Cheap as chips

Cheap as chips
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

September 30th 2009 at 8:00AM

With quality outsourcing, explains Beriahâ??s Kevin Hassall, you get what you pay for

Outsourcing, I’m sometimes told, is all about cost. It’s about spending less, about saving money by using cheaper resources.

If cheap is what you really want, the lowest cost usable art I ever sourced was at $200 per man month. Regrettably, it was just a two man team. They had no notion of copyright. They’d go quiet for days on end. They frequently misunderstood the brief and then, as soon as they had some published work in their portfolios, they cleared off and got jobs elsewhere. It was unscalable, barely controlled, inefficient, terrifying, and unsustainable – a headache that you probably wouldn’t want to have.

By contrast, I once had an entire dev project delayed by an art issue, and I broke the bottleneck by bringing in externals who, in three days, solved a creative problem that had foxed a UK team for 2 months. At £95 per person per hour they were not ‘cheap resources’, but I’d argue that it was the best value art I ever commissioned.

‘Cheap resources’ have all sorts of interesting strings attached to them. There are always new depths of dubiousness to uncover: protection money paid to religious fundamentalists, money-laundering, even the option of ‘buying’ a free team by paying a bribe to a dictator’s henchman.

On the other hand, there are some excellent, professionally run companies, with bags of talent and commitment, who can do wonderful work for you at a very good price. A lot of work coming out of Asia is absolutely at UK levels of quality. And in terms of commitment, they’ll get up in the night to be on a conference call if you need them to. I once found myself herding a team out of the door to attend prayers – they’d told me that they wanted to honour their religious obligation to attend Friday worship, but as noon approached their desire to please the client had overtaken any religious sensibility.

Which brings me to one of my biggest bug-bears: ‘man month rates.’ These are a distraction: you don’t want to pay for time, you want to pay for results. A coding project recently crossed my desk where a UK, an Eastern European and an Asian team were quoting for some tools and tech work. The most expensive option turned out to be the Asian team, despite having the lowest man month cost. They wanted three times as long to do the work as either of the other teams. It’s the cost of completed deliverables that matters, not some notional man-month rate.

Good work is completed by good people, regardless of where they are in the world, not by ‘resources’. What gets done in a month depends on the individuals. Two weeks ago I set up a project where an extremely accomplished team are now working 18 hour days to help the client out of a crisis – and uncredited, too. Their man-month rate and geographical location are irrelevant; what matters is the skills and commitment that they show as people.

On average I’d expect a project that uses externals well to achieve efficiency savings of about 30 per cent, though the big wins are only really to be had as you move beyond formal production-driven outsourcing, and into the more interesting methods of using external partners. A 30 per cent-plus boost can generate a lot of cash to reinvest in the project, or just to put into the bank as a cushion against future hardship.

Get it right and your team’s jobs are more secure, your projects more profitable, your games higher quality, your productions less stressed. But get it wrong and you’ll be in a world of unskilled recruits, devouring your attention and delivering little. The first step in getting it right is to banish any notion of cheap resources.

What’s surprising is that this even needs to be said. Successful developers have known for years that internally they should only ever hire the right people, not cheap people. So why on Earth, just because the work is being done a distance away, should anyone seriously think that games are made successfully by hiring cheap resources? Instead, to get the best value, apply your proven principles to your external processes: focus on getting the right people.

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