Roundtable: Service Partners
Friday, 14th December 2007 at 12:16 pm
The complexity of today’s games means that, unless you want a team of hundreds, it’s tempting to outsource aspects of production to specialist companies. Develop caught up with the heads of three service companies to talk about recent changes in the field and how developers should approach the outsourcing process…
MEET THE PANEL
Andy Emery: managing director of audio specialists Side, whose clients include Square Enix, LucasArts and THQ
Mick Morris: managing director of motion-capture supplier Audiomotion, which has worked with clients including Sony, Sega, Codemasters and EA
Richard Scott: managing director of animation house Axis Animation, which has worked with studios such as Frontier and Evolution Studios.
Develop: Has the biggest focus for your games work of late been for ‘next-gen’ content?
Richard Scott: I think what next-gen means to me is high-end production values, competing with feature films – that’s what the industry is striving for. I think that’s why there’s been an upsurge in demand for partners like ourselves, who have involvement in industries other than just the videogames one.
Andy Emery: Expectations have obviously risen, and it’s really been an interesting time of trying to meet and manage those expectations with regards to budget. Not only has the quality threshold gone up, but so has quantity, so we’re not just looking at improving the quality of however much content we were doing – we’re looking at that and it multiplying by large amount.
Mick Morris: Budget is obviously a concern to anyone with growing team sizes, and we like to think on certain projects that we’re an extension of the developer’s art team. For example, now you can capture finger movement at the same time as the motion performance, so that saves time that can be better spent by animators polishing what we send back.
Scott: I think that the other interesting thing from our point of view is the increase in demand to do concept work, which is a whole new niche that has opened up for us. It’s done largely because of the sort of money that goes into development – sometimes it’ll migrate into being a trailer or promotional piece, and sometimes just stays internal.
But that’s an interesting area, and it certainly introduces more collaboration between outsourcing partners and the developer/publisher than maybe might have appeared in the past where you’d get relatively last-minute phone calls with a requirement for something.
Emery: It’s definitely becoming a more collaborative affair, and it has to be. For companies like ourselves, especially where there is a creative element involved, that always used to be a frustration. We too have seen the same thing, whereby we now often are doing as much dialogue, composition and sound design work on demo material as we were for a lower budget PS2 title only a few years ago.
Doing that focuses the attention on things like production pipelines and gives you that opportunity to say ‘that worked well, that didn’t work well, let’s see how we can take that forward into production’. But it really has to be that collaborative nature. Because we work for a multitude of different publishers and developers, we might have ideas that we’ve learned from those guys that might help your project. And that is one of the key things that sometimes developers and publishers lose out on – that if we’re doing a big job for Sega or Sony or Square Enix, we may have learnt something about production pipelines from one of the others that’s a useful tool to bring into the chain.
Do you feel the industry has started to move quicker now that outsourcing has become an accepted thing?
Emery: I think it was evolving all the time. A lot of the outsource services were truly a post-production process, and I think that’s one of the things that’s changed. And I think that if you’re treated as a post-production element that you’re restricted in what you can do.
Scott: I think that is the big difference, being less of a post-production element. That was a frustration of the previous set of processes – being that last-ditch phone call situation, whereas now it’s a lot more about collaboration. It has to be a collaborative approach, or you won’t get the best from your service provider.
Morris: I think that’s where we’re different – mocap has always been seen as something integral to the creation of the game from every early days. From even when characters are concept art, working with artists from very early stages, through the whole thing. Certainly there’s a shift for us in that it’s not so much demo stuff but certainly much longer periods of preproduction, where next-gen games are going through maybe 12 months or 18 months of pre-production before it has been green-lit. But I suppose with all of this there’s a certain amount of risk involved, I guess we like to think that you’re using us with our decade’s experience, and that’ll help eliminate some of the risk.
Emery: We all had to look at upping our game as well at this point of transition – it became apparent that there needed to be bigger teams involved, that people were looking at taking it even further than collaborative, giving a degree of ownership for part of a project. So we saw that we really needed to up our offering, and that’s what we’ve done.
Scott: I think we’re the same – we used to be a group of artists with a producer, but now we’re multiple teams. As developer teams have had to grow, putting that type of structure inside your team allows you to have people who mirror each other and communicate better. So if you’ve got an art director on your side, we’ve got an animation director on our side, and those two people have to get on the same wavelength as each other; get inside each other’s heads. And the producers on both sides have to do the same. You have to mirror what’s happening inside the development team as well to help with communication and help everyone feel confident about where responsibilities lie.
What are developers doing right, and what are they doing wrong?
Scott: I’ve noticed recently some of the newer teams have become much more structured in the briefs that they give you. In some of my experience working with games clients, there’d be these gigantic tome-like design documents, but when it came to briefing the service partners to do something, it was all a bit scant and lacking in information. We want tight briefs that give clear direction as to where there’s scope to be creative and bring your input to the party. That’s the most important thing, I think.
The other important thing is allowing a period of pre-production, which from our point of view has been generally where we are kicking the ideas around between our animation director and their creative team to evolve something that is going to answer the brief, be it from developer or marketing team, to hit that target. But you need time to mull it over, it’s not good if they come with too many preconceived ideas, but it’s similarly negative if you try and take too much control. They’ve been living with this idea for a long time, so it’s never good if you come storming in trying to take control.
Morris: I think the industry is attracting talent from other industries, which is serving to strengthen their teams with people from film, TV and scriptwriting. When we started 10 years ago, there were definitely two different sectors in the industry – people in film looked down their noses at people in games. But now a lot of people aspire to work in video games because there’s so much more creative freedom. And they’re bringing in new working practices that developers of next-gen games are certainly benefiting from.
Emery: LucasArts is a company that’s really learnt from its film heritage, and now their tighter integration with ILM is showing in their production pipeline. We’ve carried out casting work for them, and when it came to setting that up, it was quite clear that there was time to do a comprehensive casting process – we’d send them a huge list of CVs, then a shortlist, then two days of filmed castings that they would then review. That was all for just one lead character.
In the film business there’s nothing indulgent about spending a mere two days to get the lead character, but if I suggested that to a lot of our other clients they’d say ‘what are you talking about?’ We’ve just done casting for another project of theirs, and it’s going to be a few months yet before any additional work is done. That thinking early on is something that definitely comes from their heritage.
Scott: And having that foresight to engage with people like us in advance of anything really happening is important. We’re happy to discuss projects way before they happen, exchange ideas we think might work. We’re used to doing that in the broadcast sector, that’s the nature of how it works, pitching ideas and writing treatments all the time. It’s that willingness from our side to collaborate early that inspires it on the other side. And that’s why I hate the word ‘outsourcing’ – it sounds like a cookie cutter thing.
Emery: So they add other words on, like ‘outsourcing partner’.
Scott: Yeah, because that’s what it is – a partnership.
Emery: If you feel like you’re part of a collaborative process, it’s only natural that that brings out the best from the indivdiauls involved. If you don’t, it’s fine, but you know that you’re being used more as a service than anything.
What do you think is the cause of some studios being reluctant to outsource?
Scott: I think it’s a control thing. And I can’t say I blame them – I’d be the same in their shoes! But once you’ve gone through the experience, it’s fine.
Morris: I think some might have had bad experiences and might have trouble trusting again. There is a perception with some animators that mocap is replacing hand animation, which isn’t true, so some animators have been terrified of using mocap. But there are some things that it isn’t suited to: at the end of the day, it’s just another tool.
Emery: I think there’s definitely been less of a reluctance to engage with external partners, which surely is driven by necessity. With the scale of projects these days, you just can’t do it all. I think the change has been in a positive direction, and I think people are more receptive of it now.
Often mentioned in the same breath as outsourcing is the all-outsourced ‘Hollywood model’. As outsource providers yourself, do you think we’ll ever reach that stage?
Emery: I think games will always need more control and a bigger core team than films, just because of the complexity. As a linear media, film is more suited to that sort of model – it’s not that Hollywood’s just been doing it
that way for longer. I can’t imagine the development of a big title not having a pretty large core team.
Scott: And that’s because of the technology requirement. To make that model work you’d have to have a technology team that could interface with all the other teams, and I don’t know how viable that is. If you had the project management guys lumped together with the technology team, then it might work.
Morris: Realistically, a lot of development is done that way. As a business, AudioMotion isn’t scared of calling in specialists for things that we don’t do very well. We’re not going to try and do these things that aren’t our core area. And I think that’s where we come in.
Emery: When we did STALKER, authentic weapon sounds were part of the requirements – so we managed a team in Texas, told them what was required and then worked on the stuff that we got. We didn’t just go out with our DATs – we wanted someone who’s done this 50 times before. It’s the same thing.
Do you still feel like you’re being told to “be like the movies”?
Emery: The reference point for audio has always been ‘the movie score, those sound effects, those performances’. That’s always been a benchmark people want to see achieved.
Scott: I think the days of being second-fiddle to the film industry are gone. People there are looking at what can be done in real-time in games and crying into their render farms. I think they’re parallel now. They’re two separate fields, but consumers expect a video game to be as good as – or better – than a film now.
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