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Straight to the Source

Massive Black's Jason Manley adds his voice to the ongoing outsourcing debate.

Two weeks ago ran an interview with Chris Mottes, of Deadline Games, who talked on the subject of outsourcing. One of the people to contact us off the back of that piece was Jason Manley, president of Massive Black, a long-standing outsourcing company, keen to put forward his views on the same subject.

What was it about the previous article that made you want to add to the debate?

I think that's a two-part answer. One is that it was refreshing to see the forward thinking coming from Deadline, and I appreciated seeing the awareness there in a number of points that Chris made.

But the thing that got me was the comment about not being able to guarantee quality when you deal with something that's not insourcing-based, or something that's purely outsourcing but your company doesn't own a stake in that particular outsourcer.

From my experience that's just not the case. We've had great success as a company, we've been leading the industry on the outsourcing side for quite a while now, and I wanted to offer some insight on that, as well as a number of other points that he had.

So what is your experience?

Well, we've been in business since 2002, formed of a collection of artists from a site that I'd formed called We started as a concept design company in 2002 and quickly grew to take on 3D and animation work.

My previous experience from working at lots of companies is that any time we tried to outsource something, it just came back as a mess. Pretty much a failure. At that time I figured we could probably outsource our rocks and buckets and swords - the really low-end stuff, the grunt work - but anything beyond that we had horrible experiences with.

Now, developers are blood-sweat-and-tears guys, typically some of them work 15 or 16 hours a day at times during crunch, and to have your heart and soul go out to another company and come back in with just no care in the world given to it was extremely frustrating.

So I saw that as an opportunity for us to provide a solution, and the only way I knew to do that - which was something I learned at Black Isle - was to build the best possible team.

So we sort of grabbed the best names from the film and games industries with the mindset that we were going to go after the convergence that's happening between film and games, and the quality convergence that's happening there.

The only way to do that is to really have the top talent, so we became a company formed by artists from our meagre USD 6000, made a list of companies that we wanted to work for - the dream companies, the big list - and it took us about six months before we had those companies.

Then we kept growing and now we have 103 clients and we've finished 150 projects, 24,000 pieces of concept design, and we're the largest concept design staff in the industry. We're working on most of the big projects that are happening in the industry right now.

Clearly you found that in order to expand your business you had to maintain a good reputation?

It has to be flawless. One mistake and you can lose three, four, five clients. You know how fickle this industry is? A developer screws up one game and the company's shut down. For outsourcing studios, many survive month-to-month, especially for the start-ups, and one missed client, one screw-up, and it can bring the company down.

We learned early on that quality control is key in building and maintaining working relationships, and retaining relationships means that we have independence.

Do you think the failure of some other companies has given the outsourcing community an unfairly bad reputation?

I think that's happening for a number of reasons. When we got started there were a couple of companies that were struggling to do it. A couple of those are still around and going a very good job. A couple, maybe three.

But there were very few people, and the publishers and developers didn't know how to do it either, so we really had to help invent how to get this industry to work. We've been involved very early on in getting pipelines set up in many of the top publishers and developers out there, and helped refine the processes for sending work outside the company - which historically was not happening, except for occasional cinematic work and low-end props and items.

What happened was that in 2004, there was some buzz about outsourcing picking up, and we were very vocal about what we were doing as well. Some others were also loud about it, just trying to generate business, and what happened was a bit like a piece of meat that's left on the table in the heat of summer. It starts to attract insects.

In a very short amount of time we had up to 300 competitors, and many of these people have had no experience in gaming whatsoever, and they're out there using the same sales techniques that they've picked up from others on the internet.

I saw some companies using our own presentation, the same methods of communicating what we do, and when you check them out there's two guys in an office, and they have a lot of empty promises.

That caused a big problem in the industry, because companies started to get burned, and not only that, but they were offering very, very low rates to get the relationships in. That caused the established outsourcing studios to start to lose money as work was filtering to other companies, and publishers and developers were trying out these sort of used car salesmen who were trying to offer something for nothing.

That made it pretty difficult over time, and in late 2006 we hit a bit of a lull, it was pretty quiet, but then in early 2007 it's picked up again and we've had a good six months. But in the first two years of being in business it was never like that, we never lost a bid.

Then suddenly we started losing bids, and I realised that there were people out there promising the world, but I realised at that time we just had to hang on. Because when the developers and publishers go out there and try and get something for nothing, sure they get a low man-month rate, but instead of getting two to three round of feedback per asset, they're now doing ten to fifteen rounds of feedback, working late or at weekends, they've got four more managers on the project internally in order to manage the incoming assets because there's no quality controlâ¦

So consolidation has started to happen. The big publishers are working with less of the outsourcers, and now if I was to start a new studio the odds of me building a 103 company client list are very slim. I'd be lucky to pull in ten clients, because everybody's already established relationships.

It caused some problems, both on the publisher and developer side, not getting the quality and work they needed, but it also caused problems for the established outsourcers, because we started to lose jobs. But now we've seen that turn around, and now we're busier than we ever have been.

Chris Mottes referenced a potential sweat shop situation - I assume that's not something you want to see either?

No, that's actually one of the things that drive me nuts, and one of the things I felt I needed to respond to. He was insinuating at one point that outsourcers don't take care of their culture, and as a company we have the highest respect for company culture.

We're known for having a really good culture and foundation in education - we have a school, we have our online community, we do training and travel, our artists are involved in teaching, and have taught more than 100 companies, 1800 students in the industry who are trying to learn what to do.

So there are companies who care, and there's a handful of others too who are really respectful about their culture and retaining good quality people. But there are others who have no care. There's a top publisher, one who everybody would know, having one of their games done in India, using a company that employs 3000 people, each working in 3 shifts of 1000 per day, sharing the same desks, which are no wider than the keyboard or the monitor.

But not all publishers are like that, because another publisher saw what was going on at that company and told them they weren't interested, and left offended that artists were being treated and handled in that way.

What is comes down to is the reason why companies outsource - not having to pay costs, salaries, when the work is done - so there's no down time. And they also outsource liability, and there're a number of reasons.

But I think the big thing is that people who do that don't realise that other people in the industry don't see business in the same way. I got into this industry because I liked having fun, making creative stuff, and I want to be around people that are learning and growing and getting great at what they do, working on good stuff.

It's a business, so it is about the money, but it's that sort of crowd that's encouraging the sweatshop mentality. But at the same time the quality comes around and bites them in the butt, so - you get what you pay for, regardless, and I just feel bad for the people that work in poor conditions.

If you look at mainstream brands, and the backlash they've faced when sweatshop labour has been uncovered, they've had to change the way that they work. Do you think gamers would be concerned if they knew a game they bought was the product of a sweatshop environment?

Yeah, I think it would be less of a rejection of individual games as it would be of that particular company. Companies in this industry - everything is about their brand. If you look at the big publishers, and ask a person about their brand, it's about great games.

But if you associate their games with unfair business tactics, then that brand is going to take a value hit that's far greater than the meagre cost savings they're taking advantage of in the short term by utilising the sweatshop mentality.

What about the relationships between developers and publishers?

Well the way I look at it is that in any good strong marriage between a couple - it's two, strong, independent partners. We maintain our independence by having many clients, but not all outsourcers are in that place - for there to be success, both companies need to take care of each other.

If a company is offering rates that are too low, and the client can't figure out how they're able to get that low, the odds are that in Asia those companies are probably not paying their taxes, they're not paying for their software, they're not paying their people well, they're stacking projects and doing more work than they should be doing, which brings quality way down.

There was a company in Shanghai recently that got shut down by the Chinese government because they weren't paying their taxes. They were offering lower rates than everybody else, and when it came down to it, it was discovered that they didn't have proper business licenses, and they got shut down for ten days.

And I'm sure that the people that had projects going through the couple of hundred people working there took a big blow to the belly on that. I just hope that publishers and developers will continue to think along the lines of Deadline, and the best are really.

Jason Manley is president of Massive Black. Interview by Phil Elliott.