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Improving Your Studio: What Your Producer Told Me

March 31, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Production consultant Keith Fuller surveys the industry to find out what producers really think about their studios -- both their strengths and what's holding them back -- and shares the results with Gamaustra, drawing compelling conclusions.]

I'm Keith Fuller, a production consultant for video game developers. After 14 years in the industry as a programmer, manager, and producer, I decided to start my own business to help as many teams as possible get better at making games -- with the goal being to hit your deadlines without resorting to overtime.

Obviously, it's in my best professional interest to learn more about where studios need to improve. But from a personal perspective, I've also wondered for years why there isn't more public knowledge sharing in the realm of production practices.

There are all sorts of venues available for programmers to better themselves and for artists to improve their craft in skill-specific workshops and online forums. Why has the project management aspect of game development been neglected by comparison?

As a first step toward addressing all of the above, I decided to offer a brief, anonymous survey to production personnel throughout the industry and find out from them what their company processes are like and what steps could be taken to improve them.

I advertised on my company website, my personal blog, Twitter, Gamasutra, Facebook and on the IGDA production mailing list, inviting anyone and everyone to take part, from production coordinator up to studio leadership.

No restrictions were made or implied regarding genre, publisher affiliation, geographic location, or any other distinguishing factor. As an incentive to garner more participation I even offered a free studio consultation to one lucky respondent. (See the Postlude for more on this.)

The results of most of the survey questions are presented herein for public review, as I promised in my advertising. I make no claims at any level of expertise in the realm of survey analysis, so feel free to ignore my conclusions and draw your own. But I think many of the findings are fairly clear and I hope that they generate meaningful discussion, preferably leading to industry-wide improvement in how games are made.

Process Improvement

To help people get into the right mindset I prefaced this section with the following:

For this question, consider "process improvement" to mean any single act or recurring practice designed to increase quality, reduce delivery time, reduce waste, or lower costs.

Basically I was trying to find out how many people are out there purposefully improving how they do what they do. I then asked:

Question #1: Do you actively engage in process improvement for a particular project, for the company as a whole, and/or routinely?

More than 83 percent of the participants said they actively engage in improving processes for a particular project. Of those, about half also improve processes for the whole company while about two-thirds also engage in improvement routinely. Further, of the 17 percent who don't seek improvement on a per-project basis, almost all of them try to improve things in some way at their company.

To restate those findings, more than four out of every five people in production are trying to make their current project work more efficiently in some way. Half of those same people are working on something to make the whole company operate better. And most of them are doing so on a regular basis.

The definition of "process improvement" was pretty broad here, but the results still indicate a very healthy number of people involved in production are routinely trying to improve their project and, to a lesser extent, their company. So these folks are out there not just performing standard project management -- checking that the designers are getting their art and the tools programmers are helping the animators -- but these producers are also looking for ways to improve how the people at their company do what they do.

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Shaun Greene
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This was very interesting, but I worry the survey results have a very strong sample bias. People with ties to a production consultant and interested in winning a production consultation seem more likely to be the types of producers who are actively looking to improve production practices. Even so, in my mind a producer's job isn't just to 'make sure the designers have their art', but to do strive to improve those practices- both on the project and company level. I would expect the answers to that first question to have been even higher. I would bet there is a strong correlation between people who rated production at their company highly and people who said they routinely look to improve processes...

Bart Stewart
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Given the responses to this survey, I'd be interested in seeing a follow-up that drilled down into what game producers think are the specific problems with "leadership."

Inexperience? Poor business judgment? General cluelessness? Interference in design decision-making? Infectiously angry/negative behaviors? Other? (Check all that apply.)

In other words, are the main problems with leadership considered to be things that can be fixed with training or experience? Or are the problems innate to individual leaders and there is no hope short of finding different leaders?

Glenn Storm
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Leadership is one of the hottest business and management topics and also one of the least understood. As an example, search on HBR and you'll see scads of articles with little consensus. And then the specifics of leadership within our industry would apply on top of that; leading the cutting-edge technical, the top-tier aesthetic, and the latest evolutions in design thinking all at once. That's an incredible mix that seems to add up to a wild situation for any leader, making things like risk mitigation look like folly. It would seem that flexibility, communication and courage are the strongest traits to have.

Alan Arias
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I find the survey interesting, but, as Shaun Greene notes, I believe it suffers from reporting biases stemming from the decision to exclusively sample producers. The survey points to correlations between indicated top company strengths in production and innovation, weaknesses in company leadership, and needs for improvement again in leadership. The participants are all producers, which contextualizes their experience in a way that, given reporting biases, highlights their work and downplays the contributions of others to company success. In general, the producers in this survey believe that production and innovation work--typically work they are doing--is boosting sales to make the company successful. On the flip side, work outside their realm, specifically in leadership--which is unclearly defined in the study--is hurting sales. Essentially, producers think are helping, and that their leaders are hurting. Reporting biases can account for the phenomenon pretty clearly, and so the study gives information about what the producers think they are doing, not necessarily qualifying those assertions. There are two next steps that may help to clarify your result and shine more light on the production situation. By identifying and reaching out to company "leaders" and repeating the survey, you can gain a second perspective that will help inform your initial findings and work towards mitigating any biases. A second idea is to gain more concrete data; the producers claim to be helping sales, but point to no concrete actions they take or results that follow. There is no cause and effect chain on which their reporting can stand. Perhaps either of these suggestions can be helpful.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the topic; I really enjoyed having a chance to think about your research, and the issue is a really interesting one to pursue in what I imagine is an increasingly sophisticated and complicated game production environment.

Bart Stewart
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Those are excellent ideas, Alan. I enthusiastically agree.

Anonymous Designer
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So people pay you to tell them their employees think they rock and their bosses are clueless? Well at least that's a full time job now.

Tom Buscaglia
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I am having a problem understanding your charts. They do not have values on each axis and I can't quite figure out the conclusions from one question to the next as it seems to me there is either a disconnect there, a lack of clarity or maybe I just don't get it...any way you could dumb it down a little?

That said, thanks for the work. I am sure that if I could understand it it would be very interesting.

Cedric Bold
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I agree that the material published on project management for game development is ridiculous compared to which is delivered for game programming, game design or game graphic design. But it is on par with the Game Testing topic in my opinion.

An easy way to improve project management is to ensure that the tasks assigned are motivating and doable.

Improving the leadership of a game company in general involves getting good relationships between everyone. The spirit should be: we do amazing work together, we're great.

I offer my service in improving leadership in game companies through tribal leadership and production optimisation.

Dustin Chertoff
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I wonder, with regards to the leadership issue, if in future surveys you would consider asking not only about the top-level leadership, but lower-levels of leadership as well, i.e. senior staff and technical leads, as opposed to executive management. Given the tendency for producers to have to answer to high-level management on a more regular basis, they may be considering "leadership" to represent only their bosses - which complete ignores any leadership provided by people in parallel or lower portions of the corporate hierarchy.

There is also the flip side, that programmers/designers/engineers just aren't good managers. Many studios appear to be founded by ex-programmer/designers. Their understanding of business will be based upon their experiences in prior studios, which may or may not prepare them for the actual responsibilities of leading a company to success.

And just a small nitpick - I agree with Tom Buscaglia about your charts. It would really help if you labeled the axis rather than using a legend, especially for the graphics for questions 5 and 6. It would make things much easier to read.

Jack Garbuz
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To Keith: You wrote that the survey's purpose was to find out, generally speaking, what and how teams think they are doing to "increase quality, reduce delivery time, reduce waste, or lower costs." Very laudable goals that no one can object to or disagree with. The problem is, defining very precisely and objectively what is meant by "increased quality" or "reducing waste."

What exactly do you mean by the latter? For example, by "increased quality" do you mean catching and reducing number of bugs per unit of software output, or do you mean improving the end user's experience, or what exactly? And similarly, when you say reducing waste, how do you objectify that? I doubt anyone is going to say that they don't try to increase quality or to reduce waste. I'm certain that every project manager believes he is trying their best, but without specified and objective process control methods, what does it mean?

Dan Porter
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I'm intested in the specifics of what constitutes "process improvement." Depending on the background of the producer and the definition of the producer's role at a given studio, you might get radically different answers. For instance, in a studio where the producer role is partially creative in nature, or where the producer in question has a creative background (such as experience as a designer or artist), it is likely that the producer will bias increases in quality (how often do they change the process to make a "better" game?).

By contrast, a studio where producers serve a more business-focused role, or where the particular producer has a background in business management (perhaps from the software engineering field for example), there might be more of a bias on reducing delivery costs or getting the game to market sooner.

Wouldn't the importance of each of these factors to the individual producer affect which actions he or she considers "process improvement"?

Robert Williamson
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I think it's interesting that Keith brings up the practice of process improvement in context to the development process. In many other industries, process improvement has become almost a study in itself, however for video games it seems as though we haven't progressed to the point of taking a critical analysis of the production process with the same level of scrutiny as some of the more mature industries. With the advent of new development models (i.e. 2 month cycles for mobile and social games) I think it's about time we took another look at the traditional model, in particular the relationship between publisher and developer to see where, if at all, improvements were possible. It would be interesting to see how this survey would change if we took that dynamic into account.