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How To Commission A Video Game Project

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So you want a custom made video game? Well, that’s at least part of our business, so let’s help shed light on the process and help you understand how you can commission the creation of a video game. Whether for marketing, promotion, business or pure enjoyment, there’s lots of reasons you might want to get a company to develop a video game for you. We’ll walk through some of the options and aspects to help you understand how you can hire a company to build a video game and some of the concerns and implications along the way.

Of course we’re going to be discussing legal and financial concepts, but this does not constitute professional legal or financial advice. If you have questions consult a licensed legal or financial professional in your jurisdiction.

Your Purpose or Business Model

First thing to get straight is why you’re commissioning a game. Are you marketing a product or company with the game? Or maybe you’re promoting a cause, attraction or organization? Maybe you want to be a game developer or publisher and you need to outsource your first release? Or you could just be doing it to see a dream project come to life. These are all great reasons to outsource game creation, but they’ll shape your considerations differently through the process. You’ll want to be clear with yourself and the company you hire what your goals are and why they are your goals. Lacking clarity on the fundamentals makes assumptions harder for everybody, so you want to start with the basics.

  • Marketing a Product – You’ve got a set focal object for the game including established branding and target market. You probably need game design & development, but can provide marketing and audience guidance as well as some product-related angle for game concepts.
  • Marketing a Company – You’ve got established branding and (hopefully) established marketing and lifestyle concepts to work with. You probably need game design & development, but can provide marketing and audience guidance around a lifestyle or company values.
  • Promoting a Cause – You’ve got important information to convey, and likely a charity to refer to and possibly present (with branding). You probably need game design & development, but you probably have a strong lens of a cause to develop concepts around to incorporate in the design.
  • Promoting an Attraction – You’ve got a physical location to represent, its branding and it’s physical presence to work with, as well as an established audience. You probably need game design & development, but have rich tie-ins, established associations and lots of potential references and media to work with.
  • Promoting an Organization – You’ve got established branding and organizational activities and purpose to work with. You probably need game design & development, but need to fit it around an organizational vision and values, and possibly want it tied to a specific issue or activity the organization is known for.
  • Game Company – You have a game idea, a business plan, and want to establish a game and brand through the project. You probably are keen on doing the game design and marketing yourself at least in part but want to hand off the technical development tasks like programming and art. You’ll probably want to be more hands-on with development and be in constant contact with the outsourced game development team.
  • Dream Project – You have a game idea, but aren’t concerned about the business side of things or marketing. You probably have a well-defined idea and game design, but you want to hand-off the technical aspects of video game development. You’ll want to be hands-on with quality assurance and decision making during the entire process.

Project Definition

To get anyone else on board with your idea, you’re going to need to be able to communicate your idea or needs clearly. Communication skills are really the number one skill in any team endeavour and game development is no different. With so many different skill sets needed to come together to create a game project – design, programming, art, writing, music, sound, marketing and business, clear communication is vital to a project going smoothly. The better you can communicate your needs and ideas, and the better your outsources are with communication, the better everything will be for everyone.

Before you start looking for a video game development company to outsource, you’ll want to write out your needs and ideas, and go back and refine them. Make sure you know what you’re looking for. Vagueness and indecision will only cause confusion. You’ll want to have some flexibility when working with the experts, they’ll have important and meaningful feedback to make things the best they can be, but getting a clear idea of what you want, what’s important or not important to you, will help every step of the process. This doesn’t mean setting yourself iron rules and must haves for the design, but more knowing what is and isn’t a priority or goal for the project. You want to know what is important (it must be age appropriate to your clearly defined audience, it must involve the company mascot, or it needs to be available as a web-based game, it must be PG-rated, etc) and what isn’t (you’re flexible on game genre, the main character can be a flexible design or player chosen, the story arc is up to the hired designers, the enemies can be determined by the design team, etc). This is more about defining how you’ll work with the video game development company partner than the game. Of course if you do know anything about the design that you want you want that too, but even if you don’t have firm ideas about the game, you want to define what you do and don’t know and what you do and don’t want, even if it’s just in vague principles and concepts. Defining those principles and concepts will make everything easier down the road.


Relationships

When working with a partner it’s good to define what kind of relationship the partnership is. There’s a lot of variety in working relationships with game development. Some folks want to be hands off and let the experts handle things for them with minimal but high level instructions. Other folks have a very specific vision and need to be hands-on and involved at every step and checking and rechecking things along the way. Knowing what kind of relationship you want is a great first step when choosing a partner.

This kind of relationship has the game developer do almost all the work and decision making. The client offers a high level goal or plan, then the developer designs concepts to fulfill the plan, a choice is made by the client which concept to follow, but by and large the developer figures out the details to create the project.

This is the method for most high level marketing campaigns in TV, where companies hire an advertising agency to conceptualize and produce an ad all together. Brands or projects that have significant history are easier for this model to work. Anyone can look back on the history of the brand and see the appropriate projects, standards, slogans and attitudes in the previous marketing, making new decisions easier to make in line with expectations. It’s easy for the client, and gives the developer the most flexibility to do their greatest work. Of course it’s awkward and nerve-wracking for clients not used to this. The professionalism and history of the developer can help alleviate some of this nervousness.

Companies with very little understanding of games can do well with this approach, given that they find a professional partner committed to quality. Unfortunately there are lots of game development companies that will just see marketing games as an easy way to earn a quick buck. As long as companies can find reputable developers they can get wonderful promotional games developed on commission, and with a minimum of hassle.

The Canadarm 3 Commander game Massive Corporation produced for the Saskatchewan Science Centre is a good example of a Hands-Off relationship project. Here we had an existing relationship with the client, significant expertise in the subject area, and an existing product in line with the desired result. All these factors made it easy for the Saskatchewan Science Centre to choose a Hands-Off approach to this project, which allowed us to work faster to create a streamlined project that fit their tight deadline.

At this level the client takes one a bit more of the conceptualization work. This is likely because they have some specific goals and desires that lead the project in a specific direction. Here the client will help guide the conceptualization phase more directly, giving more specific targets, ideas and requirements. Often it means that their won’t be as diverse a range of possibilities considered as the client has already narrowed the field. In general the client will be more involved with the designing of the project, and likely involved with numerous meetings at the start of the project that help set the design document in place. Then for production they’ll generally step back and only do occasional milestone checks to ensure the work is meeting the guidelines initially established.

This is often a more comfortable form of relationship for smaller companies with less marketing budget to play with (and more pressure to get it right) and for those without a strong knowledge of games. It does require more work from the client including numerous meetings and more reading, but it can sooth tension for first time advertisers, or provide a good opportunity to develop out a relationship between client and developer to prepare for more hands-off campaigns in the future.

If a client wants to be regularly involved in decision making for a project, we call that a Manager relationship. We’re of course referring to good managers, not micromanagers here. The client is a regular check in on progress and given the opportunity to make any significant decisions that come up during development, not just in the design/conceptualization phase. This requires a significant effort from the client, with regular meetings and reviews. It’s generally only a good idea for clients that understand games, with them taking an active role in regular decisions, they need to understand the medium and the audience to a degree that most companies aren’t in a position to do. Of course with a young, digitally literate company that can definitely be the case, but we wouldn’t assume it.

This can also be a good idea for a project that is highly sensitive, like those built around a political or social issue, or made to represent a specific community or culture, where the client has that important contextual knowledge to guide game development. These projects could also be handled at High Level or even Hands-Off relationship styles if the project has a cultural consultant or similar outside source for critical input and feedback.

The Path Of The Elders project that our Art Lead Terry Hoganson worked on is a good example of a Manager level relationship project. Here a cultural consultant was critical to getting the game right, and community review and input was a major part of the development cycle. This helped ensure that the Anishnabe culture could be better represented in game and also helped to generate game play concepts and the main story.

The highest level of involvement from a client we call a Director relationship. Here the client is a clear part of the development team. This requires them to be very involved, and is rarely a suitable choice for clients. As an outsider it can be very difficult for clients to integrate into a production and development team. Few clients have the technical knowledge and familiarity with game development to find this easy or efficient, let alone how it can affect the production team. It is really only suggested for the most extreme cases where the client has an absolute direct need for nailing down even the specific details of a project.

This level of control comes with significant cost to the client, generally slowing progress as the team need to incorporate and consider the outsider in their production processes and more things are needed to be double checked with the client in order to progress. This means a lot of work for the client, and with the delays it often increases costs as project times increase.

While rare, this level of relationship is likely to exist only in situations where a Manager relationship was expected but the client’s precise vision isn’t matched by their ability to plan and communicate. This kind of situation can then devolve into a Director relationship as the client’s demands are needed to be met, but their lack of planning and clarity hasn’t produced enough for the team to work with at a Manager level. With some kind of technical skill, such as level editing or writing, the client can be a productive member of the team, but this relationship is rarely a good thing. It can be used for critical phases to ensure clients needs are met and then the relationship can move back to a Manager level when intense scrutiny isn’t as required. This is only likely to occur with vanity projects, and I personally consider this to mostly occur only from a failing of good planning or understanding by a client.


Work Phases

Like any project, there are multiple steps to developing a video game. Here industry has some standard terms that might not be understood by people outside the industry. Here we’ll list out the phases the take place in game development, depending on the project some may be longer or shorter, or some might be skipped all together. Understanding these phases will help you understand the process, and the hiring and payment structures when hiring a game development company.

The first job is to understand what the client wants and how to pull it off. Conceptualization is an exploratory phase where brainstorming takes place. Discussions with the client, any guidelines, planning documents, marketing goals, or other thoughts and ideas are brought to the table for the design team to mull over. This will help define the genre, theme, feel, mechanics, goal, setting, art style or story for the game, as well as technical aspects such as platform, resolutions, target devices. These may change later (with some hassle), but are decided here so work can progress further. The basic ideas of the project are defined so the team can try produce a prototype or advance to an Alpha build (we’ll describe that term below).

With some concepts defined the team can go to the prototyping stage. This is where the team will attempt to build the minimum viable product, the absolute most bare bones version of the game that can give a sense of whether the game is fun and functional, not pretty, deep or reliable. This is the first test of a game. The idea is to see if the concept is worth pursuing with the least amount of time, money and energy spent on it. This is important because plenty of ideas turn out to not work. This could see prototypes developed that don’t go forward. Sometimes many prototypes are needed to know the right choice. This can seem like waste when the work that goes into an idea is tossed aside, but it’s well-worth the cost. You want the best game, and that means comparing ideas. Going through a few prototypes isn’t unusual or wasteful, its how you get to the best idea. In some cases, especially where a game is a well known genre, the prototyping phase might just be rolled into the Alpha stage, or the first production stage. This risks not looking at other prototypes, and the possibility of finding out the game isn’t fun and needs to be rethought later in the process, but if assumptions are correct it saves time as the team just move directly to producing the concept. Making assumptions about game designs and fun is a dangerous leap, even professionals get it wrong regularly. If they didn’t, why would even big studios have flops? There’s no secret recipe, so buyer beware, paying for prototyping is a worthwhile insurance policy.

The real core development cycle starts with the Alpha phase that culminates in the Alpha Build. This is the stage where the foundation of the game is built out, providing the framework of development. It gets the major pieces in place so the game can built to a prototype level, but with the proper techniques and to a more full scope so the result Alpha build gives a sense of what the game will be. The Alpha Build will generally use placeholders for some assets, so some backgrounds may be blank, or objects or characters may be represented with rectangles, orbs or still images, but the functionality will be there. You’ll be able to move around, see the various areas of the game, see the major mechanics and systems, test controls and progression. It generally won’t include too many levels, story, or sound/music but it’s about getting the key systems in place so that the content of the game can be added in the Beta phase. Expect the Alpha build to be rough, its about the mechanics, not the aesthetics at this point. Often there will be diagnostic text on screen to see state changes, transitions will be instant, text will be placeholder fill. Think building a cars engine and frame, not the seats and exterior shell. It’ll look ugly, but you’ll be able to see if it works. Menus should mostly work, controls should function right, the main mechanics systems will react correctly. It just isn’t polished or filled in yet, but it is functional and you should be able to get a decent sense of the experience it will deliver.

The Beta phase is about filling in the framework that the Alpha build provides. This is where the bulk of the content is added in. The art, writing sound and music get added in, and all the features should be complete. This will included adding in the user interface (UI), so menus, drop downs, help, scores, inventories, etc will be functional. This phase gets a project to a recognizable state that gives a good sense of what the release game will be like, though it will lack some polish and bug hunting. Although it isn’t perfect, most people in the target audience would be able to use and enjoy the game. The Beta Build should be a good tool for testing and bug hunting. The game should work, but it’s not yet release ready, it sets the stage for the final polish and testing to be ready for release.

The final core development phase is the Gold phase. The Gold Build is ready for release, a complete and polished game ready for the public. The Beta Build provides a good testing version, so Gold Phase is about testing out that build and doing major bug hunting. This is where the reliability of the game is tested. Content can be tweaked for improved user experience, such as difficulty balancing, typos corrected. Often more variety is added to a game at this stage. Where one sound effect or image was used earlier, now multiple versions are added that can be cycled or randomized to improve the experience. This is also when performance can be optimized, meaning that the game’s smooth and fast running can be improved using memory management, scrubbing out unused assets, or other techniques. When the Gold Build is done it’s ready to be launched and hit the market!

There may or may not be a testing and iteration phase in game development. Testing is a standard part of every phase, but sometimes a game will be given a partial release either in Beta or Gold as a test run. This can be particularly important for games targeting a younger (under 14) or older (over 60) audience that are a little out of the standard gamer mentality and expectations. This allows for a broader level of user feedback, often with direct engagement of the target audience with a level of feedback and surveys to help confirm or alter plans for the game. Obviously this is more ideal to do with a Beta than a Gold build, but depending on the audience they may require a Gold level of polish to get an accurate sense of the game. Iteration is used to take the feedback and alter the game to some degree. This may mean minor difficulty tweaking or significant changes such as story adaptations or feature additions. As this can be done at different stages, it’s not a true phase itself, but it is an important consideration worthy of thought and planning.

When the game is done, it needs to be released. Depending on the project this can be more or less work. For web games this means hosting the HTML5 game project on a website. For PC, console or mobile games this may mean launching them on a store so they can be accessed by users on the different platforms. For attractions this may mean integrating them into a show floor or touring exhibit with physical manufacturing involved. This stage can vary wildly depending on the projects final form or forms.

Often overlooked, once a game is released it goes into the support and maintenance phase. This may or may not be necessary, but again, its worth considering upfront. Games hosted through external parties, such as Steam, the Apple App Store, or Google Store will need accounts that control and handle the hosting of that game. A client may want the developer to handle that or they may want to take that on themselves. It doesn’t generally require much, but it can be an obtuse and confusing process to deal with for people outside industry. Hosting a web game could be done through the clients website, or through an independent site handled by the developers. Mobile games in particular are prone to system updates that may require the developer to tweak things to keep them valid and viable on those platforms. So discussing the long term implications of the project and the need to monitor and update them is an important part of planning a game project.


Payment Structures

There are a number of different ways to handle the payment and delivery of a game project. Every developer or outsource will have their own preferred way of dealing with things. You want to protect yourself from paying out and not getting value for your money, but developers are also having to risk paying workers upfront to deliver the goods to a client. There can be a lot of risk on both sides, and you can certainly find horror stories about anytime money is changing hands. A good payment structure tries to minimize the risk to both parties, and it highlights how important contracts are to clarify expectations and responsibilities. Some contracts will combine the different concepts to try gain the benefits or minimize the downsides of the various options

The simplest payment system is a set rate. One flat fee for a set, well-defined deliverable, such as “one Windows 10/11-compatible installation file of the custom-built game described in appendix 1: Game Design Document” along with all rights and license to that work. While simple this is of course the highest risk. It’s all or nothing. Unless it’s a painfully simple job, like some auto-generated template shovelware, it’s not a great way to handle things. It can be the sign of an inexperienced developer or an overly cocky one (or generally both).

A much more common system is milestone payments. As we detailed the phases of development above those can be used as a standard way to break down payment and delivery into a more piecemeal approach, allowing a client to get more guarantees about deliverables, and allowing the developer to get more cash earlier on to pay for the expense of development. Often studios will get a portion of the contract up front so they can have the money on hand to pay staff and then they get another portion at different milestones. This can vary a lot but I would expect a 10-25% payment up front, then 10-25% at Alpha, Beta and Gold, and the final % at release. Of course an ongoing cost like maintenance would be handled separate from development.

More fine-grained is using a hourly pay rate. A developer will charge a figure based on how many hours of what kind of work is being done. This makes it easy for them to know they’re getting paid for the exact effort they put on your project, but it makes it hard for a client to know what they’re going to be spending on the project. This would be more akin to the normal freelance outsource system, which has a developer invoice a client regularly, weekly, biweekly or monthly for the time spent on a project. It does have the advantage of being able to be audited a bit more, you’ll be able to see what things cost in both time and money, so you can learn a bit more about the development process. It also could mean that a studio is more flexible about how much effort they put into the project, possibly allowing you to slow down or speed up development by having them take time off, or add more staff on to a project. Some contracts will combine lump sum set price or milestone prices with a supplemental or above and beyond per hour fee. So they will have a contract to deliver x milestone to a limit of x hours/weeks, and then charge x per hour beyond that, or charge per hour to deal with extensions, revisions, iterations. This can provide stability of a set price, but have a back up system in place in case of emergencies that is known and understood ahead of time.

Less common is a feature based breakdown on pricing. Sometime projects are flexible on what they contain or accomplish. Essentially a project can have a base price for a minimal model, but then have additional costs associated with optional features that the client can opt-in or -out of. This can be a good way to handle marketing and promotional games. You want a deliverable project, but maybe some other features would be nice, but you’re not sure if you’ll have the cash flow or time to include them. Having those extras as a bonus addition to the project can be a good way to handle it. Again this concept can be combined with others. So you might have a milestone system for the base project, but then at some point you can opt-in to add additional levels or a free-play mode, or whatever those extra features might be. It can be good to have a plan or option to extend the game if it’s successful. You might want six months down the road to have an update to add in more levels to extend peoples use and enjoyment of the game. These kind of additions could be considered ahead of time in the base contract, or you can always go back to a developer and ask for a project extension under a new contract.

Lastly, the final payment option we’ll discuss is a retainer, or a recurring payment system, like a subscription, but for a service. This is a common model for handling the support and maintenance of a game, but a really video game marketing focused company could even consider an ongoing contract for development itself. While games are generally best handled as set projects, once the base of a game is done, the ability of that game to handle additional content could be nearly infinite. Companies with stable and significant marketing budgets could consider just having a development studio on retainer to always be working on keeping that company happy with a constant flow of game marketing material. I’ve only heard rumours of such situations, so I don’t have many details about it, but I could see it being wonderfully beneficial with both partners able to see more consistency and be more able to develop a good relationship and long term vision for their projects.


Rights and Licensing

While payment is the obvious reason to always have contracts, rights and licensing can be the other major reason to always have things in writing! The general legal standard is that work done for hire, either as an employee, contractor or commission is owned by the person or entity hiring the work, including all rights and licensing. The exact creator will always retain authors rights to the work they do, even under contract, as that right cannot ever be removed, even willingly, as per the Bern convention, but it basically just allows the right to say you created the work. So for the most part contract work is pretty simple – you pay, you own (of course, check the rules in your jurisdiction). However, you may be able to allow the developer to retain the rights to the work (if they’re interested) for some discount, while retaining a perpetual non-revokable right to use of the work. This would allow the developer to reuse the work or its components potentially making clones or derivatives for others, while allowing you full and free use of the work for eternity. If you’re getting a custom game for a specific event, a temporary marketing campaign, or some localized use, like installation at an attraction, giving the develop the rights to the project may not be any real threat or loss, but could get you a significant savings and give them the potential for easier work or sales in the future as they reuse some of the code or art for additional projects.


The Bottom Line

So that’s our basics of How To Commission A Video Game Project. Hopefully that gives you some insight into the process of hiring game developers and bringing your video game idea to life. Of course, Massive Corporation Game Studios is always there for you to answer your questions and bring your idea to life. We’re happy to help you understand more and can offer a free consultation meeting for your project. Just drop us a line and hopefully we can help you build the next great game!

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