Thursday, May 17, 2012

What Makes a Good Game Producer?

Defining the role of Producer

Nearly every producer in entertainment is asked the same question: "what does a producer do?"

The definition of a producer changes in every studio. Sometimes they are more like project managers, handling the budget and schedules. Sometimes they are more like design directors, holding the vision of the product and seeing that every aspect meets that core direction. Sometimes they are firefighters, solving problems in rapid succession, usually because no one bothered with the core vision, budget, or schedule in great detail. Other times they are whatever the company needs at that moment, swapping hats as designers, programmers, QA, or artists, as they know just enough about each area to do beginner-level work.

There simply is not a good definition for what a producer does, because the true answer is "everything".

For the producer, this creates a bit of a problem in work assessment. Are you doing a good job? Well did you do "everything" today? As a producer on various products, usually I'm judged by my superiors on the quality, efficiency, and frugality in whatever area I happen to be in charge of for the product. To the publishers and most of the outside world, I'm judged on how good the end result of the area of the product turned out in retail, even though many of the decisions of that product were made well above my payscale.

I produced Homefront single-player campaign, so go ahead and judge.

Lessons from a Film Crew

When I worked in film, I was taught a simple rule to know when you see a good producer: "they are the ones sitting, talking on the phone all day about the next film". On a film set, every detail of every job is clearly defined to the person doing that job. You dare not pick up an apple box unless your title has Grip in it. Do not even try to plug in anything electric unless you are on the Gaffer's team. It is frequent on a film set to see a group of perfectly capable crew standing next a 5-pound object that needs to be moved for the next shot and refusing to touch it as if it were covered in razor blades and excrement. Instead they radio over to the one whose job it is to move that object and have them come in from a hundred yards away.

Mr. Cruise is on the set. Someone radio a Grip to move his "leveling device"

This might sound like insanity, especially when you are new to a set. The common complaint aired by crew members is "hurry up and wait" because they cannot move ahead with their job until a blocker is handled by the specific person that handles that specific blocker. Surely the whole production could save time if only I could plug in my own plug or lift a simple box.

But there are reasons behind this insanity. Each part of the crew has responsibilities to be ready to go when the time comes. If someone else begins to go rogue and handle their own simple tasks, then disasters begin to happen. A Gaffer might have all the power of that site maxed to capacity for the lights on set. If you need electricity, then only his team would know which circuits are safe and which could be killed just by plugging in your cell phone charger. Likewise, Grips are not just responsible for moving things, but making sure this things are safe for the rest of the crew to be around. If someone trips over a simple box, then it is the Grip's fault no matter who moved it. If you were on the hook for that kind of responsibility, you would flip out if someone moved something as well.

One of my responsibilities on The Station Agent: be this dude's hands to write a note. I'm serious.

Producers on film crews also have a specific responsibility. They are in charge of making sure that everything that is required for that day's work to happen is present and ready. If someone needs something to do their job, then the producer has work to do. They are present on set to handle anything that may come up throughout the day, and things come up all of the time. Weather changes, deliveries are late, equipment breaks, vans are stuck in traffic, etc. As these problems arise, the producer needs to run over and handle that problem immediately.

This is why it is the sign of a good producer on film when they are sitting on set, because it means there are no problems. They have though of everything and technically their job is done. They do not need to pay attention to the job at hand, so they might as well figure out the details of the next shoot which will be coming in 3 months.

A clearly defined role allows for a simple behavior to be used as a measure of performance.

Working in Games

Now in the game industry, roles are not as clearly defined. It's much more of a muddled system where everyone has their own process and style. Roles lack definition, especially in the production team. It's exactly like film, only back in the early 20th-century when no one knew what they were really doing.

What's the stuntman of which you speak?
Films have had over a century to refine their craft. Games have only had a few decades of large teams. Before then, games were made by one or two programmers who handled everything. By the nature of that development, we branched out roles from one "jack-of-all-trades" to many focused "jacks-of-all-trades". A game artist will not go very far unless they have rudimentary knowledge about graphical computing that puts them just shy of a CS degree. Likewise, graphic programmers better have a good sense of art and design so that they can make the tools and processes that will define the visual style.

Likewise, producers in games need to know a little bit about everything. They may not be able to code the game, but they better be able to read code well enough to find glaring errors in logic. They may not have an art degree, but they better know exactly what the art director is looking for when they negotiate art from an outside vendor and approve contracts and payments. In many of these cases it is good for the producer to have experts in each department that they can use for reference.

But despite whatever your studio's style of producer, there is a common thread among all of them that is akin to their brethren in film: they are there to make sure everyone can do their job that day.

Everyone's needs change quickly in game development. New problems and new bugs come up suddenly and need to be dealt with. The best way to handle this as a producer is talk to a lot of the right people and find a good course of action. If there is not a problem du jour, then there are problems coming tomorrow or the next day. Some you can plan for, but others will surprise the best of us. But whether your producer is being proactive or reactive, they are following the same basic behavior: they are talking with other people and making plans. This can be done over the phone, but for some reason the most efficient meetings are face-to-face. And to do this, that producer is not going to be at their desk most of the day.

So in my own experience, the best game producers are the ones you cannot find in their own desk. They are the ones constantly on the move, jumping from meetings to talk to a developer at their desk, and then off to QA. They should be wearing running shoes and not run out of breath when they go up a flight of stairs. Game producers should function like sharks; constantly swimming or else die.

You're gonna need a bigger console

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