Outsourcing has long been a favored strategy of games companies seeking to save money, most often in areas like testing. But the newest growth area is in farming out the creation of art assets.
An article in the The New Yorker today investigates how games companies are making use of outside agencies, often in South East Asia, to create in-game art assets. It also looks at how outsourcing companies often require long hours and low wages from employees, with precious few benefits and little in the way of job security.
Streamline in Malaysia employed 20 artists working full-time for thirteen months to work on BioShock Infinite, widely regarded as one of the best-looking games of the past year. "75 percent of the manpower required to produce these games is visual," said CEO and co-founder Alexander Fernandez. "So outsourcing art is always the first thing you're going to look at."
He said that many of the company's artists are recently immigrated to Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, from agricultural regions, sending money back to their families. He added that the company has "the spirit of a start-up with people who want to aspire to something beyond just laboring in fields."
Glass Egg Digital Media in Vietnam has provided art for the likes of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Forza Motorsport 4, and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. CEO Phil Tran said that the company serves to educate and train its staff.
A 2008 survey found that 86 percent of game studios made some use of outsourced companies, and it's a trend that's likely to increase. The article's author Michael Thomsen recalled his own experience working for a parsimonious testing agency in the United States. "It was a quietly brutal time in my life," he wrote. "Even with our small paychecks, we were seen as too expensive. If the company could have gotten our work done more cheaply, it would have."