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Why external and distributed development is the future of AAA games

Virtuos shares its experience on working with major developers to help them complete projects

It’s no secret that game development has seen a massive expansion in scope in recent years.

What would have once taken a development team three or four years to make now requires much more people, and four to six years to ship. This is not only due to the size of the games, but also the complexity and expertise involved in making cutting-edge titles.

External development has become increasingly popular in recent years, with companies outsourcing parts of development to third parties. At the same time, distributed development is another model that sees a variety of teams working collectively on the same project worldwide. By unifying development and project management, studios can tap into global teams with diverse skill sets and talents beyond geographical boundaries – saving studios precious time, money and resources.

More projects are being developed by multiple companies through external development. Games worked on by a single team, in one location, are now an increasingly rare occurrence. Look at the long closing credits of blockbusters, and you can see various companies being featured alongside the core development team.

Despite their differences, external development and distributed development are really two sides of the same coin. The former just means that external parties are tasked to perform specific services, while the latter refers to work done across multiple locations by several teams. In other words, distributed development can be performed in-house across several studios by one parent company, or via one external company with a global network of developers.

"As games grow larger in scale and visual quality, it is becoming incredibly difficult to do everything in-house"

“As games grow larger in scale and visual quality, it is becoming incredibly difficult to do everything in-house,” says Mike Sherak, Virtuos’ assistant director of customer success. “By adopting a distributed mindset, developers can make larger games with partners who offer more cost-effective options and diverse perspectives. Development can also be done at all hours of the day, which shortens the development timeline as well as the turnaround time for hotfixes.”

Given how external and distributed development are aiding companies with capacity planning and access to diverse skills, it’s no wonder that more games are being made this way. Both development models cater to the high fidelity and complexity that modern games demand, including cutting-edge graphics, complex gameplay and realistic physics. And with the boom in game releases that consumers have come to expect from the industry, these approaches take a significant load off the core team leading the project.

Take for instance the most popular games in recent memory, an increasing number of which were made in a distributed manner. Ubisoft has long had numerous studios around the world contributing to its blockbuster franchises like Assassin’s Creed. While larger studios like Ubisoft Montreal often head up development, Ubisoft also has other studios around the world that provide specialised art, game design or programming skills.

The same is true for Activision’s Call of Duty series. Infinity Ward led development on last year’s Modern Warfare II, but nine other Activision studios, including Treyarch, Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software, are also credited on the project.

But it’s not just the teams behind AAA blockbusters that are looking outward for their game development needs. The 2021 indie hit, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, was made with multiple studios. While its lead developer was Ember Lab, the developer worked with Virtuos, an external team, on assets creation, level dressing and VFX. In particular, Ember Lab tapped on Virtuos to build a bespoke Houdini tool that automates environmental asset population, freeing resources that allow the game to run more smoothly.

What this translates to is the capacity for developers to focus on realising their vision for the game, while accessing the specialised skills that distributed development can deliver. And this may come as a surprise to most, but gamers can benefit from this arrangement too. Imagine more games being released regularly, with external and distributed development allowing for more ambitious and dynamic games to be launched at an even pace. They can also be released on more platforms, and this is in addition to shorter release schedules for post-launch content.

Yet, with game projects only becoming larger and more complex, shipping these titles successfully has become a significant issue. While finding the necessary in-house expertise to work on them is imperative, the industry is plagued by another challenge: brain drain. Talents are lured to join other tech industries – and away from games studios. Unfortunately, this trend has only become more common since the COVID-19 pandemic.

For distributed development to successfully accelerate development cycles, studios will need a vast, readily available pool of expertise. As one of the frontrunners of this development model in the industry, Virtuos seeks to help companies overcome common roadblocks with a large network of international studios, across three continents. This allows developers to not only scale up, but also add a wealth of expertise to a project in a short span of time.

That’s not to say that distributed development is about throwing bodies at a problem and simply adding more resources to a project. In fact, it is more valuable to utilise specialised expertise. To this end, Virtuos had provided engineers for projects including Detroit: Become Human, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and Batman: Return to Arkham.

“Working with a company like Virtuos provides our partners with the unique benefit of gaining access to a one-stop shop of diverse talent, Sherak explains.

“From my experience working for one of the developers under Virtuos, everyone had peace of mind knowing that we had one partner that could handle anything we threw at them. All the time we would normally spend managing different partners was used to make Virtuos feel like an extension of our team. It led to deeper connections between both teams.”

Distributed development also lets companies rely on a global network of studios — and with the option of reaching out to them through a single partner. As a result, companies need not engage a variety of smaller vendors. Here’s when Virtuos’ experienced account and co-development success managers can collaborate with in-house teams, easing the burden for developers on managing these different groups.

At the same time, development is assigned to different studios, located across Asia, North America, and Europe, based on the skills required for each project. For instance, companies can look to CounterPunch, a Virtuos studio in Los Angeles, United States, for additional support in facial and body modelling, rigging and look development, or to Virtuos Labs – Warsaw, which is based in Poland, for its best-in-class rendering and optimization technology. Developers can also rely on Virtuos Montreal in Canada, which specialises in visual development, high-end concept art and illustration, while Virtuos Labs – Lyon, in France, focuses on engineering and solving complex development issues with their proprietary game engines.

There’s also the sheer flexibility of working with an external developer like Virtuos. A studio may engage the company for a particular issue, but they can still turn to it if they encounter other obstacles at any stage of game development.

For all these reasons, 2K engaged Virtuos during its development of Marvel Midnight Suns, which was led by internal developer Firaxis.

“When we were talking about porting Marvel’s Midnight Suns to console, discussions around developing upcoming DLCs and then adding end-to-end support for cinematics came naturally,” says Eric Lacroix, key account manager at Virtuos.

Marvel's Midnight SunsWatch on YouTube

Ahead of Midnight Suns' launch, Virtuos brought in its teams in China and France to work on optimisation and bug fixing for the PS5, Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S versions. Virtuos Shanghai helped with the PlayStation 4,PlayStation 5 and Xbox One platforms, while Virtuos’ Dublin studio – Black Shamrock – assisted with development for the Xbox Series X and S. Meanwhile, its studios in Vietnam and Los Angeles – Sparx* and CounterPunch – collaborated with Firaxis to produce 39 minutes of cutscenes for the game’s story, and 69 minutes of cinematics for the DLCs.

Turning to a partner like Virtuos and its global network of studios meant that the game was being worked on across time zones. Development was taking place in Asia with Vietnam’s Sparx* and Virtuos’ Chengdu office in China, and in Europe with its French office – right before Los Angeles’ CounterPunch logged on at Pacific Time. No time is wasted, and more gets done in a day, with the teams working on development around the clock. And in a competitive games landscape where time is of the essence, this gave Firaxis the edge it needed to bring Midnight Suns across the finish line.

With games becoming more multi-faceted and complex these days, external and distributed development may just be the right solution for your game development woes. If you want to talk to Virtuos about your game development needs, email

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