Outsourcing the Boring Bits?

I was just reading this interview on Gamasutra with LOVE creator Eskil Steenberg (yeah, I’m a few days behind the curve right now), and about halfway through the interview he dropped this bomb:

Outsourcing, to me, is very stupid because you don’t get to keep the talent in the building. If what you are doing is so boring that any sweatshop can do it, you should spend time developing tools that do the job for you.

My initial response was along the lines of, “Ooh, sick burn! Devs totally make boring games!”

Then I remembered that I’m a dev, and I’ve worked on projects where we’ve outsourced work, and I’ve been proud of those projects. Ok, so maybe outsourcing isn’t automatically a stupid thing to do.

But now that Eskil said that, I find myself thinking a bit more deeply about outsourcing and its now-prominent role in game development. I’m continually surprised at just how much outsourcing goes on, and increasingly, what gets outsourced. I had always thought those third-party contractors were used as the game development equivalent of in-betweeners in traditional animation, but more and more I hear about key scenes and characters, concept art, even entire chunks of the design being outsourced.

I wonder, how far down this rabbit hole can we go before it becomes unsustainable? I don’t think we’re there yet — great games are still releasing on a fairly regular basis, and the last two years have been so fruitful as to recall the boom of 1998 — but where do we cross that threshold to where we’ve handed off so much of the game that we’re not even in control of our own project any more?

As a bit of a corollary, part of Eskil’s point is that outsourcing can potentially be replaced by in-house procedural creation tools. As I’ve watched the content requirements for games absolutely soar when compared to the PS2/Xbox generation, it occurs to me that we’re trying to solve the problem of not having enough manpower to fill our content needs, by simply moving the responsibility to other people. But come time for the PS4/Xbox 720 or whatever the hell they’re going to be called, are our outsourcing partners going to run out of manpower, too? Is a future of procedural content generation actually inevitable?

I wonder if in 2020 our outsourcing budgets will be paying, not for man-hours, but for time on massive cloud-computing farms that’ll be algorithmically building our content from scratch.