[In this week's Ask the Experts column from educational site Game Career Guide, contributing editor Jill Duffy addresses the role of producers and how to become one in game industry. We're also running this useful breaking-in column on Gamasutra - please consult the Game Career Guide 'Getting Started' page for more advice on entering and progressing your career in the game biz.]
I want to be a producer. What are the best things for me to study?"
Before I try to answer this question, I think we should step back and look at the question itself. In fact, I think we should take even one more step back and address what a video game producer does.
Game producers come in many forms, such as assistant producer, project manager, or team lead. The role of a producer can vary greatly, too, but essentially, the job entails being the chief organizer. Producers organize schedules, people, project specifications, and just about everything the project entails, save for the accounting (though at smaller studios, even balancing the books can be part of the producer’s job). Think of the producer as the one human brain on the project that stores all the information about what needs to be done when and by whom.
Typically, game producers come from within the ranks of the game industry (that’s why we need to take a step back from your initial question). In fact, 49 percent of game producers have six or more years experience in the industry, so they’re not being hired straight out of college. They’re being promoted.
Producers don’t usually study specific courses in project management to get hired, although there are degrees to that end (look into any business administration program, and you’re likely to find at least two classes that deal specifically with project management).
Ellen Beeman, an executive game producer with more than 15 years of experience in the industry at companies such as Microsoft, Monolith, Electronic Arts, Origin and Disney, recommends that young would-be producers “look for opportunities prior to or outside of the game industry to build team leadership and creative direction skills. In college, I worked part-time at a music studio as a producer. It never amounted to much, but that managerial experience helped me get my first project director job at Sierra. Any professional experience, even not related to the game industry, is great. It all helps.”
For students in game-specific programs, Beeman shares this bit more specific advice: “Students at game development colleges who are getting a degree in programming or art but know they want to go into production, [should] look for opportunities to manage a small team. Colleges like DigiPen and Full Sail require their students to complete team projects—an aspiring future producer should volunteer to be the team coordinator.”
Personally, I always think of project management as the type of job that comes to you, rather than you finding it. It’s very personality-specific. If, by nature, you are obsessively organized, diligent, thorough, diplomatic, and a little thick-skinned, and you work in the game industry in some other role (artists, tester, programmer), you might naturally move into a producer position. Think of it this way: If there were no producer for a game you were developing, would you be the one to take the lead and direct your group, without being overthrown midway into development? Would you put your personal stake aside and move toward what’s best for the project?
“Aspiring game producers should also be prepared to work their way up the career ladder for several years, as an assistant or associate producer,” says Beeman, “before they can reasonably expect to be trusted as the producer of a game with any kind of meaningful budget. Most game budgets are just too large for a company to take a chance on an untried producer.” Often, producer-track employees have to make a drastic move to land their career. “Unfortunately, I think company changes are often part of that career ladder process. I have rarely seen someone promoted from associate producer to full producer within a single company,” Beeman adds.
“And let me dispel another myth: producers just look like they're at the top of the food chain of a game production! The real role is getting obstacles out of the way of the development team,” she says. “Become a producer because you love team-building and helping others realize their creative dreams. If you find your true satisfaction in creating the game yourself, you're probably going to be a terrible producer!”
There are some other really interesting things to say about video game producers. For one, it is has the highest representation of females out of all the key game development roles (excluding business and legal) at about 21 percent. And even though they are tightly knit with the development team, producers are said to be among the least likely to have to work after hours.
Beeman says it’s true that “realistically, the producer often won't have tasks that require as much overtime as other members of the development team,” adding, “but a good producer will be there for the team and find some way to be useful during a crunch, even if it's just helping with Q/A or providing moral support.” Beeman says her contribution typically comes in the form of bring takeout lunches and dinners back to the office for the developers.
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has some helpful information about becoming a game producer
Finally, I will give some advice to young people, even pre-college young adults, who truly believe that being a video game producer is the job for them. Read some of the advice that’s out there about breaking into the game industry in general, and follow it.
You’ll find so many of the tips about breaking in are just as relevant to programmers as they are to artists or designers or producers: complete a long-term project (just build something, anything!), put yourself in a leadership position, work on a team, and keep your brain sharp and thinking critically whenever you are playing games.
- Jill Duffy
[Jill Duffy is contributing editor of GameCareerGuide.com and managing editor of Game Developer magazine. She has been a professional writer and editor for more than six years. Send her your questions about the getting into the game industry by emailing [email protected].]