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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Outsourcing Game Development Challenges And Opportunities

Many game development/publishing organizations are growing rapidly as "games" become the app of choice for entertainment, branding and engagement. This is driving the cost of game development up and the demand for more games. This pressure is forcing game developers to consider out-sourced game development to fill the demand.

 For a number of reasons game(Apps, Facebook, Video, Web, etc.) development  is unique relative to other domains. Building games is very different from developing banking applications, health care apps, manufacturing systems etc. The "creative" aspect of gaming is a primary differentiator requiring a close knit collaborative effort with development team members including project managers, program managers, artist, illustrators, etc. to create a compelling market relevant game.

 Games usually address a specific demographic that may have cultural  bias.  To address these preferences a game  development team must address those prejudices to assure the game  satisfies the intended target audience. Games have also become a major  form of entertainment  and game publishing can be very lucrative if executed properly.

 Game development can be challenging and expensive. The demand for new, creative, cultural relevant,  engaging game content drives development costs up resulting in organizations seeking  "outsourced" development resources. In discussions with several game development and publishing companies the outsourced solutions is a potential panacea for increasing the output of the native game development team.  

 Some game companies have been encouraged to outsource their game development to locations that are outside their geographic and "cultural" spheres.  Many countries and regions in the world have focused on  providing "outsourced" game development teams. Historically, these regions started development teams addressing "traditional" business domains and have begun to move into "game development" based on demand for this form of content.  This trend has intensified and it is also caused some outsourced shops to claim that they understand the game development process but really do not requiring game publishers to carefully scrutinize these organizations before committing to outsourced deal.

So how do you qualify an organization to determine if they can really do game development?

Meet and Greet - Despite the propensity for all of us to engage virtually as opposed to physically there is no substitute for actually visiting an organization and getting to know all of the players that will be engaged in the development effort. Granted the cost of visiting an organization halfway around the world is prohibitive. However, pressing the flesh is a good way to understand the organization and to make the organization know that you are "watching". Things to look for while you are there is the number of team members, their qualifications, their commitment to the organization and if the are actually part time  workers on contract themselves or actual employees. 

Staff Interviews - Everyone that will work on your project needs to be interviewed and introduced to your team.  If staff changes occur be introduced to the new members.

Architect - Who is the architect of the game? Ideally the architect still resides in your organization and not the outsourced group.  The architect establishes overall design, coding standards, etc. The host company should still have people on staff to guide and drive the external development team.

Start Small - The game that is intended to be developed may be complicated and a large project. However, the initial project or tasks given to the outsourced provider should be either limited or the project should be segmented into smaller executable segments to test the external team with a manageable task.  

Code Reviews - Regular code reviews are mandatory with members of the remote team participating in the code reviews. Code standards should be set by the host team.

Coding Standards And Code Documentation -  There will be a point where the code and game will be turned back over to the host development organization. To ensure a useful transition the host organization should set the standards for how the code will be documented and what the coding standard should be.

Source Control and Bug Tracking - Ideally, the contracting company should host the sources control system and  bug tracking system standardizing release management, bug prioritization, etc. This way the company has access to all the code and can take over the project if necessary.
Financial Penalties - Enforcing financial penalties with entities across the world and in different legal jurisdictions  is difficult if not impossible in some cases. However, having a contract that explicitly indicates the consequences for failure to deliver on time,  having xx amount of performance or code failures, etc, at least establishes a precedence and could encourage the outsourced company to adhere to best practices. 

Testing And Sign-Off - The host organization should conduct testing and final sign-off of all production committed code.  Do not depend on the  remote development company for final sign-off.

Copy Cat Risk - Inevitably, a third party develop organization will gain knowledge about your game and the way it was built. There is little protection from having that game copied in some format for another organization. If that organization  is in the same legal jurisdiction there could be recourse. Also,  the third party developer  client  is in the same legal jurisdiction you are in they could be sued leading to some resolution of the dispute.

In conclusion, outsourced, theoretically inexpensive game development, is very tempting and has been successful in some cases. However, without proper controls, expectations and processes in place to assure success issues have and will occur. Best practices are always a way to mitigate risk for both the contracting and contracted organization.

Kevin Flood is the CEO of Gameinlane, Inc. Kevin writes  about online games and their impact and integration into iGaming and E-commerce environments. Kevin is a frequent speaker at online game events and conferences in Asia, Europe and the US. Kevin and his Gameinlane team are currently working with online gambling, social gaming and e-commerce companies integrating social gaming with online gaming operations and integrate game mechanics into e-commerce applications.

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