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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 23:36 GMT 00:36 UK
Game makers reach out to the world
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Like many companies, the people who design and make computer games are outsourcing some of their work to foreign workers.

Screenshot from Black9
Taldren is working on a game set in 2080 called Black9
But the game companies are looking for more than just savings when they outsource. They are looking for fresh programming ideas as well.

For years, common wisdom among big game developers held that outsourcing work to foreign countries was a no-no.

It is a notion that is as old as American game pioneer Atari itself.

"In the late 70s, early 80s, they wanted to reduce cost of development, like every other industry, and Atari tried to outsource video game development to the UK," said Jason Robar, a veteran consultant to the gaming industry.

But Atari was not impressed when it first started outsourcing its work to British developers.

"They didn't understand how to produce games, they didn't understand how to program, or the art wasn't good," said Mr Robar.

"Almost the same exact description of the problems that I would hear from a modern game developer or publisher when talking about outsourcing to the third world, almost word for word."

Go east

Not everyone has been so sceptical about outsourcing computer game development over the years.

Mark Vange was born in Riga, Latvia and lived for many years in Toronto. He started in the video game business in 1989 and two years later, headed to Russia, looking to start a business.

"I actually have family in St Petersburg, and I speak Russian fluently," he said.

By being able to outsource, the savings range from anywhere from 50% to 75%, depending on the team
Daniel Bernstein, Sandlot
"So, when perestroika happened and Gorbachev was opening up the Soviet Union, I went there with the intent of doing something.

"I settled on the business that I knew, and started operations there."

Mr Vange had language skills and connections in Russia that allowed him to tap into a crop of fine computer programmers and design artists.

But, he admits that it took him a while to create what he calls the "right cultural environment" to develop computer games.

"Early on I remember moments like sending them a description for a character in a game, and making reference to Batman, which by the time it got translated into Russian and came back, the question was essentially - who is this flying mouse person? So, those kinds of things had to be overcome."

Mr Vange started by outsourcing some of the graphic artwork to Russia, followed by bits of game programming.

Now, depending on the project, he will entrust the development of entire games to colleagues in St. Petersburg such as Alexander Yefimov.

"We're making aviation simulators, race simulators, and submarine simulators, and all the stuff of such kind," explained Mr Yefimov.

"Complex 3D games where we focus mostly on action, then picture, then text and story."

Fresh blood

Russia's not the only growing hotspot for game outsourcing in Eastern Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine are also popular.

A small US-based developer called Sandlot Games uses Poles and Russians to keep costs low.

Artwork from Tomb Raider game
Franchises like Tomb Raider have spawned numerous sequels
"By being able to outsource, the savings range from anywhere from 50% to 75%, depending on the team," said Sandlot's Daniel Bernstein.

"At the same time, I'm able to reinvest some of that money back into the art. And what that does is make Sandlot games a very competitive company."

It is not just cost that is luring small game developers overseas. They are also looking for new ideas.

"In the game industry, you see the same kind of "sequelitis" that you see in the movies," said Erik Bethke, who runs a California-based company called Taldren.

He said that game developers here are over-thinking, and over-producing, their games, and that this has hampered their creativity.

He went to South Korea, and found that game developers in Seoul were faster, cheaper, and more out of control.

They were not afraid to take risks on game ideas that to North American developers might seem flaky.

Sandwich race

There was one South Korean game that Mr Bethke could not stop thinking about.

"You were a guy behind a counter trying to rush through different sandwiches at a local greasy spoon shop," he said.

"And they did such a good job at it, that I couldn't help myself but start to smile, and then itch with my fingers and wanted to play the game.

"I couldn't believe I wanted to play this game where you make sandwiches."

Mr Bethke wanted a piece of that fun and set up an office in Seoul.

He is hoping that he is helping to expand the market for computer games in other parts of Asia, especially Japan and China.

New jobs for old

It has already turned into a chicken-and-egg phenomenon.

Screenshot from Starfleet Command
Starfleet Command was also developed by Taldren
Consultant Jason Robar said that anywhere you have outsourcing, you have the potential to expand your market for games.

"I'm starting to hear that Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Chile and Brazil are probably going to grow as well," he said.

There are no hard figures on the numbers of American game developers who have lost their jobs because of outsourcing.

Many are being forced to be nimble. Those who can are moving as quickly as possible into more senior, managerial positions.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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