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Introduction

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Most developers are a small studio, or even teams of one, and lack the resource in house to meet all the needs of running a business as a commercial game developer. This lack of complete in-house capacity is however not unique to the indie. AAA studios, even the largest currently in existence still make heavy use of contractors and outsourcing of key aspects to meet the huge demands of developing and operating a game.
Staffing up is not the only option and not always the best choice for your studio and project. Keeping your studio focused and agile means keeping your headcount down and avoiding the staff up and layoff cycle popular in prior generations. The moral question of staffing up for subsequent layoff is another area that doesn't sit well with many, not to mention the "Gold Crutch" that practice typically causes.

The Solution

For any business there are two options:
  1. 1.
    Staff up This should be self explanatory, you employee staff on a salary to do work as part of your organization.
  2. 2.
    Partners / Outsourcing This is the selection of another company that you contract to deliver on some body of work. The can be as small as a bit of consultation and guidance or as significant as full professional service outsourcing ... effectively contracting another company to be your Marketing department, Art department or whatever need you may have.
Technically 3 options Freelancer / Private Contract / Temporary Labour
In our opinion this is not viable at indie scale, professional level private contractors are private because they can demand a serious premium and effectively choose where and when they work ... e.g. out of the typical indie budget but used by some establish companies and studios for very specific needs. Budget options in private contracting are high risk, require significant management and generally are not suitable for smaller studios that really need the experienced source to uplift them, not a budget resource to gap-fill.

Staffing

The specifics of employment will very by region. Make sure you understand the legal aspects of entering into an employment contract as the employer or employee.
Understand that as much as pop-culture likes to joke about it, managing people is a hard skill to learn. Being a manager requires considerable investment, study and effort to be done well. Like any other skilled profession its simply not for everyone and it may be something you need to staff for. ... Yes, we are suggesting you consider hiring a manager to hire and manage your team and yourself.

Partners

Finding, selecting and managing partners can be a challenge in and of its self. Depending on your strategy and budget you may need to engage and orchestrate a number of partners to meet your goals. Heathen can be contracted to provide Managed Services. This means we can help you research, select and manage professional partnerships. As with any partner, engagement, discovery, and strategy are the first steps. Before you jump in though, look for a partner who is willing to work with you throughout your journey. This is very important. Shop around and don't be afraid to say "no thanks"

Considerations

When you decide to source some aspect of your company or project's tasks, you need to be clear as to what the scope of each "partner" will be. The following are some high level topics to keep in mind when defining your "ask". What do you mean by "ask"? This is just a term that defines what your "asking" the partner to do. Your scope, terms, conditions, budget, timelines and anything else that is important for the relationship to succeed.

Scope

This one should be obvious, but you need to define the bounds of what you need each partner to do. Are you looking to fully outsource all marketing efforts, maybe you have the manpower but lack the expertise so you only need the management or consultation, perhaps you're a marketing genius and are looking for manpower. You need to think about this for each relationship you plan to establish and define the scope in no uncertain terms, what will be in house, what do you need the partner to do and what will be the interface between you and them.

Goals

What objective are you looking for and expect this partner to help you obtain? A good partner will dig into this during "Discovery" but you should have a good understanding of your expectations going into that first contact. Not sure what your goals should be? good, you're honest, so your first goal is to understand what's possible. You can obtain that goal through self learning or consultation or a mix of the two. Knowledge bases like this one and communities like ours can help you get started with self research, and of course Heathen is a skilled and experienced consultancy
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Budget

This topic needs its own article, for now simply understand what your budget is and be serious about it. If you want to create a commercially viable game, built by professionals, then you're going to have to pay professional fees.

What to expect

Understanding what you need from each partnership you engage in, is of course key and something that should be part of the initial engagement with any professional partner. It's often called the "Discovery Phase" or similar.

Discovery

This is just that initial meeting and the result of filling out any of those "contact us forms" for any given consultant. The first contact who you're likely to be chatting with is a salesman first and foremost, so keep that in mind. Firms that deal with partnerships like this want your business, so they are likely to say "yes" a lot even though they probably don't fully understand the question or have the skills to deliver on it if they did.
During this initial meeting you should be leading the conversation. Your objective is to "vet" the prospective partner, that means getting a feel for whether or not this company can even meet your needs. Next, you need to understand if this partner can meet your budget and timeline, they will be resistant to answering this line of questioning understandably since they cant really "quote" work they haven't designed, let them know you're looking for an understanding on the "order of magnitude" this will cost you in both time and money to make sure it suits your budget and project.

Strategy

This is the first bit of real work, note that most partners will charge you for this, understandably as its actually a lot of work to do well.

Professional Service Management

Much like thinking about how you're going to select and manage staff, you need to think about how you're going to select and manage partners. "Professional Services Management" is the term we usually see for this function and refers to the coordination and management of organizations, teams and individuals involved in an effort to keep them on task, time, budget and delivering to standard.
You can of course staff one or more resources to fill this need. These sorts of roles are often called "director" or similar and simply help spread the burden across multiple internal people. Its also possible to outsource some or all of this and you have a few options with that.

Managed Services

In our biased opinion this is the best method for most indies. This is our recommendation but of course its also a service we provide so we are biased.
Sometimes called a "Network" or "Publishing Services", its a single company you partner with who will handle all other aspects you require as a single "managed service" hence the term we use. As noted, Heathen provides this service under its Hel House brand. We (and others like us) can engage with you to help you devise a sourcing strategy and to execute on it. That includes all aspects including researching viable options, advising on selection, management of the selected partners, handling of invoicing, dispute management and all other agreed upon functions.
Managed Services differs from traditional Video Game Publisher services in that managed services are just like any other contracted work. An engagement is requested, a solution proposed and agreed, invoices issued and work delivered. Funding is not part of the service, stake is not taken in your company and revenue share need not be involved.

Typical Publisher

Publishers can be as dangerous as they can be helpful. Unfavourable contract terms have lead to the death of many a studio. In the same respect this critical failure of traditional publishers is well known and many modern publishers are at least theoretically less problematic. Our advice is to simply be very carful with who and how you split revenue or stake and make sure you have a plan for failure.
This is what a "publisher" used to be for smaller development studios, though that role has changed a lot. Traditionally a publisher was a larger company with greater reach, bigger budgets and more contacts. A good publisher could act as your point of management helping you outsource aspects of development especially common needs like marketing, localization, testing, etc. typically for a stake in your company.
In the modern landscape publishers are more frequently a financial instrument, and don't get overly involved in the operations side of your business. Publishers that are interested in working with indies don't typically take a stake in your company but will take a revenue split. Indie Publishers often have a network of studios so can help you create connections but aren't likely to be actively involved.