'Shore Leave

'Shore Leave

By Ed Fear

September 28th 2009 at 9:30AM

As offshoring becomes a standard, just what are the pros and cons?

As the times change, so do the articles. A feature on outsourcing two years ago would have been espousing the benefits and drawbacks of shipping work outside of your company walls: is it as easy as it sounds? Are the cost savings as good as they seem?

These days, you’d be hard pressed to find a developer that isn’t engaging in the practice to some extent. Be it openly or on the quiet, with external partners or exclusive satellite studios; the increasing cost in art assets has meant that outsourcing is, to most, the only possible way of keeping up with the international Joneses.

LEAVE RIGHT NOW
But as it becomes more common, so too do the potential downfalls that offshoring brings. One of the big problems is that, because outsourcing is often done to cut costs, it’s usually shipped overseas – to where operating costs, and by extension job rates, are lower. What that means is that work is leaving the country – and, some say, contributing to a drain of opportunities for talented people away from the UK.

One such person is Recruit3D’s Fran Mulhern. Working in the recruitment sector, he says that he’s noticed a dramatic reduction in the opportunities available for artists and animators in the UK.

“I’ve seen it when trying to find jobs for artists, and also seeing the amount of art vacancies out there – it’s nothing compared to what it was a few years ago. We’re shipping the donkey work overseas, but this is exactly the same work that, a few years ago, junior artists were cutting their teeth on. Now, we’re just not training them here – we’re training them overseas.”

Peter Leonard from Amiqus agrees that there’s been a decline, but points out that junior artists and outsourcers fulfill different roles at different times in the project.

“The increase in outsourcing the production of game art assets has had an impact on the number of entry level candidates that some studios invest in,” he says. “An important note to make, however, is that the benefit of outsource studios is primarily during the full production cycle, where they’re either outsourcing or hiring contractors because they’re only required for a temporary period. Most studios do still value the benefit of investing in talent that are then a part of their studio and can provide support in all areas of development rather than during full production.”

SAVING GRACE
In fact, some – such as Kevin Hassall, from outsourcing agency Beriah – believe that, while the practice is contributing to a reduction in certain opportunities domestically, offshoring has enabled many developers to keep afloat in a time that’s seen huge losses in all sorts of sectors, let alone high-risk (and cash-delayed) sectors like game development.

“Obviously, offshoring adds up to a lot of work not being done in the UK. Anyone who is looking for a UK-based job where they’re basically going to build or refactor assets is going to have a tough time finding work right now – and the situation will get worse for them, not better.

“That includes graduate artists, for example, since junior art tasks like environment art, vehicle modelling and simple optimisation can all be handled very effectively offshore. It also has the potential to have an even bigger impact on music and sound guys, and in time the trend will affect coders as well.

“But, on the other hand, there are UK studios today who are only in business because they’ve been able to use offshore partners and suppliers,” he says. “That adds up to a lot of jobs saved in UK studios who would otherwise have gone bust. I wouldn’t want to have to estimate whether on balance more jobs have been safeguarded or lost by offshoring.”

As mentioned earlier, outsourcing is about finding talent that’s doesn’t need to be trained up, nor kept on a permanent contract; it’s flexible enough to fit in to the flux as projects wind up and new work is sought. David Tolley is offshore manager for Nottingham-based Monumental, which has recently ramped up significantly both at home and abroad, via its own satellite studio in India.

“Obviously cost can be a major factor when deciding to outsource, but the fact is that the UK has nowhere near enough skilled artists to fill the roles currently taken by external developers. It can take years to train as a good game artist, so outsourcing is a great way to hire specialist skill fast.”

Monumental uses resources in India to supplement its UK operation, rather than replace it. Through doing that, the studio is able to work on more than one massively-multiplayer online game at a time, when few have the resources to work on even one in the UK.

“Without the offshore option I think we’d be seriously understaffed and in future we wouldn’t be able to compete,” he admits. “It’s not a magic solution, but it can certainly reap benefits when planned carefully alongside our UK operations.”

There’s also the issue of what to outsource as well – and, given that many aspects of game development need instant feedback and constant iteration, the time difference and distance mean that certain things can’t be efficently managed from abroad.

“It’s much easier to assign, track, and give feedback on single game assets as opposed to managing an offshore pipeline where level building and creation are involved,” Tolley continues. “Often this part of development needs daily interaction with design and production departments as well as managing hundreds of individual assets, which makes it impractical at present.

PURE SHORES
Of course, it’s important to remember that outsourcing and offshoring aren’t synonymous, even if the former may often imply the latter. In addition to renowned and established outsource services in the UK such as 3D Creation Studio, many smaller developers across the UK act as unsung heroes through contract work, especially those looking to fund their own adventures into new IP.
Beriah commonly uses talent from the UK, says Hassall: “In fact, the most common country for us to place work into is the UK. If we’re building a full development it will almost always have a ‘western’ component, usually UK based. Not only that, but for specific tasks and sub-projects, a UK team will often be the most effective option.”

While Monumental doesn’t use UK outsourcers currently, it has done in the past. “Definite plus points are the communication and locality. It’s easy to hop on a train and be with the studio in a matter of hours to hammer through any issues. Some UK studios only source UK talent – most of whom have a background in the industry so are very capable and understand the process the game-assets will go through. Other studios use the UK as a base and use art teams from other parts of the world so can be cheaper.”

Regardless of the benefits, some people worry about developing an increasing reliance on resources from abroad will lead us to lose out when those emerging markets begin creating global-facing products themselves.

“We’re just not training artists here – we’re training them overseas. What will happen when overseas takes their art skills and starts using them to produce their own games?” questions Mulhern. “What happens when they become so focused on their own stuff, or on dealing with domestic clients – because if art’s cheaper over there you can bet that coding will become cheaper too – that they decide they’re no longer interested in doing our dirty work?”

Tolley has heard the argument before, and points to the Monumental model as proving that these resources don’t have to be treated with suspicion; they can be brought internally, so any training done benefits the studio both now and in the future.

“The ‘us and them’ attitude is a recurring theme in discussions about outsourcing, and it can get a bit tiring. In my opinion we need ‘them’ as much as they need ‘us’. The great part of having an offshore studio is being able to integrate that team into the company as a whole. We’ve had the whole team over to our headquarters in Nottingham and we’re all on the same intranet, reading the same emails, and so on. We’re not ‘teaching the Indians’ – we’re training our staff.”

Hassall refutes the argument from its origins: we’re not the ones teaching them.

“Can anyone seriously suggest that the MMOs that have emerged in China and Korea, the casual games from the Ukraine and the FPSs from Eastern Europe are all with us only because some superior westerner has condescended to teach Johnny Foreigner how to do it? That’s patronising, and it’s bollocks. There are two billion people in China and India alone, and a lot of them are clever enough to work stuff out for themselves – and they have done already.”

At the end of the day, globalisation is with us. That means that a British team or company has bigger markets and more opportunities, but more competitors as well. We’re all happy to embrace the positive side of that. We’ll just have to get used to the negative side, too – because this is a tide that we don’t get to fight against.”