Christin Overton is a senior producer at Big Fish Games and a professor at DigiPen Institute of Technology, she was kind enough to participate in an interview covering production for videogames, and she had some great insights as someone who has worked in similar roles both in and outside of games. My goal with these interviews is to shine more light on videogame production as a profession. This interview has been adapted and condensed.
How did you start your career?
My mom said I’ve always been organized ever since I was little, as for where I got started, I have done a lot of different things over the years. My first role in a software company was as an administrative assistant, I fell into project management through different projects and discovered I was good at it. I’ve been a project manager/producer in software for 23 years, though I was originally in a more traditional software project management role on the beta programs for Office ’97 and Internet Explorer, to name a few. Project management and production used to be more about making sure things got done by tracking them in spreadsheets and checking the Gannt chart, now it’s more about empowering and helping others get things done. Game production is a great fit for me, because I love helping others succeed, and I'm happy to ensure all the pieces are moving in the right direction.
I completely fell into being a game producer by chance, not choice, since I did not even know the position of producer existed. I discovered a passion for games and creating games experiences as a Seer and Ancient Seer in Ultima Online and hoped to find a way to work in games. I was hired by Microsoft Casual Games to be a contract Web Producer based on the web development experience I had acquired working at Stratics helping build its games-focused strategy sites. The position at MCG had a little project management and a lot of building content and using content management tools to align game schedules for ads, sales, etc. After my manager found out I was also a project manager with experience working on different software projects, they asked me to switch roles to run the projects for eight premium casual game titles planned for the Vista launch.
I quickly moved over to do that, and I discovered that I absolutely loved working with game developers. This experience, combined with spending the time as a Seer, made me realize how much I loved working on games. I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer; I can code but I don’t like it. I love working on games and helping others to do amazing work. Funny enough, my degree is in history which has very little to do with what I do today. I would have never thought I’d focus on technology the way I do, but I love it.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Helping others do amazing things.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Having to make really hard decisions that impact passionate people. It’s a creative and personal industry, and it’s so hard to tell people that their idea won’t work, so you must be very empathetic when telling someone that you need to cut their work from a project. Still, I know that’s part of my responsibility, if we say yes to everything, we will never ship anything. The other hard part is that I often have all the responsibility for shipping the game with none of the authority, so my job becomes gathering data and convincing the other person we need to cut something, rather than cutting it myself. Additionally, there are people I absolutely adore working with, but sometimes I can’t be their friend. Sometimes I HAVE to be the person that cancels the feature they are so emotionally invested in, and that is more difficult if there’s a personal relationship.
What are some common misconceptions you’ve noticed about production?
There’s a misconception from the outside that we are bosses. We are servant leaders, which requires managing risks, managing schedules, managing people-challenges, dealing with problems, and keeping things visible. We’re usually the first ones who get yelled at, but if we’re doing our job right, that’s okay, because it doesn’t affect the team. We protect the team from the chaos if possible, the more we can protect the team and allow them to focus, the more on track the schedule stays. This is also why it’s such a natural alignment for a producer to also be a scrum master, both jobs are about helping people succeed and using a process to help them do so.
The problem is that most people in leadership roles, like production, think you manage PEOPLE. You manage work, you lead people. Our job is to lead, even though we usually do not have direct authority. Our authority comes from our responsibility of getting the game shipped, we collaborate with the team and across all areas of the studio, but the team and others very rarely directly report to us. For example, not one person on the team I’m on now reports to me, but I am responsible for the success of the game; it’s all about building relationships, partnerships, and collaborating to get to the needed outcome.
What factors do you consider when looking at a potential company?
Look for companies that match the environment you want to work in. A lot of people go into companies with a game they want to work on, but the environment is more important. If working in an Agile environment is important to you, identify if a company is truly Agile or if they just use Agile buzzwords.
When I left games intentionally, I went to a company that would allow me to strengthen my abilities with Agile. I went there to hone my Agile skillset and learn about being a teacher and coach. Working for a big company, you’re not turning the Titanic, you’re turning the iceberg. There are so many layers to it, but the power of Agile is the transparency that reveals the problems within the current processes and culture, in time, they just do not stay hidden. As a result of my time outside of games, my approach to learning how a business works became very different. I have no qualms with asking anyone in my current studio about the problems they have with the way things currently operate, these kinds of questions help me do my job. Working in a coaching role made me more forthright and outgoing, because my job was always about helping someone else. This has made it more fun to do what I do now, because of those 4 years I spent outside of games honing my craft, becoming a better communicator and a better listener.
I’m glad I took a break from games, it was an opportunity to strengthen a skill, but I always intended to come back. When I decided to make the switch to Big Fish, I looked for a couple of things. I looked for a good track record of how they treat their people, the culture I was going into. I knew several people within the company, so I already had information from people I could trust. One thing I always ask during interviews is “if you could change one thing about the company or the team you work on, what would it be?” This brings up some interesting things, you can go into a company much more informed on the procedural or organizational challenges, and you’re less surprised. Every company has issues, but is the culture acceptable to you?
I also need to make sure I have the autonomy to do the job I was hired to do. The most significant disappointment of my entire career was getting a job and not being allowed to perform the job I was hired to do. In that situation, you’re not able to really help people, and that’s very disappointing.
What do you do outside of work that helps you in your job?
Learning to be honest with myself. I know that if I get too invested in a project, I might not be able to ensure that the hard decisions get made. I know that about me though it might not be true for everybody, but everybody needs to know their weaknesses, the things that get in their way and prevent them from doing the best job they can as they support the game and the team. I can love helping a team make something great, I know I can’t fall in love with my project and be a good producer too.
What are the best things aspiring project managers/producers can do in order to increase their chances of getting job offers as a project manager/producer?
Ensure that the resume you're writing and submitting aligns with the position you're applying for. Usually, there’s some automated system that will look at your resume before a human does, you need keywords to get a pair of eyes on it. Your LinkedIn should be broad, but your resume should be aligned to the job you're applying for, even if that means hacking and slashing away potentially irrelevant information that you think is very important. It is, to you, but your resume needs to matter to the person reading it and explain how you will help solve the problem they have.
That concludes the interview, I hope it shined some light on game production! Please feel free to reach out to [email protected] if you have any questions!