AAA Outsourcing: Behind the Scenes with Playerium

Vincent Gault on March 28 2017 | Substance Designer, Substance Painter, Stories, Game

When your clients are composed of some of the most prestigious AAA studios in the world, there is no place for anything else than high quality. Playerium, who has been credited in productions like Resident Evil 7, could tell us a thing or two about this. We had the opportunity to discuss with Solomon Temowo, CEO & founder of Playerium, who told us a bit more about the challenges that an outsourcing studio has to tackle.

Hi, Solomon. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Could you tell us about yourself and your background?

Hey, thanks for this opportunity! Before getting into games I originally did a lot of AV (audiovisual) work for design agencies: like pre-vis, edits, post, and transfers. My passion for games soon became more than that, and I decided to change industries. It was tough, but I got my first gig as an artist with Sumo Digital. I started out in the games industry as a generalist artist doing things like vehicles, props, environment, character modeling, texturing, and physics setups...

Eventually, during my time at Guerrilla, I moved into a management role and was one of many producers on Killzone 2 and Killzone 3. My main focus at that time was re-booting Guerrilla’s outsource pipeline and workflow as well as supervising some internal teams like viz, props, character departments and many others.

In 2008 I moved to Hong Kong when I was offered a chance to build a next-gen team for an arcade game manufacturer. I worked for a Chinese arcade manufacturer called Wahlap. At that time, this Chinese studio had huge ambitions and wanted to build a strong dev team. I spent half of my week in Hong Kong and the other half in Guangzhou building the two teams. Soon after we released Storm Racer the sequel was picked up and published by Sega.

I moved on from Wahlap to join a Taiwanese outsourcing company called Xpec. I was based in Suzhou, China as their VP of Production and Studio Art Director. I was responsible for the quality, budget, and schedule of every project sent to the studio. At that time we had between 300 to 400 artists across different studios, and within a given month we ran about 20 to 30 projects. While I was there I was also hands on, working on quite a few projects, some of which included Art Director duties on Killzone Shadowfall, Killzone Mercenary, Horizon Zero Dawn. Aside from those titles, I also worked on The Last of Us, Uncharted 3, Resident Evil Revelations 2, Planetside 2, Bloodborne – quite a lot of titles. All the experience accumulated during these years made me think a lot about how we do things, how we develop games… not just differently, but better. Those thoughts brought me to where I am now.

You are the founder of Playerium: how would you introduce your company to the community? What kind of services do you offer?

Although a lot of devs are really into collaboration, we feel like they don’t want to always have to go to a partner and spend so much time preparing documents and telling them specifically what to do where and how. A lot of them are not looking for a factory – in fact, many of them are looking for a team they can trust and build a long-term relationship with. A team that can also proactively provide input and insights and brings in a positive impact on their own processes, tools, and ideas. So that was our starting point: we knew we had to keep this collaborative spirit externally and internally and position ourselves as a developers’ right arm.

We are an external game development studio based out in Taipei. (It's a nice place; you should visit!) We are a bit more technical than most others, and combine the technical expertise with the creative know-how to help our clients with things like full pipeline development, procedural materials, character pipeline development, and environment pipeline. We’ve set ourselves up to be like a developer's second dev team; their right arm. They just roll us in when and where they need us to work our magic. This could be for traditional style mass production of assets, or on trickier pre-production phases.

When did the Playerium adventure begin? What were your original motivations?

Our adventure began in March 2015, and having worked in both as an in-house game developer and outsourcing partner in various roles, myself and my co-founders realized that the notion of traditional outsourcing was slowly dying. There are tons of procedural tools, processes, and readily available assets, as well as the impending AI apocalypse :) So when we started our journey we talked a lot about other dev’s and a lot of them were saying something similar: what would be most valuable for them was having a partner who could sustainably do what they did, but more. They wanted someone who could not only think creatively but find ways to improve certain aspects of how they develop their games – in terms of cost, efficiency, quality or all of them combined. So that’s what we set out to do: use different, innovative methods and tools to empower game developers.

One of my co-founders, Daniel Alenquer, is a former tech guy. He was Director of Design Innovation over at Asus, and since the beginning, we really wanted to combine some of the design thinking that tech companies are good at and use this to improve certain aspects of game development. For us, achieving the highest levels of technical and creative output was extremely important. But doing that in a sustainable way is equally important because we also want our team to have a good work-life balance. It is all about empowering developers to do more with less.

We are very proud to count your studio as one of our loyal users: how do you integrate Substance Designer and Substance Painter into your workflow?

We pretty much use it for everything! We barely use traditional methods like Photoshop, I mean we still use it, but it accounts for maybe 5%.

When we use Substance Designer, we always make sure that the .sbsar files can be used directly inside Substance Painter, Unreal, Unity, and Toolbag. We have also been building a database of more unique and rarer types of materials. For example, there are a lot of brick walls I see on the internet, and some are great, but I think we should start to really explore the more ‘rare’ materials. This way, artists who are using Substance Painter can very quickly use material masking to get the asset to where they want to go, or our level/game designers can use it directly in Unreal/Unity and know it's all synced with our database.

Some clients also ask us to help them build specific databases for their projects. For Substance Painter, we’ve started to use more of the smart material masking (awesome feature, by the way, love it) on top of that, we combine the materials that we created in Substance Designer into Substance Painter to empower our artists even more.

Increasingly, we’re getting a lot more of our clients asking for 100% fully procedural materials. This is challenging but also awesome: on larger projects like this, we always have subgraphs set up for them and the team that can be easily dropped across other graphs.

With Substance Designer 6, we are hoping to amplify our process with a bit more scanned data workflow as well.

What motivated you to rely on our products? Do you see any specific value related to your outsourcing position that is brought by our software?

It’s safe to say I was one of the first users: I’ve been using it since around 2010, I think. Back then you guys, Allegorithmic, just had a small table at GDC. Now look at you, you’ve done amazingly well! And honestly, in regards to the the specific value, as games get bigger, and more platforms emerge, and budgets grow bigger, we have to continuously strive to think of efficient ways of doing things, we should always be questioning and striving to achieve a higher QoL, figuring out ways of doing more with less. For example, with a few nodes, and smart usage of adaptive materials we should totally take advantage of software that allows us to build things to the same quality, if not better, but at a technically, visually and efficiently higher bar.

It’s crazy, we have so many more platforms: VR, AR, console, PC, mobile, and who knows what will come next. The world is getting bigger, and so are our ambitions. These new tools and processes give us smarter ways of working and allow teams of all sizes reach out and fulfill these large scope projects. This is going to be very important moving forward.

In which future projects will we have the chance to see your work?

Currently you can see our work in Resident Evil 7 PS4VR, unfortunately, the NDAs we signed with the companies we are working with do not allow us to talk about most of the projects we're currently involved in. But from what I have seen of them, they are pretty amazing – we can’t wait to talk about them when the time is right!

We have been working with Abyssal Arts on City of the Shroud – an indie game that was funded on Kickstarter in less than 9 days. We helped them with their entire character and shader pipeline. All characters use stylized procedural materials, in fact, they all use one Substance .sbsar file, we also provided them with .sbsars to be used directly in Unity.

We’ll also be at Bitsummit in Kyoto on May 20-21 Hopefully – fingers crossed – we’ll be able to announce and show another project we’ve been working on.

We had the chance to get you in our booth at GDC 2016: what’s your feeling about it?

It was great having all the devs there sharing and talking about what they were doing. The great thing about it was that everyone had a different but perfectly viable way of utilizing the software to empower their teams. For us, well… we’d been working in stealth for such a long time, to be up there with Naughty Dog, Ubisoft, Activision, and others... it was really good for our team (and brought a big smile to their faces).

What do you when you don’t work?

I like to explore the world. Occasionally I like to hike through Taiwan's mountains and explore. Other than that the other part of my time is taken up with running, a lot, I like it, helps clear my mind, and of course gaming, and Netflix (just started bingeing on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a weird but interesting show).

Are you looking for new talents?

For sure! We’re always on the eye out for the right self-motivated “T” shaped people. We are a lean team and want to stay as lean as possible even as the company grows and expands. Maybe I should use the term “TT” as owing to our focus to be lean. For example, we do require our team to be able to not just focus on modelling and be really good at it, but also be able to texture, not a perfect example, but hope it gets the idea across, so we are looking for more of these “TT” guys and girls who can fit within with our collaborative team dynamic. Currently, we’re on the eye out for some real auteurs and artisans across the different departments, TA, Art Manager, Game/Level Designer, and Producer.

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