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The Artmer Studio on 4-Day Workweeks & Working With Outsourcers

The Artmer Studio's CEO Vladimir Tokarev spoke about the team's history, discussed the benefits of working with art outsourcers, and explained why the studio transitioned to a 4-day workweek.

The Artmer Studio's History

The Artmer Studio story began in 2018 after I completed my third outsourced studio job. It wasn't originally formalized as a brand or corporation. It was a small proprietorship with one employee, me. At the time, I just wanted to make money freelancing and didn't think about opening a studio. I sold my apartment in a small industrial town, and that was enough to not look for a job for a while and quietly improve my skills and expertise. It ended up being a lot harder to find customers than it was to get office interviews. In general, the money that I received from the sale, according to my calculations, was enough for two years, but after half a year, I began to realize that I needed to change my approach to finding customers. Now, after so many years, I realize that I was actually lucky to find my first order by a unique coincidence. Eventually, the volume of work grew, and after a while, I realized that I couldn't do it alone. Then, I started to think of a plan to expand the team. The first extension included students I taught back in 2011-2013, by which time they had started to finish their university education and look for a job, as well as former colleagues. The thing is that one of the studios I used to work in was characterized by rather poor working conditions and low wages, so I periodically received requests from former colleagues about the possibility of working together. So eventually, the company expanded to 15 people. The pandemic started at the end of 2019. After the first lockdowns, I realized that it would probably take about half a year for all of our customers to migrate their processes to remote work. 

At that time, the studio had enough funding, but only if we made staff cuts. On the other hand, it was clear that in half a year the customers would return and they would need to close this gap in time as soon as possible. As a result, we made the decision with our lead artists, managers, and senior artists to cut the salaries of all management and senior staff but not to lay off anyone in the studio. In the end, it turned out to be the right strategy. At that time, I saw a drop in the competing studios with us from 20 to 8 people, or, for example, from 17 to 2 others, while others completely closed. The demand that appeared after half a year allowed us to expand our staff to 30 people and gave a bigger push to further growth of the studio. At the same time, we started branding the studio and bought the domain and other infrastructure of the company. At the beginning of 2021, it became clear that our current jurisdiction no longer meets the company's requirements, and we started opening an HQ office in Estonia and re-registering the whole team in a new company. It would seem that, in this case, Artmer Studio should start in 2021, but they are the same people who started this business in 2018, so the calculation is from this year.

In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, which affected not only the whole world but also the work of the studio. The thing is that our teams are international, and there are citizens of Ukraine, Estonia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Belarus working there. In the first days of the invasion, there was no communication with some artists, then we found out that they were alive and well. After 2.5 weeks, when all our employees were in relative safety, we put forward our memorandum condemning the war and sent part of the studio's income to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine. Special thanks to Alexey Savchenko for his informational support at the time. There were no disagreements or conflicts on this topic in the studio itself. Everyone understood that war is a terrible thing. During 2022, we relocated our staff to other countries. Where most of the Russian and Belarusian teams moved to, we opened a branch. This is how the branch in the Kyrgyz Republic and future projects related to it came into being.

Now, Artmer Studio has 62 employees, 52 of which are content production team. They are divided into five teams of 3D Artists. Although we tried to divide them by what the guys like or do best. There is a team of characters, there are those who make huge locations, those who have better technique, cars, and weapons, there is also a team who works with scan cleaning and photogrammetry, and there is a team to work with vegetation.

The Studio's Services

As it happens, we've worked most of all with various shooters and strategy games. As a result, we have an understanding of how to make locations, characters, and other content for such games. For some projects, we were given plenty of creative freedom and designed locations from level design to engine delivery. At others, we were given the opportunity to design the production process of an art part and help write documentation. There were also projects with an unconventional approach to production and the presence of an internal game engine at the customer. I could call it co-development, but I don't dare yet because I realize that our studio needs a wider list of services such as mocap animation or sound design and code writing. Which is what I'm working on for 2024.

If we list the services and competencies of our teams, they are concept art, grooming, level design, level art, vehicles, characters, photogrammetry, environment art, and vegetation. Basically, all of this is somehow connected with complex 3D graphics, and I would use the term world-building. Most often, game developers start adding content to games when the basis of the game is already ready, and it is necessary to fill it with content. And hiring even 10 artists on staff can be a serious challenge for a small studio. If we are talking about large companies, then thousands of people can work on one game. In this case, hiring an art team can take years, in which case such companies hire experienced art studios to work on the project. This is where our company comes to the rescue. We even have a motto, "Call us if you need Heavy Support on the Artfield."

Working With Clients

Throughout the years, we worked on such projects as Mafia III: Definitive Edition, War Thunder, Enlisted, Miasma Chronicles, Snow Runner, Dream Cats, and Stellar Age, however, many projects even announced by our customers are still under embargo, and we will be able to shed light on them only sometime after release. In general, it's no secret that we work with large companies such as Gaijin Entertainment Games, Saber Interactive, and NetEase, as well as with smaller companies and even indie developers such as The Beard Ladies, Crazy Panda, and Creative Mobile. There were times when we helped other vendors who lacked their own resources to support the client's project.

Usually, the start of work begins with a client's request to see a portfolio on some theme or setting. After the MNDA is signed, they send examples of work from the client's internal art department. If the studio's portfolio suits the client, then a performance task assignment and deadlines are agreed upon. Further, if the test task is passed, a contract is signed and the scope of work is evaluated, and teams are reserved. As for the general understanding, it is enough to understand that you help to make a certain part of the game.

The 4-Day Workweek Culture

The idea to install the four-day workweek originally came about while we were working remotely during the pandemic. During this time, I was reorganizing processes in the studio making them more convenient and faster. I remembered how other studios were in meetings and realized that it didn't make sense to build a similar structure, as it involves bloating the management staff, which ultimately translates into the price of services. I wanted to make a more technological and elegant solution. In the end, we managed to optimize everything in such a way that we had one day free. We decided to take it out of the workflow. Yes, I've been asked a lot of questions about the drop in profits and other things, but numbers are numbers, and after the transition to a four-day work week in May 2023 and the transition period, there's not much difference. So, we became the first outsourcing studio in history to implement a four-day workweek. I can say that in the end, it gave us a serious advantage and attracted very talented artists to us.

Benefits of Working With Outsource Studios

It is true that most studios and especially large studios prefer to work with AAA projects and long-cycle development. This is very convenient from the point of view of financing because such projects can pay vendors for several years. During this time, such companies expand their staff and infrastructure, which leads to higher prices for their services. While I took part in various conferences, I saw how big vendors bring there a staff of about 10, 15, or 20 people, it's all recruiters, managers, biz devs, and other personnel who are not directly involved in production. As a result, the price of these trips will be included in the final cost of services of such a studio. And most often, the cost of services is so high that only AAA projects can afford it. What are smaller game developers to do in this case? Sometimes, teams come to us when they want to improve graphics on a vertical slice before finding an investor. And when we work with a small team, we work on their budget and request. Some things can be simplified and made not very expensive, especially if they are objects of the 2nd and 3rd plan, somewhere we can optimize content development or simplify the style of game graphics. In general, even for small teams, we have a solution.

Approach to Education

We provide training based on our offices. Interns are first trained for a few months in basic skills, then we start training them for a planned or ongoing project, they also spend a few months at this stage. After that, they go out to work as assistants to already more experienced artists.

The first rule is not to keep more than 15% of junior professionals on the team. The second rule is that after training, a junior specialist helps an already experienced artist, and does not work on the task himself. And only after he gains experience for a few months he can begin to give individual tasks. The third rule is not to mix teams unless absolutely necessary and not to transfer tasks from one artist to another. Also, we provide transparency of asset management for our clients, with the help of a CRM system.

In general, if you want to work with us, you can send us a request here. If you are an experienced specialist, you can contact us here. And if you are just starting out, send us an email here.

Vladimir Tokarev, CEO at Artmer Studio

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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