This is the first informational interview of a series of interviews with Producers in the gaming industry. My goal with these interviews is to shine more light on videogame production as a profession, I hope the information contained in these interviews can help both prospective and current game producers. Carson Taylor is a LiveOps Producer at Zynga who was gracious enough to participate in this first interview, he had a lot of great insights on producing for a live game, I hope you find them as helpful as I did!
How did you start your career?
I studied game development in college and by my junior year I knew I wanted to focus on production and project management. I learned as much as I could about software project management methodologies and practiced these skills on student projects. I worked a couple of internships doing office work, then a publishing/licensing internship at 20th Century Fox, and during my senior year I worked part-time as a producer for an external development company to whom game companies would outsource some of their development work.
Right before graduating, I got an internship as a project coordinator at EA. I worked on EA's internal game development software and infrastructure. It wasn't directly game development, but I was working on some interesting projects and learned how to work in the environment of a large, global technology company like EA. After graduating, I started working full time for EA as a Junior Project Manager on the same team.
After a couple of years at EA, I'd decided I wanted to work more directly on a game product, and I was very interested in the fast-paced world of mobile game development, where I felt I would be in a good environment to learn a lot of useful, marketable skills. I started working for Zynga as a Producer, where I focus on live operations for social mobile games.
How would you describe your current role on your own project? How would you describe liveops production in general?
We have four producers on our game, and each of us specialize in and are responsible for certain aspects of our development processes. Our game was first released almost five years ago, so our product is a mature, live operations-driven service. While our other producers lead development of the new features and content for the game, my role is about taking these new additions and ensuring we roll them out to our users in the most stable, optimized way possible. The other main part of my role is managing our daily live operations, which encompasses all the in-game events, economy, and user experiments we are running at any given time.
What’s different about production on a live game as opposed to working on a game in development?
The goal of service-based live games is to provide fresh, interesting ways for users to engage with our game, day after day. Probably the most basic difference between unreleased games and live games is that unreleased games cost money to develop; live games bring in money (or at least, they're supposed to). So the goal of production is not to lead a project to the point where it can be released - it is to develop new additions to the already released game so we can maximize the revenue it brings in.
Another major difference is the presence and importance of user data. As a live game that is constantly releasing changes to our product (in the form of events, new features, new content, etc), we are able to measure how our players respond and engage with these changes and use that information to make decisions about the best way to continue supporting the game. If you haven't released your game yet, the most you can do is make educated guesses about how players will respond while you're developing the game.
This player data allows us to run experiments and test changes we want to make to the game on a small sample population before we decide whether to release the change to the rest of the user base. For example, if we have a theory that a new feature that lets players exchange items with others in their squad will increase the amount of time users spend in the game, we can roll out this feature to 10% of our users and see whether that theory proves true, or whether it might have any unanticipated negative effects (like reducing the demand for items in the in-game store). Then we can decide whether it would be a good idea to release this feature fully or go back to the drawing board.
What does your day to day work look like?
I spend a lot of time managing the creation, testing, and release of our upcoming in-game events and economy changes. Each change to our game, whether it is the release of a new update to the game app, a new event starting, or a new feature being released as part of an experiment, needs to be tested, scheduled, marketed, and released - I work with our product managers, quality assurance, and marketing every day to track the status of each of these upcoming changes, of which there are many at any given time.
I also work with our engineering and art teams to compile all the new code and art assets that come with each new app update and ensure that this new update gets tested and submitted to the app stores on time. We release app updates every three weeks, so this is a highly cyclical process, but it is a little different each time because each new update contains different features, tech, and content.
What do you enjoy most about liveops production?
Planning the development work needed to respond to trends we observe in our game's economy and user metrics always keeps me on my toes! As a live game, we have to be able to recognize revenue opportunities quickly and put in the development work to realize those opportunities on a tight deadline. This keeps us in-tune with our players' behavior and expectations, which is interesting and rewarding, and not really possible in the same way on an unreleased title.
What is the biggest challenge in liveops production?
There is an inherent tension between being responsive to trends and having stable development processes. Processes slow us down, but they ensure that work gets done correctly. Finding ways to build game development processes that enable us to release new events and app updates very frequently, while maintaining high quality and team performance, is a continual struggle, but these challenges are part of why live operations production is exciting and rewarding.
What is your best advice for people trying to start a career as a liveops producer?
Live operations production is inherently very agile, cyclical, and iterative. I would recommend learning about agile software development (as opposed to waterfall) and understanding its benefits in a live operations environment. Since experiments are such a big part of how we make product decisions, having some familiarity with experiment design and some basic statistics knowledge is helpful too. Other than that, you need to be someone who embraces change and uncertainty and can coordinate a group of people to get work done in that type of environment.
That concludes the interview, I hope it shined some light on producing for live games! Please feel free to reach out to [email protected] if you have any questions!