Games service companies are now more important than ever before.
We spoke to Keywords Studios, Atomhawk & Universally Speaking about the importance of planning for massive projects and how external partners can help you overcome development challenges.
When we think about the developers of the best video games made in the UK the likes of Rockstar, Rocksteady and Rare spring to mind (to name but a few). But there’s a significant network of companies who support larger developers in the creation of our biggest electronic entertainment exports – and they are no less essential to their success.
There’s even an event dedicated to the video games service industry. The External Development Summit, dubbed XDS, publishes an annual report that includes a wealth of data potentially invaluable to developers, and is well worth checking out for more information.
One service company involved with XDS is Keywords Studios. Its clients include many of the industry’s big hitters, such as EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Sega and Nintendo, and the games it has helped to build are well-known. FIFA, Assassin’s Creed, Rocket League, Halo and Gears of War are just a handful of high-profile titles that have benefited from Keywords’ game development services in some way.
Andrew Brown, CMO at Keywords Studios, says the key message is developers who want help should get it as early as possible.
“The main thing is bring your partners in at the beginning,” he says, “even if you don't want to use them straight away. Do the briefing, make sure they understand when you want them to come in and let that team spin up. Planning early for that is super important.”
Some game development service companies get involved with a project even at its concept stage. Keywords, for example, has people who help developers think through everything from story to gameplay, and who can work on a project plan for a game. Eventually, game development service companies can help with testing, localisation and even what’s called ‘culturalisation.’ Help is also available to launch a game and run it as a live service for years on end.
Atomhawk, which has offices in Gateshead and Vancouver, Canada, is a visual development studio specialising in art services. It helps with everything from concept art to motion graphics, art direction to graphic design, and has worked on Call of Duty and Star Wars titles. Atomhawk managing director Tim Wilson echoes Brown’s advice.
“If you come to someone in distress, and it’s a distress purchase, often anyone who's good will be busy,” he warns. “And so they're probably gonna have to turn you down, or they're gonna have to somehow try and squeeze the job in, which maybe means you won't be getting the right team. Usually, that's when things tend to go wrong.”
You get what you pay for with service companies, too. Universally Speaking, based just outside Cambridge, specialises in QA, localisation and audio, and has worked with the likes of Capcom, Sega and Ninja Theory on a wide variety of titles. Chief commercial officer Tim Horton suggests properly budgeting for external help leads to the quality most developers strive for.
“We often find people are like, ‘It's how much?! But I only need five characters! And they're only going to be talking for X amount of time!’ That’s fine, and we get it, but you just have to understand what the industry does cost,” he says.
“If you want audio, then you're going to have to plan for it. If you want QA, then you have to plan for it. If you want localisation, you're going to have to plan for it. It all happens in the budgeting stages.
“Our advice would definitely be to plan each phase, from pre to production, from testing to alpha – really break those down and understand what the budgets are within each bracket instead of just looking at an overall budget.”
Because service companies have spent years helping games get made, their staff know the nuts and bolts of the craft like the back of their hand. Using this experience, Brown has a simple but effective word of advice for developers large and small he believes helps avoid many of the pitfalls studios run into: “Plan, plan, plan.”
Brown highlights a key difference between the way Asian and Western studios plan their video games projects. Chinese developers, Brown suggests, are fantastic at planning for the long-haul, with ten-year roadmaps for each iteration of their game common across studios. However, Chinese developers tend to put less focus on the frontend creative side of their video games projects.
It’s the reverse in the west, based on Brown’s experience. On these shores, he says, developers often put a huge amount of effort into the frontend creative side of their project, “but maybe haven't thought through the years out from launch and what it's going to look like.”
‘Universally Speaking’s’ Tim Horton argues localisation and QA are often downplayed by developers, but are crucial to the success of any game.
“Everyone completely underestimates the power of localisation and QA, of what it really does to a dev cycle in terms of taking something and making it great,” he says.
“We live in a world now that is ever-demanding. People quite rightly expect to experience a game in their native tongue and to be not broken when they buy it.”
Hidden costs can cripple a game’s development, and they can be extremely difficult to plan for – they’re hidden, after all. The tricky thing here is developers will often learn from experience, but that’s no help to inexperienced developers.
“If you haven't a lot of experience, it's actually quite difficult,” Brown says. “So people spend a lot of time asking other people, and you try and map that out.”
Inevitably, hidden costs will present themselves on a video games project. The question then becomes, how do you react? The answer isn’t necessarily to throw people at the problem. The best reaction, Brown suggests, is to figure out the solution at the core of the problem itself.
He offers an example. One of Keywords’ studios, Electric Square, has an in-house R&D team called Reactor. Its purpose is to develop bleeding-edge solutions to development problems.
“Maybe a client will come to us and say, ‘We want to build this game, it's multidimensional, there will be 30 episodes, and in each episode you will be doing something similar. Please go away and build it,’” Brown explains.
“Our Reactor team will look at that and say, ‘We could put 50 people on this aspect of the game for each episode, or we could put 10% of the budget into building a procedural generation tool that will solve all the problems, remove the need for resource and allow you to speed up and actually give you a better, more consistent output.’
“So that team will then rally around solving the problem before they even start. And then when you get into the project, you’ve figured out where the costs would have been, you've unearthed what would have been hidden, you've solved for the need for huge amounts of bodies, and you go faster. So it's largely about leveraging the intelligence and experience, and then trying to fix the problem before you even start doing anything.”
Hastily pouncing upon a development challenge and throwing resources at it can lead to a team that’s working inefficiently to solve a problem, Brown warns, or ends up having to spend more time than expected working around the problem. “A lot of these hidden things are linked to new experiences you're trying to create, or it's the new technology,” he says.
A lack of transparency is one issue external partners can run up against. Developers may be hesitant to be honest about constraints, for example, or budget concerns. But, according to Atomhawk’s Tim Wilson, the more open the developer, the better the relationship – and the project.
“Be really transparent with your external partner,” Wilson suggests. “They're not there to try to fleece you, they're not there to try and stitch you up – or good ones shouldn't be anyway. And the more honest you can be about your constraints, your budgets, your pressure points, like who your audiences are going to be, the more successful your partner is going to be at solving your problem.
“That's all we're there to do, really. We're there to do a job and do a job really, really well. And if someone says, ‘Look, we've only got a finite budget, or we can only spend five days on this character versus 40 days,’ that's fine because you just cut your cloth accordingly. And that's part of the skill: how do you take those constraints and turn them to your advantage?”
Another potential development pitfall comes from underestimating the time needed to get a game on the many and varied platforms available. Developers can run into unexpected delays when porting their existing games to new platforms or developing for multiple platforms simultaneously for an all-encompassing launch. Each platform, from PlayStation to Xbox, from Nintendo Switch to PC, from Android to iOS and all that’s in-between, presents unique challenges, quirks and potential pitfalls. All should be considered as early as possible.
Generally, Brown says, developers have a lead platform. They may be building their game on PC, but also want to launch on console and mobile. This tactic can create a “technical debt” – the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of a better approach that would take longer. Technical debt is a common term in software development, but what we’re talking about here, specifically, is the problem video games developers can run into as they begin to look at secondary platforms.
Often, the work required to get a game up and running on a secondary platform can be more complicated than the work done for the lead platform, especially if that initial work was done on the most powerful platform. If the lead platform is PlayStation 5, for instance, less powerful platforms will create even more challenges because the game will need to be retrofitted for hardware that potentially can’t quite cope with what you’ve developed. Game development services can help with this problem – and often at quite a late stage, too.
“If you've gone down the lead platform route and then a bit later on you decide to bring us in, then there are ways we can unpack that from a technical standpoint,” Brown says. “We can then make sure it does work on the less powerful platforms, or move more quickly on the secondary platforms in terms of making that port process efficient.”
The technical aspect of planning for multiple platforms is only one part of the puzzle. Monetisation is another – and this, too, can be significantly different across platforms. The way your premium PC and console game makes money will be different to the way the same game makes money in a free-to-play environment on mobile.
“If you don't think about that early, it does definitely make it harder to do it later,” Brown cautions. “If you want a free-to-play version that sits next to a pay-gated version, you've really got to think through the value proposition across the two and what the gameplay is. You want one to complement the other, you don't want one to detract from the other.”
Brown asserts that game development service companies are more important now than ever – and it’s easy to see why. Once upon a time, a game would launch and that would be that. The emergence of downloadable content prolonged the life of a video game, but most games had a clearly-defined shelf-life. Now, the games-as-a-service model powers the world’s biggest titles. Fortnite, the world’s most popular battle royale, is coming up on its fourth year of life. Content never sleeps – and neither do developers, it seems. According to Horton, outsource partnerships can help avoid the dreaded crunch. If there’s one leading reason to consider drafting in help, it’s right there.
Game development services can help studios who are making games in this difficult new world create exciting new experiences for players all year round – to help “feed the beast”.
“What I love about the games industry is nothing ever stands still,” Brown laughs. “One minute you're making a console game on an annualised release schedule, and now you've got a metaverse experience that's always-on and needs to be fed with new content and new experiences, and that's a constant process.”
“It's getting harder and harder to be a developer, or an IP holder, and do all of that stuff and know what the best practise is, especially as it keeps changing.”
“This is the direction of travel of the video games industry. This annualised franchise release model was challenging enough anyway – any time the power of the consoles increased, you would put more and more money and effort into improving the experience. That by itself remains a big challenge, and that's why the cost of development goes up every year.”
“Then you extend that into this continual refresh that's required to drive always-on engagement in a metaverse or in a games-as-a-service model, and it's tough. It's really, really hard to do.”
“So the more you see that moving forward becoming the predominant model, the harder it gets for the IP owner to feed it properly and keep control of the budget and the flow of content and the engagement. The services industry is more and more becoming that extension to make sure you can do all of that stuff.”
Wilson says the external development scene has matured over the past ten years, evolving from a ragtag bunch of freelancers into a sophisticated and essential part of the development process. Apart from the odd boutique studio, such as Hades creator Supergiant Games, developers of bigger titles need outsourced help. Just look at the credits for any recent triple-A game – there’s usually a long list of companies which have helped make the dream a virtual reality.
“The real skill of a good publisher or developer is actually being able to bring all those strands together and assemble that dream team, like the Avengers, of the best around the world,” Wilson says. “And when it goes right, you get an absolutely fantastic experience, and you don't know it's coming from multiple parties.”
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