Outsourcing is nothing new - developers and publishers are used to the idea of hiring a graphic design agency to produce manual layouts, contracting a script writer, or even having music commissioned from an outside source. With game projects having dramatically increased in scale over the last decade, few companies have all the resources they need in house, and many are looking for new options to make meeting the all important milestones plausible without suffering a loss in quality.
Enter the new vanguard of studios specialising in providing unique services to game developers and publishers, such as design-integrated script and audio, design overhauls and 'emergency services'. These limited companies, such as my own Manchester-based International Hobo (ihobo for short) and Paul Weir's Earcom, specialists in audio design for interactive entertainment, situated in London, are setting out to change the way companies think about outsourcing. Both offer markedly different services to the games industry, but share the same goal of offering exceptional creative potential coupled with the advantages of a limited company structure.
Both Paul's company and my own are actively involved in design-integration - the process of ensuring that music and dialogue are not supplemental to the game play, but an integral part of it. Design-integrated scripts and soundtracks add a level of depth and possibility previously unrealised. Rather than having a game and bolting on speech and music as an afterthought, the structure of the game is built around the narrative; the player's actions become more meaningful if the music or dialogue reflects the choices they make in the game world.
International Hobo started as an entirely personal matter. I needed a framework that would enable me to work on game designs and script from anywhere in the world, in part because I was involved with an American woman who has since become my wife. Originally, ihobo was just a limited company framework built around one man - me - but it rapidly became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to handle all the work alone, and so I set to work building a team with varied skills in design, writing and human-computer interfaces that could fulfil the role of a multi-purpose outsourcing company.
It's not been easy. There's a certain mentality that many developers have in the West, that starts with pride and can eventually border on arrogance. Studios don't like to admit that they can't do everything by themselves, or feel that having someone check over and revise material externally is a sign of weakness, rather than a sensible financial investment. This territoriality can even extend inside a studio, with conflicts between producers and in-house game designers causing a project to be pulled in different directions. It's not a happy state of affairs when you have two entirely different projects trying to occupy the same space, and getting an impartial outside company to focus the design towards its goals can be invaluable.
It has been mostly Publishers who have contacted International Hobo with a view to using their services. Sometimes they are concerned that a particular project doesn't have the strength of design that it needs, and sometimes it is simply a recognition that it is better to hire additional help for an already overworked studio than risk not delivering milestones on time. There's still a certain amount of caution, because no-one quite expects to find a specialist design team which can handle all the creative aspects of design, scripting, front ends and so forth.
Generally, the company functions as a consultancy, delivering certain documents to an appropriate milestone schedule but always being on hand to help with any problems that emerge through the development cycle. When all hell breaks lose, even the sturdiest developers struggle to remain within the original milestone structure, and having a pool of external talent to draw on can be a welcome resource. We even offer unique "emergency services" which I believe are a cost-effective way to attempt to rescue a project whose design has thundered off the rails.
Earcom found its feet somewhat faster than ihobo since whilst most developers have at least one in-house game designer, many do not have a team of in-house musicians. Much of Earcom's work focuses on obvious audio production work - producing music, original sound effects, sourcing actors and recording speech. They have a reputation for high quality work, and one of the clear advantages of working with Earcom is that the pool of talent they offer has been exposed to a great range of experience, and by necessity is absolutely up to date with both ideas and technology.
Paul's company does not restrict itself to games, and has even been commissioned to produce scores for London theatres. One of its current projects involves producing a score for 150 musicians incorporating a full scale wind orchestra, two choirs, dancers and a solo singer - they haven't yet encountered a project that was too big for them to handle, and seem to welcome every challenge.
One of the biggest problem facing the new outsourcing companies is a lack of awareness, both of the companies themselves, and of the availability of such services. Advertising is generally not as effective as it would be in retail, and word of mouth is slow. Additionally, the time it takes a computer game project to come to term can be two years or more, meaning that during the first few years the company cannot easily show off its talents to prospective clients. Non-disclosure agreements further complicate the issue, constraining the ability for these companies to discuss even current projects.
Conversely, International Hobo has had to spread its net wide within the games industry, making contacts in Europe, the US and Australia. Some blossom into fully fledged projects, but even this takes time, and securing a baseline income has proved both challenging and rewarding. The solution has been to minimise the number of permanent staff but maximise the pool of talent that can be drawn upon. Rapidly expanding, we have had to be careful to ensure that their size grows in proportion to continuous income, not short term gains. In the long term, we are working on tools such as FreeSpeak, a context-dependent script format that can be machine processed into dynamic scripts, helping to minimise the QA impact of context-dependent dialogue. By offering unique and creative services, we hope to make a name for ourselves as the next few years unfold.
Both ihobo and Earcom have strong links to academia, ensuring they can remain at the cutting edge of design-integration. My own company has ties to Manchester University's prestigious computer science department, and I try to meet regularly with Dr. Mary Wood to discuss advances in research that may have an impact on future game designs. Paul Weir at Earcom runs the only Masters course in Composing for New Media in the country, and can regularly be found on the lecture circuits talking about interactive media.
These new companies have a long way to go before they prove that external design-integrated services are the future for the games industry, but for the time being we are holding our own in a difficult market, and working to push games to their creative limits. Ultimately, our success depends as much on changing the attitudes of the developers and publishers we aim to work with as it does in our own capacity for excellence.
|Chris Bateman is a former in-house game designer and script writer with a Master's degree in Artificial Intelligence and aspirations to either rule the world or improve the overall quality of games. Whichever comes first.|
Games or Films?
"I believe it is generally better for games to implement the story mostly through the game play itself, resorting to cut scenes only where essential. Such games require a little more design work, but the pay off is well worth the investment."
"Despite coming from a classical background, I firmly believe that the future of interactive entertainment audio production is in real-time synthesis, particularly physical modelling. Indeed we can already see the spread of physics based game engines within current games and as processing power increases, this will encroach more and more on the audio."
Design-Integrated Script Writer
"Obviously we end up having to bid for a lot of our contracts, which is a perfectly natural business practice. The problem comes when clients fail to recognise that producing a design -integrated script with a strong narrative is not the same as cranking out a few hundred lines of dialogue for cut scenes. It takes both a script writer and a design consultant to excel in the former, and that costs a little more than just hiring a regular script writer.
"I believe our services are very competitively priced, and we never attempt to offer less than a project requires. We don't want to put our name to any project if we do not believe we can genuinely facilitate in making it the best it can be, given the time and budget restrictions."
"There has however been a lack of ltd. companies. This is partly, I think, due to the difficulty in developing a business active enough to employ more than one or two people. Unlike film or particularly advertisement sound design, there are very few, if any, 'names' that a commissioning company can go to. The games industry has always been too fragmented and poorly organised to develop a strong sense of it's own social and cultural identity within the context of its members."