We look at benefits and challenges for studios who operate as work-for-hire and why developers should consider this business path.
Making games is hard and full of risks. Look closely at any major blockbuster release, and chances are you’ll find that a game isn’t developed solely by one studio but other external partners.
Some developers like Hellblade creator Ninja Theory, Bayonetta dev PlatinumGames and Fall Guys studio Mediatonic have operated in a work-for-hire capacity – making games for other publishers – in order to fund their own projects, while this model is behind almost all games made by Sackboy and Crackdown 3 developer Sumo Digital.
While the label of work-for-hire or outsourcer may not sound as immediately attractive as an indie developer making their own dream game, co-development is a reality and a necessity in the games industry. We spoke to three different studios to find out how and why they opted for co-development, and the challenges the business model entails.
The obvious answer for why a developer would choose work-for-hire would be to make money to keep the lights on, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Furious Bee consists of creative director Ross Mansfield and technical director Lizi Atwood, who both previously worked at studios from EA and Activision before deciding to set up their own work-for-hire business.
“We know so many people that started a company, tried to make a game themselves, and then burned themselves out,” says Atwood. “So when we started, the goal was first and foremost to make a profit – we want to live on it, and we don't want it to collapse and die.”
While for many new businesses that can mean taking on any work available, as a smaller “boutique” company, their expertise – Mansfield’s art and Atwood’s programming – also means they can offer a more personable approach for their clients. In Atwood’s case, she impressed indie developer Sam Barlow with the mobile port for Her Story to the point he brought her on as the sole programmer for Telling Lies.
“People assume work-for-hire is just churning through projects, but we choose who we work with and what projects we work on, and that gives you a good work life balance,” adds Mansfield. “It just means you're always interested in the work, and you don't feel forced to do anything. When you work in a big company and they say, 'This is the next project', you have no choice in that whatsoever.”
Radical Forge started out as a small team that has grown to about 30 people since last year after releasing its original IP Bright Paw. But funding this and future projects means it also operates as a work-for-hire studio, supporting larger co-developers like Flix Interactive, which works on blockbuster titles like Sea of Thieves and Zombie Army 4.
“Obviously, everyone needs to earn a living but it’s also fun to work on other games,” says COO Tom Didymus. “While we are a full feature studio, we're not in a position to do a triple-A game yet. But for a smaller studio trying to attract talent, if you can say you're going to be able to work on this fantastic triple-A game, that has a lot more draw to people than just saying, “Come and work on our small indie game that no one's ever heard of’.”
By supporting a larger production, a co-developer can also learn a lot from that game, taking in what production processes work well and what can be improved upon, which can then be fed back into their own projects – and at considerably less cost and risk.
The lower risk of learning the ins and outs of game development on someone else’s dollar is a similar lesson taken on board by Ryan Wiancko, managing director of Iron Belly Studio. While he had founded the company originally with the goal of making his own games, he eventually made the decision to switch gears to wholly helping other developers realise theirs.
“I was certainly in that mindset of wanting to do my own thing, and had glory in my eyes as I had all of these amazing game ideas that I've been stewing in my brain since I was five years old,” he says, having tried to make games since the late ‘90s and even assembling a team of engineers to build a proprietary engine. “But as soon as you start doing all of these things, you realise that making games is a heck of a lot harder than anybody let on for so many reasons that nobody talks about.”
As developers moved onto third party engines like Unreal, he discovered that when he was sharing the studio’s work-in-progress through developer forums, the company received offers from other indie developers asking for help on their projects.
“As a starving team of people trying to build their dream and not have any money to get paid for doing it, we started taking on the odd job here and there,” Wiancko explains. “After about 12 months of this, I came to realise that other people’s ideas were much more creative than mine, but I was finding the same fulfilment of managing our team to help other people realise their dreams.”
While being paid to deliver other people’s projects can be much more financially stable, getting there isn’t without its own difficulties. Much like any other contractor or freelancer securing work depends on earning the trust and building relationships with clients.
“It probably took two years from going freelance, because you don't have any clients and you don't have any proof that you can deliver, and you haven't worked in that way before,” explains Mansfield. “Even though you have experience, you're still new to that market of employers. It took time to become established and start to have clients that came back to me, so I didn't have to constantly be looking for work.”
While that can be initially stressful, and some studios may just opt to take any work that comes along, Atwood also counters that triple-A, with its sudden layoffs or having to relocate sometimes to another country for a new role, is no less secure. On the other hand, she also warns of risks with working with inexperienced indie developers.
“They can be quite dangerous clients because they don't know what's involved,” she explains. “The typical thing that they will do is shoehorn design changes at the last minute when you're just expecting to be bug-fixing. If you've never made a game before and you're not very technically minded, you don't really understand what is involved in certain things that you're asking for, and what the potential repercussions of changing something fundamental late in the day is.”
As a once-aspiring indie who is now an outsourcer supporting indies and smaller triple-A developers, Iron Belly’s Wiancko explains that part of Iron Belly’s responsibility when working with less experienced clients is “saving them from themselves”.
“The ideas that some people come to us might be entrenched in game design from 2003 because that's when they grew up playing video games, and it's our job to kind of show them how game design and player expectations have evolved,” he says.
Indeed, while it’s easy to assume it’s just big brands like Sega or Disney hiring external developers to work on their IPs, there’s actually a thriving market for outsourcing in indie development.
“You have indies that don’t have the funds to hire five full-time 3D modellers but they need 10 characters made. It's only going to take four months, so they need to go out and bring in some ‘mercenaries’ who can come in, do the job and leave, where you’re not stuck with the benefits, office space and equipment for five people that don't have anything to do.”
As Iron Belly can also scale up or down depending on its projects, which Wiancko estimates is around 30 games per year, with four or five of them being long-term co-development partnerships, the studio also handles the talent and acquisition side of development on behalf of other studios.
“You might not have the option to hire anybody anyway because of your geographical location or you might not want to deal with all of the stuff that goes around hiring and firing people. You just want to have a single point of contact that you can go to and have a whole pipeline set up for you.”
Conversely, having too many staff is exactly a problem that work-for-hire can solve for Radical Forge, which sometimes loans its employees to a partner studio on an ad hoc basis.
“The thing with game development is that you don't need every single person, so even when we're working on our own projects, we might only need people there for the first six months, and then there’s a gap before we need them again towards the end,” Didymus explains.
“We want to retain that talent, we want to make sure people are employed and doing productive things. So if we can't move them on to another one of our own games, we can make them available to our partner studios and our clients.”
That fluctuation of demand is also why co-development is so essential to the industry. Didymus continues: “No one knows where the next hit is going to be. Look at Valheim – five people produced that, and it's blown up into this amazing game. I've no doubt that they will have more people on that project now, and where are you going to get a team of 15 or 20 developers to just put on a project that's unexpectedly become this massive thing?”
Mitigating pressures and risks
Working as a co-developer can also come with its own risks, whether your long-term client suddenly runs out of money or a project is suddenly cancelled, while there can also be a pressure to deliver work in a tight timescale that may result in crunch.
Atwood admits she probably spends more time working than she should. “Especially if it's a new client because you're really trying to impress them, to show them that they've made a good decision.”
For new studios, there can be a pressure to take on work under stressful conditions because you need the clients.“30 or 40% of the time, the client has already spent the last six months accomplishing half of what they thought they would and paying twice as much, and then come to us asking for us to do six months of work in three months with half their budget spent,” says Wiancko, although he clarifies staff are all paid for the extra hours they are working.
Fortunately, all the developers we spoke to are also careful to have the appropriate billing and contracts in place to ensure they’re not left out to dry if a project is suddenly cancelled.
“We charge more for our services than we pay ourselves,” says Atwood. “We try to keep a surplus so that we always have payroll for three months, and that gives you a pretty good buffer to find something else if you need.”
As a two-person studio, Mansfield also admits they have less pressure to secure work, while he regularly has work from his main client Hutch, designing the vehicles for their mobile driving games.
“It's not like we ever looked to expand, have employees and then have to find work for them to do. Once you've become established, you get more people coming to you, and just going to those events like Develop and reminding people you exist is all it takes.”
In indie development, Wiancko finds it quite common for the client to run out of money midway through a project or for other personal circumstances to put it on hold.
“We structure our billing in a way where we try to mitigate risk for both parties,” he says. “So a 50% deposit at the beginning of a sprint and then paying the 50% remainder ensures that Iron Belly isn't putting its neck on the line for an entire month without getting any payment and then the client isn't also putting their neck on the line and pre-paying for too much.”
Ultimately, it’s about having a mixture of small and large projects that help balance and offset risks, so that the studio isn’t reliant on just one source of income, or rather the smaller low-risk projects help fund the larger higher-risk developments that have larger payoffs.
While Didymus says that Radical Forge takes precautions to ensure its contracts come with the protections for the studio in the event a project comes to an abrupt end, it also takes care not to grow the team too big for any one project.
“If that project was to fall through, then aside from the protections we have on it from the contract side, because we take great pains to retaining our team, we would then be supporting those people for potentially a number of months until we're able to find more work for them.”
Nonetheless, game development is an agile process where projects change and people have to constantly adapt.
“You might get six months in and realise that they actually don't need as many designers, but more artists,” he continues. “So you have to respond to those changes, and you have to accept that sometimes a client will say they need less of your staff now. You have to make sure you're charging enough so that you can cope with those bumps in the road when they come, and so that you can be really understanding with your client to see what other projects you can put them on.”
As Radical Forge is also working on its own IP, it may also come to a time when they need more resources to realise their vision and work-for-hire goes the other way.
“If we have a game that needs help from external partners, the first people we'll go to is the people we know that we like working with already, so we're always happy to give something back. Collaborating is in our DNA – that's what we like to do, and that's how we like to work.”