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Player Versus Player: Should Studios Outsource?

Columns By Christopher Coke on September 27, 2015

Should Studios Outsource?

Outsourcing. It’s a reality of the times. Companies all around the world ship their labor overseas, often to make the quickest buck at the least cost. What most people don’t know is that outsourcing is also part and parcel of modern game development, except that the jobs often stay in the U.S. But are so many hands in the cookie jar a good thing? Today we ask, should studios outsource gamedev?


Ryan “Pay for What You Get” Getchell: Ryan believes games should be made out of passion not how much you can get done in a given amount of time. Build Within, not from Out.

Chris “Fast and Good” Coke: Chris isn’t a fan of outsourcing in other industries but has no problems in the world of games. If it’s good, the faster the better!

Ryan: Hey Chris, glad to have you back for another round of Player Versus Player. It feels like we haven’t argued with each other in a while! This is a topic I’ve been seeing happen more and more often and, while I see it having some great benefits, I think in the long run it causes nothing but problems.  The biggest one I see is that you have a company trying to produce a game as inexpensively as possible. I’m a firm believer in the age old adage, “you get what you pay for.” If you go as cheap as possible your outcome will be as poor as possible. Who has to deal with this low quality? The players, so I’d rather see a company spend a little bit extra and produce higher quality work. If you’re proud of your game and you truly believe people are going to enjoy it, then whats a little bit extra money that in the long run is going to be returned to you anyways?

Chris: Hi Ryan! Outsourcing… ugh, just the word seems ugly. But, we’re not talking about sending gamedev jobs over to India (usually). The way I see it, outsourcing game development only ensures more people in this industry can go to work in the morning. You say “pay cheap, get cheap,” and I say “free market.” The studios being outsourced to often exist purely on those contracts. And do they really make less? I’m not a developer, and it seems likely, but outsourcing may be more about manpower than cashola.

Ryan: Another concern is the “too many hands in the cookie jar”. When you start introducing coders to a project that has already been started it becomes a mess. Everyone codes differently; there is more than one way to achieve the same result when it comes to programming. So if you’re working as a team, which a lot of outsourcers don’t (they just do their hired job and leave), you begin introducing discrepancies which will lead to bugs and glitches down the road. Then the coders who are on the team have to go through thousands of lines of code just to decipher what the contractor did, and it isn’t going to be a simple fix, as he’ll have to code it the way the other person did or rewrite the entire block. Outsourcing parts of a project is never a good idea.

Chris: Then the issue isn’t outsourcing, it’s accountability. I know nothing about coding, but it seems to me there should be a better way to make sure everyone is on the same page, and I think it’s called “hire a competent producer.” Now, I may be off base, because this stuff happens, but how often? Most big games are multi-studio projects these days, MMORPGs included, and you only hear about the rare disaster. Shouldn’t there be a way to prevent searching through thousands of lines of code or at least expedite it? It’s not the practice, it’s the management.

Ryan: You don’t hear about the disasters because companies won’t publically announce the game is flawed because they hired a contractor. The issues begin to crop up when the contractor is finished, the code works (in practise) and is accepted by the company, and the contract is terminated. We’ve seen this so many times: companies test their games, but once they go live bugs and glitches start showing up. Players are better testers than actual testers, it’s a proven point. If the contract has been terminated you can’t go back to the coder and say “it’s broken fix it,” you have to do it yourself. Remember everyone thinks different, so now you need to think like them in order to fix the problem. If you would have just hired them and did the work in house you could have just walked to their desk and smacked them in the back of the head and said to fix it! Much easier no?

Chris: Tie those companies down! It seems like common since to me, a gamer, not a businessman, that you should design a contract that requires them to be accountable for their work. Or at least document it so it’s easier to decipher! Let’s take this another place, Ryan. Without outsourcing, we’d be waiting years longer than we already do for these games. See, I don’t see it as a matter of money so much as man hours to get a game out the door. Things like art and AI take time! If you can separate out isolated pieces and hand them off to team to work on simultaneously, then we’re all the better for it.

Aliens: Colonial Marines is one of the most famous gamedev outsourcing catastrophe's in recent memory

Ryan: Waiting longer is the fault of the company hyping the game way too early. don’t even get me started on early hyping. Wouldn’t you rather have to wait longer for a game to be released than wait for a broken game to be fixed? Without outsourcing, more and more people would have jobs. We’d have more, smaller companies producing quality games. Right now we have major companies pushing out unfinished games because they hire contractors who are paid on work completion not dedication. I’d rather have a company push a game out that’s made by people who are passionate than one coded by people who were paid on how much content they can write.

Chris: Here’s another issue, outsource houses (contract studios) help kill the terrible churn that is choking the gaming industry. The talented developers who make our games are usually fired just after the game is out the door and sent to move across the country for their next gig. That’s the worst kind of work environment. Contact firms give developers more stability. The big boys don’t have to hire on as many temps and the contract devs don’t have to move every three years. It’s win-win.

Ryan: I think the issue you’re speaking about is all a result of early hyping. Companies set insanely hard goals for them to reach without having to hire contractors who, again, are paid strictly on how much work they can do. Hire a team of dedicated coders, get your goals based on that team. Yes it’ll take longer, but the overall turnout is better. You have a higher quality game and a team that won’t be getting fired once the game is launched. Who wants to work as a coder for a company, only to be let go once it’s launched and then have to stress themselves out about finding a new job. I’ve seen it many times in Montreal, professional coders working at fast food joints while they try and find another gig. That’s not a fun life to live, do you think?

It’s time we send these boys back to their corners. Now it’s up to you: where do you stand on outsourcing in game development?

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.