Name: Christopher M. Hunt
Title: Senior Art Director
Organization: Xpec Art Centers, based out of Taipei, Taiwan
1. How many XDS events have you attended to date?
“I have attended all XDS conferences since 2013.”
2. Please provide some career history. What are the roles you’ve had working in games?
“I have been working in and around the games industry as an artist for roughly nineteen years, focusing exclusively on game development since 2001. I’ve worked for Pandemic Studios, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and various boutique studios on the west coast. I’ve worked as an Art Director for over ten years now.”
3. Please describe your career experience with respect to external development (XD), and how your knowledge and influence has progressed in different roles.
“My first experience with outsourcing was in 1998 – 1999. I was working as an artist for a company called Viewpoint Digital at the time, which created 3D models and other specialized content for film, television, commercials, industrial projects, and games. This was my first experience working as an art service provider. I learned an entirely different side of art production and oddly enough I kind of liked it. Once I returned to working with game development studios a few years later, teams were just starting to use external development for art. I was able to work with artists to help them understand how the process works and I learned from management how you need to organize and differentiate your production to incorporate external development. On every project I’ve worked on as an Art Director, outsourcing was an integral part of development.”
4. Please describe your current role and how it relates to XD.
“I have a unique role working with Xpec Art Centers. It consists of three main parts: Art Direction, Production, and R&D. In addition, I might be one of the few Senior Art Directors in external development who works remotely from the main studio! I live and work out of Los Angeles, CA and travel to Asia every 1-2 months to work in the studios in Taiwan and China. I am close to or in the same time zone as many of our clientele, so I can work with them on the same business hours and then work with Xpec in the evenings providing nearly 24 hours of coverage.”
5. What are some best practices your studio has implemented to help it perform XD effectively?
“Xpec’s ‘best practices’ were foreign to me until I started working there. When I joined the company I was amazed by several aspects of their business.”
Streamline Production Structure – “The same teams stay on the project for the full duration. There are many project evaluations and regular reviews to ensure everything is going according to plan, which helps us catch issues early. Product managers work in collaboration with the Art Leads to evaluate work from clients. In previous jobs, I’ve experienced sales team members bidding for projects and not consulting with artists. This almost always resulted in artists working much longer hours.”
Post Mortem Client Meetings – “The teams at Xpec have post mortem meetings with their clients. This is important because it shows clients that the company cares about the service they provide and proactively wants to improve the relationship. Both parties have established a high level of trust that has been fostered over several projects and this doesn’t happen because of competitive pricing, but because both parties care about the outcome.”
Studio Collaboration – “Each of the three XAC locations (Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Suzhou), share, help and support each other. There are no political issues within or between the studios.”
6. What is the biggest obstacle XD poses for your team? How are you working to overcome this obstacle?
Lack of XD Process Experience – “Some internal teams have problems working with external partners due to their lack of experience about how art service process works as expectations are commonly based on what happens internally. This skews bidding, evaluations, research, and the relationship between both parties. You have to expect that your new XD partners have to ‘get up to speed’ on your production just like you train new artists within the studio. Plan for ramp up, deal with cultural misunderstandings, and realize that the external studio may operate differently from you. Once any ‘unbalanced issues’ are addressed, production starts to run smoothly.”
Changing Expectations of Developers – “Developer’s expectations for their external partners have changed over the last 5-10 years. Studios are not only asking for external groups to ‘create a series of fixed widgets’. For example, here’s what an AD or Producer in panic mode would ask for during a project: “Here are 100-500 assets, can you please finish them by this date? Here are the specs and the point of contact … see you on X-date.” Developers today expect their external partners to work similarly to a special effects studios in film and television. This relationship has a different dynamic; “we have this idea, can you help figure this out since you possess this type of expertise?” Internal teams also like to work with the external groups to develop projects in a nonlinear fashion. This is much more like a partnership than a strict manufacturing service bureau. The problem I find is that some external developers are having a hard time adapting to this trend especially in Asia, where studios are still used to the old production model.”
Ideation – “Another area that brings challenge is the ability to generate ideas and techniques to deal with evolving clients’ needs. Intellectually, I think people understand this concept but culturally it is very difficult to put into practice! In order to keep up with an evolving relationship with internal partners, it is crucial for external teams to set aside time to invest in R&D. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to ‘schedule’ on a game team and even harder to do when your business relies on providing a service as margins for time are cramped. On the other hand, it is critical to encourage some type of experimentation so you stay ahead of the curve.”
7. How has XDS helped to provide insight into XD?
“Attending XDS has allowed me to see that there are quite a few people in the same boat as me. There are also many areas where studios are working with external development that I’m not as familiar with, such as; mobile development, production metrics, financial models, and various types of co-development. On a broader level, XDS is a great event to allow internal and external developers to interact directly. Both parties are exposed to many different studios besides those they may be familiar with.”
8. What advice would you give to someone starting in a new XD role?
Advice for Internal Developers
Defined Internal Process – “Make sure your own internal production process is as robust as possible; experiment on it, make mistakes, tune it, and be able to prove your process works before you employ it. Handing off your production to an external partner will often expose glaring issues within your own pipeline if you are not diligent in your preparation.”
Cultural Differences – “Keep in mind there will almost always be a cultural difference between you and your partner. Be patient, understanding, and be prepared to provide lots of examples. Saying something needs to have a ‘classic style’ means something entirely different to people in different parts of the world, North America vs. China for example.”
Travel – “Make time to meet your external team face to face. This goes a long way when times get tough during a project. Plus, you will also break down a lot of interpersonal barriers when you’ve met the person you are talking to over Skype.”
Capacity – “Make sure you have the capacity to review large volumes of work expected from your external partner. Having too few individuals on board to review work can hamper your external partner’s ability to keep a regular delivery time table.”
Advice for External Service Providers
Be Inquisitive – “Ask as many questions as possible! This needs to happen throughout the project not just at the beginning.”
Learn the Client’s Process – “Learn about the client’s internal development process. Spend time in your partner’s studio if you can. This will help you understand how and why developers make decisions they do day to day.”
Experiment – “Go off the script and try something different! The client may not always have all of the answers. Instead of waiting on your client, troubleshoot a solution with your team. Clients typically have no problem with the external team taking initiative.”