In the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia, hundreds of video game developers are beavering away, making your favourite games even better.
With over 400 staff, Sperasoft covers all of the roles you would expect from a large, triple-A development studio, complete with 3D artists, animators, level designers, engineers, technical artists, leads, and more. The company has almost certainly worked on games you have played, including Star Wars Battlefront, FIFA, League of Legends, Mass Effect, Injustice, Mortal Kombat X, and Rainbow Six Siege. I’m willing to bet you have never heard of them, though.
“When I first started checking out Sperasoft as a potential place to work I was as surprised as anyone to see all these big names on the website of a studio that I’d never heard of,” Sperasoft lead game designer Steve Thornton tells me. “But here they were, and they’d been there the whole time.”
Sperasoft, a Keywords company, is a co-development studio that provides services to triple-A studios who don’t want to tie up their internal developers with a specific task. Non-disclosure agreements mean the studio can’t always say exactly what it’s doing on any given project, but we know it is currently providing help with the post-launch seasonal content for Rainbow Six Siege. It has been embedded there since Operation Skull Rain, the third season in the game’s first year of updates.
The Russia-based development team can do everything from providing assets, helping with network support, porting games to new platforms, and even taking ownership of gameplay features. Essentially, it is studios like Sperasoft that allow giants like Ubisoft to run multiple games as a service concurrently while also working on new projects. With Rainbow Six Siege, Sperasoft helps keep the game interesting for its millions of dedicated players. In Assassin’s Creed Origins, Sperasoft had a full team of developers working on bringing the world to life.
“We had a full team who worked closely with Ubisoft on the open-world wildlife – providing not just rigging and animation support, but also AI and behaviour,” Thornton says.
Sperasoft is currently working on something similar with Ubisoft for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Don’t think of this partnership as outsourcing, though. Sperasoft isn’t just there to make hundreds of different types of rocks and bushes for Ubisoft’s huge, intricate environments – the studio also has creative input.
“Tasks are not dictated but rather assigned and discussed,” Thornton explains. “There’s a back and forth, and our work is the product of a collaborative creative effort. Partners, Ubisoft included, retain full veto power over their own game. However, Sperasoft takes partial ownership and can absorb as much creative responsibility as required.
“Outsourcing is usually a one-way street, where one side dictates to the other what to do. Co-development is based on a collaborative relationship. It therefore requires a little more bravery and trust from the host studio, as they relinquish some amount of decision making and control to the co-developer. The upside is that co-development allows you to get external support for elements that would be difficult to outsource – iterative and organic parts of development like game features, live support, or level design.”
Rather than being told exactly what to do, Sperasoft works to a brief and uses its knowledge to fill in the gaps. The studio’s large, multi-disciplined teams are then sent to work on different aspects of the brief. The way Sperasoft’s teams are organised is essentially a mirror to its partner studio. The company looks at the structure of its partner, whether that is Ubisoft or anyone else, then splits its own teams up and moves developers around to match that structure.
“This means that some of our internal roles have to be more flexible and open to some changing of hats,” Thornton explains. “For example, artists who work on FX systems absorbing the titles and focus of a technical artist during a project, or game designers who take on more hands-on editor work wearing the title of technical designer. More than that, though, we mirror the partner’s values and sensibilities.”
Almost all of the biggest triple-A studios outsource to some degree, but these things tend to go almost completely unseen. A lot of outsourcing work can be menial, which is likely why it is almost always invisible to the player, but the work contributed to games like Siege by Sperasoft is significant and helps mould the games as they grow through consistent updates.
“Co-development itself is still a relatively new frontier, especially for the public, and there aren’t that many studios specialising in it yet,” Thornton says. “When an IP owner moves hands-on development of a sequel to an external studio and maintains an active role or creative oversight, I consider that an example of co-development in action – most recently I saw both id Software and Avalanche are credited for the upcoming Rage 2. I’d personally say quite a few companies considered outsourcing stray into co-development, but Sperasoft is one of the few to really embrace the label and base their pipelines around it.”