Tips on working with outsourcing studio’s

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All around me I hear the same story. People hire and start working with a game art outsourcing studio to fill a gap in their production. At first it all sounds good, cheap and fast. But somewhere halfway, things start to change. Quality is going down, communication becomes vague and you constantly need to fix their work.

I hear this much, way too much. Since I too have had to work with outsourcing studios, big and small. And I am now running my own team here at High Priority. It’s a good time to share my knowledge and tips about how to handle working with outsourcing studio’s.

Build solid briefs

What you have in your head can easily be misunderstood by others. Make sure you clearly communicate what is needed. Take the time to build good solid briefs that are to the point and easy to understand. It should contain everything they need for the task.

  • A short summary of the project.
  • A short summary of the task.
  • Art style references or guides.
  • Pipeline overview (how to build the asset)
  • Asset list or bullet point list of everything that needs to be done.
  • Technical details such as sizes or tri-counts.
  • Naming conventions
  • Reference assets that are already complete.
  • How everything should be delivered and where
  • Dates, deadlines and milestones

They need to be trained

Like a new employee. An external team also needs training. Account for this in your own planning. Don’t skip this training phase. Don’t make the mistake that you can do this or that faster even though it is part of their responsibility. Send things back if they are not perfect so they can learn. Communicate clear, say what you need and talk about how you can improve collaboration. If you want a good experience working with outsourcing studio’s, means finding the right match and building a solid business relationship.

Use check-lists for them to self-check

The best way to train them and keep them accountable is with easy check-lists. Note the “easy”. The more complex the list is, the higher the chance that they will make mistakes, forget about it or skip it. A good example of a checklist is a “delivery list”. In it they must check for things like pivot locations, naming, or broken mesh.

Have them do these check-lists themselves. If points are failed, instantly send the work back and have them redo the check-list. This way they learn. Be clear about this before you work with them, make agreements and be strict on it. If you start letting them slip, it might snowball downwards.

Assume everything takes twice as long

If they say it will be delivered in 7 days. Assume they mean it will be finished in 14 days. Often what you get on that 7th day is the first version that has had no quality control. Most likely you will need to send the work back for multiple feedback rounds. Assuming everything takes twice along is a good rule to prevent deadline stress and give everyone enough time to improve the work. Both working with outsourcing studio’s or internal teams. I suggest this as a good rule to follow.

Keep them accountable with numbers and facts

Promises mean nothing. Learn to communicate with clear dates, facts and numbers. Use sheets or project management software to track everything. Make sure they process these agreements in their own management software. And make sure everything is confirmed on mail. If needed, request direct access to their management software. You don’t need write access, only read access to confirm everything. If things start failing. Clear up your agreements with them. Be proactive if you see issues. In the end it is your project and your responsibility, not theirs. You are the one that needs to take action.

You get their top artists at first, but the B-team later

To blow you away and close the deal. Most will assign their best artists at first. For example during an art test to determine their quality, or within the first few weeks of the project. It seems like they are a good match. But during the course of the project they start shifting your work to their B-team. Quality lowers, technical checks are missed, production flow is reduced. Meaning you start losing time, quality and might miss deadlines too. Be aware of this.

Don’t give them overly large documents

Reading documents is never fun. Some barely read documents at all. At most they might scan it, missing details. I know that game design documents can be large. I have seen art outsourcing documents built by big triple A studio’s that are insane, INSANE! This in itself is a problem, one that is not easily solved. Since information does need to be shared. But still, the most simple documents or requests are for some reasons, often missed or forgotten. So, to prevent this, keep the following in mind.

  • Make it short and easy. The bigger and more complex your documents are. The more time and energy is lost reading it.
  • Make sure the information that people read is useful to them. Don’t have an artist read technical information that is meant for a programmer. Possibly split your documents up.
  • Build your documents with a good overview, summary and links. Especially the links help to prevent people from having to scroll and search through the entire thing.
  • Use images where possible. Images will explain and memorize what people read way better. It also makes it easier to search your document. Since people remember to look for an image instead of a paragraph.

Assume things will be lost, deadlines stress and communication chaos will happen. Would you rather have everyone spend time figuring things out, or to continue working on that deadline? KISS, Keep It Stupid Simple.

And remember, they are people too. Treat them correct, give them the chance to improve and help them to do so. Building a good business relationship will give the better overall results. And will make working more enjoyable for everyone. Don’t be afraid to point out problems. But also point out successes and give compliments where needed. I hope these tips about working with outsourcing studio’s will give you a more smooth process. If you have any questions or remarks, don’t be afraid to reach out.

High Priority - Game Art