On Using Outsourced Assets, “Cheating”, and the Proverbial ’80s Garage



As I’ve been trucking away on the first three zones of the rpg, I had up to recently been building pretty much everything myself – models, textures, scripts, music, all the little pieces of stuff that have to get done.  Mostly because I’m cheap and don’t have a lot of money, and enjoy the process of making stuff and getting it up and running, not because of any feigned moral superiority.  On a whim the other day I decided to open the Unity Asset Store and see what was up…I like window shopping just as much as the next person except I prefer to do it from the comfort of my heated basement in my pajamas drinking coffee.

Now it just so happens that I stumbled upon a great deal (yay sales!) for a pack of assorted clutter models and some nice city houses and walls.  Yes, I’m fully capable of making some low-poly middling to decent models, but for the sheer number and quality of assets verses the amount of man hours I’d have to dedicate to produce the same amount of stuff, the price was too ridiculously low to pass up.  With the idea that I’d re-texture and tweak some of the models back in Maya to fit the art style I already had going, I purchased it.

Later that day I was gushing to a game dev friend about my kick-ass purchase (if there was any doubt, yes, I’m female) when he remarked off hand that it was a good plan I was going to adjust the assets, else it could be viewed as ‘cheating’.  Now this gave me pause, not because I think I’m doing anything wrong, but rather because he’s totally right that there are other people out there who would, and would be quick to start pointing fingers and lofting pitchforks in defense of the original artist’s name.  (You know who you are, internet trolls).  Regardless of the fact that A) all these assets were purchased from the artist who got fat wads of money for his work, B) all third-party resources like this are getting credited, and C) a lot of the items are not being used directly as purchased without some adjustments. I would bet more fat wads of money that my anonymous game dev friend is totally correct that someone (or many someones) will still see this as breaking some sacred solo indie trust.[1]

Now this brings up an interesting point – where does it exactly state that an indie developer need to make everything themselves?  What’s “ok” to resource out and what’s seen as too far? I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m using a framework wrapper on Unity to do some of the heavy code lifting so I can concentrate on the smaller behavior scripts and design (I’m pretty sure I’ve linked to it, and in case I haven’t, here – go give him fat wads of money for his amazing product) and that’s never raised an eyebrow from anyone.  And yet at the first mention of purchasing art assets, immediate warning bells go off for some.

Is there some intrinsic value difference people are putting on code vs art?  Why is it ok to use someone else’s scripts, and yet, pay for a new house model and it’s time to start flinging the poser cards?  Is art supposedly that much easier to make than code, therefore everyone should be able to do it with just a little practice and sweat?  Is code that much loftier that *of course* people would need to resource that out?  Industry salaries would sure seem to suggest so, and yet I don’t think any game is going to sell purely on the merits of its memory management or its file I/O.

Games are a crazy balanced solution of code, math, storytelling, art, animation, sound, qa, production, and without all the pieces working in harmony the entire mixture falls apart into disparate layers and into, ….well…., crap.  Without code, your game won’t work.  Without math and design, it’ll be boring or unplayable.  No storytelling finesse?  Terrible, unrelatable characters, cookie-cutter environments, and a tired childish plot . Art and animation cut out of the loop?  Ugly, nasty visuals.  No sound design or music thought put into it?  Emotional investment will be hindered and everything feels fake and flat. No QA?  Enjoy your bug-ridden product.  All parts need to be present and working in harmony for any game to be good and be successful[2], and yet,  look at how employees in different departments are treated and the sometimes wild pay disparity that exists between them. Yeah, yeah, supply/demand arguments, and I don’t buy it.  At both large AAA and small mobile companies I’ve worked at, I’ve had the pleasure[3] of interviewing candidates for all different disciplines, from programming to concept art to production.  There is no shortage of applicants. In any field.  There IS a shortage of qualified, good, experienced, applicants IN ALL FIELDS. Seriously. Every field has its occasional shining rockstar resumé come through the door, as well as its fair share of ginormous piles of stinking crap that immediately get tossed in the garbage. It’s not like the world is overflowing with genius character animators while stumbling along under the heavy weight of a dearth of gameplay programmers.  Some of it’s location driven, some of it’s fair area pay, local housing costs, whatever – tons of biased reasons attribute to the pool of available applicants.

“But but but, programmers can get jobs anywhere doing anything and artists are screwed – there’s only so many places they can work! Therefore we can pay the artists shit and have to pay programmers more to attract the talent.” Really? I call bullshit.  ‘Cause your super-specialized graphics programmer is going to go quit his lucrative, interesting, and challenging job and work at a local branch bank and do tools and financial database programming?  Not very likely.  Can your concept artist get a job in another industry like broadcasting, graphic design, marketing, or in any other visual entertainment medium? You betcha.  People work in games because they love the industry, not because they’re making fat wads of money and enjoy working 80 hr weeks.  Can any of us go get a higher-paying job with fewer hours and a better work-life balance in another field? Yes.  Do we choose to? No.  Do some people eventually make the choice to leave? Yes.  Is it equal across all fields?  Again, yes. In areas that have a lot of positions and open opportunities you’ll see attrition levels soar across all fields.  In areas that are a bit more dormant, it’s a lot less – it has nothing to do with something that makes a programmer a programmer more flightly or artists more loyal.  People move where the money and opportunities lie and are more likely to move if they feel they aren’t being treated well or paid what they’re worth.

Somehow we, as an industry, have built this fallacy around the idea that some disciplines are just flat out more important than others in our team structure, outside of a normal executive-lead-worker-junior-associate hierarchy, even though the product will absolutely fail without ALL the pieces being in place. If a programmer tries to make a game on his own, the design and art will probably suffer . It may run great, but it may not even be a game or something worth looking at.  A designer working on their own might have something fun, but it’ll probably be fugly and run like crap.  The solo artist’s work might be gorgeous, but it could lack any interactivity whatsoever. Only when all the disciplines work together does the game actually come together as a game.

Back in the days of the solo developer working out of his garage/home office/parent’s basement, it was easier to get away with creating a good product by yourself, but times, tech, and expectations change.  Yes at one point it was totally possible to create a fun, successful game if you had a modicum of talent in all basic areas.  But think about what the framework was devs were working in – computers at the time were only a smidgen of a fraction of what they are now.  Screen resolutions were what, something like 320 x 200?  Mobile phones now have larger resolutions.  Think of filling up a 320×200 size box with ok art (only using 16 colors) verses doing the same now on 2048 x 1080 with millions of colors. Having the crazy small restrictions was actually beneficial – there was only so much art that could be displayed at a time, only so much ‘animation’ the computer could handle, all of it easier for any given person to pick up a decent amount of talent in and create single-handedly.  Now specialized artists need to use crazy sophisticated tools that take years to master, pushing around millions of polygons on screen (verses a handful of pixels that are individual painted), and learn completely new skillsets in working from 2D to 3D.  With an old school 2D sprite, if you can draw, you can animate by just making a decent atlas. Now to do that in 3D you not only need to be able to model and texture something, you also need to be be able to rig and skin the model and be good at keyframing and dope sheets and whatever else animation needs now.[4]  The same can be said of design and programming.  Back in the early days of video games, Pong was the pinnacle .   Now , if you presented a simple paddle-ball-hit-type game to current players, it wouldn’t go over nearly as well. Most gamers now expect more sophistication in their design than they did 5, 10 , or 20 years ago, and that requires more sophisticated, educated, experienced, and specialized designers.  Anyone can, with practice, create good and simple game mechanics.  Not everyone can design the next Civilization.

With the rise for the need for specialists in all fields, it’s becoming harder and harder for the one-man-generalist shop to create anything on his own.  You’ll of course have the occasional genius who can do it all himself, but that door is pretty much shut for the rest of us normal people.  Without a team representing all the disciplines, what’s an indie solo developer to do? Either find and pay for a team (that requires funding, good location, people skills, and usually some kind of working space) or go the route the AAA studios are also heading – contracting and resourcing out.

Currently working part-time as a consultant to multiple game and media companies, I can say with some amount of certainty, that yes, contracting is here to stay and is only going to become more popular as costs rise and tech improvements continue to outpace team sizes.[5] Games used to be built with 1 person, then 3, then 10, then 20, 40, 80, …now it’s not uncommon to find team sizes that are numbering in the hundreds. Many studios simply cannot afford to keep that many bodies staffed.  Where does it stop?  If you just need some extra  UI work and a couple of icons drawn, does it make sense to hire a person and fire them when the project ends, or rather just contract the work out to an independent artist when you need it?  Every game I’ve worked on has had something contracted out to an independent developer (some stateside, some abroad).  Every discipline was contracted out at some point – programming, design, sound, art, you name it, nothing was sacred, nothing was spared.  If work needed to be done and there wasn’t room in house, it got outsourced.

So where is the difference between a AAA studio contracting out extra bits of spare work (and paying for  these indie dev’s livelihoods) verses an indie dev contracting out another indie dev?  Why is there still this lofty ideal that an indie SHOULD work alone, when that becomes more and more the stuff of fantasy and ego-fueled dreams as technology capabilities and expectations continue to rise?

I have no problem admitting that I cannot animate anything in 3D, having tried and failed multiple times; this is a skill I do not and will never posses.  Rather than create substandard, nay, frankly terrible animations myself, I paid a skilled animator to make them for me, who will also receive acknowledged, written credit for his work. Same goes for that Unity framework.  Paid and credited.  Those aforementioned art assets that started this whole post – paid and credited.  And therein I think lies the crux of this argument and separates the legit from the illegal, the honest worker from the cheater – these two words “Paid and Credited”.

I have not, nor will never uphold or endorse the practice of using people’s work for free, stealing crap off the internet, or taking credit for other people’s time and effort as your own.  People who ask others to do work pro bono or for “the good exposure it’ll lead to” need to die in a fire.  No exceptions.  HOWEVER, I have no problem at all with people being honest with themselves and their abilities[6], and then finding others to help out with those areas they suck at, provided they are paid and credited for their work.

So after a long winded, circular argument that I’m not even sure went anywhere productive, yes, I am using code, art, and sound produced by others.  Yes, they have ALL been paid for their work, no exception.  Yes, they are ALL receiving written, public credit for what I used of theirs.  Will it all be modified or tweaked at some point by me?  Some of it. So far, that includes all the art and some of the code base.  The sound effects? Nope, so far they’re totally good as they are.  Does this make a difference to me? Not at all. Do I feel like I’m ‘cheating’ the system?  Nope.  I don’t see paying a contractor any different  from hiring a permanent teammate, except one is more financially possible for me at the moment.  Do I feel I have to change assets other people have charged me for and received payment for in order to not be seen as ‘cheating’. No, again, not at all.  I do so when I feel it benefits the game and makes it a better, more coherent product, not because I feel some insane to need ‘own’ everything by metaphorically pissing on it.

Perhaps you disagree with me, dear player, and are readying your pitchfork now. Perhaps you don’t care how your games are made, only that they are made.  Perhaps you harbor other feelings on the matter that I’m not going to take the time to enumerate in full here.[7]  In the end, your personal feelings are your own and will not persuade me from the direction I’ve taken with my work.  Setting your torch ablaze will not stop me from buying an awesome nature sfx package because I need some rushing river sounds.  Leveling it at my face will not deter me from continuing to outsource any animation work I need.  Ranting back at me in a comment will not make me uninstall my code framework. You know what you can do instead that will make a difference?  Put your money where your mindset is and don’t buy my game when it’s out.  If you don’t agree with me, don’t support me. Simple.  Go instead support studios and indies that do all the work in-house if that’s what you believe in.[8]  It’s your money, your time.  Support what you cherish.  I will continue to do the same, supporting other indie devs and contractors for their hard work and efforts with fat wads of money.

[1]Just to be clear, I’m not mad at this anonymous game dev friend.  He brought up a good point.
[2]Insert your own definition of successful.
[4]If it now isn’t painfully obvious, I know next to nothing about animation and suck at what I do know.
[5]I am not even going to attempt to go into the whole argument and injustice of work being shipped overseas and labor being outsourced to low paid workers in India and China at the cost of domestic studio jobs.  There is not enough room in this rant for that.  That deserves it’s own rant.
[6]Or lack thereof.
[7]My coffee is already cold and my lunch is joining it.
[8]Good luck.



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