The demand for game development has increased significantly over the last decade thanks to the expansion of mobile technology. Smart devices, the massive size of the market, and the ease of development using low-code technology is increasing the pace at which games are made and marketed. The need for rapid development and deployment is leading to new partnerships with global art-sourcing firms.

By leveraging resource-pools based both domestically and offshore — outsourcing — these firms are able to produce design 24 hours per day, which is changing the way the industry approaches the art design and programming process. The shift toward a new asset acquisition model and its influence on the domestic labor market for designers, the evolution is enabling the game development community to deliver higher quality finished projects with greater economic efficiency and consumer satisfaction.

Transitioning to mobile

According to Newzoo, a leader in market research for the gaming industry, mobile gaming on smartphone and tablets was the largest segment in 2017, accounting for 42 percent of the total global market. This is anticipated to increase to 45 percent in 2018, and 50 percent by 2020. As of 2017, total market value was $108 billion, with forecasted growth to $128 billion over the next two years. New market entrants are drawn by the reduced barriers to entry afforded by the mobile gaming industry. Freedom from the restrictions of console-dependent coding fosters demand by eliminating the need for expensive equipment intended only for gaming. Anyone with a recent model smartphone has immediate access to high polygon-count gaming for little to no cost.

Evolving monetization strategies and the lower price points of mobile applications are further driving the explosive growth of the mobile market. An additional factor in the expansion of production and demand for creative assets is the availability of low-code development solutions and preexisting programming frameworks.

Expedient developers, often adept marketers and entrepreneurs, are pioneering “art-sourcing” through external partners to generate creative assets that can be employed with proven existing code. This enables game developers to deliver completed products on shorter time-scales, without the need to concentrate on developing new infrastructure for each application. The trend toward advertising and subscription-based revenue models has put additional downward pressure on pricing as consumers increasingly prefer low-cost, minimal-commitment titles.

New collaborative models lead to outsourcing

The growth of the global gaming market and need for efficiency in the development process changed the way games were routinely made. In prior decades, all creative staff were kept in-house. Even when geographically separated offices worked together, all the employees served the same organization. This was the norm until mobile was introduced, demand started to grow, traditional jobs diminished, and the supply of talent increased. Driven by increasing demand and price pressure from the expanding competition, and enabled by digital communications, entertainment and gaming industry executives sought alternative production models and labor sources.

Many traditional development jobs were phased-out as gaming firms became global and began to look for lower cost development solutions utilizing contracted talent. Outsourcing as a mainstay creative solution was taking shape concurrently with the emergence of smart mobile technology in the early 2000s. “In 2001, outsourcing companies were so small they were difficult to measure, but by 2006, 40 percent of game studios were using outsourcing companies. By 2008, another study found that 86 percent of major studios polled were using external developers,” said Alissa McAloon of Gamasutra, a trade and career site for game developers.

Major studios are turning to external development providers due to the cost savings and immediate scalability for short-term, short notice, and cost sensitive projects. It helps to bridge the gaps in labor and time when firms are understaffed and approaching deadline. Employers not accustomed to hiring freelance and offshore development specialists are often wary of potential quality and cross-cultural communications issues; however, publishers that have explored the model are finding it to encourage creativity and support productivity.

Diminishing opportunity for domestic designers

Evidence for the outsourcing trend is also apparent in the diminishing employment opportunities for creative talent. Job listing statistics from Indeed have shown a 65 percent drop from 2014 to 2017. During the same period, prospects searching for game development jobs increased by 50 percent. Game industry employers are increasingly relying on outsourced labor that offers reduced costs and management responsibility. The outsourcing model is also attractive to studios due to its scalability. During capacity production periods, new team members, of any specialty, can be added as need to supplement the project. As outsourcing teams are spread across geographic regions and times zones, they are finding ways to improve efficiency by coordinating schedules to keep production going on a 24-hour basis.

The advantages in cost reduction, project streamlining, and the digital collaboration environment encourage smart startups and established firms to seek outside labor. Lauren Weber, in an April, 2017 Wall Street Journal article noted that “the video game business looks a lot like the workplace of the future. A lean core of in-house employees focuses on the most important jobs, with the rest hired out to layers of contractors and subcontractors. Outside workers come and go based on project cycles.” While this trend has restricted opportunity for domestic designers, it also created new potential for digital artists to freelance and work independently.

Long-term industry benefit

The development of mobile technologies, increasing demand for entertainment products, the rise of digital collaboration, and the availability of talented and economical outsourcers are changing the way gaming industry firms approach the creative development process. While the market has expanded dramatically in total value, jobs for game development talent have diminished significantly. Development studios are struggling to meet demand as consumers expect shorter release periods and lower price points, forcing design professionals to adapt to an evolving market.

Michael Casalino is the CEO and co-founder of 5518 Studios. which creates innovative digital artwork for entertainment and game development firms.