Getting into Game Production - Part 2
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Note from the author
The opinions expressed here are my own and not representative of my current or former employer's policy or conduct in any way, shape or form.
In Part 1 of this article, I talked about the decisions I made and the actions I took that led to my eventually becoming a Game Producer. In this second part of my article, I want to talk a little bit about common assumptions people have about applying for a Game Producer job and how best to prepare for an application. But first I want to touch upon the subject of motivation.
Why would you want to become a game producer?
Before we move on, I think it's time to ask ourselves a key question: why even become a Game Producer? Like most people I know who have a career, Game Producers by and large seem to have coincidentally rolled into their jobs as a result of a sequence of events in which they were a mere pawn rather than an instigator, or even an active participant. I literally don’t know anyone who made the conscious decision to work towards becoming a Video Game Producer during their formative years in school, other than myself. And this is not surprising or strange. I estimate that between the ages of, say, 14 and 25, most people have no idea what they want to be when they “grow up”. By that time it’s often too late to do anything about it. It is a phenomenon I see around me every day and, unfortunately, it is from this group of people that a lot of prospective Game Producers are emerging. And add to that, when people come up to me and say they want to be Game Producers, they’ve usually reached that conclusion by process of elimination.
The ‘Process of Elimination’ Motive
Lots of people like videogames. Lots of people like videogames and hate their current job, and can’t wait to go home every night and play videogames. Of these people, a significant number then decide they would actually like to work in videogames. So they go to websites and read the job requirements: they can’t draw, so they can’t be an artist; they can’t program so they can’t become a programmer, and becoming a designer seems very vague, lot of work and unlikely to succeed, so that rules that out. So what’s left? That’s right: Producer. For that job, what is usually required is experience in project management, which is something anybody can claim who has ever opened Microsoft Excel or been looped in on a long, work-related email thread.
So for many prospective Game Producers, it’s the “whatever’s left” option, and I don’t know if that’s the best reason to want to become a Game Producer. The trouble is that the reason you like videogames will likely have nothing to do with the work of a Game Producer. To a player, a videogame is about gameplay, graphics, atmosphere, controls and story; things into which a producer has no tangible input. People don’t sit at home going: “Man, the milestone planning for this game was magnificently done!” If what you like is playing videogames, you might consider a job in a field that requires you to do more video game playing, like a writer or blogger for the video game press, or a specialist in a Quality Assurance team.
Some would say that they know they won’t be playing videogames all day, but that it’s the proximity to game development that attracts them to the role. This is a fair statement; there’s no denying that as a Game Producer, you certainly are close to the action. But being this close also reveals the darker side of the moon, if not the boring one. It’s like knowing how a sausage is made; there’s the risk of contaminating your pleasant memories and experiences with the ugly pollutant of reality. Seeing how games are developed may reveal to you all the little flaws, good intentions gone bad and dreams that have gone unfulfilled. In short, just because you like games, doesn’t mean you’ll like making games.
I’ve also come across people who genuinely claim to “love project management”. I call bullshit on that. No one ‘loves’ project management. Sure, you can enjoy working on a project, or find the methodology of, say, Agile, interesting and pragmatic, but that just means you don’t hate it as much or that, in the context of a working environment, you don’t mind project management. When someone in an interview tells me they ‘love’ project management, I immediately assume they are just telling what they think I want to hear….and it is not *that*!
The problem is that most people don’t know what they’re getting themselves into when they start down the path of becoming a Game Producer, and approaching anything, especially your career, from a position of ignorance, is a terrible way to lead your life or plan your future. So to the readers of this article, let this just be a warning: video game production can be a rough, thankless and boring job, just like any other. Of course there are awesome sides to it but, like eating foie gras or Marmite for the first time, the appeal is not immediately apparent and takes a while to get used to before it can be fully appreciated.
Dispelling the myth
People often come to me with assumptions about what they need in their skillset or resume in order to be eligible for a Game Producer position, and often times their assumptions are wrong. Let me explain what in my experience has proven to be false, and what has proven to be true.
It’s a skill based job
This is not a skill based job, unless you count sending emails and using Excel as a skill. But that would be insulting to people whose jobs *DO* require a skill, like a 3D artist or a programmer. You don’t need to start your Producer career knowing exactly how all our tools work, how to enter tasks or how to draft a schedule. Those are things you can learn in your first week on the job. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, or that you’re going to be any good at them, it just means they are easy enough to learn on the fly and your application shouldn’t be rejected for lack of them. Of course, having a broad skillset makes your resume more impressive and it makes it easier to sell yourself in the interview, but as long as you have basic organizational insight and can use a computer, you have the hard skills needed to be a Game Producer.
You need a degree
I have never been able to impress anyone with my degree, and I have never been in an interview with a Game Producer candidate in which anything was ever asked or mentioned about the person’s education. There is no specific, formal, Game Producer course I know of that will guarantee, or even significantly imprve your chances of landing a job as Game Producer. However, having attended and ideally completed a degree at any institution of higher learning, is a definitely a plus; more on that later. For now, suffice to say that experience is a better time investment than education if your goal is to become a Game Producer.
Need to know a system of project management
People sometimes try and impress me with their SCRUM certification. I think there is a lot to be said for adopting a proven methodology of Project Management in game development, like SCRUM, but it doesn’t seem to make it easier to get a job if you put it on your resume. In fact, it might even backfire; championing one methodology when a studio has adopted another one, could hurt your chances for getting a job there. Best to not put all your eggs in one basket. I would recommend you gain at least some familiarity with the different methodologies and can talk a little bit about them all in a meaningful way during an interview. But aside from that, there are far better ways to invest your time in preparation for an application.
Knowing someone makes all the difference
It’s much easier to get a job if someone you know vouches for you and champions your cause. This holds true for any job anywhere in the world at any point in history, and also for becoming a Game Producer. If you know the right people, your chances skyrocket; you’ve established trust and familiarity, both on a personal level and, ideally, also on a professional level. It can give you insight into what they are looking for, who the hiring managers are and if there are specific things you should avoid or emphasize.
Now, it must be said that it can also work against you; if you’ve been working with someone for years and years, they also know your flaws; flaws that they might not be aware of in an external candidate or in someone they aren’t as familiar with. Furthermore, if you’re interviewing with someone you know well, you’re less likely to get away with charm, subtle manipulation and bullshit. But these cases are in the minority; by and large, it’s more beneficial to know someone. More on this later.
Some kind of management experience
If you have some experience in herding a group of people in a desired direction in order to get the job done, then you have some experience needed to become a Game Producer. Being a Producer is a lot like being a manager of sorts, but without concrete authority or the ability to determine their yearly salary increase and bonuses. But like a manager, you have to find clever ways to get people to do what is necessary to achieve the goals of the entire team. Doing this well means knowing how to be a leader, set an example, share in the misery and build camaraderie. These are all skills that can best be obtained by being a manager of people in almost any kind of environment, whether it’s in the software industry, a bank or even a construction yard. It’s all essentially the same.
Eventually an experienced Game Producer will develop knowledge and familiarity with a myriad of different subjects and disciplines, from Art to Engineering to Customer Service to Public Relations and, eventually, everything that goes into developing and releasing a videogame. As this knowledge and familiarity increases in complexity over time, it becomes more and more important that a Game Producer can rely on a natural tendency to be well organized. People go about this in different ways; what to one may seem like a well thought out “system”, to another looks like a mess. Either way, whatever method you have for doing your mental bookkeeping and organizing the calendar in your brain, it should be able to run on autopilot, otherwise you’ll forget to follow-up on action items, reply to emails, show up on time for meetings or remember to write notes. It’s all basic stuff really, that anyone could benefit from in any line of work. But it holds especially true in the role of Game Producer.
Easy with people
A game development team is a very diverse arena of characters, personalities and behaviors. Navigating these waters as a Game Producer can be tricky, so it helps to have good insight into what makes people tick. And I’m not just talking about making people like you. These are people you may have to be harsh with or rebuke. These are people who will dislike you for having them work overtime, potentially for months on end. These are people whose dreams you’ll shatter when you reject an idea or decline a feature for lack of time. These aren’t your friends. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to work well with them, or make them work well with each other. In fact, being able to do that despite the challenges, is essential. A person would need to be approachable, good with people, a good listener and a rational talker, while at the same time being a partner in crime, a collaborator in silliness and, in the ideal case, a friend. This is the games business after all; people like fun.
But regardless of what’s true and what is not, one thing that is certain, is that it pays to be prepared. Next we will talk about what you can do to prepare for an eventual, actual job application.
Very few people suddenly wake up one day and can say that they have everything they need to become a Game Producer. Usually it’s something you plan for years in advance and work towards slowly. That way, you’ll eventually gather the skills and experience you need to successfully apply to a position. This section is about what you can do to prepare for that moment when, one day, you decide to take the plunge and submit an application for a position as Game Producer.
As I mentioned before, having undergone and completed some form of formal education is definitely a plus. If nothing else, it at least shows that you were able to muster the discipline and maturity needed to finish something you’d started. It also means you have some basic skills in your toolbox, like how to read and write decently, how to prepare a paper or presentation, how to use the Microsoft Office Suite and how to plan your schedule in order to reach a deadline. It will differ from person to person, but in general these are things one learns and gains some experience in even before getting a job.
In terms of the actual degree, I suppose the general preference is that it is somewhere in the vicinity of computer science and/or project management, although I have never heard of a situation in which a specific degree was desired or even talked about during an interview. I think this is partially because if we would only consider people with specific Project Management degrees, our pool of potential candidates would be prohibitively small. But more importantly, there are many ways a person can learn the skills needed to become a Game Producer, even in professions that have nothing to do with videogames. Any job in which you’re required to plan ahead, assign tasks, follow-up on initiatives and coordinate between different groups of people, you will ultimately gain relevant experience.
I think a lot of people are familiar with the ‘lack of experience phenomenon’: you read the minimum requirements section of a job posting, and you decide that you have everything they ask for, except experience. And it’s the experience aspect that always seals your fate; they want five years of experience in….well, what basically amounts to the roll you’re applying for! So it becomes a Catch 22; how can you get the experience if you don’t have the job, but how can you get the job if you don’t have the experience?
I think most companies know full well that they are doing this. It’s a way to keep the bulk of ineligible or undesirable candidates from even applying and flooding the system. To keep out the riffraff, if you will. But this strategy hurts both parties; potential job seekers are scared off and become unwilling to apply, and companies lose out on potentially great candidates.
That is why I usually recommend people view the experience requirements as implied experience, not as a strictly specific number of days, months and years. If you genuinely feel you would be a good candidate and can do a good interview, then don’t worry too much about needing exactly X-number of years of experience; if the company you’re applying for will literally throw out every application that doesn’t strictly meet all the requirements to the last detail, then that is not a company you want to work for.
Looking at experience as ‘implied’, brings two major advantages with it. First of all, more of your experience will be relevant that way. The basic work of a Game Producer is to manage projects, and there’s lots of work out there that you can consider to be ‘managing projects’. Releasing content on a website, launching a PR campaign, organizing a charity event or even planning for a large dinner or the office Christmas party! If you’re dealing with many different groups/disciplines, juggling a dozen or so moving pieces all at once and need to have everything done by a specific date, then you’re managing a project, and you can use that experience to help produce a videogame.
The second major advantage is that you can more easily work towards getting relevant, ‘implied’ experience than the specific bullet points that are listed in a job posting. I mean, “5 years experience releasing triple-A titles on multiple platforms” is impossible for anyone to achieve if they aren’t already working for a gaming company. But see it as ‘five years running large scale projects in a multi-discipline environment’, and suddenly a far larger group of people can see opportunities in their current job to achieve this goal. Often times by asking around and seeing what other people are working on, volunteering for special assignments or simply initiating your own proposals and new programs, people can get involved in projects. Do that long enough, and before you know it, you have experience that you can use and talk about in an interview.
To be sure, I’m not claiming that organizing the office Christmas party means you can become a Game Producer. I’m just saying that there are many ways in which one might acquire at least some relevant experience, even if they are working in an industry far removed from videogames. And it’s certainly true that they might reject you out of hand, but then you’re more than likely dealing with a company that already has their candidate but needs to go through an open application process for internal bureaucratic or legal reasons. Usually if a company is genuinely looking for a new, outside candidate to fill an entry level production slot, and you are a hardworking individual with a decent resume, you’ll at least get a phone interview. And that is your first foot in the door.
Like with any job, nothing beats knowing someone. A good word from the right person, can effectively guarantee a successful application, mainly because that’s what recruiters are looking for above all else; people that can be trusted. Anyone can claim to be a hard worker or a quick learner; anyone can show they have a degree from a prestigious institution or even that they already have years of experience. But how do you know if they aren’t bullshitting you? How do you know if they will work well with your fellow colleagues, if they can be trusted with company secrets or if they are a good companion for a drink after work? These things you can never tell from a resume or an interview, and yet they matter….a lot! And that’s where someone vouching for you makes all the difference.
Meeting the right people and getting to know them can be hard work, but the strategies to do so probably haven’t changed much in the past few centuries. Try and get involved in the things the people you want to meet are involved in. With Game Producers, it’s easy; they tend to like video games! So play a lot, primarily the games you are genuinely passionate about and interested in working for. Be involved in the community; on websites, social media and even just in-game chat. Get to know the people, and eventually you might cross paths with someone who works in the industry. At that point it’s up to your own social skills, and I won’t go into details on that front, mainly because I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, and I assume that effective strategies to meet people will differ from person to person, country to country and culture to culture. I will say this though: I don’t recommend spamming them with LinkedIn invites; I tend to ignore those mostly, and I assume a lot of other people do too.
This bleeds into other things you can do in your spare time to prepare for an application to a position of Game Producer. As I have said before, try and get involved in the community of gamers. Read about games, maybe even write about them. Post on forums and get involved in discussions and debates. Try and visit local events that might be taking place, like tournaments or Game Jams. If you can, try and go to some of the larger conventions, like GDC, GamesCom or DreamHack. Doing all these things will have you elbow-deep in the gamer scene before you know it, and you’re bound to get in touch with developers that way, especially if you make an effort to meet new people. Plus, it’s useful material to have if and when you get an interview. Talking about your experiences with videogames and it’s culture and being able to demonstrate that you are truly passionate about them, can make all the difference in an application process. Anyone can claim to love video games, but if you can talk about conventions you’ve gone to, tournaments you’ve won or that time you got drunk with a Swedish programmer in San Francisco, you will make a far better impression than someone who cannot talk about those things.
If you already work with Game Producers
Working closely and regularly with Game Producers can be a curse if you’re looking to become one. As I mentioned before, if you have no anonymity, then you can’t show only the side of you that makes you look good. Knowing the people who may interview you, means they know you, with all your quirks and character flaws and bad habits. It’s like being married. But unlike most marriages, with a job application you don’t have months of intimate contact before the decision needs to be made; it’s usually just a first date, and then you decide if you’ll get into bed with that person. And that decision can be the worst mistake of your life. There’s no risk of that happening when you’ve been working with Game Producers for a while. They will have decided a long time ago whether or not they want to work with you. Be aware of that when you decide to apply for a position.
Ultimately though, despite these slight drawbacks, the balance is in favor of the people who already work closely with Game Producers. They will have had more chance to get to know them, to get to know the people hiring for the open position and to understand exactly what they are looking for. They will also have had more chance to put their best foot forward in the work they are doing and to show how they might be a good addition to the team.
Also, they themselves will know better whether or not Game Production is the right career path for them. Knowing what you’re getting yourself into is extremely important when applying for a job. Obviously you are talking about a decision that will potentially impact the rest of your life, so the more you know, the better. But it’s also important because talking about what you think the job entails is a key part of the interview. It shows the interviewers that you’ve done your homework and that you really want this. It also makes the “what would you do if…” questions more relevant, as well as any ideas or suggestions you might have about how things can be improved.
More on the interview later.
Next time in part 3 of "Getting into Game Production":
- The Résumé
- The Interview
- Closing Thoughts