Producers: What do they even do?

Producers: What do they even do?
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 23rd 2016 at 12:00PM

Develop sat down with producers from studios of all sizes to discuss their central – but seldom discussed – role in a game’s development, and ask what’s next for their ever-changing responsibilities

When Lana Zgombic of UK studio Chilled Mouse is asked by friends or family what her job is, the answer isn’t as simple as she would hope. The majority of Develop readers will have a general understanding of what an associate producer does, but beyond that?

“I tell them it’s mostly a manager position,” she says. “It’s so much more but for them to understand, it’s simpler to say you’re in charge of things rather than listing all the little ways you help. They think all you do is Excel spreadsheets – which sometimes, yes, I do, but there’s so much more.”

Zgombic is one of seven producers Develop and Testronic invited to Brighton last month to discuss their role. The consensus was a fair summary, albeit a cold one: the producer ensures a project gets done, on time and to a standard of quality.

Jagex senior producer Conor Crowley offers a far more pleasant definition: “If development was a river, you’re making sure it’s constantly flowing in the right direction. If there’s a boulder, you’re moving it out of the way before anyone hits it. There’s an element of understanding what’s going to happen in the future rather than just what’s happening now.”

Auroch Digital producer Peter Willington adds: “It’s about helping talented people do their very best work. A good producer gets to know what those people actually need to be the very best and bring the value required to the company.”

As a producer, there’s an element of understanding what’s going to happen in the future rather than just what’s happening now.

Dave Cox, currently senior games producer at Mercury Steam and formerly a producer at Metal Gear firm Konami, describes producers as facilitators and communicators. 

“The producer is someone that serves the team, not the team serving the producer. It’s about dealing with people: stakeholders, junior artists, studio heads and more – and you need to be able to manage those relationships one-to-one. So being a people person is one of the most important attributes.

“What worries me is sometimes producers are looked upon as project managers – even by their studios – but they’re so much more than that. Getting that across to some people is a bit of a challenge sometimes.”

Studio Gobo producer Andy Walker describes the role as being at the centre of a “spider’s web” of communication: “You’re the intermediary between management, deliverables, clients and the team.
You need to let the team get on with what they need to do and protect them from everything else – even to the extent of studio concerns like hirings and firings.”

Curve Digital production manager Sophie Rossetti emphasises the need for strong interpersonal skills: “Finding where people can shine and bringing out their best skills is really important. You have to adapt your management style depending on the people you work with.”

PRODUCE A SOLUTION

Central to the role is problem solving. When larger issues with the game arise, it is the producer that the team turns to for guidance. The trick, says Crowley, is thinking about those problems laterally.

“So many people come to you with an issue that, to them, seems like the end of the world, everything’s falling apart, the sky is actually going to crash down around us,” he says. “But being able to look at that and think about how things actually work, then offer an option that nobody thought of, is vital to keeping everything running.”

Walker adds: “A project management response is one solution, whereas a producer response is more to offer 500 other options that can be explored before you start cutting quality, adding more people on or changing things. It’s about finding smart solutions to hard problems.”

All of our experts agree that it’s vital to manage stress – not just the team’s but also your own. Keeping a cool head can go a long way to calming your team, and reminding them of the bigger picture.

“Level-headed realism is absolutely key,” says Willington. “Yes, we’re making art – but it’s commercial art, art to a deadline. There may be a more monetary factor involved. The creative people you work with may want to make the best thing you can – we’ve all worked with artists who want ten days, not five – but you need to have a realistic attitude.” 

Cox adds: “Having a commercial mindset and keeping the team focused on the commercial reality of shipping something is really important. Because sometimes teams can end up naval-gazing about a feature they really love and you have to urge them to move forwards with the rest of the project.”

Sometimes teams can end up naval-gazing about a feature they really love and you have to urge them to move forwards with the rest of the project.

While it may seem like the team relies heavily on the producer, the reverse is just as true. As a result, producers need to ensure they have established strong relationships with the teams they work with. This also helps with problem solving, says Creative Assembly development manager Mark Sutherns.

“You’ve got to make sure you don’t end up in an ivory tower where you think you exist above them,” he says. “These are the people that are going to help the most, so if you understand them and what they’re capable of, often the solution you need is right there.

“Being positive helps. If you see something great on a screen, make a point of it and gather people around. I love doing that – it helps the morale of the team, they know what each other’s working on. Just try doing a show and tell at someone’s desk as you walk around the floor.”

Dealing with teams on a regular basis to solve problems requires more than people skills. Rossetti says there are advantages to having a “conversational memory”.

“Remembering what someone said two weeks ago about something off-hand can be so useful later on,” she explains. “Especially when a programmer says ‘I never said that’. And I can say: ‘Yes, you did.’”

ON TOP OF THINGS

Managing production becomes far more complicated in an age of contractors and even full studios working remotely. It’s naturally easier to communicate with teams in the same room or building as you, so it takes a particularly efficient producer to handle staff working further afield.

“The most difficult thing with contractors is they have to handle their own time,” says Zgombic. “If they say they can’t do something in a week, you have to urge them to manage their time better. They had the deadlines in advance. We can only do so much when working with contractors.”

When it comes to communicating with remote workers, Crowley observes there are tools that solve this problem. Thanks to the likes of Slack, Skype and Google Docs, the days of faxing code around the world or jumping on a long-haul flight are long gone.

“Being able to speak to people face-to-face through video chat and make sure they’re collaborating on things like online documentation is invaluable,” he says. “Those tools have changed how we look at some things.”

Walker adds that greater distances cause more issues: “If you have a guy in Australia, the US and so on, you’re limited on when you can have meetings because otherwise half the team’s asleep.”

This also makes it harder for producers to keep track of how each team is progressing – something our experts all agree is essential. An overview is not enough as producers need to know their product, and its condition, intimately. Fortunately, some people have a natural inclination to do just that.

“I’m quite nosy and like to see what everyone’s doing,” admits Zgombic. “But that’s very important because it means I can plan ahead. I don’t think I’d like to work with other producers and not know what every other team is doing. I like to be on top of things.”

Crowley adds that this can be tougher at larger studios, but it’s still vital: “When you’re running a team of 80 to 100 people, I know what every single person on the floor is doing. You would think that as your company gets bigger your role would start changing, but it doesn’t. You still have to be involved in everything – the problem just scales as you grow, and you need to keep on top of it.”

Willington observes that this knowledge takes producers’ responsibility out of the studio. “You also communicate what your game is to the end audience and to the press,” he says. “You are often the face of your studio, because producers are best placed to have those answers to any questions people might have. We’re the best people for journalists to talk to.” 

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

In many ways, the role of the producer has changed considerably over the past few decades as the industry has evolved around it. Sutherns recalls a time when the only pre-launch milestones he had to worry about were E3 appearances and a playable demo.

“Nowadays, with livestreaming and showing the game in a playable state much earlier, those milestones have changed,” he says. “The game has to be playable, stable and demonstrable really early on. It’s a great thing for the gaming public, and for devs, because it means we’re driven to show that stability and quality as soon as possible. It also means we can play our own game much earlier.”

Walker believes the digital revolution has removed milestones completely: “A lot of companies are moving towards digital distribution and live operations – and that’s completely different because once you’ve released something, it’s got to be maintained week after week.”

A producer is a role that will always remain flexible, and will always adjust to the platforms the teams are developing for.

The barriers between community and developer have also never been lower – this brings with it new challenges, according to Zgombic.

“There are so many Early Access games, so many open developments, and our job is to talk to the community as much as possible and get their feedback,” she says. “That’s very valuable: after all, we’re making games for them and they get to feel like they’re involved.”

Looking ahead, Sutherns observes that while producers have already seen drastic changes and there’s more to come as gaming continues to evolve, it’s nothing production experts won’t be able to handle. Someone will always be needed to ensure the development river keeps on flowing, boulder-free.

“We’ve reacted to changes in technology and business models before,” he says. “It’s a role that will always remain flexible, and will always adjust to the platforms the teams are developing for.

“That’s what makes this role so interesting: it attracts the type of person who wants to be involved in an ever-changing industry and see it at a top level.”

COULD YOU BE A PRODUCER?

We asked our experts what advice they have for any would-be producers considering the role 

Mark Sutherns, Creative Assembly:
“Get experience in the studios as quick as you can, at whatever level – even starting at the traditional QA level. You’ll know pretty early whether the producer role appeals to you, because you’ll want to know what other teams are up to and how the game’s coming together. Just being nosy is a sure sign someone has what it takes to be a producer.” 

Peter Willington, Auroch Digital:
“Always leave your ego at the door. Be humble and let the experts guide the projects. It’s easy when you’re at the centre of the web to feel like you’re super-important, but actually everyone else around you is on exactly the same level.” 

Dave Cox, Mercury Steam:
“Listen as well as talk. Trust your team to know what the answers are to the problems, and be honest with them about what the problems are. If you think you’re in charge, that’s not going to work. The team will make your life hell. Find solutions together. Usually it’ll come from a team member because they know their shit better than we do.” 

Sophie Rossetti, Curve Digital:
“Never be the first one to give an answer. The people around you have a lifetime of experience in each discipline. You couldn’t possibly know all that, so try to ask more questions and get the experts to give the answers.”

Conor Crowley, Jagex:
“Get ready to never be able to measure your own contribution to the game. Technically, you do nothing – although when you’re not there, nobody else does anything either. If you’re looking for personal glory, you’re in the wrong role.”