1.1 Learning to lead as a games producer
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Introduction: Producers are leaders
Do you know what it means to lead a single team as a junior producer? How about a whole game team? How about a studio? Did anyone teach you how to do that? Are you in a situation where you feel sure someone should have told you by now? Let’s see if we can give you some useful advice!
In my recent podcasts with Callum Godfrey and Anthony Kyne, the topic of leadership arose. Anthony believes that producers need to possess and exhibit a leadership mindset from Day One if they are to do their job. Callum believes producers should be driving teams towards delivering on the vision. Neither of them would want to see a producer who is purely a project manager, or afraid of pushing towards a better game.
While we are working on content that will explain the different types of producers, I think we will be safe in betting that nearly all producers require this sense of how to lead, as well as how to inspire and drive towards goals.
Fortunately, there is a great deal of research and training out there to help you with this. It is highly likely you have need seen or heard of any of it. We are not renowned for offering management or leadership training in the games industry are we? The best you can expect is usually scrummaster certification through a 3 day course followed by a compulsory half day on meeting etiquette.
Lacking a bit of training? A necessary detour
When I first entered the game industry, it was as a Dev Support Manager, in charge of building a new team to support the 1st and 3rd party developers who wanted to make content for PlayStation 3’s virtual world, PS Home. I was a mad gamer from childhood, including RPGs, board games, war games and all the comic books, graphic novels and Lone Wolf books in between. At the time, I was also volunteer staffer on a role-play-intensive MUD which I went on to run, a Team Fortress Classic Girlpower clan member (I’m a boy btw) and assumed that the games industry must be the best place ever to work in.
This was 2012 and even as I was signing paperwork to accept my job offer, Sony was closing studios and I was reading about it a week before I was due to step into the London Studio on Marlborough Street next to Soho. I found myself working with people who, almost exclusively, had started their careers as games coders or designers or artists and had never worked anywhere else except the games industry. It was a big blow to them to hear about the studios closing. The world of game development was still very small back then.
What struck me was the difference between the world I was leaving behind and this new wonderland of game-makers. Back then, you see, there were no gaming courses and the gaming industry was still a fledgling dwarfed by the movies and other entertainment industries. There were no smartphones or mobile gaming industry to speak of, but there were games appearing on Facebook (looking at you Farmville). E-sports was a thing South Koreans did. Downloading patches actually took a long time and might even cost you money if your internet provider was charging by the volume.
I had no idea what I was stepping into, but I presumed it was filled with creative geniuses, exciting people with great personalities who I could talk to about all things geek. That was largely true. The world I had gladly left behind was one where I was already an experienced manager of small teams, having served as an IT contractor for ten years or so. I had run my own web development company (building mail servers from scratch, basing web hosting hardware under my desk at home and using Dreamweaver back when it belonged to Macromedia). I had been a teacher and head of department when I left University. I had worked as a tech author, an evolution out of my desire to be a game writer and indeed found some success writing modules and scenarios for old Wizards of the Coast RPGs. I had become an e-learning consultant because I loved training people. I worked for all sorts of places, from the Foreign Office in London to Pfizer in Kent. In all this time I had never heard of a games industry. However, I did learn a whole lot about managing work, time and people.
Sony’s PlayStation Home was a fascinating project to work on – it wasn’t a game, it wasn’t just a platform, it wasn’t just a virtual community, it was trying to be so many different things. We were ultimately deemed to be unsuccessful and when the PS4 loomed large, it was decided not to move PS Home across. Instead, we morphed to produce games in partnership with PS+ that showcased the knowledge we had gained from PS Home.
There is an incredible variety of backgrounds in the gaming industry. Hopefully, you can see that my background means I have a fairly good insight of what life is like outside the gaming industry as well as inside of it. Zooming down to managing and leading, one thing I can tell you is that there is a big gap in the gaming industry when it comes to understanding how to spot emerging leaders, train them and promote with proper support. While you might look at career pages of big studios and read a lot of stuff about the culture of the place, what you might not see is how you’ll be supported up the career ladder.
The old way of climbing the ranks
Up until a decade ago, most studios were not looking at job progression inside disciplines in a smart way. There was the old-fashioned approach to declaring that “if you want more money you need more responsibility, which means you need to be a team lead”. You would find that veteran programmers were simply put in charge of a bunch of less experienced programmers and left to get on with it, as a ‘reward’ for their promotion. It has shifted more recently towards specialist paths being rewarded. Knowledge workers are seen as valuable in their own rights and the true specialists and veterans are valued for simply staying with you and lending their brilliance to your studio. Hence, you will see titles such as senior engineer, principal engineer and the like as something a specialist could stick within without being sucked into management or leadership. I remember this trend at Sony, as the newfound wisdom seeped into the London Studio way of thinking.
This trend has developed to support the general trend in the gaming industry where games have become far more complicated and complex to make, with bigger teams and more specialized knowledge demanded. A large studio nowadays really does need tech artists as well as programmers who can turn their attention to specific consoles, Unreal over Unity, AI over graphics etc. I recall reading about a small team who spent 2+ years solely working on clouds in an open world game. You do not want your best people leaving because you did not have the HR processes in place to properly extrinsically reward them.
How producers find themselves running a studio
Into that mix, you throw game producers. We are supposed to be the guiding lights who pull the teams in the right direction, overcome terrible odds to bring out games on time and within budget, presumably performing heroics but mainly inspiring and leading those around us. When we first start, this is not at all what we are doing – we’re mostly just interrupting engineers and breaking their chain of thought in order to ask them how their work is going, so we can report back to our producer boss. If we are an Art producer, we are checking around to see what stage of the process each asset has reached, or trying to work out where the concept artist stored their work before they went off on holiday.
As we work out what the job is all about and eventually feel that we are contributing to the team, we may well be promoted. What has changed now compared to the early days of production, is that we have started to see specialisms emerge within our own discipline. We may be better at project management, or at external production, or at holding a creative vision, or at handling the pace of mobile gaming over PC/console. The list goes on (and is being written about separately!).
Whatever happens though, a producer has a unique charge that no other discipline necessarily demands: you will communicate brilliantly, you will organize brilliantly, you will LEAD brilliantly. Almost as a default, it is assumed that a producer simply is a leader and that assumption will grow the more senior you become, until eventually you end of leading the studio or setting up your own. Gravitas, wit, serenity in the face of chaos, mentoring skills to rival the Karate Kid’s teacher, all these just emerge from being promoted. Right?
Along with these traits that we imbibe when we are blessed with the holy chalice of production’s Archetype, we also are assumed to intimately understand how to plan a AAA game and lead hundreds of people. We are assumed to understand complex budgeting issues, in/outsourcing, the demands placed upon us and our bosses by external publishers, employment law, MS Project, Jira and all the rest of it.
It may not perhaps be obvious to those of you who have never lived outside the gaming industry, but this still happens out there too. The act of rewarding a long-standing employee by promoting them to be a team lead, department lead, or director, simply because they are still there, can still happen. It is perhaps an endemic part of the perception that long-term staffers have to keep moving upwards or they will leave. The difference in many larger companies though, is that you will be provided with a programme of training and support to handle your new position.
Let us pause for a moment to remember the phrase that I hear at least once a month: “shit floats to the top”. Let us also pause to reflect upon our own careers and career desires – please don’t just float to the top, take charge of your learning, progression and self-development to be the best you can be.
Learning Leadership: it’s not all about trial and error
When I first started then, I was fortunate enough to already realise I had a knack for managing others, managing projects and winning people over. What I lacked though was a basic understanding of what it meant to lead. To fill that gap, being an obsessive self-learner, I started searching around and discovered a series of books by Jo Owen – the How To Manage, How To Lead and How to Influence trilogy. That these books even existed was a bolt of lightning that woke me up to further possibilities. I read them, studied them, applied them and it worked. I felt more capable and that I could speak in the same language as leaders, even if I would never be as mighty as the best of them. I was fast-tracked and promoted through the ranks.
They say of course that making mistakes is the only way to learn. This is not true. Making mistakes is a focus to do better, but only a fool turns down an offer of knowledge, learning and support through materials and mentors available. When you make a mistake, look around and find out how to stop making it. Don’t turn up to GDC San Francisco and deliver a talk on how you failed 20 times and eventually learnt what your job was about. Look around, reach out, share your stories and failures as I am happy to do with you. Be humble and prepared to admit that we have a real problem if we think bumbling through is the only way to do our best for our own learning and for our teams. They deserve better and so do you.
The real breakthrough moment for me was the single thought – hang on, are you telling me there might be other knowledge out there about the other stuff I do? Stuff like project management? That’s another story, but you should realise that we are not doing something in isolation of the rest of the world – plenty of people have been struggling with the challenge of making highly complex, highly complicated, frequently chaotic products for a very long time. From Lean engineering to Agile software development, strategic planning to understanding budgets, plenty is happening that we might benefit from. I hope we can bring a lot of that knowledge and experience back to game-production.com and share it with you. If you happen to have all the answers, please get in touch and let’s share your knowledge here with others.
For your benefit, I would like to share with you some external knowledge, then. The Mindset of Success is a book that Jo Owen published in 2015 and updated in 2018 to include a section on what happens when we move up the chain of leadership. I believe it has a lot to teach us and it’s based on real experience from thousands of leaders at all different levels. I highly recommend Jo Owen’s earlier collections too, starting with How To Manage, How To Lead and How to Influence. There’s plenty of second hand copies you can buy on the cheap!
Here’s where we get into the details.
The leadership mindset shift
For anyone, jumping up the leadership ladder is hard: at each new step, you must rethink what is now important to you and to those you report to. We will cover this in detail later, but just know that you will have to throw away old ideas of what made you successful before. Maybe as a junior producer your Producer boss was happy to see that you had a good eye on what your team was up to, you ran daily stand-ups well and knew how to use Jira boards to track burndown rates. Now you are promoted, all that is assumed and won’t win you the plaudits you previously enjoyed. Instead, you will be expected to be able to look around, look upwards, see the bigger picture and respond. Again, we will go into detail on this below.
Gradually it’s more about what you are thinking can improve and how you will make that happen through others, rather than how busy you are doing things! You need to learn that lesson fast, or you will find yourself failing fast and not in a good way.
What once made you popular and successful may well be assumed to be happening in the next level up, rather than rewarded – you need to keep improving and learning new skills and gaining new experience to succeed.
From just you to managing others
Let us assume you have just become a producer. Perhaps before you were in QA or another discipline, or you have graduated from university. You may have been a QA lead, or you have led your college game dev team. Regardless, it will feel very different being handed a team to look after, whatever the size of that team. Your mindset needs to shift to match the nature of the role that you find yourself promoted into.
Here are some particularly normal shifts of mindset that need to occur when you move from managing yourself to managing others:
Have a look at that list and you can see that, as your new boss, I no longer care if you are working hard every day at your assigned tasks, I am far more interested in you directed and supporting your team. How are you going to do that? Well, you are going to learn to delegate, you are going to ensure that team members deliver the quality the game requires, you are going to be there for them when there is ambiguity and the path forward gets tough. You are going to impress them with your courage and determination and positivity.
See what I mean? A lot has changed and you cannot be the same person you were when you were simply coming in every day to be told what to do.
As an exercise, why don’t you take the list above and see how it applies to your own job? If you are a junior producer new to the role, are you focused on the management areas on the right, or are you still too concerned with the list on the left? Think hard and be honest. If you need to, ask your team what they think. Learn to be transparent from the start and others will find it far easier to be honest with you.
How does it look at the higher levels of production?
The different levels of seniority present very different challenges and opportunities. However, some things shift only at the very top. For example, take a look at Autonomy below.
Autonomy here is defined as your ability to do whatever you want in the way you want to do it – being your own boss. You can see that only senior level producers and above really get to decide how to spend their days and how to direct their teams and the game. Below this level, you are either being told what to do, or you are in a maelstrom of cross-dependent teams and decision-makers above and around you. The best you can do in the middle tier of production is hang on, keep a firm hand on the tiller and steer through it. We cover this in more detail later.
Unlike Autonomy, the higher up you climb, the less anyone can really describe what your job is. The more they try, the more impossible the list of categories, goals and metrics become. As you start off your career, you may be perfectly clear on what to do – whatever you are told to do. You may be fortunate enough to be asked to give creative input and contribute to the brilliance of the game you are making, or you may just be handed a list of assets to create.
As you find yourself ascending towards production sainthood, you will find yourself entering a world of communications you were never aware of before: requests for people to be dragged from your team/game and be reassigned; new deadlines that you need to spend the night working out how the hell to meet; new publisher requirements that just arrived thanks to a visit that morning and intense conversations behind closed doors; a key member of the team is leaving and you only just found out; a last minute presentation to the studio owner and bosses need to be prepared for in 24 hours. You name it, from outsourcing woes to senior staff relationships going sour, you will be raising your head into what feels like a whirlwind of communications. Noise. But noise you need to learn how to filter out and focus on the important stuff.
As you become used to this and move every upwards, you then find yourself able to stretch and exert your own thoughts and desires with a bit more clarity and clout. The role you come up with is one you want it to be, within the confines and boundaries of wherever you work. This is the games industry after all and many studios are perfectly happy for you to be perfectly happy, rather than pigeonholed. Just make sure the job gets done.
It is a given that you need to work long hours when you first start, especially if your job happens to be in QA. You are someone else’s staffer and have no real say in who to hire, how many to hire, nor do you probably care much. Your focus is on doing.
When you move to the next lanes up, you are faced with a lot of incoming traffic and noise, as we covered above. This will include the need to do more than you can with the people that you have. People are often called a resource in management training, but many people in the games industry intensely dislike the dehumanising aspect. I personally have no issue with it, because actually resources cover not only people but the availability of anything you need to do the job: from equipment and licences to skillsets and experience requirements of the people you need.
As a ‘middle producer’ you will have very little control over resources. You will be a recipient of bad news more than good and you will be told to make do with what you have, despite being told the game needs to come in three months sooner. On the other hand, you can start learning the art of negotiation and trying to demonstrate what and who you need as this at least shows that you are aware, transparent and willing to use data and logic to prove a point. Just don’t expect it to generate extra people or time.
At the top, you are suddenly handed a budget (this would happen further below if Callum had his way! See podcast). You then have to use that money to fund a team, including people, licenses, hardware, office space and the rest. You may need to be exposed to the marketing costs, or you may be strictly involved in the game budget pre-launch. It depends very much upon where you work. You may not be told how to do it, but you are expected to know how to do it.
At the start of your working life, you probably have very little authority to make decisions and in all likelihood are happy with it being that way, as you become used to what it means to spend a day working in a games studio. However, once you become a junior producer you will be expected to accomplish much, often without the means to accomplish very much at all.
Authority is the ability and right to make decisions that will be listened to and acted upon. Responsibility is the guilt you feel at night when you realise everyone is relying on you to work miracles. This is life in the lower tiers as well as the middle, where there are too many fish in a small pond. As you reach the higher echelons of production, your level of authority suddenly emerges from the clouds and you can see all around you, make the appropriate decisions with a nearly appropriate level of budget and resources to support you. It really only happens at the top tiers though, below that, your responsibilities routinely outweigh your authority.
In the next article, we look in more detail at the challenges and how they change as you head up the production ladder.
All feedback and contributions most welcome!