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Simple question: What are the pros and cons, as well as overall opinions, of outsourcing work as an independent game developer? (For example: paying an artist to draw characters, or a composer to write music, etc.)

In particular I'm interested in the case where the developer (be it an individual or a team) can still complete their game to an acceptable standard without hiring somebody. (For example: maybe they're "ok" artists, or can use music from a free library.)

(Ideally I'm looking for answers from people with experience in this area.)

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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I've sometimes worked with composers and sometimes used free music or created my own ambiences. I usually do my own art, but I'm starting to work with an artist for one of my upcoming projects.

I've had very good experiences with the composers; I offer a percentage of the sponsorship amount (I make Flash games), payable on publication. For the most part, this has been great, although one project has taken so long to develop that I offered the composer a (non-refundable) advance, since he'd done quite a bit of work and I didn't (still don't) know when the game would be finished.

Working with composers is great when you need a specific esoteric feel to the music. For Exploit, my cyberpunk puzzle game, I wanted a certain kind of music that was difficult/impossible to find from free sources. My composer, Evan Merz, was able to put together some amazing pieces. On the other hand, my artsy reading game Silent Conversation needed experimental classical music, and I was easily able to find some with an acceptable license on Jamendo. Likewise, my atmospheric adventure Looming needed creepy windy ambience with unexplained voices, and I was able to record that myself using Audacity.

As for art, I'm usually able to put stuff together myself: usually pixel art. However, I find that my own art gets mixed responses; I've got an amateur art background, but not enough that I consider myself on par with a lot of the work out there, even in Flash games. My upcoming game is going to be bigger and more mainstream than most of my previous work, so I'm trying to work with an artist to get art that's higher-quality and more likely to appeal to broader audiences.

I've found that it's an issue of quality, much more so than time savings.

In short...

Outsourcing: You get exactly what you want, but you have to pay for it and run a slight risk that the person you're working with will flake (I haven't had any trouble).

Do-it-yourself: It's cheaper and often quicker, but it's harder to find the perfect asset from free sources and programmer/amateur art has a higher risk of turning some players off.

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From my own observations, working with outsourcing is fraught with problems.

A good outsourcing team or individual can be a godsend, taking pressure off the core team and getting extra custom content into the game that would otherwise have had to compete for project resources with other key areas.

However there can be many problems with getting to this point. Communication is the key difficulty, in all senses of the word.

Physically, your outsource partner will not be working in the same building as your team. On a practical day to day basis, this makes is harder to check on progress and keep an up to date impression of how the project is proceeding. It also makes it harder to convey to the outsourcer the underlying philosophies of the game, your design principles and the nuances of your design which influence what you want. They will also likely be unfamiliar with your working practices and your pipeline for content, possibly providing you with assets in a format that requires conversion work on your side to get into the game.

Culturally, your outsource partner may be in a different country and speak a different primary language. This exacerbates the problems mentioned in the first point. Neither are dealbreakers in any general way, and it may well be that an indie team works in a distributed and collaborative fashion anyway, but both points make it harder for everyone on the team to be on the same page and to all be working towards the same goals.

Managerially, if you have an outsourcer, you have to make sure they are managed effectively. They may well have many projects they are working on simultaneously, and not being on your "staff" you have no direct control over how quickly, or to what quality they do their work. Someone on the team will need to make time to liaise with the outsourcer on a regular basis to review progress, to discuss problems and proposed changes. One of the more difficult aspects will be signing off on a particular resource. As a separate entity, your team may have very different expectation in terms of quality from your partner. Remember that polish and final tweaks can take up a disproportionate amount of time. I have seen examples where outsource work that was submitted required extensive "touch up" work to ensure that it felt consistent with internally produced assets in game. Overall the quality was not bad, but it was different enough to be noticeable, and in the end as much effort was put into correcting this as would probably have been taken to generate the content from scratch.

Obviously, most of these points boil down to recognising the difficulties of working with someone outside your team, and ensuring good management and the agreement of appropriate specifications and goals before work begins.

Indie development is generally very content bound, small teams are usually unable to produce the quantity of content as a larger traditional team (depending of course on the type and style of game). Outsourcing, while potentially expensive and coming with potential management headaches, can provide a way to help overcome this to some extent, producing extra high quality assets for your game.

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