The Future of Being a Video Game Producer
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Trip Hawkins may have done our craft an unintentional disservice. While he’s a pioneer in our business of video games and will be admired for generations to come, he’s also the one that gave us the title “producer.” Back in 1982 Hawkins, a founder of Electronic Arts, began using the term with the idea that we were “managers of creative artists”, just like movie or music producers. There is truth to that. We do manage very creative people. However, the producer discipline can and should be considered so much more. When you ask what it means to be a Games Producer to an actual Games Producer you’ll often get some hand wavy answer that speaks of “sheparding,” “firefighting,” and to “by God, get things done.” I believe, however, that this ambiguous understanding about what we do leads to practices and methods within production that are simply uninformed and sometimes non-existent. Quite frankly, these are old school definitions and we’re beyond that. Producers with no training likely have no formal methodologies. They have no real established and verified best practices. They operate mostly on instinct and apply practices they’ve created themselves over time. Some even scoff at training without understanding the benefits education offers. This lack of formal training is simply not acceptable in these days of AAA multi-million dollar game budgets.
And there’s the rub. How do we make producers understand that they are much more than what their own discipline has led them to believe? And if producers don’t know what they are, why would a team of talented creative artists, designers and programmers, often well trained in their own craft, know what they are either?
This article is based on my own experiences and past mistakes. I completely understand and accept that some people will disagree with me. I welcome all opinions and discussion. The job of producer can vary widely from company to company. While I’m passionate about this topic I certainly don’t profess to know everything there is to know. Only through collaboration will I be able to formulate and improve on my findings. Your thoughts are appreciated so please share them with me directly at [email protected]
SO YOU WANT TO BE A GOOD PRODUCER?
I am often asked “How do I become a producer?” by game players, college graduates, QA analysts, etc. It’s a question that, sadly, they have often received poor guidance on. Also, it’s the wrong question. You want to be a Good, Informed Producer. A “GIP”, if you will allow the indulgence. It’s actually pretty simple. There are plenty of other ways to be one but here’s a path that worked for me:
Year 1 - 4: Go to college. Major in Business or Computer Science. Work in a gaming QA department for 1 year while finishing school. Graduate.
Years 5 - 7: Get a job in a Production Assistant role. Do that for 3 years and work your way into more responsibility or even get promoted. Take project management courses at night while still maintaining your production job. Maybe even take the Project Management Professional test conducted by the Project Management Institute and pass. (The PMP® certification isn’t absolutely required so long as the producer is well educated in project management practices and methodologies. PMP focuses on very traditional project management and is a good foundation but it must be augmented with other training such as Agile practices.)
Year 8: You are now ready to be an Informed Producer. Maybe not Good…but at least informed.
This roadmap is one way to set prospective producers up for success. I actually didn’t follow this exactly but in retrospect I wish I would have. There are other ways to become an informed producer however this is pretty straightforward. I recommend training in a variety of capacities but based on my experience I believe in the ascribed steps. Being an entrepreneur that starts and runs a company can work beautifully too, if not better in many cases. Nothing makes a person truly understand the many facets of our business more quickly than running his or her own company. This takes you down the road of hopefully being a good leader, but not necessarily an informed producer. You can cut corners but relying only on “learning from experience” will set you down the wrong road. You may have force of will, learned from mentors, experience, charisma, etc. which may make you a good leader, but you’ll always be an uninformed producer without training and you’ll lack some basic tools to make you better. A good producer exhibits qualities like leadership, dedication, tenacity, professionalism, ethics, etc., but these alone aren’t enough and are too vague to be relied upon alone. Production experience by itself will not make you an informed producer, though it may make you good. In the end, being an informed and good producer is the goal. “Good” is subjective. “Informed” is fact.
It should be noted, however, that I am not advocating that producers become project managers. Most project managers in our industry are all about the schedule and its management. Producers usually have another key responsibility that the project manager generally doesn’t have and that’s to communicate and champion the vision of the game to the team, sponsors and outside stakeholders. The producer may not come up with the vision, but the producer is the one that must protect it at all costs. The project manager (sometimes known as development manager/director) does not generally carry the vision and, instead focuses solely on schedules, risk analysis, processes and planning. It’s imperative for a producer to be armed with this same knowledge and training to help augment the execution of the vision he or she holds, even if the project manager’s sole focus is solely this role. The role of producer can vary from company to company. In some they are more like project managers and in others they are little more than note takers. Either way, the producer must add value to the team and training is a vital step to do so. Put in another way by my friend Patrick Gilmore, Studio Head at Double Helix, “Development Directors are in charge of the literal tradeoffs—team size, organization and cadence, schedule, budget, milestones, tracking, work breakdowns, construction frameworks, pipelines and techniques. Producers are often in charge of the blind tradeoffs—quality, scope, priority, richness and depth, polish, pacing, compulsions, narrative, vision and cohesiveness, competitive product, feature relevance, unique selling points and the feeling of “wholeness” of the game.”
PROJECT MANAGEMENT, NOT PRODUCTION?
If you do a Google search for books on producing you’ll find some, but not many. Personally, I like the book by Quincy Jones called “Q on Producing.” http://www.amazon.com/The-Quincy-Jones-Legacy-Series/dp/1423459768 His core message: producers should bring the best out of creative people. While this is an admirable philosophy he tells producers little about how to actually do it. Music is also a drastically different business. Engineers, artists and designers aren’t musicians. At the core they are not even game makers; they are software developers. Games are just the type of software they are lucky enough to create. Software development is complex, often made up of large teams and larger personalities. The producer needs to know how to harness and focus that creativity while managing a software project at the same time. On the other hand there’s an enormous amount of data available on project management training. There are classes anyone can take, there are certificates anyone can earn and there are tests anyone can pass. There are only a few related to the role of producer, however, and this is at the core of the problem. It’s a murky, undefined field of study.
BEING A GIP
In my humble view, there are thematic core components to being a good, informed producer. In no specific order they are…
Communicate, then Repeat: Communication is often noted in project post mortems as the #1 problem teams run into. It’s also a very broad category since there are so many things that must be communicated and so many people that must not only receive the message but understand it too. Project vision, work, scope, goals, dates, features, pipelines, tracking, schedule, etc., etc. all need to be communicated in all directions. That’s a very short list and there are a myriad of other topics. The best way to communicate most subject matter is almost always face to face. If you never leave your seat and ONLY rely on email you’re simply doing it wrong. Email is supportive, face to face is critical. Face to face is also faster since the back and forth conversation iteration is immediate and can be reacted to on the spot. A person may not even read an email till the end of the day, if at all. It’s been said that 55% of communication is nonverbal. Face to face, even over Skype is the only way to collect this. I believe there are generally two types of overall communication: 1) Direct and 2) Osmotic. Direct communication is just as it sounds, directive. It’s a request for someone to take action. As a producer I’m asking you to do “X”. Face to face discussion, supported by email, daily stand ups, scheduling, milestone content and deadlines can all be examples of directive communication. Osmotic communication is supportive and all around a team members. It drifts into their consciousness through environmental factors or even overheard conversations. (Incidentally, this is exactly why I will never sit in an office. The buzz of the team around me can be an excellent way to collect information.) Milestones posted on walls, concept art, posters outlining the team values, video monitors summarizing the sprint goals, Scrum boards, etc. are all environmental. The idea is to surround a team with the creative vision of the title as well as all the key, high level info they need to do good work on time. It’s immersive. Poor communication on a project is always the fault of the production staff. It’s the producer’s responsibility to make sure it happens. Communication is also a two way street. Producers must actively question, engage and even interview team members to collect data on the project health and status, especially in the planning phase. The producer doesn’t have to know all the answers but he or she must find ways to engage the team and stakeholders to find them.
Own and Plan the Project Plan Vision. To put this another way, plan, plan, plan…and then plan some more. Then expect it all to change daily or even more frequently. Your team requires producers to know what’s on the horizon so that risk can be mitigated, minimized, removed or accepted. Producers need healthy participation and collaboration from the team experts and stakeholders with the goal of clearing the road for the title. The tools available in proper project management can aid this effort. Scope Management Plans, Delphi Analysis, Work Breakdown Structures, activity scheduling, budgeting, Risk Registers, etc. All these tools are available to anyone with the proper training. This is a good reason why producers should be trained in project management. Producers without training don’t know what they don’t know. Many producers without training rely on their own crafted tools and processes. Some may work but many others may not be optimal. Or, worse, they have no tools and processes and instead rely on brute force of will to get the job done. It should be noted that it is impossible to plan game projects out at the start. Games are actually full of smaller, achievable little projects and the subsequent phases should be broken down as new information is discovered. Agile development expects and embraces these changes and attempts to manage uncertainty.
Track, Trust and Verify: Holding the team accountable for the goals they collaboratively set with production is a key responsibility of the producer. The producer must engage the team to help build the honest, iterative plans. The producer must also make sure team members are delivering on their plan. Frequent checking and monitoring of status is crucial so that change requests can be evaluated and the project course adjusted as it progresses toward the finish. Game projects are complex. They have millions of different inputs that must converge on a single output. A producer must have a great understanding of the entire problem space of a project so that he or she may make course corrections when required. They must perform the ABCDs…Always Be Collecting Data.
Historically our industry generally reacts to project scope change by simply working the team harder. This has led to many neglected children and marriages and often games that are subpar due to poor resourcing, bad decision making and underdone features. As the adage goes, we need to work smarter, not harder. While I don’t believe crunch can be removed from a creative endeavor I do think it can be planned for and managed better. Game developers are some of the hardest working people on the planet and squeezing an extra 10% from these dedicated people isn’t always the best answer; it’s usually just the easiest. It takes no production IQ to tell people to work the weekend. Producers need to track, monitor, gather metrics and control the inevitable changes that occur during a project lifecycle. Without this data clear decision making is impossible and the team (and project) will pay the price.
Tools & Processes: As mentioned previously the study of project management comes with it standardized tools to help the GIP understand and manage scope, changes, stakeholder buy in, project goals and success criteria, among others. I’m not referring to tools like software. Hansoft, Project, Jira, etc. are all fine tools but in this case I’m referring to project management tools such as Risk Registers, Scope Statements and Project Charters. I’m also referring to project management methodologies like Scrum, Dynamic Software Development Method, Kanban and even Waterfall. A producer needs to be familiar or even an expert in various methodologies since different ones might be more applicable to different phases of the project. These tools are independent of the software used to track the project, though some, such as Hansoft or Greenhopper are designed specifically for Agile methodologies.
Know your Pipelines: The work flow process in a project must be intimately known by the producer. The producer must know the overall roadmap for a project and the work flow pipelines are at the core. At the end of the day the producer is helping move around assets and ideas so that they may be executed as fast as possible to the assigned quality bar. The pipelines are how this work moves from person to person and ultimately into the game. Without understanding them the producer will be unable to fix or even optimize workflows.
Encourage Frequent Failure: I’m a big fan of prototyping. In a nutshell prototyping simply means creating a demonstrable feature as quickly and as small as possible that proves the core idea before investing a lot of people’s time only to watch it fail. Often this may not even be a piece of running software. It can also be a document or a movie. Whatever proves the feature and minimizes the risk that the feature or idea will not work. Prototyping allows experimentation and the team to fail quickly. He or she MUST accept iteration as a reality. Only through failure will the team learn and make corrective action and come to the right decisions.
Set the Rules: Teams work best when they are clear on the title vision and the rules for working that are expected of them. The rules of operation are things like “everyone must respond to their email at least twice a day”, “everyone must attend the standup at 10:30” or “everyone must update their task list before the standup.” They can also be values such as “we are committed to trying new processes and methods” or “we value communication transparency”. Your rules should be set in collaboration with the team.
Commit, then Deliver: (This one is again from Patrick Gilmore, Studio Head of Double Helix). “The producer’s job is to make commitments to an organization or group of stakeholders, then work with the team to deliver on those commitments. Success is dependent upon knowing what the team is capable of, understanding how to help the team focus, and also on managing and communicating with stakeholders. Junior producers fail on one side or the other—they overcommit and grind their teams, or don’t know how to build quality and so can’t be trusted the next time they need to commit to stakeholders.”
Execute now: The mindset of a GIP can be described with one word: Urgency. Everything must be done as soon as possible so the producer can have time to navigate the unknown unknowns that are sure to pop up in the project. Nothing can wait till tomorrow. If a problem is large the producer must have a plan on how to break down the issue into smaller, consumable and attackable issues…and then focus the team toward doing so, all the while juggling the other immediate issues on facing the team. No problem can be delayed, even though a Producer must sometimes wait due to resourcing priorities. Stack rank the issues, come up with plan and then “do”.
Beacon of Ethics: The Producer should be the guiding light when it comes to executing a project in an ethical and moral way. Most of this can simply be achieved through open and honest communication. This can build trust with the team when they know the producer is being straight with them on what’s expected of them.
Carry the Creative Vision: The Producer needs to fully understand the title’s creative vision. What will the title “do” for gamers? Creatively what is it trying to attain? To be clear, I used the word “carry”, not “create” the vision. Anyone can create the project vision, though it usually comes down to the Creative or Design Director. If that’s the case the producer should support, defend and communicate that vision, regardless of who creates it. Consider the producer something like a knight and the creative vision is the crown. It must be protected and championed. I also didn’t use the word “own” the vision. Again, this usually falls to the Creative or Design Director. The owner of the creative vision tells the team where to dig the well. The carrier does whatever is necessary to make sure the water gets to the thirsty folks without spilling.
Beware the Dirty Phrase “But We’ve Always Done it this way…”: This has been called the most dangerous phrase in our business. Leaning on old techniques will lead a producer down a black hole without a conscious effort to improve. The producer MUST be adaptable and willing to change for the betterment of the team and project. Nothing creates a bad producer faster than success. If a producer picks up bad habits early but happens to deliver a great title despite these habits there’s no motivation for corrective action. Worse, he or she won’t even know corrective action should be taken.
Be a Lifelong Learner: I believe producers MUST commit to lifelong learning about their craft. Read books, take classes, interview other producers, interview team members about what they think a producer should be, etc. Too often I’ve found that producers are content with on the job learning. The problem is that habits picked up this way are a small microcosm of lessons outside their sphere. Also, they are sometimes simply wrong!
Be a Servant of the Team: In game making, the team is the absolute most important thing. While a producer is a leader he or she often should lead by servicing and providing for all the needs of the team. One of my old bosses used to say “The game is a reflection of the team.” A poorly run, unhappy team will probably deliver a poor, unhappy game. The producer must do everything to protect the team and allow them to do the great, creative work required. I’ve heard it said producers should be a “S--t Umbrella.” There’s a lot of truth in that.
Be Humble and Actively Listen: The producer usually isn't the smartest person in the room. We work with experts in their craft. Always be humble and treat them with respect. Above all, listen to them with enthusiasm.
Granted, this article comes off slightly preachy…and for that please accept my apologies. It’s a trend I’ve been seeing in our business lately and I care very much that we improve our craft and the teams around us. We are in an industry that is not unlike a teenager. We think we know it all but we’re still immature. Only by pointing at the elephant will we all acknowledge that it’s in the room. In the end we’re the only ones that can make it so. I welcome competing theories so please feel free to offer them. In the end only collaboration and discussion about this topic will progress our discipline.