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Book Review: The Game Producer's Handbook


May 16, 2005
 

If there were a Hitchhiker's Guide to game production, this would be it.

It's not easy to describe the work of a producer. In practical terms, the producer is the person ultimately responsible for the planning, development, and delivery of a game. Involved in all aspects of production, a producer holds the broadest possible view of a project, and orchestrates its unfolding at the highest level.

Yet producing is also much more than that. In many ways, producing is the most complex and versatile job in the entertainment industry, and those involved in production often claim that their jobs vary as much from day to day much as they do from project to project.

So how does one approach a field this large, this complex, and this rewarding? There's no single answer, but the The Game Producer's Handbook is a good place to start.

The Game Producer's Handbook is a comprehensive, pragmatic guide to the producer's role in game development. Drawing on his own experience as producer of the Myst franchise, Dan Irish presents a complete A-to-Z of game producing, focusing on the processes and practices that make for a successful producer and a smoothly-run production.

Welcome to the World of the Producer

The book opens with the legendary question: “What exactly does a producer do ?”

Verdict

The Game Producer's Handbook
5.0 out of 5 stars

Author: Dan Irish
Publisher: Thomson Course Technology
ISBN: 1-59200-617-5
Published: March 11, 2005
Pages: 352

Pros

  1. Outstanding all-around guide to the art and science of producing games.
  2. Comprehensive yet specific approach addresses all areas of game production.
  3. Author balances pragmatism and efficiency with passion and integrity.

Cons

  1. Focus is largely on producers, but the material is applicable at all levels of production.
  2. Book is conceptually well-organized, but needs clearer visual organization – e.g. clear indications of main sections and sub-sections.
  3. Readers might benefit from a bundled CD-ROM containing sample documents and other digital resources.

A producer and his or her team, says Irish, are responsible for ensuring that a game is developed to spec, on schedule, under budget, and at an acceptable level of quality. The producer is the central hub connecting the development team, the publisher, and the production staff – and by extension, any studio executives, contractors, marketing coordinators, or other parties who might get involved along the way.

This translates into a great many responsibilities over the course of a production cycle. From developing design documents to planning tools acquisitions, a producer must coordinate all major activities associated with a project, and balance a wide palette of tasks that can vary from the ordinary to the wholly unexpected.

Exploring these various areas of responsibility, and detailing the best practices for handling them, is the primary focus of this book.

The Biggest Job in the Industry

Using specific examples and techniques, Irish addresses every major aspect of production, supplementing the general discussion of each topic with sample documents, checklists, and professional testimony. The result is a comprehensive overview of all facets of a game producer's job.

Here is a general summary of the areas focused on in the book.

Best Practices. Generally speaking, the author outlines many of his best practices for game production – tips and tricks which help streamline a production and bring about efficiency and success. Examples include weekly leads meetings, conservative use of overtime, daily delta reporting, building slack into the schedule, and using postmortems to continually improve efficiency.

Design Documentation. Irish places great emphasis on the importance of creating clear and comprehensive design documents. Included are tips on creating a concise executive summary, delivering a clear and passionate presentation to a publisher, creating adequate technical documentation, and regularly revisiting all design documents over a game's life cycle.

Scheduling. Scheduling and resource allocation are in many ways the heart of a producer's job. The author discusses at length the processes that go into creating manageable schedules, setting realistic milestones, and tracking the interaction between human resources, production assets, and deadlines. Specific techniques for linking information via Microsoft Project and Microsoft Excel are also included.

Budgeting. The discussion on game development financials covers the management of global and departmental budgets, the differences between fixed and incidental costs, and the finer points of financial modeling, such as a Profit and Loss statement. Irish also offers techniques for identifying and managing calculated risk.

Legal. On the legal side of production, the book offers a wealth of information on working with contracts and outlines steps to ensure that all bases are covered when entering into a legally binding agreement with a third party. (A point-by-point explanation of a typical studio contract is especially useful for anyone involved in contract negotiation.) The author also offers pointers for working with contractors, attorneys, and unionized employees, including both SAG and non-SAG actors.

Audio Production. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of game development, the book addresses the various areas of audio production in which a producer might be involved. These include choosing music, interviewing and hiring composers, managing sound effects assets, and wrangling voiceover work, as well as licensing and/or developing a sound engine.

Tools. Since a producer is ultimately responsible for the tools that his or her team uses to make a game, the author includes an overview of some key applications used by a typical development house. These include programming tools such as OpenGL, CGI packages such as Maya, and industry-specific tools such as Valve's “Source” engine. The book also addresses the pros and cons of using a proprietary toolset.

QA. The QA process, though often relegated to a secondary position in the production pipeline, is emphasized as a critical component of the development process. The author discusses the importance of establishing an organized, methodical approach to QA, and encourages fixing issues as they arise rather than at the end of production. Irish also presents breakdowns of a typical QA hierarchy and of common QA practices.

Marketing. Lastly, Irish addresses the relationship between producer and marketing department, and the importance of factoring marketing needs into the budget and schedule. He discusses the merits of a strong demo, the importance of good screen shots, and the wisdom of planning for accessory products such as a soundtrack or a strategy guide.

The author also addresses the degree to which producers must understand the game industry per se in order to successfully manage a game's development. This includes the specific technological and financial constraints of today's market, as well as a discussion of the inherent challenges of straddling the fence between production and design.

An Indispensable Handbook

It's worth noting that this book has added relevance outside the game industry, particularly in animation production and digital filmmaking. Leveraging middleware or working with game testers are of course industry-specific considerations, but the general nature of production is the same throughout the entertainment industry, and the material in this book has much to offer for production professionals in related sectors.

Irish also recognizes that the manner in which a producer approaches his or her work impacts the quality of a production. At several points in the book, he examines the habits and attitudes that allow a producer to be successful, and ties these back to producing and production management.

If there's one genuine critique of this book, it's that the author over-emphasizes the degree to which his material applies to “producers.” Irish does address the full scope of the production hierarchy, from Executive and Associate Producers down to PAs and Interns – but the general emphasis on the producer could lead less experienced readers to miss out on material that is applicable at levels of the command chain.

Yet overall, what Irish delivers is a great guidebook for professional game production, covering every major aspect of the field in enough detail to be useful and accessible, while paying fair due to the habits and behaviors that characterize a strong producer. Appropriate for experienced professionals and up-and-comers alike, The Game Producer's Handbook is an excellent text on the overall art and science of producing games, and the book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in this topic.

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