Note from the author
The opinions expressed here are my own and not representative of my current or former employer's policy or conduct in any way, shape or form.
Don’t feel bad if you’re finding it hard to break through into the gaming industry as a Game Producer. It *is* hard. But not because it’s a particularly hard job, but because there are plenty of people waiting in line, and only so many jobs to go around. Furthermore, there are no formal requirements; you don’t need a license, or a degree, or a portfolio or even a certificate. Anybody with the right experience, mindset or personal contacts, can become a Game Producer. Maybe one day, as the industry matures and becomes more professional, this will change, but as yet, it’s all relatively informal in that front. Moreover, the global dispersal of large, game development companies is rather limited. You’ll find it harder to get a job in a game company in Auckland, Winnipeg or Oslo, than you would in London, Tokyo or Los Angeles. An element of luck and chance plays an overbearing role.
But despite the difficulties and the odds stacked against you, there are choices you can make and paths you can choose to walk that will increase the chance of leading to a position as a Game Producer. Luck can present you with a target, but you have to take the shot, and that is something that you can prepare for.
The purpose of this article to help people who are interested in becoming Game Producers in preparing for an application. This is not a “How To” per se; more like a “Try This”. Obviously this approach worked for me, or I would not be writing this, but I am fully aware that this will not work for everyone. Under different circumstances, I might never have become a Game Producer. I was certainly lucky. But then again, under yet other circumstances, I might have become one sooner. It could have gone either way. The ebb and flow of life is largely out of our control. The purpose of this article is to help people anticipate and deal with the options and decisions they may come across in their attempt to enter video game production.
Two words of caution though. First of all, regardless of what I write, I urge everyone to always think critically and not to accept anything as gospel or at face value. Be wary of false prophets; I might be one! The point is, everyone’s circumstances are unique, and only you know your situation and have to act on it.
Secondly, be careful what you wish for. The work of a producer can be fun, influential, creative and fulfilling, but it can also be hard, frustrating, demeaning, boring and even lonely. I’ve often said: “If you don’t want to be someone’s bitch, don’t be a Game Producer”.
But the role of a producer comes in many shapes and sizes and differs from company to company. To me, that seems like a good place to start.
What is the Game Producer I am talking about?
At some companies, the producer is the top guy who basically leads the whole project and is responsible for the product. He handles the budget, deals with the other executives (sometimes he is himself an executive) and is the one guy ultimately responsible for the quality, content, success or failure of the game. I imagine this job description is more in line with that of a movie producer (or at least, what I imagine a movie producer to be). In this capacity, the producer does not himself actively engage with the developers of the game on a day to day basis; he doesn’t make a schedule or enters tasks or writes minutes for meetings; he is way above all that. To me, that is the role of the Executive Producer or Vice President of Production, not a mere ‘Game Producer’.
The producer I’m talking about in this article, is the guy in the field, working directly with the artists, engineers and designers, guiding them, cajoling them and motivating them. He is on the front line, elbow-deep in tasking, scheduling and meetings about the how, why, what and when of developing the numerous aspects of the game. In some companies he helps manage the budget, but in others he doesn’t. Sometimes he has people reporting to him, and sometimes he doesn’t. He could be an Associate, a Senior or even a Lead, but it all comes down to the same thing: he is directly involved in the making of the game with the other developers.
In some companies this person is called the Project Manager or the Product Manager. To me, and for the purposes of this article, this person is referred to as the Game Producer. Also, out of pure laziness and convenience, I will generally be referring to people as ‘he’, although there are plenty of awesome women working in this industry.
Now that we have established what I mean when I talk about a Game Producer, I’d like to talk briefly about how I became one. Perhaps this tale of hard work and blind luck will help put things into perspective.
How I became a Game Producer
My desire to work in the videogame business crept up on me during my university years in the Netherlands. After obtaining my degree, I needed to get a job and unfortunately, jobs in the video game industry were few and far between in the Netherlands back then, so I thought I’d set about gaining experience in a somewhat related field as a web editor and started my own web design business. Not terribly ambitious or tough, but it was something.
Things were going decently for me when one day, I read the news that Blizzard was opening an office in France, and they were looking for game masters. This was a lucky break for me. France wasn’t too far away, they were desperate for people and were hiring almost anyone. Hey, I was “almost anyone”! And I had nothing to tie me to the Netherlands. Well, nothing except my job, my company, my family & friends, the house I owned, the woman I had recently married and the fact that I didn’t speak French very well. But in the grand scheme of things, those were minor obstacles, and I was more than willing to try and overcome them. I immediately dropped what I was doing, applied, got the job and moved to France. I didn’t care that I had a university degree and was going to work at an entry level position in customer service. This was the ‘foot in the door’ I had been waiting for.
I had never even seen World of Warcraft until the first day of my job. I had read about it and seen pictures in magazines (man, I'm old), but never seen it for real. And customer service, or "CS", is a hard gig. Nevertheless, we made due, like everyone did back then, and I was slowly getting the hang of it. When it became clear that World of Warcraft was becoming more and more popular and we realized we would need more CS people, I applied for the CS Trainer position and got it; there were no other applicants.
The training job was tough. We had no training manuals, no class room; not even a general idea of the direction we were supposed to go with regards to training the hundreds of new employees we had been recruiting. I was literally conducting training classes in the break room and at my own desk; the trainees, young guys and girls from all over Europe, speaking their own languages and cracking their own jokes, would gather around my PC so that I could show them how to use the tools on my screen.
Slowly but surely things improved and I eventually became the manager of the Back Office department. Although I was still far from being a producer, these first few years with Blizzard had given me a lot of experience in project management. It also forced me to be a quick learner and able to improvise, while at the same time bringing order to the chaos; all qualities befitting a good Game Producer.
Soon afterwards, a position opened up for a European Project Manager for World of Warcraft. This time I wasn’t the sole applicant, but my experience with the company so far gave me a huge advantage; I had built several teams up from scratch, managed groups of 100+ people, knew the game very well and, most importantly, I knew everybody at the European office. I was elated to get the job.
Project Manager for World of Warcraft gave me my first taste of project management and it brought me into closer cooperation with the developers in the US. Although I didn’t have a designated team to run per se, I was nonetheless involved in every aspect of running World of Warcraft in Europe; I had responsibility without authority, which is a burden every Producer deals with regularly. I worked hard and expanded my contacts with whose help I would later be able to successfully apply for my first, real Game Producer position within the dev team in the United States. My first port of call was Live Operations, and later I worked with Design. Throughout this period, I was always learning new things, trying to get rid of bad habits and finding ways to improve things I felt needed improving. The job of a Game Producer is so broad and there are so many variables, that I rarely felt in complete control of every aspect. This was true at Blizzard, and is still the case at my current employer, Kiloo, in Denmark. I think it’s partially due to the nature of the job, but also due to the fact that this is still a young industry and a lot has still to be learned and established. Maybe this article will provide a kernel of contribution to that! So let’s look at the lessons learned.
What did I do right?
Taking a step back, what can we say I did right?
Well, first of all nothing, because a lot of what happened, especially in the beginning, I owe to luck. The fact that Blizzard decided to open an office in Europe at all, right about the time I had finished my studies and was ready to work, was a lucky break for me. It might not have been the right place, but it was certainly the right time. And being that both France and the Netherlands are in the European Union, the immigration formalities were relatively easy and straightforward; if I had come from, say, Kuwait, moving to France would have been even more strenuous than it was.
Go to where the work is
Secondly, I was willing to move to a different country. Twice in fact; first from the Netherlands to France, then later from France to the US. But the important one was the first one, because it set in motion my entire career path. As I mentioned before, the usefulness of this step will differ from case to case and depend a lot on where you were born. But even in my case, if I had wanted to stay in the Netherlands above all else, I would never have ended up in the gaming industry: there are simply too few jobs and way too many qualified people. And truth be told, the Netherlands isn’t even so bad a place to start from. There are hundreds of worse places to be born if your goal is to become a video game producer. Like I said at the beginning, don’t feel bad about finding it hard to break into the videogame business; it *IS* hard.
Moving to France meant leaving my friends and family behind and asking my wife to give up her career and move with me to a country where we did not speak the language, had no friends or family, no social security number or even a bank account. On a personal level, it was rough. Despite the hardship, I knew it was the right choice to make this personal sacrifice; this was the best opportunity I was going to get to become a Game Producer, and I couldn’t afford to miss it. I needed to make this investment to ultimately reap the benefits, even though at the time, the benefits seemed far off.
Swallow my pride
Next thing was to accept that I would have to take an entry level job at the bottom of the ladder, and climb my way up. I had just spent 6 years getting a Master’s degree, with the specific intention of becoming a video Game Producer. But degrees mean very little when confronted with reality. The job demanded soft skills like dealing with people, managing a schedule and entering tasks. Anyone can learn about those things from an afternoon spent surfing the internet. I didn’t need book learning; what I needed was real world experience, and to get that, I had to swallow my pride that had, admittedly, been artificially inflated by 6 years of higher learning. Outside of school, there are few shortcuts, and like everyone else, I was thrown in the trenches with the other customer support staff of Blizzard.
Steering my career
As the years went by, I always tried to steer my career choices in the direction I wanted to go. I always tried to be part of the projects that involved planning, schedules and people, which I knew where things that played a large role in the work of a Game Producer. Despite my degree, I knew I had a lot to learn, and along the way I have always been not only willing, but also active in acquiring more knowledge of my desired profession. Aside from the many courses and seminars I attended in hotel conference rooms where middle-aged men in cheap suits “dazzle” you with PowerPoint presentations and easy to remember acronyms, I have always tried to emulate the people I felt were doing a better job than I was, and there have been many. This has allowed me to become fully aware of my shortcomings and develop ways to mitigate them. For instance, I never assume myself to be the smartest guy in the room, or the most experienced; I try to be in ‘learn mode’ constantly, never stopping to think of ways to improve how I do even small things, like what time I arrive at the office, how I conduct myself in a meeting, how I start and finish an email. I also assume that if I have a question, others will also have that same question; they may just be too shy to ask, like I often am, for fear of appearing ignorant. But asking the hard questions when no one else will, is key to being a good Game Producer. That is why I got into the habit of voicing my opinion more fervently in key discussions and important meetings; when a multi-disciplined group of collaborators is expected to work together, there is rarely one correct way forward; sometimes what is most needed is simply for someone to make the decision so that everyone can commit to it, even if that decision proves to have been a poor one. Thankfully, speaking your mind is a national tradition in France, so I was at least in the right country to learn this!
As with any job anywhere in the world at any time in history, it is always important to be good at your job and that you can show results; ideally actual tangible ‘products’ that constitute the fruit of your labor. It can be anything really; closing a lucrative deal, a finished art piece or code that has passed review.
In my case, it was anything I thought might be relevant towards becoming a Game Producer: emails with proposals, reports with data, schedules with dates and milestones, filling open positions through recruitment and promotions and yes, even PowerPoint presentations containing flashy acronyms. All of these are examples of work I could later point to and say I prepared for them, planned them, executed on them and completed them. I had concrete markers I could call goals, milestones and deadlines; flashy terminology that sound “producery” and conveyed the impression that I knew what I was talking about. In short, I was working on projects that I managed, from beginning to end, and therefore, constituted the building blocks of project management and Game Production. Performing my job with that aim always in the back of my mind, helped me lay the groundwork for what I needed to do next: find a vacancy and prepare for the application and interview. But more on that later.
Play lots of videogames!
I have long been a prolific player of video games, and it has always served me well in my work. Whether it’s in debating key games features, finding common interest when meeting new people or just as a way to kill time before a meeting starts, having broad knowledge of videogames, old or new, console or pc, will always come to your aid. I would not have lasted a month in my quest to become a Game Producer if I did not have and continue to feed my love of videogames. It is the single most important thing I have done to fuel my career.
What I could have done better
Obviously, there are also some things I could have done better, that might have sped up my ascent to producerdom.
The first thing that comes to mind is that I should have engaged more with my colleagues, both high and low. If, for instance, I needed to talk to someone and it would be best to get off my ass and do so in person, I would regularly convince myself I could just as easily send them an email. It’s one of those situations where you know what the right thing is to do, but doing it is actually the hard part. It took me years to fully appreciate the value of direct, personal contact, and even now, I sometimes relapse back into those bad habits of my youth. I need to be constantly vigilant. I am sure that, had I mastered this skill sooner, it would have worked wonders for my career.
The second thing that comes to mind is that I never played quite as much World of Warcraft as many of my colleagues, and I always felt that it kept me from being fully accepted into the holy of holies of key decision makers. Now don’t get me wrong: I played a lot of WoW, by any measure, and have several max level characters and have been in many guilds. But those things mean nothing next to some of the accomplishments of my former colleagues at Blizzard. For instance, I never became a high level PvP player, a hardcore raider, a completionist achievement hound or even a prolific auction house trader. As a producer on that game, it would have been beneficial to be any one of those things. Obviously it turned out well in the end, but if I could go back and talk to the Ernst of 7 or 8 years ago, I would tell him to play more WoW. I will certainly do so with the current game I am working on. Don’t tell my wife!
Next time in part 2 of "Getting into Game Production":
- Why would you want to become a Game Producer?
- What are some true and false assumptions about the job?
- How can you best prepare for an application?