Outsourcing to smaller video game studios for different parts of game production has created a new shift in the industry. But has this change been completely positive?
Outsourcing is a valuable way that video game companies can delegate work more efficiently by employing the help of other game studios to produce games more quickly. Sometimes called external development, this business strategy allows smaller and more specialized game studios to work precisely on impressive projects and become more well-known. Smaller game studios that are more focused on specific parts of production can combine their powers with bigger companies to create a game with better quality work than the two studios would be able to do separately. However, while it seems like a productive partnership, video game outsourcing has been criticized by some in the industry who say it can lead to poor treatment of employees and low-quality products.
Around 83% of video game companies outsource their projects in at least one way. It started as a way for these companies to unload some of their work onto different, smaller studios. This was especially used for things like 2D or 3D character models and sound production — things that not every company would have access to. Leaving some of the responsibility for the game’s assets on other people allowed for the main studio to focus on other critical aspects of the game, like its narrative and gameplay.
However, these days most companies rely on outsourcing so much that it’s become essential to the industry. In fact, in a majority of video games released these days, long credits prove that multiple companies collaborate on each project. For example, in Horizon: Zero Dawn, 18 different outsourced companies compiled their efforts and specialties. These studios focus on things like motion capture and environmental asset building, which helped them contribute the perfect extra touches to the game. For instance, 65 employees from outsourced company Virtuos spent two whole years on just 11 characters for Horizon: Zero Dawn, demonstrating that giving specialized professionals time to work can lead to amazing results.
The benefits of outsourcing can be seen in many different areas of production. The company that outsourced can focus more pointedly on parts of the video game that they would like to prioritize with core members of their team. This also means that the company doesn’t need to go through the process of hiring new specialized employees, which would be a long and difficult process. Outsourcing is creating a huge change in the video game industry, as job-seeking people are more easily hired by smaller game studios that align even better with their specialties.
Because of this, more specialized studios can now create better quality work and offer this to companies looking to outsource. Companies that have a smaller focus can really bring amazing things to the finished product by honing in on the specific details that can bring a game together and make it look more polished. BuzzFeed went so far as to edit screenshots of certain games to show players what the games would look like without outsourced assets — a lot of the edits are very surprising, with whole enemy groups or car models gone.
However, there is a dark side to video game outsourcing as well. Many companies are hired for their cost-effectiveness, which can mean that outsourced employees are paid less than they would be if they were hired at the bigger studio, despite doing the same amount and quality of work. On the flip side, some bigger video game companies have been laying off workers in favor of outsourcing work. In 2009, Electronic Arts laid off around 2,600 employees and said they would start outsourcing more to reduce costs.
In addition, wanting to work with the bigger video game companies means that many outsourced video game studios are coerced into doing an astronomical amount of work with very short deadlines. This leads to crunch, a video game industry buzzword that refers to employees working inhumanely long hours, usually with forced unpaid overtime. Many companies have become accustomed to a 70-hour work week, with employees saying they hoped that their work on a particular project would help them get hired at a bigger studio.
Another negative side of outsourcing is that when a company outsources its work, players always seem to notice. In a recent example, Pokémon developer GameFreak has been criticized online for outsourcing nearly the entirety of their new remake games, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Players come to expect a certain style and look from a certain studio, and when another studio’s creative influence is seen, people can become annoyed. The new style of the recent release has upset fans, as most were expecting something more similar looks-wise to the last few installments in the Pokémon series.
On the other hand, some fans argue that its art style indicates a new and fresh direction from the game and are happy to see the change. In outsourcing their work to smaller company ILCA, developer GameFreak is able to continue the expected production of the January release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus. ILCA (or I Love Computer Art) has been bashed online for changes to the game that were considered unwanted, but it’s important to realize that video game outsourcing isn’t done in a way in which the studios brought in have complete control over the project. In this way, the overseeing company still has much more control over the overall narrative plot and gameplay mechanics.
There’s no denying that video game outsourcing has made a big impact on the industry, but it has a long way to go until we can totally accept it as a healthy business practice. Smaller studios are finally able to make their mark and work on bigger titles, but it’s at the cost of employees’ well-being. While games that outsource have come out looking amazing recently, we need to remember to support companies in the video game industry that work with other companies ethically and remember that the assets created by outsourced studios are not controlled directly by the bigger company. No single studio should be blamed by players for the reputation of the game as a whole.