Who you gonna call? The impact of work-for-hire studios

Who you gonna call? The impact of work-for-hire studios
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

October 5th 2016 at 9:45AM

When developers need extra staff, time and resources, work-for-hire studios can ensure they achieve their creative vision

The scope of development has grown so dramatically in the last decade that more and more blockbuster titles are being developed by multiple studios.

While a handful of publishers will have the luxury of having a dozen studios around the world that can contribute to a single project, many require the assistance of work-for-hire studios: developers that thrive on helping larger companies with their projects.

If there’s any doubt over the demand for work-for-hire devs, you need only look at some of the studios operating like this around the UK.

Red Kite Games’ MD Simon Iwaniszak (pictured), claims his studio is “living proof the work-for-hire model is most definitely still viable”.

“Not only is it enough to sustain a studio, it can also facilitate steady growth if approached correctly,” he adds.

“Over the past five years, Red Kite has grown from three developers to just under 20 and we’re still looking to expand. Since our formation, we’ve worked for the likes of Activision, Sony, Ripstone, Double Eleven and You42. Our struggle to take on more work-for-hire due to a lack of availability is a headache that we’re happy to have.”

Similarly, Develop Award winner D3T is purely a work-for-hire studio, resisting the urge to develop its own projects. Last year, the firm reports, its revenue and profits rose by 150 per cent – but success is far from guaranteed.

“Be aware that building an excellent reputation in work-for-hire is hard,” says co-owner and commercial director Jamie Campbell. “Team diversity, professionalism, scale and skillset are absolutely key. Client confidentiality is paramount, so we put the client first and include a clear aftercare package. For clients, that continuity of service is vital. 

“We find WFH to be rewarding in its own right. Over the last five years, we’ve been involved in some of the most exciting innovations the industry has seen. Some we can shout about, some we can’t. But the skills that our team has acquired developing those projects are right here in-house.”

 

CREATIVE CONTRIBUTION

It’s easy to think that working on another studio’s project robs developers of the opportunity to be creative, but experienced work-for-hire devs say this is certainly not the case.

“If you are concerned about losing creative input by going for work-for-hire, don’t be – especially in the free-to-play space,” says Nick Harper, COO at Exient. “Often we will receive a request-for-proposal, but these really range from very specific to very open. 

“Then it really depends on the concept you develop internally – if you come up with something exciting that happens to be a departure from the original brief, most clients will usually go with it as they are always looking for innovation.”

Iwaniszak adds: “A programmer who provides an elegant code solution to a problem or bug fix is just as creative as the designer who crafts a fun gameplay mechanic or the artist who breathes life into a spectacular environment. We found a way to significantly reduce a game’s build time on a recent project – hardly glamorous, I know, but extremely useful and appreciated nonetheless.

“Work-for-hire is often undeservedly viewed as ‘just do what you’ve been told’. But supporting Activision on Call of Duty: Strike Team and, more recently, Sumo Digital on several of their projects, we were able to work with them creatively. Ripstone even trusted us to do complete a full art pass on Extreme Exorcism.

“It’s important to realise that you’ve been brought in to do a job. The potential for creativity on a work-for-hire project is directly linked to the strength and experience of your team.” 

PICK OF THE CROWD

Securing new projects is perhaps the most important task for a work-for-hire studio, particularly if they have no plans to work on their own IP. With a growing number of WFH firms out there, competition is becoming fierce but there are ways to improve your chances of attracting new clients.

“The key requirement is confidence in delivery, so my advice is to be honest with your game pitch and design, and costing numbers,” advises Harper. “It’s a short-term strategy to sell something big just to get the contract. If you then struggle to deliver, you’ll only lose the confidence of the partner for any future work. So consistency and track record are probably the key components.”

Iwaniszak adds: “Don’t underestimate the importance of having a good website, portfolio and showreel. This is essentially your shop window and it will ultimately be what catches the eye of a potential partner. Having a diverse portfolio helps immensely in securing high quality work-for-hire. For example, we have helped to develop games across all major platforms from mobile to console and PC, using Unity, Unreal and various in-house engines.”

Campbell stresses that attending to your client’s needs is also important. In his words, they should be placed “at the very centre – not just throughout the project, but also in aftercare”.

“Being purely WFH means we can offer that constant presence,” he adds. “Our availability is not dictated by our own internal product development schedule. Diversity is also a key component – being able to offer a client exactly what they need when they need it. And flexibility. Sometimes a client wants full IP development; others may need problem-solving on a single element. Work-for-hire is about working flexibly around the client and enabling the client to get where they want to be.”

Given that you’ll be handling other companies’ IP and assets, security is amajor priority – particularly if you want to work with the studio in question again. You also need to be highly flexible, since you’ll be working on another team’s schedule.

“If you’re not in a secure office with a decent internet connection and appropriate hardware, you’re severely going to limit the potential for high quality work-for-hire opportunities,” says Iwaniszak. “A prospective partner will want to see that you can either work completely independently or integrate seamlessly into their day-to-day development processes.”

Harper adds: “Sudden changes of strategy can often take the team by surprise. There will be many factors at play that the other company has to deal with, and often the development team is unaware of those. So out-of-the-blue, you might have a release date brought forward, or suddenly this thing is more important than that and you have to be prepared to react quite rapidly.”

 

THE RIGHT REP

Above all, work-for-hire studios need to present themselves as professionals and operate efficiently. This is not only for the benefit of the projects they contribute to but also to build their own reputations and, by extension, improve their chances of securing further work.

“Excellent project management is essential,” says Campbell (pictured above right). “Talking with clients, listening to clients and delivering for clients are essential components of WFH.”

Iwaniszak adds: “You must remember that the legitimacy of your studio is reflected within any potential partner that may wish to work with you. It goes without saying but your studio should be a registered company with fit-for-purpose business insurance.

“Always deliver with the ultimate aim of becoming an invaluable resource.

“Word travels fast within this industry and it doesn’t take much to develop a poor a reputation. Thankfully, the opposite is equally true – do a good job and not only are you likely to receive repeat work from existing partners, the wider industry will hear about it as well. Building
long-term relationships with your partners is essential, and by doing this you’ll naturally become an invaluable resource.”

CREDIT CHECK

Something that may frustrate newcomers to the work-for-hire model is the inconsistent ways their contributions will be acknowledged. For some projects, all studios involved receive full credit, while others may see external contributions kept largely under wraps for legal or NDA-based reasons.

“A degree of anonymity means being able to work on amazing projects across the board – even with clients who may be in direct competition within the marketplace,” retorts D3T’s Jamie Campbell.

“Confidentiality is part of the territory. But where credit has been given, it would be great to see more recognition from within the industry. For WFH to move from being seen as the industry’s ‘poor relation’, we need the industry to celebrate WFH contributions. Maybe that would encourage clients to shout about it more too.”

Exient’s Nick Harper (pictured) adds that while end users might not be aware of a WFH studio’s input, it may still be noticed by potential clients.

“We usually get our names in the credits but it has been a struggle to be known as the developer of titles,” he says. “Some publishers have a policy of not recognising any developers, so you have to just go with the flow a little bit.”

Red Kite Games’ Simon Iwansizak says studios should be a little more assertive: “You should never be nervous to ask about being credited on a project, although you should also be realistic in your expectations.

“It’s a studio’s own responsibility to promote itself in relation to the games that it’s helped to develop and, provided that a partner isn’t actively trying to stop this, it shouldn’t be a problem. If you find that a partner is actively trying to stop this, I simply wouldn’t work with them again.”

 

CHOICE PICKS

It can be tempting to shoot only for the most prestigious projects or, if you’re starting out, take whatever work you can. But Iwaniszak stresses that the money is not the only reason to go work-for-hire.

“Ask yourself: is the project with a high profile partner?” he says. “Is it a cool game or IP? What transferable knowledge will be gained? You should accept work-for-hire projects that will push your studio forward and not focus purely on what’s going to pay the bills. 

“Diversify who you work with. Not only will this improve the skillset of your team and help in the creation of your portfolio, it’ll also ensure that your eggs are in multiple baskets. Work can quickly dry up and it’s important to have options should this happen.”

Adopting a work-for-hire model does not, of course, mean giving up the freedom to develop games of your own. While the likes of D3T are happy honing their reputation based on their influence on other projects, some may still feel the urge to create something brand new.

The funds garnered from work-for-hire jobs can be an invaluable way to kick-start your next game, but Harper urges studios to keep their expectations in check.

He says: “You have to be commercially competitive in work-for-hire in order to secure the projects, so if you are hoping that a WFH gig will fund your own mega game it’s unlikely.

“Where work-for-hire really benefits is that it provides a secure roadmap for learning. That knowledge and experience has really helped us understand better the crucial aspects of making successful titles, but we got there with the security blanket of another company funding us.”