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Producers: Essential Glue For Any Project or Useless Bags of Meat?

Producers: Essential Glue For Any Project or Useless Bags of Meat?

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Published by Kenn Hoekstra
A game development article co-written by myself and Dan Magaha for GameSauce Magazine
A game development article co-written by myself and Dan Magaha for GameSauce Magazine

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Published by: Kenn Hoekstra on Jun 14, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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08/20/2011

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42
gamesauce • spring 2010
t
 jb il “prcr” as n cnsisn
meaning in video game development. Ask anyone who works in the industry and youcan be sure they’ll have their own unique ideao what a producer is and what he or she does. To some,“producer” is a title worthy o great respect and admira-tion. To others, “producer” is a our-letter word. The reality is that production responsibilities vary atevery game development studio and at every game pub-lisher. Producer duties can range rom low-level gopherand note-taker to spreadsheet-wielding taskmaster tohigh-powered battlefeld commander.For this article, we will ocus on producers who work at the developer level in a project management capacity.So what do these producers do? According to BlizzardEntertainment Senior Producer Alex Mayberry, at a very high level, a producer’s job is to “ship the producton time, within budget and o the highest quality, with100% retention o all team members ater the productships.”Oh, is that all? Piece o cake, right?
Five KeY prODucer rOLes
Developer producers play many roles, great and small,over the course o a project. Five o the most criticalroles include:Project Manager
Champion
Communicator
Counselor
Problem-solver
 There are, o course, many other duties a producer may perorm, and producers oten share responsibilities with other team leaders in ulflling these roles. Thatsaid, a good producer will excel in one or more o thesefve areas, helping to keep a project on track and itsteam healthy and ocused. Producers who are poorly in these key roles get in the way o production, creatingroadblocks and bottlenecks rather than removing them.Unortunately, when producers do their jobs well, itoten goes unnoticed—everything “just works.” A badproducer, however, can grind even the most talentedteam to a screeching halt.Let’s look at these fve key production roles and how,in the course o perorming them, a good producer canpush a team and a project to great heights and a bad onecan simply push them o a cli.
PRoduCeRS :
essntial gl for any projct or uslss Bas of mat?
by knn hsra an dan Magaa
 
gamesauce • spring 2010
43
1. PROJECT MANAGER
I you’re not a producer, chances are you see producersas those guys who fddle around in MS Project all day (or, i you’re one o those new age shops, those who plan“sprints” and manipulate Post-It notes on a whiteboard.) To be sure, a lot more goes into this role than just car-rying a clipboard and checking o completed tasks. A producer needs to assess and mitigate risk, plan mile-stones, and allocate the right people to the right tasks. While all o these are extremely important jobs, being agreat producer is so much more than being armed with aGantt chart.
Good producers 
manage projects by empoweringtheir leads to make decisions and to schedule their owndepartment’s tasks and people. More importantly, a goodproducer holds the leads accountable or these decisionsand schedules. A good producer will buy back time in theproduct schedule when a publisher decision or unore-seen problem causes delays. As these circumstances areoten beyond the team’s control, a good producer willmake sure the team isn’t penalized or them.Good producers know the dierence between short,ocused bursts o crunch and a death march, and they recognize that personal time and trust are a team’s most valuable commodities. They don’t squander them.
Bad producers 
oten give in to the temptation o micro-management. They don’t empower their leads and otenattempt to unction as lead designer, artist, or program-mer to make decisions and put their “personal stamp” onthe game. A bad producer makes schedules and schedul-ing decisions without consulting the leads or the teamand doesn’t take responsibility or the consequences o those decisions.Bad producers are requently coaxed into mandatingcrunches that don’t have reasonable, quantifable goals. These kinds o crunches oten turn into death march-es—net negative multipliers to productivity over thelong term as they poison morale, prompt turnover andabsenteeism, and increase error rates in the work that
is 
 perormed.
2. CHAMPION
 Another classic producer stereotype—albeit one which isrooted in reality—is that o the glory-hog. This is a pro-ducer who’s always tap dancing or upper management,taking credit or the team’s work and making innumer-able promises the team will later be expected to ulfll.Negative connotations aside, the act is all projectsneed a champion—someone who sings the praises o theteam and the project to upper management, the pressand/or investors. Someone who lives and breathes theproject, and who can demo the game in his or her sleep.Someone who will talk your ear o about how great theteam is, and who can bury you with a litany o the game’seatures.Producers don’t always fll this role—sometimes acreative director or lead designer (or even an artist orengineer!) can be a champion. More oten than not, how-ever, the biggest champion is likely to be the producerbecause it’s the producer who is generally reporting onprogress to upper management.
Good producers 
accept praise on behal o the team andnever ail to recognize individuals on the team, who havebeen especially valuable. At the same time, the championshields individuals on the team rom direct scrutiny orcriticism that comes rom above. A good producer cham-pions his team members to make sure they are beingtreated airly.
Bad producers 
hog the limelight and throw individualsunder the bus when the project isn’t perorming up toexpectations. A bad producer is the antithesis o a truechampion because he is the frst to take credit, but thelast to take the blame. A champion (and good producer) accepts responsibil-ity, but also shares praise.
 
44
gamesauce • spring 2010
3. COMMUNICATOR
It has been said that good project managers spend 90% o their time communicating. For developer producers, thatnumber may even seem a little low some weeks! Produc-ers need to practice and oster good communication withtheir teams and with all levels o their organizations ortheir projects to succeed. Communication skills, like any other skill, can be practiced and honed, yet many produc-ers ignore these aspects o their jobs entirely.Producers need to solicit input rom the experts ontheir teams, and harvest eedback about the ecacy o development practices rom a representative swath o their teammates. They must close loops, disseminatecritical inormation, and catch those ad-hoc hallway discussions that turn into critically important designmeetings. Producers who sit in their oces playing withspreadsheets behind closed doors don’t do their projectsor their teams much good.
Good producers 
listen more than they talk. They donot issue ultimatums to their teams. Good producersconstantly look or new tools to improve the culture o communication and collaboration on their teams, butrecognize that there is no substitute or walking the hallsand talking to their team members. They touch base with their leads and individual team members regularly to disseminate important inormation, to gauge theirconcerns and, perhaps most importantly, to make suretheir team members are talking to each other.On the subject o communication, Relic Entertain-ment’s Raphael van Lierop says: “Listen or ambiguity,and stamp it out. Be clear when communicating withothers and when setting goals or your team. Don’t leavegoals and deliverables open or interpretation—by doingso you’re putting people in a position where they willprobably waste eort because they don’t understand what you’re looking or.
Bad producers 
hoard inormation and dispense it on aneed-to-know basis in an attempt to consolidate power.Ironically, many inormation hoarders relish claimingto have an open door policy—because their ineectualcommunication skills necessitate it! However, it doesn’ttake long or a team to recognize these kinds o produc-ers, and typically one or more grassroots “back channels”develop behind closed doors and via email and IM. Savvy developers recognize these toxic symptoms as signs o anunhealthy project culture which can trigger urther divi-sion or even attrition.
4. COUNSELOR
Unless you’ve discovered some magic combination o being extremely good, lucky and/or oblivious, odds are you’ve experienced “team drama” during the course o adevelopment project. For the majority o us, the reality is that game development is a stressul endeavor that cantake its toll on individuals, riendships, and even mar-riages. This shouldn’t be a surprise when you considerthe #1 reason that most o us pursue game development:a creative passion to make great games.So what happens when many passionate people enter aconstruct designed to put limitations and constraints onthat passion? Tough decisions and politics invariably leadto hurt eelings and misunderstandings. This emotionalmaelstrom is where many projects live and die.For better or worse, producers oten nd themselvesacting as counselors or their teams. Why? Because asproject managers and champions, producers are usually in a position to make decisions and eect change. Forthat reason, when team members have a problem, it’s notsurprising that they come looking or their producer tosolve it.
Good producers 
take the time to get to know their teammembers. They learn what motivates and rustrates them, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and generally  what kinds o individuals they are. Good producers are willing to listen to team members to let them vent andcomplain. They can oer eedback and solutions whenasked, but most important, they simply oer to listen.Good producers help prevent burnout by making sureteam members have the time and fexibility to balancetheir personal lives and their health against the demandso their jobs.
Bad producers 
simply take their cues rom classic busi-ness stereotypes. They don’t care about getting to knowthe team because in their eyes, the team is simply a groupo interchangeable resources. Some bad producers mean well, but they go overboard when wearing the counselorhat. By attempting to “x” interpersonal issues, they toooten end up making more o a mess than the one they  were trying to clean up. The rule o thumb here is youcan x processes, not people.

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