End credits for video games used to be simple affairs. The closing credits of Super Mario 64, released in 1996, took about three minutes to list 32 people. Now, the credits for most major video games are interminable. When I finished Horizon: Zero Dawn last year, I began creating excuses to get away from the screen as soon as the first unfamiliar name hit the screen. I checked my phone, went to the bathroom, did the dishes, and refilled my water glass, before returning to the sofa to find the credits still going. The incomprehensible thicket of names, thousands of them, goes on for more than 34 minutes.
But for Zhu Jie, a 33-year-old with wireframe glasses and bright pink hair, credits are often the best part of a game, a rare moment of recognition for her and her colleagues at Virtuos Ltd, a company in China that builds 3D art and levels for the biggest game companies in the world: Sony, Microsoft, and Electronic Arts, among others. It’s even better with well-reviewed games like Horizon, which makes her think, “‘Hey my name is in the credits, this is my game!’” she told me in November, when I visited the company headquarters in Shanghai. “This makes everyone happy.”
In her 12 years with Virtuos, Jie has gone from entry-level QA tester to her current position as a project management officer, helping oversee the company’s project management structure on all of its different games. During the same period, she’s watched from the frontlines as outsourced labor became the backbone of game development.
Thanks to outsourcing companies like Virtuos, making games today is less about building levels or creating characters. Instead it’s about managing a global network of labor that builds, programs, animates, and designs. Sixty-five of Virtuos’s employees spent over two years building 11 of Horizon’s 32 enemy robot types; modeling many of the bandit settlements spread across the game world.
Virtuos was only one of 18 different outsourcing companies that worked on the game. Among the others: 3Lateral Studio in Novi Sad, Serbia, which helped character modeling and facial animation for human characters; Territory Studios, a graphic design company in New York that specializes in interface design; Audiomotion in London, which helped with motion capture; Kokku in Recife, Brazil helped build models for some of the robotic animals; and XPEC Art Center in Taipei, which helped build environmental assets to fill the game’s world.
In many cases, outsourcing companies have grown even bigger than the clients who hire them. Horizon’s developer Guerrilla Games has around 270 employees in its Amsterdam offices. By comparison, Virtuos has 1,300 employees spread across 11 offices in eight countries. A 2001 study found outsourcing contracts were too small and haphazard to measure, but by 2006, 40 percent of game studios were using outsourcers for background or environmental art. In 2008, an anonymous poll of 200 major video game studios found that 86 percent relied on outsourcing for some aspect of development. Today, the practice is so common that many game studios created full-time coordinator positions to manage outsourcing (in the credits for Horizon, Head of Outsourcing Anton Wiegert appears in the first three minutes of the 34-minute sequence). Outsourcing coordinators are used by Bethesda, which makes Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and PopCap Games, which makes mobile games like Plants vs. Zombies and Bejeweled.
The change has been partly technological, driven by the escalating complications of new consoles. But it’s also been creative, reshaping what form publishers think games should take, pushing them to focus on fewer titles that occupy more of their players lives. “It takes a village now, to build these games,” Peter Moore, then COO of EA, said in 2015 at the External Development Summit, “and I’m not just talking about the game itself. Because if games don’t have companion apps, if they don’t have websites — we have 450 different social media websites supporting all of our franchises, so we have requirements for integrated development that not only keeps the core game alive but keeps the ecosystem around that game humming, because if you’re not delivering content each and every day then the engagement drops.”
Virtuos occupies six floors of a 24-floor high-rise in Shanghai’s Changning district, a quick 20 minute subway ride east of The Bund waterfront thoroughfare and the frenzied tourist hustle of East Nanjing Road. It’s a mostly residential, upper middle class neighborhood. On its narrow tree-lined side streets are convenience stores and fish markets, and on the main boulevards, a vape shop, a Domino’s Pizza, a sushi restaurant, and a Mercedes-AMG dealership.
“We’re absolutely not an asset farm.”
In a little over 13 years, Virtuos has become one of the biggest outsourcing companies in video games. Virtuos made 3D art, designed levels, and helped program many of the industry’s biggest games, including Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, NBA 2K18, Middle-earth: The Shadow of War, Forza Motorsport 7, Prey, Star Wars Battlefront II, Need for Speed Payback, Watch Dogs 2, Far Cry 4, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, Halo 5: Guardians, FIFA 17, Battlefield 1, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, and Mortal Kombat X. The company has also begun handling full development on ports or remasters, and making original games using other company’s brands.
Gilles Langourieux, the tall and energetic 49-year-old Frenchmen who founded Virtuos, hates the stereotypes about outsourcing companies. “We’re absolutely not an asset farm,” he told me in the 12th floor conference room late one Friday afternoon in November, referring to a label some industry people use to describe outsourcing companies. Even “outsourcer,” he continued, feels like a slight. “I think ‘external development’ is more respectful of the work that actually gets done by our people here,” he said. “To me, ‘outsourcing’ evokes something which is commoditized, trivial to do, easy to do, so you find locals to do it cheap and fast.”
Though Langourieux despises the farm label, the office layout does have an agricultural symmetry. Artists are seated in short rows of five, each with their own double monitor workstations. A team lead sits at the end of each row, and three or four of these row-based teams are overseen by an art director who’s responsible for managing entire projects and communicating with the client studios.
The artists and team leads are almost all Chinese, and most of the employees in the office are men (According to company HR, the official gender split is 70 percent male and 30 percent female). Many of the art directors are expats, hired from game studios in Norway, France, Singapore, England, or the United States. A surreal mix of Western tchotchkes watch over the rooms like scarecrows — a bust of Iron Man, a replica of Michelangelo’s David, and a glossy poster of Lebron James — a reminder of which culture the artists are meant to produce for. (The company does occasionally work on games for the Chinese or Korean market, but between 75 percent and 80 percent of its contracts come from North American or European studios, Langourieux says.)
There’s the same faint, plasticky smell of heat dissipating through computer vents that I’ve smelled on similar visits to game studios in Copenhagen, Santa Monica, or Dallas. With the blinds drawn to cut down on screen glare, this space could be anywhere. In a nearby room, a group of five trainees, all young men, try and replicate the muscled torso and nylon shorts of Georges St-Pierre, a playable character from 2016’s EA Sports UFC, which Virtuos worked on. They’re in the company’s competitive three-month training program; Langourieux estimates only half of those who enter the program earn job offers.
New hires at the Virtuos’ Shanghai studio make around $11,000 a year, or around 6,000 yuan a month. This is what one of the studio’s expat managers told me he pays in rent every month. Entry-level pay at Virtuos is slightly higher than the national average monthly salary of 5,169 yuan, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, but just a bit lower than the average salary in Shanghai, which is 6,504 yuan, according to the Shanghai Resources and Social Security Bureau. The average salary for an entry-level artist in the games industry in the U.S. is $50,643 according to an industry survey from trade site Gamasutra, down from $55,682 in 2012.
Despite the differences in pay, Langourieux insists the work being done at Virtuos is “not very different from what is done inside internal studios.” Though the company lacks creative control of each project — ”the writers, the creative directors, these kinds of people” — that distance gives them insulation from marketplace volatility. “We don’t place bets on certain IPs,” he said, referring to the intellectual property that constitutes a new game. “We help our clients deliver these IPs.” The biggest risk remains with the game studios.
The developers at Guerrilla had been working on the Killzone series for close to a decade when the idea for Horizon was first mentioned during a companywide ideas meeting in 2010. The idea came from Jan-Bart van Beek, a blond studio art director from the Netherlands, who’d been thinking about end times. “After every extinction, or fall of a civilization, you get something new,” he would later recall. His idea: 1,000 years after a mysterious extinction-level event destroys human civilizations, Earth is taken over by free-roaming packs of dinosaur-like robots. Instead of smoldering ruins and radiation zones, the game would be libratory, setting players free in a wondrous wilderness to discover what had happened.
The studio had made three installments in its bleak first-person shooter franchise and would soon be at work on a fourth, scheduled to launch alongside the PlayStation 4, but the sense of creative repetition was setting in, alongside an unease about how long the games would continue to be profitable. The Killzone games had been well-received by reviewers, but sales lagged behind the biggest games in the shooter category. If the studio wasn’t selling more units with each sequel, how much longer would Sony be willing to fund them, especially as production got even more expensive with the release of the PlayStation 4 in 2013?
Costs for game development had been rising steadily throughout the 1990s, when the average budget for a PlayStation or Nintendo 64 title was between $1 million and $3 million, according to a presentation at the Game Developers Conference by Factor 5. Those figures more than doubled after the release of the PlayStation 2 in the early 2000s, and after the transition to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2006, average production costs rose higher still, between $18 and $28 million. Mega-hits like Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare 2, cost an estimated $40 to $50 million, with another $200 million to market.
Langourieux started his career at Ubisoft in 1996, helping open development studios in Shanghai and Beijing. He realized early that as development got more intricate and expensive, game developers wouldn’t be able to handle the workload on their own. “When I was at Ubi, we were asking ourselves, ‘How are we going to make those bigger games?’ We don’t have enough people to make those bigger games. And I knew we had more people than anybody else,” he told me. “So if it was a problem for Ubisoft, it had to be a problem for everybody else.” Under these conditions, Horizon wasn’t just a new creative lark, but an attempt to show that the company could create the kind of unexpected hit that would justify the costs Sony incurred by owning a studio of Guerrilla’s size. “Ultimately, if it doesn’t work,” van Beek told Game Informer, “all our jobs are on the line, to some degree.”
To ensure consistency across all the game’s outsourcers, van Beek and his team of artists at Guerrilla compiled a large library of reference photos of everything they wanted in the game. Every asset, from buildings to clothing, would need at least one of these reference sheets, which would be sent to all the different companies who would be making them, ensuring there would be little left to interpretation for the external developers like Virtuos.
This reliance on references that point to other media sources helps explain why openly appropriative concepts make it into games. Critic Dia Lacina pointed out that Horizon’s hero Aloy and her tribe embodied offensive stereotypes about indigenous people in North America that then proliferated, largely uncritically, through the media coverage of the game. By splitting the development process into smaller pieces and spreading it across the globe, Guerilla gave little incentive to stop and question the implications of using Native American imagery as well as words like “savages” and “tribal.”
“Every art director knows when you get an asset from outsourcing you have to check for 1) Swastikas 2) Swear words 3) Miscellaneous genitalia.”
Other studios have seen how outsourcing assets can lead to blunders that are embarrassing for publishers and exclusionary for some players. Bluehole’s Player Unknown: Battlegrounds recently found itself in some controversy when a player discovered that a gratuitously detailed outline of a vagina could be seen on the female character model on the game’s test servers. The studio apologized, saying the model had originally come from an art outsourcing company the studio used early in development. “Rookie mistake,” Jeremy Mitchell, a visual effects artist at the developer Double Fine, said on Twitter. “Every art director knows when you get an asset from outsourcing you have to check for 1) Swastikas 2) Swear words 3) Miscellaneous genitalia.”
When Wu Xingjian started at Virtuos in 2007, he’d never imagined making a career in video games. He’d studied film animation at Jiangsu University in Nanjing, a few hours north of Shanghai. He hoped to land a job working on the kind of movies he loved growing up, brawny American action flicks filled with fistfights and planet-sized explosions, but jobs were scarce. When a friend recommended he apply to Virtuos, he thought he’d give it a shot.
Wu found he was less interested in the games he worked on and more interested in the tools. He began experimenting with photogrammetry, a technique whereby real objects are photographed from multiple angles, ideally 360 degrees, and then the images are uploaded onto a computer, where they’re formed into a crude digital replica. Instead of having to invent, say, a cereal box from scratch, an artist could just photoscan the real thing or something of a similar shape. Artists can create a library of basic textures and objects this way, allowing them to customize the raw material rather than painstakingly building every costume, fencepost, and machine rivet from scratch.
Wu started experimenting with this technique using an iPhone 5 camera. Virtuos upgraded him to a high-resolution digital camera and he built a studio from white boards and a few spotlights; a small circular table with a motor under its base slowly rotates an object while the camera shoots. “We know we have a lot of software that can create simulated clothes but we noticed that with photoscanned clothes, the quality was much better and more realistic,” he explained to me as we watch the empty table rotate under the bright light.
For Horizon’s enemy robots, photogrammetry wouldn’t do. Each robot dinosaur was equipped with braided fuel lines, armor that can be shot off like puzzle pieces, heavy saw blades for grinding mineral deposits, hydraulic joints, power cells, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers and machine guns, and translucent tanks filled with red, blue, or green chemical weapons. Guerrilla had hired a freelance concept artist to make detailed renders of each robot and close-up details of how each surface should appear, from the blue-lit lenses framed with a mechanical iris that would stand in for eyes, to the glossy metallic exoskeletons and the sloshing fuel containers.
The artists at Virtuos took these models and painstakingly recreated them, piece by piece, using a 3D sculpting program called ZBrush, something typically reserved for highly-detailed cutscene objects. For most in-game character models, an artist will slowly assemble a wireframe model made of polygons. With Zbrush, artists work through subtraction, whittling away a mass of digital clay, allowing for more control and detail. It was faster than building with polygons — if you needed a surface to arc in a particular way, you could simply scrap out the curve in the digital clay instead of knitting together a few thousand triangles in an attempt approximate a semi-circle. But because each robot had so many components, artists were only assigned specific parts which would later be assembled into one whole. This required extra attention from team leads and the project art director to ensure the minute measurements and adjustments an artist made on one part wouldn’t throw off the whole. The game’s biggest robot, the Thunderjaw, took a group of six artists almost four months to finish, more than 600 days of labor in all.
Is there really a way to make a game of Horizon’s scale and complexity without someone being exploited along the way? Working conditions at many traditional game studios are already bad enough, with nightmarish crunch-time stories and frequent overtime, often without additional pay. Speaking on a podcast, Amy Hennig, former creative director at Naughty Dog, said that game development had turned “into an arms race that is unwinnable and is destroying people.”
In China, a job in the games industry is seen as a path to a white-collar career, not a form of self-destruction. All of the current employees I spoke to were happy with their working conditions. Days start between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., and most leave around 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m., though some stay late to socialize or play games from the company’s research library. There is overtime, sometimes a lot of it. When it’s done because a client has moved a deadline up or added new requirements to an existing contract, they’ll typically pay the overages. If it’s the result of the team running behind schedule, Virtuos says it offers employees paid days off after the project’s over to make up for the extra hours. Lulu Zhang, who worked for two years at Virtuos’s Shanghai office before getting hired as a concept artist at Creative Assembly in England, told me she always felt fairly paid. She described the working conditions as “not necessarily the best in the industry, but quite acceptable.” Though she left the company in 2013, she still remembers her time there fondly. “Without Virtuos, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she told me over email.
With so many fundamental changes in how games are made, it can be difficult to distinguish growth from stagnation. Sony regularly announces impressive new sales milestones for the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo proudly touts the fast start of its Switch console. But in this era of outsourcing, the console industry as a whole has grown at a rate slower than inflation for close to a decade, worth $27 billion in 2009 and growing to just $29 billion in 2016. This has prompted major publishers like EA to radically restructure. In 2009, EA employed 9,100 people, according to the company’s annual report to shareholders, and released more than 70 games, while the company took in $4.2 billion, 96 percent of which came from retail sales. By 2016, the company employed only 8,500 people, released just 16 games, and brought in $4.4 billion, 55 percent of which came from digital revenue, meaning games downloaded instead of sold through stores, profit from its PC storefront Origin, downloadable add-ons, and in-game transactions.
This restructuring has placed pressure on American workers to accept contract positions with little long-term security, while the demands for productivity have continued to rise, something that’s reshaped not just the games industry but the U.S. economy as a whole. A recent report in Politico points to the fact that from 2005 to 2015, “the number of people in alternative work arrangements grew by 9 million and now represents roughly 16 percent of all U.S. workers, while the number of traditional employees declined by 400,000.” A 2016 IGDA survey found a similar force at work among game developers, only 66 percent of whom were full-time employees. And even among those lucky enough to be full-time employees, the average term of employment was less than two years.
What was the summation of seven years of work for Guerrilla amounted to a few weeks of revenue for a mobile game in China.
Horizon would go on to be the biggest debut for a new franchise on PlayStation 4, with sales eventually breaking 4 million copies. The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported Horizon’s budget was more than $47 million, the country’s biggest media production of all time, though that doesn’t take into account the money Sony spent on marketing. In the same year, it would be surpassed several times over by non-console games. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds generated more than $400 million as an early access game with only one map, and mobile juggernauts like Tencent’s Honour of Kings pulled in a little under $500 million a month from a player base of more than 200 million people. What was the summation of seven years of work for Guerrilla amounted to a few weeks of revenue for a mobile game in China, which quietly passed the United States to become the biggest games market in the world in 2017.
On my last night in Shanghai, I met with Andrey Supryaga, who joined Virtuos in 2007 and now oversees all of the company’s art departments in Shanghai, Xian, Chengdu, and Saigon. He’d grown up in Vladivostok, studied art and physics in school, and spent nights making imitation Quake III characters in the campus’s computer labs, which he would later use to build a portfolio that would get him his first job at a game developer in Moscow.
“I had this feeling in the Soviet Union that everything was changing and developing and it was wonderful,” he told, the setting sun turning the smog a distant, luminous purple, “but then after some years it stopped.” Work had become rote, and his coworkers’ persistent skepticism had eaten away at his own excitement to be working in the games industry. When he joined Virtuos in 2007, he was surprised to learn his first assignment would be working on EA’s Medal of Honor: Airborne, the same project his Russian employer had been working on, though there he was working on the game’s military uniforms and in Shanghai he’d be responsible for making the game’s vintage gun models. He’d come halfway around the world only to end up working on the same game.
It wasn’t until he was promoted and began traveling to Virtuos’s other offices around China that he began to rediscover his sense of optimism, he told me. He loved the strange incongruities of Chengdu’s skyline the most, where neon skyscrapers and luxury malls stood alongside old housing complexes with lines of pastel laundry hung across narrow alleys. It gave him the same feeling he’d felt back in Russia, a feeling where “everything seems to be developing. It feels great,” he said, smiling into his lap. “I hope it can keep going.”
Update: This article has been updated to correct misspellings of Virtuos Ltd. as well as the number of offices that Virtuos has. They have 11 offices, not 10.