games industry recruiting

No, no, no: Contractors are NOT your salvation

Anyone saying “redundancies are inevitable for games industry companies” should never be allowed to run a studio. Ditto for the raving loons who think everyone should be hired as contractors instead.

I was pointed at this by Nicholas Lovell’s wholehearted supporting tweet, reminding me that Nicholas is a finance guy, not a game developer:

“If you’re a work-for-hire/self-funded studio working for little profit who employs 100% of your staff on a permanent basis then expect redundancies at the end of every project and or the business completely failing.”

No. If you’re in that situation *you don’t deserve to be in business*. Contractors are no solution here at all: your “solution” is to *raise income*. Making games is not a box-shifting industry, it’s a creative industry. The ONLY way this works is to charge high prices, because you can never directly control creative-cost.

This has absolutely NOTHING to do with “Cyclical business” and “Core teams” and “Contractor flexibility” – those are the terms of idiots who think it’s reasonable to run a business as if it were a hobby, always on the brink of bankruptcy. You’ll go the way of Woolworths et al – and you damn well deserve it.

A healthy, profitable, creative business not only ALWAYS runs at less than 100% staff efficiency, it positively THRIVES on it. The open secret of successful creative industries is that you pay someone’s salary just to get them in the door and to keep them content … so you can reap the rewards by being the one to exploit the new IP that – randomly, spontaneously – flows out of them.

13 replies on “No, no, no: Contractors are NOT your salvation”

Hi, thanks for reading my post.

“Making games is not a box-shifting industry”
Yes it is. That’s exactly what it is. It’s an “industry” about making money, for which you need to “shift boxes”. If it’s not, then money has no relevance and it’s a hobby isn’t it? I like to be in a place where I know I’m going to get paid every month and have an outlet for what I do. Don’t you?

It’s actually a “box shifting creative industry” to put together your words. I completely support that as it’s ultimately creativity that sells games and the 2 are intrinsically linked. There is 1 more important criteria though, which is quality. Quality sells games like hot cakes and there are many factors towards driving quality upwards. Oh, and marketing, good marketing will sell the most un-creative/poor quality things as I’m sure you’ve witnessed

“idiots who think it’s reasonable to run a business as if it were a hobby”. I completely support this statement and this again underpins the fact that if it’s not about money then isn’t it a hobby? Isn’t business about making money? Money to pay wages and have creative outlets?

“your “solution” is to *raise income*”
I agree. Did you read the whole article? Here’s an excerpt from further down:
“Sensible studios plan for all of these things and build their business with this in mind and also build in some contingency into their costs to enable them to burn some of their profits to keep a consistent team running during the lean times. Larger studios can also mitigate this by having multiple projects and moving people between projects as the natural ebb and flow of project demands occur.”

During my career I have seen all the problems I state happen time and time again from big businesses through to small businesses, I’ve occasionally been part of the mess and more frequently seen others get caught up in the demise of a company. In pretty much all of these cases it’s been avoidable.

My experience is based around running mid to large scale teams of 30-80 people across multiple projects and the level of commitment that goes with that. My focus is on quality, delivery and profitability of all the work I do. My post was intended to make people aware of the fact that if they do not consider this and blindly go off an a creative whim then don’t be surprised if your business fails. This is obviously fine if you’re motives are purely hobbyist and you never intended to be a business anyway.

So, nice response and I agree with some of what you’re saying and I’ll keep chasing the dream of working in a game company that is given loads of money to simply do creative things with no real reason to shift boxes.


Sorry for not being clear enough, but “box shifting” is a pretty well-known (albeit informal) term with specific meaning.

It means that your core business is about:

1. Purchase item
2. Make modifications to item
3. Sell item at a higher price

Generally speaking, step 2 is *as little* as possible. The essence of a box-shifting industry is that quality is perceptually identical, pricing is commoditized, and products from different vendors are effectively interchangeable … so that you have many direct competitors.

It’s one of the industries where your survival as a company depends entirely upon what your competitors do, rather than what you do – if they can undercut you by 10%, you can go out of business. Or if they come up with a single marketing campaign that’s better than yours.

In that kind of business, efficiency is paramount.

That guy appears way out of his depth Adam. Those kind of opinions are so damaging to the creative industries.

Great stuff Adam, refreshing to hear the opinions of an experienced developer who understands the creative process


“My post was intended to make people aware of the fact that if they do not consider this and blindly go off an a creative whim then don’t be surprised if your business fails.”

Increasing awareness is great, and I’m sorry if I got too caught up in the other aspects of your post.

My single-issue problem here is that the move to contractors … is a move to short-term quality/reduced cost while reducing long-term quality/increasing cost. It only really benefits those studios whose existence is already fragile, and probably doomed.

(for the record: right now, I myself only employ contractors :) – specifically to work around our current, temporary, short-term situation. But everything we do strategically is geared towards changing that)

I have a lot of experience of contractors (and contracting) across the IT and media industries (most of it outside games industry). They have the same broad effects everywhere I’ve seen – and the same broad reasons for being deployed (reduce costs; overcome *urgent* quality/delivery issues; stop-gap for “missing” skills within the team; etc).

You don’t really believe this, do you Adam?

You believe that it makes sense to have a full time staff of 50 QA people for three years while you develop your AAA console title?

You believe you need to have a full-time sound engineer at your iPhone developer who only makes Match-3 games.

You think that you need a full time web designer for your early stage development studio?

It seems to me inconceivable that you should employ everyone that you might need full time. Why not bring together the experts you need for the bits you need.

I can imagine that you might want to keep a core team together. I can imagine that you might want to have a shit-hot programmer permanently on the books so no-one else snaps you up.

but to argue that the only way to run a studio is the way they have always been run is demonstrably madness.

Check out if you want evidence of that.

I’ll run through the examples specifically in a moment, but looking at it in general … I’m saying that you don’t “need” those people *at all*. If you *do* need them, then you *need* them … at which point contractors aren’t sufficient. IMHO, in the edge cases, outsourcing makes sense, but “using contractors” doesn’t. In theory, there’s no difference. Gut-feel, and personal experience, say that there *is* a difference, and it’s one of magnitude.

Looking at it the other way, one of the least successful ways to make a great team is to assemble “a team of experts”. I don’t know “why” it doesn’t work, but I know that it doesn’t work. Mostly from personal experience, but also (allegedly) from independent studies.

From personal experience, the most succesful teams – the ones that are exponentially more than the sum of their parts – tend to come from people living and breathing a single team on a day to day basis. Contractors rarely manage to do that; they have to worry – every day! – about where their next contract is coming from. If they don’t, they may fail to meet next month’s mortgage payment. I’ve seen this happen to many friends and colleagues over the years – it’s not their fault, it’s an inevitable side-effect of their lifestyle: they *have* to worry about this stuff more than anything else.

“50 QA people”

– why do you need 50 QA people? What do you / does your producer think they’re actually doing?

Out of 50 QA personnel:
– 5 are minimum-wage cheap labour from the nearest job-centre who just follow the script to the letter like automata
– 20 are wannabe game-designers “breaking-in to the game industry”
– 10 are wannabe producers “breaking-in to the game industry”
– 10 just wanted an excuse to play games all day and avoid anything resembling real work
– 5 are frustrated game-designers, but don’t quite care enough to apply for a game-design job

Out of 50 QA personnel:
– 30 write simple, repetitive reports
– 5 are routinely ignored by the dev team as much as politically possible
– 5 have given up all hope and just plod on day to day knowing that most of their bugs are “WONTFIX”
– 5 write long, wandering, personal rants about game-design, as if they’re auditioning for a role as an EDGE staff-writer
– 5 still have hope for making the product better, and write decent critique, but get actively smacked-down by the dev team, and are generally regarded as “malcontents” or “troublemakers”

“full-time sound engineer at your iPhone developer”

Usually, the sound engineers are free. They’re so desperate for a job that they don’t require payment (IMHO this is tragic, but the truth is very few game studios budget anything non-trivial for paying audio people).

And if you REALLY want to pay for it, there’s about 3 very famous CD collections with thousands of sounds each that go for under £50 each and are used by pretty much every indie developer out there.

Even more tragically, some of the sound clips on them are better quality than some of the sounds you see in AAA games.

“to argue that the only way to run a studio is the way they have always been run is demonstrably madness.”

I agree completely, and I love reading your ideas and analysis on this topic. GamesBrief has some great articles.

But at a finer-grain I also feel that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – and IMHO the “full time, long-term employee” part of game-studios is very much *not* broken.

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