get someone new up to speed.  This is particularly true with programmers, but is also true with the creatives as well.  so in reality, what I have is half the work left, half the budget, but an additional 25% of rampup work required.  The numbers go bad and, worst of all, the timing goes bad.  Milestones go by the wayside, funds get taken off the books, from a biz standpoint it’s a nightmare.

So what I’m left with, at this moment, is a set of “arbitrary rules” to work with.  How long do I allow a contractor to go MIA before cutting them off and finding a new one, how draconic do I make my contracts, when do they get paid, all of these things are harsher than I want them to be. 

After spending 10 years as a contractor, cribbing about contract terms myself, I am now seeing the *reasons* for these rules.  There are good contractors out there, I know there are, but the bad ones make these rules and cutoff points necessary just for the sake of preserving the project.

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Tim Carter
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When the contract is up maybe?

sam howard
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Good luck finding anyone after this article....:)

Michael Joseph
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I suppose the most important thing is to hire the right contractor from the beginning... not exactly an easy task I'm sure. I would think that one requirement would be to only hire a contractor who's already got experience in creating a particular piece of technology or artwork or music that fits with or is very close to what you need/envision for your project.

So instead of posting an ad online and fielding resumes from random people, maybe send an email to the persons who's work examples/portfolios you find online and find out if they'd be interested in doing some contract work. Recruiting is probably the easiest way of making sure you're going to get someone who at least can do what you need done in the particular art style (for instance) that your project requires. Obviously that doesn't guarantee they're going to actually do the work but the only place to start is by answering the question of qualifications.

I think people who can do the work, will do the work... the ones who can't might try to bull**** their way through a few easy paychecks.

DISCLAIMER: I've never had to hire a contractor, but I've been on the other end of the equation and have never had any problems. I try to only accept work that I know I can do quickly and where the deliverables are clearly laid out. I guess that would be another warning sign - that is a contractor who doesn't work with you in shaping the list of deliverables for the work heshe is supposed to end up doing. That would indicate someone who either doesn't care (just wants the gig) or someone who probably doesn't have the requisite experience and may find themselves with a list of deliverables they can't hope to complete or complete on time.

Dan Felder
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Excellent analysis of a very important and taboo business topic. It's always important to know when to say goodbye. Good people are hard to find, and it's a shame to hurt potential relationships with creative people - but if someone doesn't share the respect and passion for your project, then it's a crime to give them the work when there's a more deserving team out there who is being overlooked.

One deal structure that's a sometimes-useful middleground is paying as you go... But if the job is not completed within a certain date, all the money comes back to you. If they finish the job outside the deadline, partial to complete payment for their services can still happen - depending on how far out.

In this way you can pay them as they go, but still get your money back if things go wrong. Naturally, this type of contract will only work with contractors with the ability to pay you back if they do default on their contract - so it isn't a cookie-cutter solution for every situation. But, when appropriate, it can make things a lot more comfortable for both the contractor while simultaneously giving the principle party a way out if they need one.

Again, an excellent analysis and eminently useful to any studio interested in contracting. As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Expect the Best... But Prepare for the Worst." You're often much happier.

-Dan Felder, Co-Founder of WhyGames Consulting

Peter Kojesta
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Hi Kimberly,

I run Exis Interactive, an outsource studio founded in 2003; our most recent title was F.E.A.R 3, so I'd like to weigh in on this. A few things to consider:

1) How many missed milestones before you should let a contractor go? Just 1. If they don't deliver the work on time, they're not professional, it's as simple a that. And if there is some force majeure that prevents the work from being completed in time, they should give you ample warning so you can make proper arrangements.

2) paying on completion is not standard practice if you're working with any sort of Pro. We do not subsidize our clients development. For every time you've been burned by someone leaving a project mid way through, a real contractor has been burned 10 times by someone not paying for the work completed; scams galore. The way you'll end up solving this is twofold. One , don't work with people who don't have a proven track record for success and quality work. Two, you'll generally want to set your contract up for a 20%-30% up-front payment, and the rest on completion.

The biggest reason people are let down by contractors is because they think they will save money by working with individuals or organizations without a track record. If you're buying on "price" this is exactly what you get, uncertainty. Buy on value. How much money have you lost because you've worked with these sort of people? How much money would you have saved in the long run if you'd paid a proper contractor? Find pro's, and pay the money needed to get your work done right.

Please understand, the more "Draconian" and "heavy handed" you are, the less professional people will end up working with you. Do yourself a favor, find a top rated team of pro's and let them wow you.

Regarding ramp-up time. Unless your project is insanely exotic, I don't see ramp-up as an issue. 1-2 weeks on a decent sized project and everyone should be good to go. And they should be productive on day 1. Again, it's all in the team/group you hire.

Dan Felder
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That's very solid advice Peter. I think that Kimberly was focusing more on the issues of breaking off a relationship with a contractor even after doing all the due diligence you possibly could. Ideally, we want every relationship to be perfect and paying for quality is a solid way to improve the chances of finding the right team to make your game wonderful.

However, things don't always work out - particularly for young studios with tiny budgets who can't afford the big names - and then it always pays to have an exit strategy. As a rather intelligent investor once said, "Limit the downside and the upside will take care of itself."

Kimberly Unger
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@Michael, an excellent point, actively targeting people whose work you have already seen, and that already fits the project is definately the way to go.

@Peter Great advice :) You are absolutely right, that buying on quality is the better way to go. But @Dan has a point as well, when you're a small studio paying with a mix of cash and revenue (even generous revenue) you are in an inherently more risky situation for both sides. I would *love* to be able to hire a top rated team of pros, but for now that's just not in the cards, our budgets are so small (particularly compared to something like F.E.A.R. 3) that we are too high a risk for them to take on the work (which is the opposite side of this whole situation, as a contractor, where do you draw the line between vanity projects and work for hire).

@Dan You are dead on, I was pointing the blogpost more at the end of the line, when due diligience has been done and things just didn't work out. We do take a lot of chances on new talent, and they take a chance on us as well. @Peter's point is valid, for every contactor who may not complete a project, there are easily a couple of studios that never paid their contractors at all. We try to offset this by paying as close to completion as possible, rather than running out the 30 or 45 days that many studios use.

Thank you all for your comments and advice :)

Peter Kojesta
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Hi Kimberly,

Please feel free to e-mail me through my company site, and I'll put you in touch with some people I've worked with in the past who can deliver quality and a good price. I would be very happy to answer any outsource related questions, or help with any issues you may have.

Kimberly Unger
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Thanks Peter! I will do that.

Noah Falstein
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Kimberly, since you've already been a contractor yourself, I'm a bit surprised you don't mention the most obvious missing part of your equation - reputation. Peter hits on this too. When you say your budget is too small to hire top rated pros, I'd say that if you factor in the costs you mention of picking up the pieces after a cheap but unknown person bails on you, a pro is not so expensive after all! If you are considering hiring someone who says they're experienced, just check references. With resources like Linked In, it's increasingly easy to find out who you know who has worked with someone before, or at least been at the same company they were working with.