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Death of a Producer

The role of the Producer has changed a lot over the years and we have seen it disappear from some companies. We can question if it is needed at all. In this post, I dissect the role and

Hello reader, my name is Francisco Casanova, a Senior Producer from Mexico that has worked in the industry since the start of the mobile games (before smartphones). I’ve worked all over the world with some of the most successful companies in the industry like EA, Gameloft and Digital Chocolate. I’ve seen Production roles evolve and adapt as the industry changes.

Throughout my 15+ years of experience in the mobile games industry, time and time again I’ve encountered that almost every company has its own definition of what a Producer does in their organization. Different definitions and interpretations of the role vary in objectives and focus so much that it raises a couple of questions: What is a producer? Does a particular company need a Producer, or something different?

Most companies seem to take a page from the Game Producer's Handbook to define the skills needed and expected roles to be filled by the candidates. But any search for Production jobs will give a very good idea on how different the organizations work internally and how varied are the expectations. This is especially true given that the role has evolved in the last decade along with the disciplines required around the projects included in Live-Ops.

However the main areas of responsibility for Production can be very easily defined. So, a very typical question during a Producer interview is: what area does the candidate gravitate the most toward? People, Process or Product. Prospecting companies want to see if the person will fill in their expected version of the role. The size of the team, the complexity of the project and the structure of the organization will define the amount of work involved in each area.

A full Producer (or Production Team) will have to work on all areas evenly, maintaining a balance, being the intermediary between the team and any external party. If the role is heavily focused on a particular edge, the organization should consider if the role of a Producer is really required or consider an alternative.

Production also needs to include the voice of the players into the mix. It is easy for different company disciplines to lose themselves in their work and career objectives, it is for the Production team to make sure everything aligns with the players. It is quite often forgotten in most interviews or considered obvious; but it is extremely important to mention it.

A failure to understand what a team and the project need from Production will usually spell disaster.


People

In general, a Producer needs to have people smarts, understand the team’s dynamics and through leadership guide the team to overcome any obstacle. Participating in discussions, the Producer seeks to find a non-zero sum game solution to conflicts and disagreements, be it by compromise or by working on alternatives with the parties involved. The end goal is to reach a consensus that the team is excited about.

             It is of the outmost importance to build trust relationships with the developers. When the team trusts in the Producer, he/she acquires a degree of confidence in estimated work and capabilities of the team. Conversations become more open and the obstacles more clear. It is through Trust that the Producer will be able to manage the morale of the team, navigating with them through difficult situations and celebrating successes. The other side of the coin is to develop trust with stakeholders that are external to the team; from executives and/or third parties.

             As a Leader, the Producer needs to be well informed by the team to understand their needs and aspirations; this enables guidance and mentorship. From there, the Producer can work on feedback that eventually finds its way into a formal Appraisal. It is important to note that Production needs to recognize internal team leadership and foster it by sharing responsibilities. The consequences of suppressing natural talents and initiatives can be very bad.

Last but not least, Team Synergy is the art of optimizing the output of the team, by fostering positive relationships and finding solutions for negative ones. An all start team can end up being a disaster if they are not team players. This could also relate to the previously mentioned conflict resolution that Production needs to provide.

             If People is the main focus needed from a Production role, the person they are looking for is a Game Lead. Managing people can drain a lot of time, especially writing appraisals, one on ones and mediating discussions between different parties. Game Leads are more suited to flat organizations, where decision making is democratic and there is true project ownership from the team.

Product

By far, the most attractive part of Production is to contribute with the Product: participate in team meetings, design meetings, problem solving, design ideas and making decisions when required. While a good level of Leadership is required in this area of Production, it is much more managing the trust that the company and the team has put in the individual to make the correct decisions for the project.

Along with Marketing, Designers and Product Managers, Producers need to Prioritize and make decisions on where the game has to go, which features need to be built and where the investment needs to be put. I am talking about Budgeting and managing the P&L of a project.

While this is the most exciting area to work in Production for many colleagues, it is also the one with most responsibility attached. Decisions need to be completely informed from all the other areas, formulated into clear directives and objectives that plot a congruent plan forward. However, no plan can anticipate all contingencies as there are always unexpected factors. Thus it becomes a balance between plan and improvisation, error and correction. Experience is the key in this case and decisions need to be made with all the information form the different areas and stakeholders.

If Production is in charge of this area, it is critical to assign them the role of Product Owners in order to have the clear authority over decisions. This goes hand in hand with ownership of the P&L and Budget, as it gives the faculty to enact. In a large Production team, it is usually an Executive Producer assigned as the Product Owner.

If the role is completely focused on the product because there is a Project manager in place and there are enough Leads to manage the team, the company could focus on hiring instead a Game Director/Product Owner. Because of the level of involvement required and potential impact of decisions, it is ill-advised to assign this role to anyone not completely submerged in the whole project. This position is better suited for vertical companies. The role of Product owner needs to be clearly defined, whether it resides with the Product Manager or other Stakeholder, in order to have a clear line of decision making.

Process

The bread and butter of most Production Roles is working with the Process, making sure everything is organized and communicated properly in a timely fashion. It requires being very focused on milestone dates and commitment to getting things done.

Production needs to distill project objectives into a production Plan, and make sure both are communicated to the team. In turn, as there is progress and obstacles, Production needs to liaise with parties and stakeholders external to the team.

To make sure everyone is on the same page, Production must also ensure everything is properly documented and organized for ease of accessibility and find.

Depending on the project and objectives, Production must chose a particular methodology (Agile/Scrum/Waterfall) that best adapts to the team needs and the product. It should also be something the Producer to be comfortable and experienced with, in order to answer queries about the project and status in a prompt manner. This is critical also for the Producer to be able to provide forecasts of deliveries.

Production is expected to be able to jump immediately to help unblock any issue and run interference for the team. Process can be as complex as the project, as big as the size of the team and as bureaucratic as the company requires.

If the Process is too complex and time consuming, the recommendation is to get a Project Manager (or a dedicated Scrum Manager if using Scrum), as this keeps the focus and responsibilities manageable for the role. This role can fit in most organization types because it is very specific in its objectives.

Player

             The guiding light should always be the player, for anyone involved in the Production team, at the end of the day, we are entertainment and they are our customers. It is important to listen to them directly, or if the project is too big, through proper Customer Service and Community Managers. Sometimes it can be as simple as helping create Player Documentation from existing information, or assisting a player that is having trouble.

             This also means, being the player and understand their drives and motivations. Why is the player interested? Why does the player lose interest? What do they value? What are they doing or not doing to make their lives easier in the game?

             There is no dedicated recommendation I can give for Production focused on the Player, because every single member of a Production team needs to understand the voice of the player and have it resonate with every team member and stakeholder.


The Multifarious Roles

A fully fledged Producer has a balance in all the areas, but specialization in Product, Project or People are not the only options. The best solution for a team and a project is first understanding what they need exactly and finding the right people for it. There are three other roles that can complement a Production Team. Some of them may exist under different names in various companies.

Team Manager: Project Manager + Game Lead

             The main focus of this role would be to look into the Process and the People. Most companies are looking for this while advertising a mid-level Producer Role, because there is already a Game Director or Product Owner in place. To correctly manage expectations and reflect responsibilities in the title, I would suggest adding ‘Team Manager’ as a tag line to the Producer Title.

Executive Producer: Game Lead + Game Director

             The Executive Producer should be the ideal role to support the management of the project and lead the product’s vision. While mostly managing people, this role sets goals, objectives and expectations for the product. It is quite common to find this role in the industry, as with most management models, the higher the position in hierarchy, the lesser the involvement with basic tasks. In turn, the EP demonstrates business ownership and is involved in higher level discussions about portfolios of products and strategic decisions. For this very reason, they become the best points of contact to liaise with external parties.

Project Director: Project Manager + Game Director

             If the company has already a structure to handle People, a recommendation would then be to acquire a Project Director. This role would still require being the team leader and it is more fitting of a vertical structure where the complete control of the project is under one person and there is a team around the Project Director to support the communication with the team.


How many Producers does it take to make a game?

Zero: Not all companies need producers, but this does mean that the team should be able to manage work without one. There are clear examples of successful companies and teams that work without Producers, but for this to be true there are a couple of considerations. As I said, the team needs to have the professionalism and support to be able to accomplish all their goals, the company needs to be able to react, unblock and support the team’s needs. If the team is small enough, they should be able to agree on a methodology of work that best suits them and be mature enough to follow through. The team also needs trust and autonomy from executives to be able to produce the ideas they are working on. More so, the team needs to be smart enough to understand when a project needs to be killed, when to shift direction, when to put in extra time or cut costs and even reducing team size. 

This is ideal for flat and very mature organizations.

One: One Producer can handle a team of up to ~15 people. The number can vary depending on the complexity of the project and how much people management support is available from the leads. However this means that the producer will have full ownership and authority over the project, taking charge over every single aspect of Production. If the project grows, very likely the Producer will request support in one or more areas (typically in Process with a Scrum Master or Project Manager).

This is ideal for small companies that trust and want to build upon the talent of their developers.

Two: One EP and one Producer per product can usually handle a portfolio of games that attend a particular strategy of a company. This is the most common setup in the mobile space and works well when there is synergy between the EP and the rest of the Producers.

This is ideal for Functionally Structured Organizations, where the Production team can liaise with other company areas and Director-level stakeholders.

Three Plus: This is common with very large and complex projects. This will require an EP or Lead Producer assigned to the project to focus solely on this title and its Production team, making sure that there are Production specialists according to the complexity of the project, and sometimes structuring the team into cells or pods with different areas of focus: i.e. Technology, Feature Development, Content Outsourcing, etc…

This is also ideal for Functionally Structured Organizations.


R.I.P.

Thank you very much for reading this article. There are many ways to build a Production team, and there are many roles that can help support them to achieve any project in any organization. Think about your organization, the team, the project and how it all fits. If you realize you are better of without a Producer, it is probably for the best, but more often than not, it will be that a team requires the right one who can focus in the right area.

Not all production roles are interesting or the right fit for everyone, and sometimes a Producer will find the current position very difficult: lack of opportunity to move to a different area of focus/role or lack of support in the current area. I will explore more on that in my next post: 10 ways to kill a Producer.

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