Laura Fryer’s history with Microsoft Game Studios spans as far back as 1995 when she was one of the first members of the division, and she is now an executive producer for titles including the original Gears of War and its just-shipped sequel.
As part of her Montreal Game Summit keynote, the executive producer drew on her history with Microsoft -- including her time as a founding member of the Xbox project -- to discuss what she’d learned about the importance of creating a culture of production within game studios.
No Exploits For Making Good Games!
Fryer opened with an illustrative anecdote about one of the first projects she worked on at Microsoft, Fighter Ace, a massively-multiplayer (200+ player) dogfight simulation game.
During an internal beta phase, she developed the “Fighter Ace Challenge” where the four studios that made up Microsoft Game Studios at the time played the game against each other. They found that one player had a score that “obliterated” everyone else’s, only to discover that he had found an exploit that allowed him to rack up kills without any effort.
"We found that exploit, and we fixed it,” she described, “But when it comes to the method of game production, a lot of people are looking for that kind of exploit. That one trick that will guarantee you'll ship a great game every time under the conditions that you need to. There isn’t one.”
“But there is one thing that I've found that great companies know,” she continued. “You do whatever it takes. You can't settle, you have to make sure your team does whatever it can to make the game great.”
“Within moral and ethical boundaries, of course,” she admitted.
However, “doing whatever it takes” only makes sense as long as you know why you’re doing it.
Getting The Vision Right
“Vision is important,” she emphasised, describing how in the Gears of War franchise, Cliff Blezinski holds the vision of “destroyed beauty” -- conceptualized from a visit to London where he pondered the impact of the second World War -- and that it is something for a team to rally around.
Of course, vision can’t support a project on its own. Recalling the concept of “cargo cults” -- natives who created bamboo runways in the idea that they would summon cargo planes -- the importance of production lies not in its “form” but its substance.
“People see producers having meetings, creating schedules, setting specs,” she said, “but that's not what production is.”
According to Fryer, production requires far more than that. From her work on Fighter Aces, where she had to teach the St. Petersburg-based development team what a pinball machine looked like and keep them from getting homesick when they visited, through to Gears of War, where she created a “server farm” to perform time-intensive automated testing within her office.
The server farm was an example of how a producer must be prepared to go the extra mile for a project, while still making sure they were able to deal with the day-to-day tasks of production. In fact, it was possible only because of one of her usual production tasks, which is making sure to walk around the office to visit and chat with team members.
The Importance Of Communication
“I was out talking to an engineer about his weekend, and he mentioned a problem -- he had a system to automate testing but no way to do it. We hire all of these people, and they have strength in diversity, and as a producer you need to place yourself where communication can happen.”
“That means sometimes coming in early, sometimes staying late to catch the night owls,” she said, quipping that it “might mean going out and drinking beers with the team... we all have to sacrifice.”
“Some of you might be thinking, I have no time,” she acquiesced. “You might be saying ‘I get hundreds of e-mails a day.’ But if you go out and talk to people, you'll find those fires before they land flaming in your inbox.”
A major way to help the team with the overall goal of “getting the game shipped” is to foster a culture of production. “Production is for everyone,” she announced. “It's not just for the producer. Everyone in the team should be focused partially on what the team needs to get done to get the game shipped.”
This culture of production means that “everyone helps each other,” requiring producers to do their best -- even when they want to just yell and scream -- and to forgive mistakes, making it “easy for people to fail, and easy for them to be able to fix it.”
Balances And Sacrifices In Game Development
“Too often in game development, we don't catch a mistake, or we do catch it, and we put off fixing it. But pain deferred is pain multiplied. Some of the worst problems I've ever encountered are the ones people knew about but didn't do anything about,” she warned.
“If management see a fire, then they're going to call a fire department, but what about a faulty extension cord? in a culture of production, you can't let those things go. If you're positive that extension cord is going to catch fire, you're going to have to convince people.”
Fryer also warned that people must be sure to “pick their battles, and be sure to celebrate their victories,” and above all know that they could still be wrong.
“This happened to me on Gears of War. We had a bug later on, and I so wanted it fixed. And every day we'd argue about it; they’d say they couldn’t fix it without breaking something else, and no one would ever notice anyway.”
And when the title shipped —- with the bug remaining -- Fryer said that she didn't see “one reviewer, message board, or anyone ever bring it up.”
“Of course, now you all want to know what the bug was,” she laughed, “but I'm not going to tell you because that's the point -- it was all okay!”
Though by that anecdote, Fryer felt that people could read it as “arguing against quality” and consider that a negative thing, she explained that it can be required as part of the belief in doing "whatever it takes."
“It doesn't mean that we shouldn't care and we should ship garbage,” she concluded, “but there's a long distance between shipping garbage and shipping bug free.”