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How to avoid an outsourcing catastrophe

By on December 5, 2014
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This is a guest post from Mike Bloom of BooyaSquad, who have been working with Click Lab.


 

Outsourcing can open doors

Most people who want to venture into game dev believe they must build a team containing all the talent they will need to complete their project. Truth is that everything can be outsourced. In fact this can be a better option in many cases. For us, being a two man team, we knew that we would have plenty to learn and accomplish. So when we came across something we had no interest in learning, we hired someone to do it.  This is how your budget is best spent as an indie dev.

What you may not realize is that outsourcing  acts as an excellent alternative to building a complete studio to make your game. What you will pay to build a studio of capable team members will rival, if not exceed what you can spend to outsource the portions you don’t want to tackle.  Outsourcing to a great studio like we have also provides many of the benefits a good publisher would, without having to give up 70% of your revenue. A good studio can help with marketing, outreach, gameplay choices and hang ups. Some even offer a portion of dev cost to be differed until the game brings in money. Outsourcing also keeps you accountable to a time line, which can be crucial for a small team. Remember, these guys have been through this many times and their experience is of great value.

Unfortunately outsourcing can be dangerous. You are putting a lot of trust into a group of people that may not have your best interest at hand. So choosing the right people to work with can make or break your game. So after spending the last three years outsourcing portion of development, I wanted to share my experience with you in the hopes that I can offer the guidance I wish I had.

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Our story

Three years ago my brother and I decided to follow our dream by turning a mobster comic book world we created over ten years ago into a mobile card battle game, Mario Italiano: Four Families. We had no idea what we were in for. In fact, we knew very little of what it took to develop a game. This forced us to dive in head first and learn as we went. Although this worked great in some areas, it really backfired when it came to our first attempt to outsource coding.

Being two designers, we had no interest in learning how to code, so this was where we were going to spend our money. As I said, I knew very little of the process and that led to me choosing a company based on my budget, spending little time researching candidates. I had no idea the importance they would play in our success or failure. I figured coding was coding, and a large well known company could do this with their eyes closed. Well, after getting dragged around for almost two years by a constantly changing team, four different project managers, all on a 12 hour time difference, I woke up to an email from this huge firm I was contracted with. It stated that my sales rep and project manager had been let go and that they made a mistake on my account. Over the next couple days I was told that in order to finish my constantly delayed project, I would have to pay them 3 times the agreed upon price!!  Total breach of contract, but what could I do?  Take them to court? I’m sure I would have won but what then? I start over, losing two years of dev and have nothing to show for it. Not an option.

My dreams were shattered, but I was not giving up. I spent the next month wrestling the half-finished mess they coded, out of there grubby hands. I pick myself up, take out a 401k loan, and start to shop the game around hoping to find someone to finish our dream.

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Guide to outsourcing

Knowing what I know now, I’m on a mission to arm you with everything I’ve learned about outsourcing. Here is a step by step guide based on my personal experience.

Get prepared

This is actually a huge help when you are a small team ready to dive into game dev. Normally your instinct would be to dive in with a loose concept and start making things. Well if you are outsourcing coding, or any other portion of development, a loose concept isn’t going to fly. In order to seek the help you need you will have to have a detailed write up of each section of your game, including full functionality. You will also have to have wire-frames or mock ups for most major screens to further explain your concept. You have to be able to explain your game in detail to everyone you pitch it to, the better you explain things, the more accurate the quotes and time lines you’ll receive. It’s also a great way to get your head around what you want to create.

Search for candidates

Hop online and start searching. Looking for what you need is pretty straight forward. We were developing for mobile, and were going to launch on iOS, so I searched for iOS developers, mobile developers, mobile game coders, etc. Make sure to vary your search terms to find as many options as you can. Build yourself a list of possibilities.

Research your list

Check these people out. Read through their websites, do they sound like a good fit? Check their background, what have they done? Do they have good reviews as a company? Where are they located, do they have offices in your country? Time spent here will save you a lot of time wasted on pointless interviews, and may save you from making a huge mistake in hiring the wrong people.

Make contact

Once you’ve narrowed it down, it’s time to contact your list. Send a brief email summarizing your needs. Don’t supply any details of your game or idea before you and the potential outsourcer sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), no NDA, run away. After you send your emails, wait for them to res[pond. This will further narrow your list very quickly. I was amazed at how many people never responded! These were people that advertised the service I needed, I was shocked. Others took a long time to get back to me, this is not a good sign, if it takes a long time to respond to a potential client in the stage of attempting to get their business, how do you think they’ll respond once they already have your money. Finally you will have a few that respond quickly and ask to set up a meeting to discuss your needs. These are the ones you interview.

The interview

This was very hard for me the first time around. Not knowing the process of how this would all take place put me at a great disadvantage and I had no idea what questions to ask. Here is a list of good questions and why they need to be asked.

What is their process?

This will be different for most places you talk to and it is very important to know how things will proceed if you choose to contract with them. Although everyone is aiming for the same end result, I was surprised at how complex some were in comparison to others. The more streamlined their process the easier they will be to work with.

What software do they use and why?

Not knowing a thing about coding when I signed with the first firm, I had no idea why this would be important. I should have done some research. The first team I contracted used outdated software and therefore what I was left with when we parted ways was a mess. Now you don’t have to know a lot about the area you’re outsourcing, but if you know what they are going to use and why, you can do a little research to make sure it is good for your game.

How do you track their progress?

Many use a program like Basecamp, to show you what they have done each day. This is a great system for communicating both ways during development. This is what we use now and I love it. It connects everyone in the project and things can be shared very easily. The first company I was using didn’t use anything like this and I relied on frequent Skype meetings to go over what was accomplished. Sharing files was tedious and unreliable.

How long have their team members been with the company?

This is an important question. The turnover rate at some of the larger companies is ridiculous!  I went through three Project Managers in a year at the first place. This causes major delays and serious confusion. You will find yourself re explaining your game over and over.

Will you have a Project Manager to yourself?

If not, how many projects does your PM have going on at a time?  The more dedicated your PM and the team that works on your project, the better off you will be.

How often will you have meetings and at what time?

No matter what you are outsourcing, you will have to regularly meet to explain functionality, go over progress, answer question, fix problems, etc. Knowing how often this takes place, and at what time will prepare you for how much time you will have to spend managing your outsourcing. Most companies, even with state side offices, work out of other countries, and will require some time zone balancing.

Ask for a timeline: How long will it take?

A solid estimate on the time they think it will take to finish the service will vary from place to place.

Have they done anything like this before?

If they have that’s great. They most likely have worked through some of the problems that may come up in your project. Experience in your genre is a huge bonus, but not a deal breaker. It is more important that they are confident that they can handle your needs, and that you feel the same way.

What else do they do that may be of use to you?

This is a great question that can really edge you toward the right fit. For us this was really important because there was a lot of stuff we had no experience with and could really use the help. I interviewed a company that also did server set up and support as well as customer support, these were services I would need so that was a nice bonus. The second place I went with had a lot of marketing experience, offered assistance in App Store optimization, and agreed to run my ads in their first party games. When you are small and on a budget, these perks can make or break you and are a great place to negotiate.

What is their after launch support?

After your game is live, there are bound to be some bugs or glitches that pop up. How long will they support their work? After that period, what will they charge you for fixes? These are good things to consider and they tell you a lot about their confidence in their work.

Ask them for references

A good company or freelancer will have no problem offering you the ability to contact a few references. In fact, the team I’m with now offered them without me asking. This is a great way to cut through the sales of it all and get a real world opinion from someone that’s worked with them.

How much? This is ultimately going to take some out of the running. Some people are a lot more than others. But most are very competitive. I warn you! Don’t make a decision based on price alone. This was a huge mistake for me the first time. There are many ways to acquire funding. There aren’t many ways to fix a botched game, or to make up lost time when the bargain firm you chose breaks contract and leaves you with a half-finished mess and no money to finish your project. In these situations you will be seeking funding anyway.

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Choose wisely

No matter what you are outsourcing, these people become part of your team. You need to have a good vibe going in. Do you like the people you’ve spoke with? Do they seem genuine? Are they excited about working for you? Weigh the answers from the above questions, and also listen to your gut. At this point you will feel best about one choice and that’s who you should go with.

After the nightmare we went through with our first attempt to outsource, I was really wary about emptying my savings to go at it a second time. But after our two year nightmare, I knew what I needed to ask. This made it a lot easier to feel comfortable choosing a firm. After many interviews I narrowed it down to 3 candidates and ultimately I ended up contracting with Click Labs. Let me explain why.

First off I sent my emails to my list of candidates the day before Thanksgiving last year; they got back to me that day!! That set a tone for me that they were quick to respond, and that holds true to this day. We had a meeting via Skype that weekend and they were very transparent about their process. This showed me that I could trust them.  They thoroughly explained the software they used for communicating, developing, testing, etc. After researching I found out they were using the best stuff available. I was informed that I would have a dedicated team and project manager and they had very little turnover in their office.  They were flexible in their meeting times and would accommodate my schedule, something that the prior team had trouble with. They were genuinely excited about making our game, so much so that I had a few meetings with two of the founders of the company.  Their pricing was in the ballpark of the other two and they were willing to help me with other services they offered.  They openly offered references and I spoke with two of their past clients who gave them high recommendations. Best of all I got a good vibe from their whole team and that is priceless. They really hit on all the key points in choosing the best fit for us and working with them has been awesome through every step. I have even become good friends with their CMO Parag Jain, and he is an incredible asset who has helped guide us in many areas.  For us, using Click Labs has helped us in all areas and their advice and guidance has been invaluable.

These are the things that will distinguish one company from another. Most everyone I interviewed had some good perks, but although well qualified, some were slow to get back to me and didn’t seem very excited about it, others had large teams and a really streamlined process, but they weren’t very personable and seemed more like dev factories.  These are the things you need to pay attention to when choosing a company to outsource with. If you don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling, keep looking.

About Mike Bloom

Mike and John have been working together since highschool. They cut their teeth drawing comics together as kids and that first love is what blossomed into their first game release Mario Italiano Four Families. In Late 2012 Mike approached John about turning one of their childhood comics into a mobile card battle game. They have worked the last couple years working tirelessly between their already busy schedules to make their dream come to life.