Thursday, October 18, 2007

Code Outsourcing Rising Despite High Vendor Turnover


A new report from outsourcing advisors Amritt Ventures has found heavy outsourcing vendor turnover over the past year, with some 27 percent of developers saying they've fired three or more vendors. Gamasutra talked with Amritt's Gunjan Bagla to learn more and see what steps could be taken to better ease future outsourcing transitions.

54 percent of the developers surveyed by Amritt said they expected outsourcing ventures to rise in the future, compared with 37 percent holding steady and only nine percent saying they expected to do less.

But the turnover results have been less than promising with the majority having gone through and fired at least one vendor, compared with 31 percent who have continued using the same.

According to the survey, it's not just art that's typically outsourced, with an increasing number turning to overseas developers for programming (22 percent) and testing (26 percent).

Bagla admits that, especially with the increasing complexity of next-gen games, outsourcing programming is a higher risk proposition, but adds, "if you think back to just three years ago, many studios would not have considered outsourcing art at that time either."

To minimize the risk, Bagla says a number of initiatives have to take place, including "excellent cross cultural communication skills, training in how to work across 8-12 time zones, tight definition of requirements," and "an extremely robust feedback loop where people on both sides can start to build trust each other."

Surprisingly, the most common issues developers complained about were not late delivery and high cost, which fell at the bottom of the list, but poor quality at 27 percent and too many programming and art iterations at 14 percent.

A "significant number," notes Amritt, cited the time zone differences as problematic. Bagla says that while some vendors have shifted or staggered their own schedules to better match their overseas partners, it's becoming increasingly common, and helpful for both sides to share some of the burden.

"In a creative industry like ours, you do want to create the sense of a virtual team," he said. "Spreading the pain of waking up early or sleeping late is one way to encourage a co-equal feeling. Rank-and-file vendor staff who can start to affiliate and identify with their stateside colleagues often experience a rise in productivity."

"Of course," he jokingly adds, "many professionals in the North American game industry prefer to work unusual hours anyway; for them a team in China or India is perfect."

Another ten percent of those surveyed said cultural differences also hindered the outsourcing process. "The obvious issues are around language, use of terms and the different socio-economic milieu that surrounds workers in Asia and Eastern Europe," explained Bagla. "What is more subtle and harder to address has to do with the indirect way in which Asians communicate. Their efforts at politeness and deference sometimes appear as inconsistent and even deceptive to an American."

Despite Amritt's training workshops that address just this matter and help foster a sense of being open and direct in dealing with developers, Bagla says "it is hard for them to understand that may get rewarded for challenging the client."

In the end, Bagla says, better matches make all the difference, though it may take time to find that match. "There are vendors who may do an excellent job of satisfying one client but may fail in another situation," he explains. "One has to match vendor capabilities for a particular project with requirements on that project; this means not only technologies and platforms but also time frames and experience levels."

"Sometimes clients who are disorganized share the responsibility for a failed relationship," he concludes. "All parties are learning and some are better learners than others."