I played Alice: Madness Returns a while ago. At the time, I found it clever and impressive how American McGee outsourced all of the game art assets from China. I thought that perhaps this model could help poorer Western developers afford to complete and publish their games while at the same time stimulating indie game growth in Asian nations.
But then I started working in development, and noticed that the wages of transpacific artists are actually higher than the asking prices of young Western artists. To use a specific example: When working for a particularly low-budget indie, the project lead called a Skype meeting once to make an important announcement. He spoke, with glee, about how he had managed to find a cheap Chinese render mill to produce the art for the game. When I asked if he had even considered friends of ours who happen to be starving professional artists, I was met with a confused silence.
I also began seeing how triple-A studios outsource too, which in my mind cements how this is not a money thing. For instance, the art for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided trailer was outsourced to Visual Works, the Japanese company responsible for all the CGI in the Final Fantasy games and movies. This has resulted in Mankind Divided looking distinctively anime. Worse, it resulted in communication issues that meant that the story told in the trailer only vaguely matched the actual plot of the game. Now I’m not implying that Visual Works are a render mill, just that the decision to outsource the trailer to them seems (at least to me) to be part of a trend.
So if Western developers are not hiring Asian render mills out of necessity, what is actually going on? I mingle with developer communities just as much as I do with artist communities. It only hit me recently that I am in the minority. While Iam aware there is an entire ecosystem of artists right here in the West yearning to be picked to “work on a game” for very cheap, many developers don not even want to know about it. I’m starting to think the reasons for all the outsourcing are not financial. They are political.
Coders will stick to communities like Reddit, Facepunch, 4chan, and PolygonCount, which tend to be more male-centric and harbor Right-wing politics. Artists will hang out on sites like deviantART and tumblr, which attract more women, and lean towards Left politics. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the two are at war. It’s MRAs screaming at assumed SJWs, SJWs screaming at assumed MRAs, and the two vowing to Never Communicate With One Another, Ever. So people with coding skills refuse to visit the places where artists go, and artists that want to make games would really rather not visit coder hangouts. All these sites are now being associated with political movements of varying level of toxicity.
When I tell my coder friends that there are skilled artists on sites like deviantART and tumblr willing to work for a pittance or even for free, I am looked at as if I am lying or crazy. Do the experiment yourself: Go on the job offers board of deviantART and post a thread saying you’re looking for skilled artists to create the art for your game. Make it clear you pay less than the minimum wage. I guarantee you that the thread will have dozens of skilled applicants within half an hour. The example I gave in the introduction was not the only time I witnessed this cross-culture suspicion. Several other times I have linked developers in need of artists to people willing to work for very cheap, and they were reluctant to even click the link because it was “a tumblr url”.
So what happens? Artists want to make games but lack the coding skills, so they pump out RPG-maker games that end up looking all the same. Coders either suck it up and try making the art themselves (with varying degrees of success), or they asset flip, or they outsource to Asia. The latter option brings several problems alone.
The first is that outsourcing stunts the indie gaming community here in the West. Amazing games could be made if people were just willing to communicate. Artists could build their industry experience from working with developers, which would help them get more work later on. The way artists currently have to enter the gaming industry is by becoming the best of the very best, because only the top Western artists ever get hired. So competition is ruthless and many just give up, because not even managing to find unpaid work makes anyone want to jump off a bridge. Do you not think that is sad?
Second, it is difficult enough to communicate ideas with someone who is non-native in the developers’ language. Now add that to the fact that the Chinese artists being hired have a fundamentally different life experience from the Western developers’. Distinct social norms, experiences, and concepts all work together to ensure communication is living hell. Let us not forget how the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution were outsourced, and ended up being terrible because the team completely misunderstood even the game’s genre. Spicy Horse circumvented this by having a large chunk of Alice: Madness Returns set in an Asian-inspired magical kingdom, but not all games have an “Oriental Level.”
Third, I am no Ethics expert and I do not know the actual conditions render mill artists typically work in. Still, I do question the ethical implications for these artists. For me, the red flag is that it is the art studio that gets credited for the work, not the individual artists. In fact, I have never seen developers communicate directly with them, only with studio representatives. I think Western developers should question what they are investing in before they commit to hire.
How can this be fixed? Fundamentally, developers and artists alike need to stop fearing the Other. I think it is a crying shame that we are so afraid of our own neighbours that we go look for people that live even further away. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt is the only way things are going to be fairer and more productive for everyone involved in the indie gaming community.