Andrew Brown of Universally Speaking on the gaming industry’s changes

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It’s no secret that games are no longer the work of a single developer and publisher. Outsourcing has become common practice in the industry, especially as games have grown more complex and difficult to make.

GamesBeat recently spoke with Andrew Brown on how the changes of the last several years — including the role outsourcing now plays for major studios. Brown was recently appointed the CEO of Universally Speaking, which provides the QA and localization services to game developers. He was previously the CMO of Keyword Studios. Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: How is everything going at Universally Speaking?

Andrew Brown: It’s going incredibly well. We’re very fortunate to be in an incredibly dynamic industry. More consumers are coming in every year and consuming more games. That’s one growth trajectory. Below that you have this increase in cost of development, because games are getting more complex and fidelity is improving and technology is helping. The cost of development is going up almost exponentially for developers. And then within that, there is service provision required. Some of that is in-house and some of that is outsourced. The ramp-up of outsourcing is growing faster than the first two numbers. It’s an incredibly fast-growing environment, and so clients have ever more work they need done. That’s a wonderful place to be.

Universally Speaking, we’ve been around for 18 years. It’s not a new company. They’ve carved out a niche, if you like, a specialty on which they’re building, and being particularly strong in the UK–that brings an advantage, I think, for Universally Speaking, because it’s near-shore or onshore depending on how you look at it. The UK has a very good population of gaming folks, I guess, that have lots of experience. We develop a lot of games in this country. There are people who’ve always liked games. The consumption is high. It means we have a great talent pool, in effect.

GB: You said that outsourcing is becoming much more common in the game industry. Or it has been, because of this massive amount of growth. What do you think are the pros and cons of outsourcing in the games industry?

Brown: As I mentioned, there’s about $18 billion being spent on internal or external services. It’s a massive amount of money that’s being spent on development, basically, and then all the other elements of taking the game to market. It’s very difficult, even if you are a very big developer or publisher, to have all the technology, all the solutions in-house, and keep up with that journey. Again, new things happen all the time. If it’s all on your own staff, that makes it hard to stay at the leading edge. The outsourcing provides you with access to those leading edge solution sets, and you can lean on those guys, those companies to give you the next thing.

The next part to that is that you know — when you’re making games you have periods where the workload goes up very significantly, and then at other times that workload will reduce. If you have a partner that’s able to be agile and flexible on your behalf, that can scale up and down for you, that’s super helpful. If you trust them and know them, if you have continuity in the layers of management within the provider’s organization, it then becomes a bit like an extension of your workforce. You trust them. You have a good relationship. You’ve had great successes together. Then part of that model that allows you to flex up or flex down. As the outsourcing partner, because you’re working with multiple game developers and publishers, you’re able to move that resource around. That gives you a stability and a flexibility that still works for your folks as well. It’s a great partnership model for dealing with the way the games industry works and flows up and flows down naturally as a result of the way games are and how they’re doing.

GB: I’m curious about this, because a lot of people who have a mild or passing familiarity with the games industry, they tend to see games as being the work of one publisher, when by and large that’s not precisely true. Even just speaking about, no pun intended, Universally Speaking, what is the breadth of services provided by these end-to-end companies?

Brown: It can start from the concept stage. It might be that you’re trying to figure out how to bring that concept more to life, before you embark on any kind of development. At that stage, developers will work with partners to help them think that through. You then have to bring that to life with art, so that’s a big chunk of the outsourcing world, art development. You then go into the first phases of development. It might be creating a vertical slice of the game so that you can see it all the way through, or it’s just building up the early stage wireframes of that game. And by the way, on this journey, you might want to do some testing of what potential consumers think of it. Hands-on playtesting stuff. Then you go into the full development phase and produce, effectively, a game in your native language. But then you need to localize that so that it will work across all different markets. You have to test the quality of that localization. You also need to do all the bug testing to make sure it doesn’t break on you. All that testing has to be done. And then after the game is ready, it’s ready to go to market, and then you might go to a partner for marketing services, to help you build out the plan to engage consumers and book media across all the digital channels.

When it’s out in the marketplace, then, consumers need help. It might be that they can’t figure something out, or they don’t know how to pay for something, or they just want some help. The game needs to be moderated to make sure it’s consistent with the audience, so it’s safe and players are playing well together. That’s all player support. Then you go back round that cycle. We have constant updates now with games being live and games as a service, as it’s called. In essence, you have to continue to update. We’ve gone from that original model I was in, which was a packaged goods business. Make it, ship it, and then wait until next year to produce the next one. We had a disconnected audience, where we would send out expansions or updates. Then we moved into the microtransaction model, and that’s turned into this ongoing service model. That original model still exists, by the way, but you have a huge amount of live service games. They need to go through this whole cycle from concept to live services, and then you iterate with the updates. All of that entire cycle has got some level of service provision from external partners.

At the moment, at Universally Speaking, we’re focused largely on the post-production world. We mainly get involved with testing and localization. We do compliance work to make sure it’s fit for the platforms. We also do things like playtesting, for example, where we’ll put a bunch of people on a game to make sure it’s optimized, it works, and maybe then suggest ways it can be better for different markets. If you’re making a game in one market and then you want to ship it all the way around the world, different markets behave slightly differently in front of a game. We have, obviously, plans to expand. It’s been something that makes sense, to expand the individual service outward, but whole other services are really being asked for the whole time. We’ve done some work very successfully in player support, but there seems to be a high demand for more of that. That needs to be thought about and scaled. Even just our core business, the demand for that continues to ramp up, all in line with this trajectory in the industry. We’re largely that post-production through to live services part. Our heritage is post-production.

GB: When you talk about the trajectory of the industry, what do you think is the driving factor behind that trajectory?

Brown: There’s a few things here. You have the console cycle, which–there’s not been even enough hardware to satisfy all that demand, as we’ve seen. There’s a huge pent-up demand for more hardware, for consoles in the living room or in whatever part of the home it is for everyone to play on that platform. You then have this enormous explosive growth that we’ve seen in mobile. When I started in 2005, the iPhone didn’t exist. I think I used to play Brick Breaker on, what was it called? The Blackberry! And now we have more revenue as an industry coming off the mobile platforms than any other platform. That’s because the games have improved so dramatically, the quality of the games. The resources and the talent that’s been applied to building great experiences on mobile. But you also have this continual growth and penetration of mobile. That’s a very low barrier to entry for people to get into gaming. They already have the phone, and therefore playing the game is not another cost to them from a hardware standpoint.

Then the other thing that’s happened from a hardware point of view is that the quality of hardware keeps improving. You see a trickle-down effect of improved hardware. Some people can afford the best phone ever, and then other consumers can’t afford that, but then a year later the thing that was the new amazing thing a year becomes more affordable. That moves down the consumer base. People are getting better hardware to play games and have a better experience. The quality of the games keeps improving, because more resources and more talent is being applied to developing those games. It’s the same in console. There’s this pent-up demand for hardware because people want the traditional gaming experience. The games they’re getting, again, are improving. The amount of development cost is going up to give you a much higher-quality experience every year, and then those games are getting extended to be live.

Then we’ve seen, with certain games breaking the mold and showing the way with cross-platform play–while I can play on my mobile phone, somebody else can play at the same time on PC, and somebody else is also playing at the same time in the same game on console. That joins all those dots for hardware. You create moments in the day where you’re able to play for whatever period of time you have available, where previously you couldn’t. Gaming was constrained to the console in the living room or the bedroom or wherever. Now I can play the same game at the same time when I’m on my lunch break, or I have a bit of down time in the afternoon. There are more opportunities to play. All of it adds up to this enormous, explosive, and continued growth.

GB: Do you think mobile is the big change in the industry that you’ve seen in the time you’ve been in the industry, or do you think it’s something else?

Brown: It’s one of the bigger changes. But it’s not the only thing. Again, consoles have continued to get better and better, and the gaming experiences on them have gotten better and better. Higher fidelity, more things to do, more fun to be had on that. That’s been a big driver. The connectivity of gamers, this whole social experience, that’s been another big driver. The ability to talk to people around the world, form plans, have social experiences, that’s been another huge consequence of the connected world we live in, and another reason why people are spending more time gaming. Then you have things like user-generated content, where you’re able to add to the game yourself as a consumer, and potentially monetize that. There are other dimensions to this whole world we’re in, which have evolved along with technology and the creative genius of the game industry. All of that has come together. So yes, mobile is one of the clear drivers, but it’s a function of all those things added together, I think.

GB: You did mention that a lot of game companies in the development cycle can benefit from partners who are flexible. Can you explain what the typical game development cycle is and where a company like Universally Speaking fits into it?

Brown: Some developers will want to keep all or as much of the development as they can in-house, on the team, and build that core experience out and manage that under one roof. That’s the development side. And they’ll equally want to keep some staff, or a lot of staff, doing all the post-production side and through to the live services. The majority, though, have recognized the need to have that partnership to flex up and flex down at more challenging times. A lot of the majority have realized that it’s probably not adding value to own tasks like localization, for example, in-house. You’ll never have the scale that the partner would have. The efficiency of using somebody that does this at scale is better anyway. You don’t have the management of that team to worry about. It would be a distraction, quite frankly, from doubling down on your core mission of creating the IP. Having a partner that can do that for you means it’s one less thing to worry about, and it’s more efficient.

But throughout that life cycle there are–pretty much all of the businesses have an element of partnership in there. In fact I would imagine all of them have some partnership somewhere. That’s been a trend, the recognition that the secret sauce of building the IP is really where you should put your effort and time. As you build trusting partnerships and you feel secure in how that game is being managed outside of your premises – technology also helps with that, by the way, for security, and this longer-term knowledge of the people you work with – all of that has led to this outflow across that cycle. And again, at the moment we’re doing the post-production side. That’s our area of expertise. But our partners will use outsourcing for development in a number of different ways.

First of all, in a big publisher, a very big publisher with multiple studios, they’ll probably use more than one studio to make the same game. They have that kind of internal outsourcing partnership model, if you like. They have the studio working as the lead, but they might use another one or two or more studios to help them with level development or different platforms. The majority will then potentially look for partners for things like porting. It might be the PlayStation 5 game is out. You realize it’s a great game, a big hit, and your fans are looking for a version on PlayStation 4. That’s a distraction if you’re building your game out continually on the current platform, so you might find a partner to go and do the port for you to a platform that’s not your core platform. Some companies will actually outsource the entirety of development. They own the IP and they’ll say, “This is the game I want built,” and they’ll find the right studio to build it for them. All of those things are happening across the marketplace right now. We’re specialists in the post-production side, not the development side, but there’s still a huge amount for us to do in the bit we’re a part of.

GB: You mentioned that outsourcing providers are exposed to a number of different games. How do they balance that, having to work on a huge spectrum of different kinds of games. You might be called upon to work on games at every different point along that spectrum. How do you balance that and maintain quality across so many different kinds of games?

Brown: Basically it’s about hiring and retaining the right talent, bringing people into the organization. As each part of that mix of things is evolving you’re bringing in talent that understands that. And then you retain them and build the team around them. We’re very lucky to work on pretty much everything. We work on all types of games. We specialize–well, we provide everything, specialize in everything, but we certainly have a fabulous VR team, for example, that are renowned for their skills. When VR came in we saw that was emerging, so we went out and hired some talent and built that team out. Step by step, people recognize what you do and they bring that to you. As that journey in VR has continued, there’s more talent available. People have played and worked on different games, so you’re able to put those together and you grow up that expertise. I picked VR, but it could be anything. That’s how it’s done, really.

As the demand arrives, you go see the clients that are working on that new game at an early stage. You’re anticipating where their journey will take them and what they’ll need. Then you start building the right model to provide that service. Again, it’s across multiple clients. You’re able to build something which is going to work pretty much for everybody. As that demand goes up you scale up. And largely we just keep growing. That’s the industry as well. We just keep adding people the whole time. Where, again, the game developers and publishers may need to flex down a bit, we’ve always got another game, another whole load of games that are coming. In effect we just keep adding to that pool of talent.

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz