How I Learned To Love Outsourcing
I STARTED WRITING A POST last year about the evils of outsourcing. It was going to be a takedown of all the game and animation studios that moved art production, development, and QA offshore. But I never posted it because I suspected my emotions were misguided somehow. Something wasn’t right. I’ve since had a positive first-hand experience with outsourcing that reshaped the way I see it and wanted to share that here in the hopes that I can challenge your beliefs.
WHAT I USED TO THINK
My limited knowledge of outsourcing was as follows:
Concept art and effects are outsourced to Asia where wages are lower presumably cutting salary expenses and maintaining output.
A lot of animated series are really made in Canada, not L.A. Companies like Nelvana, Brown Bag Films, House of Cool, to name a few. Just google “canadian animation studios” and check out their demo reel.
The fear of being replaced by outsourcing has been spreading around the games industry and the US at large for as long as I’ve been in the field. Most people I know have at least one layoff story. I think it affects artists particularly because we see ourselves as expendable. We’re also aware of the outstanding work coming from Asia and feel stressed out by the extra competition. Outsourcing is the artist’s boogeyman.
That is what I knew. The first 2 are true, but this applies mainly to film and TV animation, of which I am not really a part of. Nevertheless, a company will do whatever it takes to cut costs and increase their profit margin. A couple of US game companies have outposts in Canada. Kabaam is there now. Our very own Glu Mobile has a studio in Toronto, but it’s smaller. A satellite office where some work is done for less money, as opposed to a factory where all the work is being done.
As for the third point, people have lost their jobs as a result of the changing business. Studios are closing all the time. But they’re also opening all the time. And mobile games continue to take market share from console (Venture Beat https://venturebeat.com/2018/04/30/newzoo-global-games-expected-to-hit-180-1-billion-in-revenues-2021/). I’ve never seen any evidence of a one-to-one fire and re-hire a foreigner scenario. It’s more likely that a company would sell off a flagging game title to a foreign company and reassign the American artists to another title. CrowdStar did it with multiple games in the early 2010s.
MY FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE WITH OUTSOURCING
As an artist on Covet Fashion, I can tell you we rely heavily on outsourcing to create the digital versions of the “real world” clothing for the game. They’re real clothes, from real brands, that partner with us to integrate their products into our game. This has been going on for about 5 years. Since there are hundreds of brands, tens of thousands of items from skirts to tops, to hats to jewelry that need to be “rendered” for the game, we outsource the time-intensive part of the production pipeline to several offshore art houses. To be clear, I’m not envious of these offshore artists. It’s not great work. It’s like taking a photo from the internet and morphing it to fit our game characters, then sending it to our US artists, who provide feedback, and basically redo it before it’s approved. It’s not like these people are taking away our good American jobs! This would be low paying work even in the states.
More recently, after the acquisition of CrowdStar by Glu, our whole company has had access to the Hyderabad India studio artists. It’s not outsourcing technically because they’re employees of Glu. They call it “insourcing”. As the primary artist working on game backgrounds and event feed images, I’m often racing against the clock to finish my work. Six or seven events are released automatically every day, seven days a week, 365 a year. I would tell you that the objective is quality over quantity but sometimes I have to cut corners. There’s no one tool that can remove a model from a background, feathering the edges of fur coats and sheer clothing, mask and repainting hair strands and highlights. Wouldn’t it be great if I could focus on the art directing and storytelling of the event, and not the pixel-by-pixel minutiae? Fast forward to present day– 2 years after the acquisition–and I have access to the Hyderabad art team. Now we’re cooking with gasoline! It’s hard to put a number on quality, but I’ve witnessed a dramatic improvement to the visual appeal of my work with the additional help from offshore.
Typically, I have this problem where I need to fit a vertical image into a horizontal image module for Covet Fashion. Cropping and stretching are not options so I have to realistically extend the sides of the photo. Either photo composite, digitally paint, of clone the image to fill in the unused area. I could spend hours doing it myself, or I could ask a colleague to do it. With the outsourcing infrastructure that already exists at Glu, it’s a no-brainer. Transfer the file to Hyderabad with a short note and get the finished product back the following morning.
A COUPLE OF OTHER REASONS WHY YOU SHOULDN’T FEAR OUTSOURCING
Navigating this foreign business landscape is going to require some business savvy and money up front. The offshore market for art production is big. Many companies of various sizes, strengths, and price points. Somebody who is fluent is the native language would have more success. Doing international business would probably require legal aid. Some money up front. Most likely an international plane flight. Time and money. Could a super-lean startup or smart entrepreneur pull it off? Probably but I’m just saying, it’s not as simple as it may sound.
Another story comes to mind as I’m thinking about why you shouldn’t fear outsourcing. An artist colleague told me about how he hesitated to discuss the idea of outsourcing with his general manager because he assumed that it would be at the expense of some of his team. Only to find out later that it was perceived as a sign of weakness. Now his general manager knows he’s worried about job security, and may use that against him when it’s time to talk about a raise or promotion.
We fear what we don’t understand. My hope is that artists can learn more about the reality of outsourcing and the potential benefits, getting over the fear of being passed over for a foreign competitor. Another way to look at it is with respect to control. Having more control over what you do will lead to happiness and fulfillment. I’m pretty lucky in the sense that I’m not competing with an offshore team. I’m essentially managing them, and giving them assignments like freelancers. We can’t all be that lucky, but having this knowledge and an open mind is a good place to start.