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Matt Powers, Blogger

April 2, 2014

8 Min Read

I'm a producer.  I am a producer of video games.  But what does this actually mean?

What do you do?

When people ask what I do for a living I will usually reply, "I'm a video game producer," or "I make video games."  And then the most common responses are:

"Did you make Candy Crush?  I've played that."

NOTE:  this used to be - "Did you make Doom?  I've heard of that."  

I guess this dates me a bit.

Or they may ask,

"What games have you made?"  

This question usually makes me wonder - often this is a person who does not play games so I wonder if it really matters what I answer. 

The other common question is:

"So you play games all day?"

When I get this response I feel an obligation to give my profession to answer.

"No, we do not play games all day.  Someone needs to make the games people play.  And I am part of that team that makes the games."

But of course, there is much more to it than that.  Given the chance, I try to explain what it exactly is that a producer does.

First, I usually state that I am a Senior Producer (heck, I put in the time to get the title, might as well use it).  Then I quickly clarify,

"Senior Producer does not mean I am an old producer.  It means I have more experience and responsibility than  some other producers."  

Well, that pretty much infers that I am older than other producers.  And since I started in the video game profession in 1993, I probably am one of the older folks.

The quick answer

My quick answer for what a producer does is,

"The producer is responsible for everything," followed by,

"As a producer you worry a lot."

There is a team of talented people who are necessary to get a project done.  The producer is just one of these people.  The difference is the producer is the one responsible for the end results. 

Usually, if things are going well, the producer may not have much to do.  Well, except worry about what may happen in the future and how can we solve those future problems, that haven't occurred yet, now.

The producer helps steer the ship, is on the lookout for icebergs, and whose job, with the help of the entire crew, is to make sure that ship gets to port on time, without accidents, and within budget.

The producer gene

In college there would always be one or two classes where the professor would assign a "group project."  You and a some other random people would be put together to work on something and your grade would be determined by the work the entire group turned in.  

Inevitably there would always be one or two people in the group that wouldn't put the effort in.  They seemed to breeze by without having to work hard and got the benefit of the work by the rest of the group.

One time I decided I wanted to be one of these "slackers."  The group didn't know me; I could just sit back, not participate, not volunteer, and maybe get off doing little work but still get a decent grade.  The group started and I followed my plan.  But the group was clearly disorganized and not making much headway.  I tried to stay firm, but after a while of the group  floundering about, I sat up straight and took over.  

A producer is someone who by nature wants to take charge.  Put a handful of people in a room and give them a task.  The producer, good or bad, will make his/herself known.

What does a producer do?

If the person who asked the question still seems interested, I go into more detail.  In the end I tell people:

  • The producer is the one that worries a lot.

  • The producer is responsible for everything related to the project.

  • The producer tries to solve problems before they occur.

  • The producer needs to make decisions - listen to the input from team members and make the final call.

  • The producer coordinates all aspects of product development, working with all areas of development and publishing to ensure the product meets the company goals.

  • An internal producer will likely manage a development team directly.  The artists, designers, engineers and such will often report directly to a producer (well, a lead first then producer).

  • An external producer manages the publishing side of the project and is responsible for the development but does not work directly with the development team.  The development team will report to the internal producer at the developer.

  • The producer handles the schedule/dates related to the development of the project.

  • The producer oversees the budget or cost of the creation of the project.

  • In the end, the producer is responsible for the quality of the product.

The three big tent posts are:  budget, schedule (or timeliness), and quality.  The producer is constantly juggling these three.  The goal is to get the project done on time, within budget, and at a highest level or quality possible.

Personally, I feel the producer is responsible for all aspects of the project.  While there are usually many very qualified people handling various aspects of the project, the producer needs to be able to assist in any area that may need assistance.

It's not just project management; a producer is also expected to:

  • Do press interviews.

  • Be available for presentations.

  • Work the tradeshows.

  • Go on sales visits/trips.

  • Make sure marketing/PR/community all has information about the game.

  • Work to get marketing/PR/community the assets they need to do their job.

  • Be active in marketing and PR meetings.

  • Be involved and ready to assist with everything.

One of the most difficult parts

There are certainly many difficult parts of being a producer.  I thought I would mention one of the toughest parts.

Probably one of the more difficult jobs a producer may have to do is to handle laying team members off.  Letting people go.  There are many reasons why one would have to let people go from a company.  But lay-offs are usually because of lack of work. 

I feel when one accepts employment with a company, it is an agreement between the company and the employee.  An agreement that both will do the best they can for each other.  

As a producer, my job is to not only be responsible for the project at hand but to also look ahead and prepare for what occurs after the project.  Dove-tailing resources is tricky and can be difficult but it is a producer's responsibility.

If we need to lay people off then I feel the company, and the producer or reporting manager, has potentially failed in their part of the agreement.

How does a producer help prevent this?

There are many things a producer can do to hopefully help prevent the need for lay-offs.  Here is a list of things I recommend:

  • Proactively look for work for the company and especially for your team.

  • Promote your team within the company as a valuable asset.

  • Help direct reports develop their skill sets.

  • Review schedules and work to help dovetail resources as they come off a project.

  • Work with other producers to get direct reports into other teams as needed.

  • Don't hire additional people unless you are sure you need them and you are sure you have work for them for longer than just the current project.

A actual video game project isn't the only thing needed to keep a company healthy.  Propose work for your team outside of the project:

  • Document processes.

  • Develop game concepts.

  • Write post-mortems.

  • Make sure all project materials are archived well/properly.

  • Work with sales, marketing, PR on anything they need.

  • Write reviews of current games on the market - what can we as a company learn from these games?

  • Provide materials to the community team to help promote products.

  • Write articles for sites such as Gamasutra.

  • Make sure your team has an up-to-date databases.  For example, you should have databases of:

    • Developers (and/or publishers) and their skill sets

    • External video/art houses

    • Contract workers that could be useful (for example:  knowing some talented art contractors that could help provide concept art for the next concept).

Overall, as much as possible, try to be honest with your direct reports about their skill sets, what they can do to improve, and the overall health of the company.  And if there are unfortunate lay-offs try to help people find new work and be willing to provide recommendations and references.

In the end, we can't prevent all lay-offs from occurring.  But as producers we should be doing everything we can to stop them or at minimum, lessen their impact.

In Conclusion

The producer does not play video games all day.  Don't get me wrong - producers play games, and we should play a lot of games.  Heck, I admit it, I love playing games.  And yes, those of us in the industry do sometimes play games at work.  We just don't want everyone else to know that is what we do all day.

I would love to hear your definition of a producer.  And what do you think is the toughest part of being a producer?  Share your producer stories.   And if you would like to be a producer - ask questions and myself and other readers will try and answer.

About the Author

Matt Powers has been making video games for over 20 years.  While currently unemployed and looking for work, Matt has had time to reflect on his years in game development and looks forward to many more years to come.

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