What is a video game producer?

By Richard Robledo

A game development project has just as many figurative rivets and beams as the creation of a man-made super structure. There are layers upon layers of components built upon a foundation of strategic planning formulated by key personnel; and, like men with tool belts and hardhats, there is a considerable amount of blood, sweat, and tears poured into the building a video game (granted, game creators sit in cool offices). Construction workers are often in better shape, though, as a result of their hard work. Game developers…not a lot of muscle building going on with each keystroke. The point of this far-fetched comparison is that somebody has to see the project’s “big picture,” while the numerous cogs of creation spin rapidly day after day until the project reaches its end. It’s a grand juggling act that involves political battles, personal egos, budgetary struggles, and a furious race against time. In the video game industry, the person assigned to take on this challenge is called a “Producer.”

Who is the Video Game Producer?

There are many clear-cut roles in game development: a programmer programs code; an artist creates art; an animator animates characters and objects; and a game tester tests games. A producer’s role is not so well-defined, because the duties differ between studios and the producer’s expertise. There are, however, some common responsibilities regardless of where a producer might be, and these are just as important as any other function of game development.

You can basically call a producer a project manager, because that’s what they do. They manage the production schedule, budget, development team, licensors (if they’re involved), and outsourcing parties. Producers also work with PR and the media, QA teams, and are an integral part in getting a project greenlit and determining when it’s time to ship the project at the conclusion of development. When a shelf date is announced for a title you’re looking forward to, it’s the producer’s job to help guide the project toward meeting that date. If the date is missed, well then it’s the producer’s job to work with PR to release a reasonable excuse for the delay, which typically falls into the realm of “we need more time to make the best possible game for you!”

The Game Producer’s tool set

The tools used by a producer go far beyond software. After reading the list below you’ll find that all tools point to two key functions of a producer or project manager: communication and accountability. A producer will greatly struggle in his position if he lacks the ability to effectively speak the language of different departments. Likewise, if a producer does not have the strength to push the team when they’re falling behind or to say “no” when things just can’t be done, then there will be an unnecessary amount of stress added to the project, which could lead to potential failure.

Microsoft Office Suite
Of all the people involved in making games, producers tend to use the most of MS Office. Great producers are (and should be) above-average users of Office, because they’ll use the software more frequently as part of driving their projects from beginning to end.

Microsoft Word
Producers don’t create a lot with Word; instead, they’re reading what others send to them, which could be game concepts, game design documents from development teams, contracts, and NDAs (non-disclosure agreement: basically states, “don’t tell anybody about the game you’re going to see…or else”) to name a few. What producers do create with Word are RFPs (request for proposal: a document sent to development teams asking them to create a concept and bid for the producer’s project), meeting minutes, game concepts, and sometimes schedules and task lists. Producers also help put together contracts and NDAs, but they don’t write them from scratch, they just use pre-created templates and fill in the blanks.

A great producer should have the ability to use many of the features in MS Word, such as: creating and stylizing headings and sub-headings; formatting tricks; table and forms usage; and, very important, tracking changes. The use of these great features helps a producer to elegantly create documents and communicate back and forth with other parties.

Microsoft Excel
Excel is another tool that producers use to create project schedules. You’ll see, in this article, that producers can make use of several programs to create schedules. Another big item designed in Excel is a milestone checklist. This list is a detailed rundown of the tasks a developer needs to complete before a milestone is due. Each task is often given a priority rating, like so:

Priority 1: “Must have” – These tasks are an absolute requirement in order to get the milestone approved.

Priority 2: “Good to have” – This group is made up of things a producer would love to see in the milestone, but could live without if there isn’t enough time. It’s not uncommon for these items to be pushed up to priority 1 with each passing milestone.

Priority 3: “Wish list” – Items in this category don’t need to be in the milestone; however, the producer feels the game would benefit from having these added to the game.

Excel is also a great tool for putting together development budgets, because of its ability to create formulas. With a few simple cell associations, a producer can create a template for determining how much a team will cost based on man months and monthly rate per team member. Below is a simple example of a projected budget for a 16-man team.

A producer should have the chops to create these types of tables from scratch in Excel. Other Excel tricks a great producer should know are: cell associations between worksheets, multi-variable column sorting, graph generation, conversion of imported lists into rows or columns, and pane freezing.

Microsoft PowerPoint
Periodically, a producer will need to stand before a group of developers, or executives, or members of the press and present a project-related slideshow. These “decks” are created in PowerPoint, and a producer will need to create one at some point in their career. Decks are made for game pitches, project status updates, budget breakdowns, competitive analyses, and anything else for which a producer wants supporting visuals during a presentation.

PowerPoint isn’t a complex program, but there are layers that separate novice and advanced users. A producer ought to be familiar with setting up animations, integrating sound and music, and embedding video into a slide.

Microsoft Project
It was mentioned earlier that many programs can be used to create a development schedule, but if there was one bit of software specifically designed for schedule creation; it’s MS Project. How many producers actually use Project? It’s hard to measure, and some might even say it’s a small percentage, but every producer should become familiar with the program. MS Project automatically sets up tasks dependencies, and is aware of overlaps in assignments given to team members. For the producer who becomes an advanced user of Project, they’ll realize that it does so much more than Excel or Word can do for creating and tracking schedules.

Microsoft Outlook
Obviously, everybody uses Outlook, but it’s listed here, because producers use it a lot. On a AAA project, with a team of 60+ developers, a QA team, a PR department, a licensor, a hundred-thousand lines of VO, 10 hours of recorded music, ten-thousand sound effects, dozens of media outlets waiting for their review copies, and on and on, a producer can receive in the upwards of 250 emails a day. It’s not just sending and receiving emails that Outlook does, but it has a system for organizing and prioritizing your emails, setting up reminders and meeting invites, and a bunch of other useful tools. With so much email action going on, a producer must know how to utilize Outlook to its fullest in order to stay in control of their inbox.

Adobe Photoshop
A producer uses Photoshop mostly when creating images and mockups for pitch documents. It’s also used for simply viewing files delivered in certain formats. Although a producer won’t need to have an artist’s level of expertise with Photoshop, she should have the skill to work with layers and export files.

Now, we’re no longer speaking of software. A producer must be articulate in both speech and the written word. On any given day, a producer speaks with numerous departments and dozens of individuals, and each entity has its own way of communicating with the producer. Being able to speak everyone’s language is only half the work, the other half is translating between departments when needed. If you want to have a good laugh and see the word “confusion” come to life, have your Russian rendering programmer explain (in English) to your Japanese animator how shaders work. And don’t think the animator understands because he’s nodding the entire time, he’s actually just being polite. If you took an x-ray of his brain during the conversation you’d see a big question mark with an anime-style bead of sweat hanging from the end. It’s the producer’s job to step in and smooth out conversations like these. If not, one or both parties may walk away with a high level of uncertainty, which could lead to errors made in their tasks; and errors equal time wasted.

When composing emails or writing documents, the producer should have a good grasp of the English language (or their native language), and should always proofread everything they write. A typo or poorly constructed sentence can unintentionally trigger a chain of horrific events. If this happens, it becomes very difficult to clean up the mess, because everyone will point to that initial email. You’re also representing your studio in everything you write, so clean and clear writing is very important.

Public Speaking
If you’re uncomfortable speaking in front of groups and a video camera, then you can’t be a great producer. In this role, you WILL stand in front of industry executives and sell them on whatever it is you want them to approve. You’ll also have many opportunities to get in front of G4TV’s or Electric Playground’s cameras and talk about your game. When presenting, a great producer is enthusiastic, well-spoken, understandable, witty, and, most of all, confident. The producer has all the answers to every question asked about his game, even when he doesn’t know the answer. For example, let’s say the editor at IGN is interviewing you about your single-player-only FPS game. He asks, “So, just about every FPS on the market supports multiplayer and online play. Why would you go with only a single-player game? Doesn’t that make it difficult for your game to compete with similar titles?”

Here’s a bad answer:
“Umm, I mean, this game isn’t Call of Duty. We’re kinda bringing something different to players. In many ways, this game is a hundred times better than CoD. I think that players will know our game is different once they play it. Just because the market says you should have multiplayer, doesn’t mean you have to, or something like that, you know?”

Wow. Fire that imaginary producer. First of all, he didn’t answer the questions he was asked. Secondly, he seemed nervous, wasn’t confident about his answer, and did a poor job of building up his game. A hundred times better than CoD? Seriously? Lastly, he appeared to be on the defensive, because his game was being compared to CoD.

Here’s a better answer:
“Great questions. We knew we were going against the grain by not having multiplayer support. Our goal, from the get-go, was to create a single-player experience unlike any other. I feel we’ve done that and I can’t wait to have everyone play the game. Are we up against stiff competition? Absolutely. This market’s tough, and there are some great multiplayer FPSs out there. But if you’re a player who loves beautiful graphics, precision controls, a great story, and are ready for some innovative gameplay, then you’ll want to check out our fake game that was made up specifically for this article.”

There are certainly a thousand ways to answer the questions, but the point is; answer them. It gets hot when that camera and spotlight are right on you, but, as a producer, your goal is to do what’s best for your game and company, and it’s done by being bold and convincing in your presentation.

There are ways to make a “no” sound like a “yes,” and a producer has to frequently perform this miracle. This skill comes into play when people ask for things that affect the project’s schedule and budget. It could even be your own boss who wants something added to the game at the wrong time, and it’s your job to tell him “no.” The best approach to this situation is to come up with facts about why their request cannot be fulfilled, and to keep your cool in the process. The biggest mistake you can make is to snap at the person, and give them a short answer; if you do that, you’re asking for a battle.

Rely on your fixed schedule and budget, because it’s truth in writing. If your boss wants a new character added to your game a week before Beta, show him why it can’t be done. Call your developer and have them send you an email with a breakdown of how long it will take. You can count on them to inflate the timeline in order to preserve the Beta date. Then, either set up a meeting with your boss, or find a relaxed time to approach him about the matter. Tell him, simply, “I talked to the developer about that new character you asked for. We’ll miss Beta if we add it, but I got them to agree to make it a Priority 3 item, so I’ll let you know if and when they get it in.”

If he remembered he even made the request, he’ll most likely be okay with your answer, because you didn’t say the word “no.” You showed him that you looked into the matter, had a backup plan, and will continue to update him on the topic. There’s nothing wrong with knowing in the back of your mind that you’ll never put that character in the game, because your priority is to get the game done on time, and his request prevents that.

A good producer should have the ability to point out problems and fix them. A great producer has the ability to identify problems and fix them before they even happen. When a developer misses a milestone because they’re understaffed, a good producer can get approval for more cash for the developer to staff up. A great producer will have already requested the developer to staff up early in the project so that they don’t miss a milestone. Through communication, a producer should have her finger on the pulse of development, and can “feel” when something’s not right. You don’t have to be a programmer to know when something’s wrong in the programming department. These issues can be uncovered by schedule and task tracking, and communicating with those who might be affected by problem individuals. There are many examples that can be given to show the difference between a good and great producer, and they all point to being proactive, and being proactive comes from having great production instincts, and instincts come from industry experience.

All producers have years of industry experience on their resumes and several shipped titles in their portfolio. Sure, there are probably some outliers that jumped into a producer role at the start of their careers, good for them. Take a look at a job posting for a producer. In the qualifications section, you’ll always see a required 3+ years of experience along with one or more shipped titles. A producer has to have gone through the development cycle several times to really understand how unpredictable the business is. A great producer is never too seasoned to learn something new on each project.

You’re probably saying, “Experience is an obvious tool for everyone. I’m too smart for this article,” followed by a clever sniff. Yes, it is obvious; however, of all the roles in the game industry, the producer’s role is one that cannot be taught in schools. All the political hoopla, mind games, schedule adjustments, budget balancing, media schmoozing, whip cracking, and project signings have to be lived out and performed in the real world for a producer to truly become “educated” in the field.

The road to the Game Producer

The majority of game producers held previous positions in the industry. You cannot expect to land a producer job without having worked in the biz for several years. However, once you’re in the industry, it’s possible to move into production from almost any department.

The QA path
The most common path leading to production begins as a game tester. You test games for a few years, move up the QA ladder, and eventually the production door opens up for you. This is easier to accomplish if you stick with the same studio, because you have the benefit of having built relationships with the production department. You can expect to dedicate 2 to 3 years in QA before making the move into production. By then, you’ll have shipped several titles and gained an understanding of the how dev cycle works.

The non-QA path
All game industry roads can lead to production if you want them to. If you’re a 3D modeler who knows the ins and outs of your craft and has shipped a few titles, you can qualify for a production role. You’d simply be a producer with a specialty in art. In some studios your title might be art producer. If you’re a programmer who has coded for several years, you can become a technical producer. The key is combining your experience with the tools mentioned in the previous section, and demonstrating it all in a leadership role.

The career path of the Video Game Producer

And finally, here’s your career path if you want to be a producer. Salaries in this field are relatively above average. A mid-level producer tends to earn more than a mid-level game designer or artist. In some studios, producers can reach a six-figure salary; senior and executive producers, well beyond 100K per year.

The diagram below displays the standard career path for the production department.

Many will tell you that a producer’s title, salary, and responsibilities differ between studios. A producer in small Studio A might only do what an associate producer does in big Studio B. A senior producer in one studio might make less than a producer in another. This goes to show just how diverse game production is. Yet, being a producer also has its perks: you almost always attend industry conventions like E3 and GDC every year; you go on press tours and meet all the editors from the major media outlets; you’re the first to receive promotional items for your games; you eat lots of free lunches (business meetings); and if your game ends up doing well, you get to take all the credit. On the other side of the coin: you’ll have your fair share of overtime; you’re constantly putting out fires; you’ll feel obligated to keep an eye on email even when you’re not working; and, worst of all, if your game is late, scores low, or doesn’t sell well, guess who takes the blame? The development team, because a good producer knows how to divert negative attention. A great producer eliminates negative attention through hard work and a love for making games.

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