What Makes a Good Game Producer? Part 1
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Note from the author
Although I work for Blizzard Entertainment, the opinions expressed here are my own and not representative of Blizzard’s policy or conduct in any way, shape or form.
For Part 2 of this article, click here.
A question I often get asked is: what does it take to become a Game Producer? The answer is simple: Nothing. You don’t really need anything to become a Producer. Anyone can become a producer on a video game. Anybody who knows the right people or happens to be in the right place at the right time can become a game producer. There is no formal training you need to have undergone or diploma you need to have in your possession. In applying for a position as a game producer, you will rarely be asked to demonstrate a specific skill or any knowledge solely attributable to game production work. Sure, in some cases it helps to be familiar with established methodologies like SCRUM or for an engineering producer to have studied computer science, but it’s rarely an absolute must. Similarly it helps to be organized and a ‘fast leaner’, but these are qualities most adults already possess in some measure, not to mention the fact that anyone can claim to possess either or both; there is no way to verify such claims.
But all of this is not to say it’s easy to become a game producer, or that the work of a game producer is free from difficulties and challenges. The truth is, there are as many kinds of producers as there are human personalities, each with pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses. The flexibility, for which this broad spectrum of variety allows in executing the job of a game producer, is both a blessing and a curse. In any given situation, a producer can either claim responsibility or distance himself, depending on the circumstances. If a project reaches a successful conclusion, the producer might receive all the credit, or none at all, while the opposite is also true; if a project fails miserably, the producer is either to blame, or completely blameless. The key thing to keep in mind is that a game producer doesn’t actually create anything that goes into the game. So if he didn’t make it, how could he break it?
And yet, there are large differences in the quality of producers and in the ways different producers execute their jobs. Some are the flashy, car-salesmen type, while others are more of the introvert, academic sort. Some like to walk and talk all day, while others do all of their work solely through email. The purpose of this article is not to find out what it takes to become a game producer, but rather, what it means to be a good game producer.
Most of what I am about to write is based off of what I think I ought to do better and what I see in fellow game producers that I hope to one day emulate. So the majority is from my own experience, and some is from talks I’ve had with non-producers about what they like or dislike most about the producer they work most closely with.
For the purpose of this article, I am envisioning a more or less generic game producer (if such a thing exists), neither very senior nor very junior, just mid-level and therefore neither in charge of getting coffee and donuts, nor of deciding what to do with a multi-million dollar budget.
I also don’t want this article to be an instruction manual on how to do game production. Game production is done differently from company to company, several of which don’t even have producers. This is just to say that what I state here my not apply to everyone.
When I talk about my ‘flock’, I mean the specific team of developers that consider me their primary producer. When I talk about the ‘team’, I mean the entire development team, including perhaps several producers. When I talk about the product, I mean the single videogame the team is collectively focused on.
I will refer to producers as ‘he’ solely for convenience purposes; there are plenty of female producers, most of which are equally if not more capable than us men in this field.
But let’s start at the beginning. To know what makes a ‘good’ producer, one obviously need to know a little bit about what a producer is supposed to do. Many game producers I know have trouble explaining what they do or how they contribute to the greater scheme of developing video games. Does an Art producer make art? No. Does an Engineering producer manage a team of programmers? No. Do producers decide what goes in the game and what doesn’t? Generally no. Do producers set and control the development budget. Again, generally no. So what then?
The way I’ve learned to explain it, both to friends and family, is by using one of two metaphors that I feel paint a reasonably accurate picture of a producer’s role, if not a detailed job description.
On one hand, a producer is a shepherd. I don’t mean shepherd in the biblical sense, as some kind of role model or moral guide. No I mean literally a shepherd, like a goat herder; like someone who herds a flock of goats, which is why I sometimes refer to the team I produce for as my “flock”, and shall henceforth do so in this article (although it is still unclear to me if this term of endearment is appreciated or not by said herd).
As with a goat herder and his goats, the true value lies not with the herder himself, but rather with the goats. They are the ones that provide the final product, so they are the ones that, above all, need the proper care and nurturing, shelter and adequate food. The goat herder can eat old, moldy bread crusts for all anyone cares; the goats on the other hand, need fine, green pastures.
Furthermore, the goat herder doesn’t own the goats, and therefore is not the one ultimately responsible for them. He has no final say in what is supposed to happen to the goats, whether they will be skinned for their hide, milked to make cheese or slaughtered for the meat.
Lastly, anyone can become a goat herder; one merely requires the constitution to walk around all day and the ownership of a large stick. And if a goat herder quits or dies, it won’t be too difficult to find a new guy to take his place.
The second metaphor I use is that a producer is like a parent. And again, like with the goat herder, I don’t mean in the romantic sense; the “beauty” of motherhood or being a “proud father”. I mean in the “cursed” sense. Let me explain. As a parent, no matter what happens, no matter how tired you are, agitated or outright angry, you always have to be there for your children, care for them and protect them. You have to make the tough, unpopular decisions, and what you want for yourself….well, there is no “yourself” in this Greek tragedy. You have no other option but to unconditionally express love and devotion to your kids.
Now, for a producer and his flock, the feeling may not be genuine and is unlikely to be mutual, but for all intents and purposes, the implementation should certainly feel like it is. Just as with kids, there will be times when you walk in on them and they’ll barely acknowledge your presence. There will be moments when they’re laughing at you behind your back, or when they openly proclaim how uncool or boring you are, how you don’t “get it”. But all you can do, all you must do, is swallow your pride and keep caring for them, whether the feeling is reciprocated or not. That is the producer/parent curse.
Game Production Tenets
So now that we understand the place a producer occupies in the social microcosm of game development, let us take a look at the goals of a game producer. As I mentioned before, game producers come in all shapes and sizes. On one end of the spectrum you have your Excel junky; the kind of person who loves making reports, graphs and summaries, and who generally prefers to avoid unnecessary interpersonal contact. To him, his flock represents an unfortunate but necessary group of people he knows he has to deal with regularly. On the other end of the spectrum you have your high-school cool kid; the kind of person who strives for popularity and thrives on public acknowledgement and recognition. His flock is a group of friends who have fun and hang out together. And then there’s your tasking robot, whose entire world is in task management, resource allocation and milestones. His flock is just an assembly line that churns out produce at a more or less fixed rate, like a factory.
Armed with this insight, let’s look a little closer at the role a generic game producer is expected to fill. Instead of looking through the lens of established systems of project management, like SCRUM, I’m instead going to talk about the general tenets of a game producer, regardless of the specific methodology his organization expects him to adopt.
Flexibilty and Adaptability
I mentioned the term ‘assembly line’ earlier, but if there’s one thing that game development certainly is not, it’s an assembly line. With so many moving pieces in an industry that is still in its infancy, things rarely happen as you’d hope and every two steps forward are followed by one step back. This impacts some disciplines more than others, each dealing with it in their own way. For game producers, the way to deal with it is to expect it to happen; know that things are going to change along the way and be prepared for them as best you can. Consider Vegetius: “Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum” (He who desires peace, should prepare for war). A producer needs to adapt so others don’t.
Status awareness and reporting
I feel that at the very least, a game producer should be aware of what’s going on with the team and the product, and make sure that his flock, or at least the Leads, have this information to the degree that it is beneficial. He should not only know what the priorities for the immediate future are, but also what is supposed to happen after that. Any engineer, designer or artist ought to be able to ask any producer about the general direction the team is taking, the important issues of the day and the team’s primary goals. Of course there are going to be things that a producer may not know, usually because it concerns someone else’s discipline. However, those things should generally be limited to the details, not the big picture. Good communication from the producers to the team and from one producer to the next, is key.
A large chunk of the work of any game producer anywhere, deals with reaching deadlines. This is the realm of dates and milestones; moments of time in the future, at which point something starts, finishes or undergoes an impactful change of some sort. First and foremost, a producer needs to be aware of what these moments are; how much time is left, what needs to be done by that time and what is at stake if the deadline is not reached. The producer also needs to have a rudimentary idea of the main challenges his flock faces in achieving the goals, at least enough that he can describe it to third parties and answer basic questions. He may not need to do the work, but he is nonetheless a representative of his flock.
Greasing the wheels
Game producer is also a bridge builder, accommodator and facilitator. A common thing that happens is that a producer is confronted with a problem that he himself cannot fix. It then becomes his job to find the person who can fix the problem. This may require him to attend meetings, email his contacts or literally get out of his chair and walk around in person until he finds his answer.
By doing this over and over again, in time, he will realize he has accumulated a sizeable network of key contacts that he can call upon to help him out. And by extension, this network becomes the network of contacts for his entire flock. And it works both ways; for his team, a producer is the connection to the outside world and for the outside world, the producer is the connection to the team.
An engineer shouldn’t have to worry about getting to know everyone in IT or in the QA department; that’s what he has his producer for. And vice versa, not every member of a QA department needs to know every single designer, engineer or artist on a development team; the only thing that person needs to know is who the producers are.
I started this article by saying that there is not just one single thing that a producer needs to be able to do. That is because he should be able to be burdened with a myriad of things. A producer is a jack-of-all-trades and no task should be outside his scope or potential responsibility, as long as it benefits either his flock, the greater team at large or the final product. As I said before, while others are expected to focus solely on their tasks within their discipline, the producer should manage all else in so far as he is able to, whether it’s working on scheduling spreadsheets, booking meeting rooms, writing meeting notes, entering tasks or makings sure the videoconferencing system gets fixed in the conference room.
Which brings me to the next tenet; a producer is an ambassador, both for his flock, the team and the product as a whole. Just like an actual ambassador, who knows the history of his country, the current state of affairs, the things to be proud of, the things to be ashamed of, the things to fight hard for and the things to back down from, so too does a game producer need to be aware of these things with regards to his team. Knowing these things will help him make good judgment calls and establish good position of negotiation when the time comes for calls to be made, pros and cons to be weighed and plans to be lade. And it works both ways. Like an ambassador, he is expected to go out into the world, gather what information and insight he can, and report back to the home front. That way his flock can be kept up to date on the goings-on outside of their own comfort zone.
But above all, like an ambassador, he needs to display an unflinching devotion to the general wellbeing of his flock. A producer needs to be a champion for his team, and within it, he needs to be a champion for his discipline. While the people doing the actual work need to worry about completing the tasks; write code, fix bugs, record sound, translate text, design levels and create art, the producer is the beacon of stability and consistency, ever keeping the greater good at the forefront of his thoughts while putting his own, personal interests aside.
Another important and sometimes overlooked role of the producer is to be the insulator. Like a lightning rod on top of a tall building, a producer is there to run interference and, in doing so, shield his flock from undesirable outside forces. A team of talented game developers is constantly besieged by third parties that require its services, both within and outside of the development team. An artist might be called upon to work on a one-off item for a special marketing promo rather than design more armor sets for the next patch; an engineer may be asked to help fix a bug on the website payment system rather than work on the next big in-game feature. And of course there is the ever-present threat, born of laziness, of teams passing their bugs off to someone else rather than deal with it themselves. If the producer effectively executes his role as conduit, his flock will in turn be better able to focus on their core job, which is generally what they are best at and in which they find most enjoyment.
This is the end of the first half of my article. For Part 2 of this article, click here.