With outsourcing a widely accepted part of games production processes, what’s the next step for the sub-industry that’s helped hundreds of developers make and finish their games? Michael French speaks to Algy Williams, MD of the biggest company in the sector, to find out…
People still call us a localisation company, but there’s more to us than that,” says Babel Media MD Algy Williams. Taking a glance over the company’s reach and repertoire reveals that he’s not wrong. Because it’s easy to look at Babel Media and think you know everything about them, but then forget that the company has its bread and butter QA and localisation business complemented by an audio offer in London, a Montreal mobile-focused porting (and QA) team and marketing services.
It caters to every format you can think of and is the biggest of all the games outsourcing companies. And in its eight years of business, it’s seen the rise and fall and rise again of UK studios, the shift of publishing towards America and the pressure supplied by lower cost development in emergent territories. Who better, then, to quiz about the future of outsourcing…
Babel has teams in the UK, Canada, the US and India. With offices in a number of continents, what’s the key upcoming area to watch when it comes to games development?
Korea. All of those companies have international business plans and they are all looking to rolling out their IP across Europe – and from a localisation point of view that’s scripts with thousands and thousands of words in them. In South East Asia it’s very much about starting slowly and then ramping up seriously, which is what we have noticed first-hand at Babel.
As outsourcing is so common now, can you see a time when publishers and developers choose to outsource almost everything in a games production once a concept has been devised?
No, I don’t think that would work. Publishers always have to have control of an intellectual property, otherwise they just become distributors. But there is a pretty clear dividing line between the creative process and production to post-production processes, which is where outsourcers come in. People argue that there shouldn’t be a point where the ‘creative process’ has ended – but I completely disagree. If people are going to hit deadlines and make their money then they have to prepare, be that through outsourcing or whatever is best for them.
The outsourcing and localisation market is quite busy, what’s the secret to Babel’s securing a big share of the market?
My biggest focus is to show our measured success. You can talk number of clients and projects, but for me it’s being able to tell people, for instance, how many first-pass approvals we’ve had with our mobile business. If we can guarantee that to clients – and I think we can – then that proves you can do a good job. If you can display productivity and how good you are then that’s how to compete.
How do you plan to grow the company further?
There are two options for us – build or buy. And we’re not sure which is the best path for us just yet. Because we’re talking about next-gen a lot scale becomes a big issue. So if were were to build, we’d have to do it very quickly – it’s not impossible, but it is cheaper because there are a lot of great companies out there, ourselves included, who have valuation expectations when it comes to their company – and rightly so. So if we’re going to buy we’ll have to pay a premium.
But the problem with building, especially if we were going to grow teams in India and China, the problem with the workforce is churn – they go through 30 per cent of their staff regularly.
Does Babel plan to enter any new services sectors?
I think the biggest opportunity for us in art and graphics. We have very close client relationships and we understand the industry and know how to work with games companies from around the world. So we’ll be moving into that sector.
In terms of art, publishers are at such a mission-critical part of the process that it makes sense for them to work with a partner that has a Western face who can manage everything and then allocate work. The best approach will be to have the high-end capability and teams in the West combined with a much larger capability in India or China. That’s because there will always be high-end work for specialists – a lot of which I’m sure, like character design and setting the style guide, will stay in-house. But there is a middle ground that will need people who are well-versed in visual idioms, but that can be outsourced.
That will come back to the quality versus price issue, as it’s the on-shore/near-shore/off-shore model – you might have a small art team on the US West Coast, then another team in Montreal who are supported by a big team in the East, or Eastern Europe. I think that will really complement what we already do.
Do you plan to capitalise on the Babel brand awareness in that space?
Absolutely. We’ve built a good reputation on delivering. What we want to take from that when it comes to art is capitalise on the fact that people think we are a safe pair of hands.
People looking for outsourcers or the actual outsourcing companies shoot themselves in the foot by thinking they opt for the cheapest option. But games are a big business now, we are dealing with some of the biggest media companies in the world, they will want to know if you are insured, if you can live up to your promises.
Such big companies, like LucasArts, EA or Codemasters here in the UK have managed outsourcing teams that they own – doesn’t that harm Babel’s business?
There are always going to be people that open up in-house, but that doesn’t impact in any way on the viability of my model, or vice versa. Like I said, developers and publishers want control over the creative process, and there is always a partial model where some stuff is done in-house and the rest is outsourced – we work with a number of those publishers or developers have have managed their own owned outsourcing effort. Really, the activity of those bigger company only validates what we do – and I’m more than happy to see those big companies get out there with us and train people about working in our industry, because the skills shortage is so big and this is another way to help address it.