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The Road : My Journey from Programmer to Producer

People often ask how I became a producer. In this article I take you on my journey. Starting as a young programmer through college and to my first video game job. And along the way I describe the skills and experiences that led me to be a producer.

How did I become a producer?

In my years of being a video game producer a common question I am asked is, "how did you become a producer?"  And often this comes from people who are interested in getting into the video game industry.  I thought it might be useful for me to share the path I took to become a video game producer. 

The route I took to producer is probably not the more common path.  Most producers come from QA (Quality Assurance).  I have never worked in QA but came from a programming background.  And then from programming I became a producer and never looked back.

Learning to Program

My Dad was a computer programmer, and when I was around 10 years old (the year was 1980) he worked for Atari.  He taught me to program in BASIC on my Atari 800 and I was off and running writing my own games.  I used BASIC for everything with some help from Atari's Player Missile Graphics (PMG for short).  PMG was a unique system for the Atari.  Basically, Atari provided a direct memory access system which allowed programmers to create their own "custom made" graphic images.  With PMG one could create all sorts of fast special graphic effects which are memory independent from the playfield.

I loved playing games, and when I wasn't dreaming up my own games I was playing as many games as possible.  I remember playing games such as Miner 2049, Jumpman, Ballblazer, and all the Electronic Arts games (MULE and Archon for example).  I had disks and disks (5.25" floppies) of games.  I quickly learned that using a hole punch on the side of a disc one could turn any disc into a two sided disc. 


Miner 2049 on the Atari 800

We also had a Apple II which I only used to play games.  On the Apple II I played greats such as Civilization, Ultima, and Bard's Tale.  I remember programming my own dungeon crawl which I based on Moria which I played on the Plato.  And I remember programming my Karatika clone (my first Player Missile Graphics experiment).

Moria on the Plato

I spent a majority of my time from 10 years old until my junior year in high school on the computer.  At this point I had already decided that I would study programming in college and be a computer programmer as my future career.

The Sysop Softball Game

Because my dad had worked for Atari, we had a bunch of Atari equipment.  I was able to upgrade my Atari 800 to 128k of RAM (less than a quarter of 1 megabyte and yet a lot at the time) and I had 3 floppy drives (5.25" drives).  This was ideal for my BBS (Bulletin Board System) setup.  I was accepted into the Bay Area BBS Sysop group.  I recall one day there was a Sysop softball game where most of the Bay Area Sysops and many of the users got together to play a game of softball.  Even today I wonder about that - who would have thought that hardcore computer guys that run Bulletin Boards would want to play softball?  But there was a good turnout, and I was able to put faces to the handles I had met online.  And this was the first realization (and this continued through college) that most hardcore computer guys were also hardcore rockers, just like me.  There were a lot of jean jackets and/or t-shirts with Y&T, DIO, Iron Maiden, Van Halen, and the like.  If you are from the Bay Area at that time you will remember radio stations such as KOME and KSJO.  The Number of the Beast, Blizzard of Ozz and Holy Diver are great albums  At that time I believed I had found my people.


Heavy Metal from the 1980's.   Represent.

Finishing High School

The first couple years of high school I spent in the computer lab.  I learned Pascal and helped the teacher instruct other students.  And I played a lot of Rogue on the lab's PCs.  One of my first Pascal programs was a rogue clone on the PC.

Rogue on the PC

I was also involved in band and theatre.  Outside of school I did a lot with Boy Scouts (earned my Eagle Scout).  Starting my junior year in high school, I decided to spend less time in the lab and more time with the theatre, speech and debate, newspaper crowd, where I knew many of the people.

I am a proud Eagle Scout

Somewhere towards the end of sophomore year I distinctly recall feeling like I had spent enough time at the computer and I wanted to do more with high school.  This I believe was the first turning point from programmer to eventual manager (though I didn't realize it at the time).  Getting more involved with theatre and the theatre crowd definitely was an influence on my interpersonal skills (in a good way) which carried onward to college.

Starting College

I went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo as a Computer Science major in the School of Engineering.  My first year was 1988.  Prior to Cal Poly, during my senior year in high school, I took a handful of Advanced Placement tests including the Computer Science AP test.  Then, upon starting at Cal Poly, I immediately challenged the intermediary CSC 101 class - which allowed me to skip that class and start with CSC 201.  Starting college with some classes already under my belt allowed me a little head start in my computer classes and gave me a bit of freedom to explore other opportunities at Cal Poly.

Very few people at Cal Poly had their own computer.  I was one of the few who had a computer in their dorm room.  I brought one of the first "portable" computers at the time - the Compaq Portable.  Portable at the time, but was still the size of a small suitcase. 


The Compaq Portable

When I started college, I realized the vast opportunity for fun at this school and I made a pledge that I would only program if it was required for a class or if I was getting paid for it.  Not realizing it at the time this was another turning point from programmer to eventual manager.  It was at this time that I decided to not have programming as a hobby anymore.

The Computer Science Major

I was very happy with the CSC (Computer Science) major at Cal Poly.  And as time passed, I gained even more respect for the program.  There were a number of classes that I enjoyed the most.  And many really hard classes.  Personally, I believe that the diversity of classes required in a major is very useful for people - especially me.

Once, in one of the advanced CSC classes, the professor wanted to get our opinion on something.  The department was looking at changing the CSC curriculum - adding some classes, removing some others.  The professor asked the class (mostly 3rd or 4th year computer science students) what they would recommend.  I remember a number of my CSC classmates responding, "Get rid of the GE (general education) classes."  Very telling to me at the time that most of my classmates only cared about their programming and nothing else. 

There are some CSC classes I remember more than others.  Compilers with the Dragon book was hard.  For those quarters taking compilers I remember spending numerous long nights (and early mornings) in the computer lab.  The C programming class where we had to learn K&R front to back was trying but super useful.

                                                                         The infamous Dragon Book

The first day of Physics for Engineers there were maybe 60 people in the class.  The professor spoke up, "Look to your left and to your right."  After some tentative looking around the professor continued, "one of those people will not finish this class.  The other person will not graduate from this school."  This class was a "weeder" class designed to get rid of the students who just couldn't hack it.  And it was tough.  I remember dreading getting the first midterm back.  I knew I didn't do well.  My score was a 64.  Probably one of the worst test scores I ever had.  I was hopeful that with the curve I could get a C and maybe, just maybe, even a B.  The highest grade in the class automatically gets an A.  The teacher wrote the highest grade on the board.  The highest score, a 64.  At this point I realized that I wasn't the smartest person around (which I knew already) and that I didn't need to be the smartest.  I just needed to be smarter than those nearby.

Overall, the classwork and professors were good.  I didn't enjoy everything but I did find the major classes grabbed my attention overall.  And while some of the CSC classes required a lot of work, I was able to get by with high grades in just about them all (exception being the micro-coding class - that was not my cup of tea).

Welcome to the Mother Ship

My roommate and I were in the computer lab together working on a project.  This was not just any computer lab on campus but the Sun Workstation lab.  All computer science majors at Cal Poly had a Pyramid account.  This was the big server on campus and there were many VT100 labs throughout campus.  This is how the bulk of the computer programming got done on campus.

But if you had special permission or need, you could get access to the Sun and/or NeXT Workstations.  At this time, these computers were the top of the line in both power and coolness.  Having access to these computers was a sign of your CSC prowess and my roommate and I had access to both.

We were programming away on our Suns when another comrade in the CSC major strolled over.  He walked over and gave us a little nod.  In a slight, conspiratorial voice he said,

"Hey there.  Seen you two around.  You're good."

If you are going to get a compliment from a hardcore programmer the above is probably what you might hear.

I replied, "Um, thanks."

"Yeah so," he continued, "Myself and some of the other guys have keys to the lab here and on Friday nights we get together, order pizza, and spend the night programming."

I wasn't sure where this was going but I nodded my head. 

Then with a gesture and nod he finished, "And you two are invited."

It was clear this was quite the invitation.  An invitation that he wasn't making lightly.  I appreciated this invitation but at the very first, earlier mention of Friday night my mind was immediately thinking of Keg'er.  Spending the night programming was nowhere near my calendar.

"Wow," I answered, "thank you very much, but unfortunately we already have plans."

That was a big moment for me and for my future career.  My mind compared the situation to perhaps what it would be like to be Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind - just after being told that he was invited to join the group and explore the Mother Ship.  In some ways, while they were in my major, that group that spent their Friday's in the lab were Aliens, different creatures from myself.  I opted to not join the Alien race but stay with the rest of the humans on earth.


You are invited to be a hardcore programmer

That moment stuck with me, and I realized that those guys (and they certainly were all guys) - would turn out to be better programmers than I.  They lived and breathed their computers.  But they did accept me as one of them.  I was Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist) - accepted by the gorillas but no matter what I did I would never be a gorilla.

NOTE:  I certainly do not mean to suggest that programmers are aliens or gorillas or anything like that -  just that I knew I wasn't cut from the same mold as they.

Changing the Mindset

That experience in the computer lab was a turning point in my thought process of what my career post-college would be.  I realized I would probably not be the best programmer out there.  I then decided that if I wasn't going be the best programmer, then I should focus my efforts elsewhere.  I thought, "These programmers will need someone who speaks their language and can be the conduit between them and the rest of the world."  I thought, "I could be a manager of programmers."  And so I immersed myself in as many extracurricular activities as possible.  These included Marketing Club, Business Club, Ski Club,  and Theatre.  Trying things out such as being a founding father of Sigma Phi Epsilon (a social fraternity), and being a counselor for incoming students certainly helped my communication and interpersonal skills.  I did as many activities as I could both because they were fun but also because I thought I could learn something.  And I feel these extracurricular activities were a big help to my eventual management role in my career.

Contract Work with Apple

During the summers I had various jobs.  One of these summers I got a contract job with Apple to fix bugs in their BalloonWriter application to make it more usable for their developers.  The original contract was for me to fix around 30 or so bugs - I ended up fixing over 100 issues and helped release BalloonWriter 2.0. 

The success of my BalloonWriter work led to more contract work with Apple.  I took a quarter off school and worked with Apple and helped prototype their Apple Guide help system.  It was required by Apple to program the prototype in C++ so I had to learn that - which was great experience.  This contract work with Apple required me to write bids, write status reports, provide detailed documentation, follow specifications, and get work done based upon a schedule.  And it paid well for a college student.

Apple would provide a basic design of what they needed engineered.  I would then write detailed specs for my manager to review to ensure I was going to develop the code properly.  In one particular instance, the specification called for a simple "A" through "Z" scroll bar which would then search a database for data based on the letter selected in the scrollbar.  I noticed a limitation in this system as the specification only called for the 26 letters in the English alphabet and fixed to a specific size onscreen.  I supplied Apple with an alternative design which where the scrollbar would be entirely data driven.  It could be any size and contain as many characters as the data specified.  This meant it could be easily localized and/or use characters other than actual letters.  Apple was on a deadline and went for the basic/original implementation.  Then a couple months later I was back and school and Apple called and asked if I could implement the design I had provided.  I quoted them a number, they accepted, and I finished the work fairly quickly.  And this led to one of the two patents Apple filed and put me down as one of the inventors.

Part of the patent application for the Alpha-Numeric Slider I worked on

Would you like to get paid to make games?

After Cal Poly, I started working for Apple full time though still as a contractor.  Soon after starting at Apple, I received a call from a long-time friend who was starting a video game company in Los Osos (right outside of San Luis Obispo).  My job with Apple paid well, was steady, but not terribly challenging.  The video game job paid less, was risky, and no future guarantees.  I took the job with the video game company as a junior programmer.  I decided that if I was going to take a risk in my career now was the time.  And getting paid to program games?  Heck yeah.

I am a Producer

Alexandria was the startup video game company in Los Osos.  Most of us at the company were young and new to the video game business.  But we had a couple contracts to create Sega Genesis games.  I was put on a team with about 6 other people - only two of us programmers.  Soon into the project I realized that at our current development we were not headed towards a good conclusion; so I took over.

For the first year I was literally sleeping on a friends floors spending every waking hour at the office.  Making video games for a living had its fun moments but it can also be a lot of hard work.

This first project was Sylvester and Tweety in Cagey Capers for the Sega Genesis.  I sorta see that project as the main turning point from me being just a programmer to becoming a producer.

Getting the Game Done

Only one person on our 7 person Sylvester and Tweety team had worked on a Sega Genesis game before (or any game professionally for that matter) and that was the other programmer on the project.  He would be what I would describe as a "hard core" programmer - great programmer not necessarily best at project management.  We were all excited to be working on this game, but no one really knew what we had gotten ourselves into. 

It was soon clear to me that we would not be able to get this game done on time.  I grabbed the other programmer and a white board and we spent a day writing down all the high level tasks left on the project and the amount of time it would take us to get them done.  Then I immediately began cutting things.  I did this without consulting anyone, just did it because it needed to be done.  And then I presented the results to the rest of our team.  They now had a fixed number of mechanics available to them.  We knew the toolbox at our disposal and when things would get done.

I then spent the entire weekend getting all the tags put into tUME and ensuring the designers had all the tools to create the maps.  tUME is "the Univeral Map Editor" we used to layout all the levels on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.  Between that and Deluxe Paint, I could create the tags, put them into our code, and provide them for use to the rest of the team.  Monday morning came around and everyone had what they needed to get their job done - and I was finally getting some much needed sleep.

Looking back I realize I was very unskilled at management - I expect I was like a bull in a china shop. But despite my lack of people, communication, and management skills, I took over the project and helped make sure it got done.  

I remember a conversation with the lead artist and myself out on the balcony during the finishing phases of Sylvester and Tweety.  I was questioning my "leadership" on the project; I knew I was a bit abrasive and forceful when dealing with the team and getting work done.  Perhaps I wasn't doing the right thing?  The artist turned to me and said, "The team may not like you, but they will always chose to work with you.  They know you get things done and they know you are committed to the project."  And after a slight pause he looked me straight in the eye, "And we are all damn glad you took charge." 

After that project I think there was no turning back - I was becoming (if not one already) a producer.

The first video game I worked on (professionally)

I programmed a couple more games at Alexandria before it was decided that my time was more useful being a full time producer.  Alexandria then merged with OddWorld Inhabitants and I went to Accolade as a producer. 

What happened after that?

If you are interested in what happened next in my career I recommend you read some of my other articles. 

  • Producerland - tips on being a producer and stories from my years of working on projects as a producer.
  • Oh!  The Places I've Been!  - some of my more interesting business related travel stories.
  • And more - I have articles about Developer Due-Diligence, Working with Licensors, and more.

You can find these articles and more here:

About the Author

Matt Powers has been making video games for over 20 years.  The majority of that time has been as a producer.  While looking for the next producer job, Matt has been taking the time to write down his advice and stories to hopefully help others making games.

If you liked this article or have any questions about it, please leave a comment. 

If you would like to contact Matt:  [email protected]

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