Here's the short version: An employed studio is an extension of your core team, so treat them with the same immediacy, courtesy and respect!
Before you make first contact, try to have as many of the following on-hand as possible:
- A partial game design document. Have something to give the studio that at least tells them what your game is about, and how big (or small) it is with respect to story, characters, enemies, and content. It's fine to explain your game in a few sentences over e-mail, but they need a good idea of how much work to expect based on your vision of the game.
- A list of needed assets (works of art). Don't just include the game characters, weapons, items and level textures; you may also need a user interface, menu art, an icon, a splash screen, box art, banners, art for your website...and the list goes on. The more you think of ahead of time, the better...but if you forget something really important, let your main contact at the studio know asap.
- Visuals and sketches. It's OK if you have a bunch of MS Paint mockups and scribbles on scanned documents; the art studio needs at least a basic idea of what you have in mind for everything.
- Reference images or videos. Sketches tell a studio what you need, but references help them understand the finer details. There is no shame in taking screenshots or videos from other games; just don't ask them to copy from them verbatim. If you can do it, making a video of a textureless demo of your game can be helpful, too.
- A budget. Know how much you would like to spend, and know what your hard limit is on spending. Depending on how much art you need, you could get a quote from a studio for fifty or for five thousand dollars (That may as well be several million dollars for you younger Indies).
- Realistic expectations. You may not be the studio's only client, so don't be offended if they don't reply to your e-mails every five minutes. If they give you a quote, and you think "Wow, that's way more than I expected to spend!" then at least put it in perspective. The studio needs to make its livelihood, taxes must be paid, and dinners put on tables. It takes time and resources to create art. Even if it's an animated cartoon hamster, consider that every frame was created after hours of work, and a bit of trial and error. A professional is just that because they make the difficult look easy.
- A deadline. Let the studio know up front whether you're fighting a deadline, or just developing your game at a casual pace. It's a courtesy to both the studio and its other clients who really need their games out the door in two months.
- Experience playing similar games. This is a challenge for me because I feel like if I play other games, I'll subconsciously steal their game play ideas, and seeing such well polished games makes me shy away from trying to compete. Really, the opposite attitude should prevail: You can learn an awful lot about how to make your game great by playing other games in the same genre, and even find ways to make it better!
Lets say you've found your dream studio, they're happy to have you as a client, and that you've agreed on a payment plan. Make sure you get the following things established:
- A way to share assets. Usually the studio provides you with this. I like Basecamp HQ because all the assets were neatly organized, and the interface was easy to use. Dropbox is handy, too.
- A tentative timeline. A simple "it will probably take x hours total" or "we may have it done in y-z weeks" will suffice. Nobody can know exactly how long a project will take before it's done.
- A direct line to your primary contact at the studio. If something comes up that requires special or sensitive attention, you don't need to bullhorn it to the whole studio.
- Someone on your team who is the primary contact for the studio for the same reason.
- Availability. Don't sign up with a studio, and then not reply to their messages for a day or two at a time. You will leave a terrible first impression, and they'll think you're not serious about the project. Be especially proactive in communicating with the studio at the beginning of the project. Let them know when you're generally reachable, and find out the same from them.
Working with the studio
- Communication: The project only moves forward as fast and effectively as your messages do. Keep a flow of communication going. If someone is going to be out of the loop for a while, let the studio know. For example, Meta3D studios delivered a ton of assets to me late one week. It was going to take me the whole weekend to update my game with it, and I had a busy week ahead at my full time job. I told them I needed time to catch up, and I'd let them know as soon as I was done. Knowing that, they could safely budget more time toward other projects that week.
- Flexibility: Chances are the studio you work with has more experience than you do with art development, so think about any constructive advice they give you. If they tell you they can't do something, it's because they can't do it. In those cases, work with them to find another way to make the assets work. Neither you nor the studio will know exactly how an asset will look until it's done.
- Sudden project changes: If you realize you forgot to ask the studio for something important, let your main point of contact know immediately. Asking for new assets affects their schedule and how much you're paying them. So does deciding that you don't want other assets after all (and you're still paying for the time they already invested). It's OK if you make a significant change to the project once; but if it becomes a habit, then your team had better stop and figure things out real fast.
- Know your product: I found myself waffling around some basic game play design decisions far into the project. I didn't even have a design for the game's main UI until near the end of the contract. If I had spent more time playing other games similar to mine in look and feel, I would have learned a lot, and had been more prepared to work with the studio. That would have enabled Meta3D Studios to make more Hamster Puzzler content in less time.
- Playable demos: I use Unity3D to develop games, and the web deployment made it easy for me to show off the assets from within the game to the studio. There's no substitute for collaborating and reviewing a work in progress than for the developer to procedure intermediate builds for everybody!
- Patience: In this generation of game development, it seems like every day a new game comes out with amazing art that was completely developed by one person or a small team over a few months. Don't let this lead you to believe that art studios can do better than that in a fraction of the time. Custom art takes time and resources to develop; and for all you know, those developers may have used pre-existing assets. When you see a polished work of art, you don't always see the sketches and rough drafts that came before it.
The last point I want to make is to respect the people you work with. You're not just working together to build assets, you're also building a business relationship. If you're unhappy with how things are going in general, take it up with your main contact in private. If the contract is finished with both sides happy, the developer gets quality art in their game along with the possibility of discounts on future projects. The studio gets another referral, and another star to add to their portfolio.
But enough reading, it's time to get out there and make your imagination come to the screen!