Gaming is breaking past limits all over, not just in China. Currently, most outsourcing/offshoring game jobs go to Russia, Eastern Europe, India, Israel and Vietnam. But as Outsourcing.org and Games Outsourcer prove, wannabes are popping up anywhere they can scrounge copies of Maya3D and Teach Yourself C++ in 21 Days: Thailand, the Philippines, Egypt and more. The widespread popularity of Korean MMOGs has spawned many new companies across Southeast Asia; some of them start as Korean games licensees, such as Indonesia's Lyto and Boleh.
Right now, these offshore studios are writing music and making low-poly objects. Will they be happy doing that forever?
An excellent September 2005 Hollywood Reporter article by Paul Hyman quotes Dustin Clingman, professor of game design and development at the Full Sail school: "What I'm most concerned about is what I call the 'ambition gap' ... the people who we outsource to - in India and China and such - they're not going to stop at just doing menial tasks. As we ship them more and more to do, they're training themselves to take over the more important game development jobs. We're just laying the groundwork for our competition."
How Big Can It Get?
Offshoring has many pitfalls. Annoyances include currency fluctuations, language barriers and gaps in intellectual property laws. Logistics can be expensive, given time zone differences and the need for time-consuming supervisory visits overseas. (One startup, SeaCode, plans to overcome logistical obstacles by refitting a retired cruise ship as a "sweat-ship" of coders anchored in international waters off Los Angeles. A hundred Indian and Eastern European programmers would work long shifts, seven days a week, for $1,800 a month. SeaCode, which hopes to drop anchor later this year, pitches this as "keeping jobs in the US.")
And offshoring won't necessarily help you meet a schedule. THQ's much-delayed S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Over Chernobyl, being made entirely by GSC Game World in Kiev, was originally announced in November 2001 and is now scheduled for Q1 2007. (Offshored Ukrainian programmers also created 2003's notorious Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, one of the worst-reviewed computer games in history.)
The greatest perceived danger in offshoring is quality control, owing to cultural differences. Many take as an article of faith that "you can't outsource creativity." Overseas game creators, they argue, just won't ever, ever be as good as our great native sons in the English-speaking world. And Japan, of course. And, oh yeah, Korea, if you play Lineage. Well, also Croatia, assuming you like Serious Sam, and Poland if you like Painkiller. But the rest of the world, forget it!
Intellectual property lawyer Ross Dannenberg, partner at law firm Banner & Witcoff, said in a May 2005 interview with IT Business Edge, "[T]he video game industry has built-in defenses against outsourcing: creativity and nationalism. ... What one culture finds humorous or entertaining, another culture might find lackluster, dull, or even worse, offensive. Thus, it is difficult to outsource creative aspects of video game development."
What do these commentators overlook? Offshore companies can hire Western designers to visit and teach them design. In 2005, Ubisoft Shanghai offered American developers US$12,000 signing bonuses. From September 2004 until this month, the studio's team of 27 to 30 Chinese designers was managed by American Erick Wujcik, and he aggressively recruited North American designers. Tutored by experienced Western professionals, how long will it take Chinese developers to learn what Westerners find fun? Ten years? Five?