Why is the Game Production role so ambiguous?
Updated: May 24, 2020
I was musing upon the history of game production and happened across the wikipedia entry, when wondering where the term originated from. I think it's worth quoting a meaty chunk of this entry:
Producers basically manage the relationship with the artist. They find the talent, work out product deals, get contracts signed, manage them, and bring them to their conclusion. The producers do most of the things that a product manager does. They don't do the marketing, which in some cases product managers do. They don't make decisions about packaging and merchandising, but they do get involved ... they're a little like book editors, a little bit like film producers, and a lot like product managers.
"Sierra On-Line's 1982 computer game Time Zone may be the first to list credits for "Producer" and "Executive Producer". As of late 1983 Electronic Arts had five producers: A product marketer and two others from Hawkins' former employer Apple ("good at working with engineering people"), one former IBM salesman and executive recruiter, and one product marketer from Automated Simulations; it popularized the use of the title in the industry. Hawkins' vision—influenced by his relationship with Jerry Moss—was that producers would manage artists and repertoire in the same way as in the music business, and Hawkins brought in record producers from A&M Records to help train those first producers. Activision made Brad Fregger their first producer in April 1983."
So, you can see that a game producer back then in ye olde days was a bastardisation of a role from another industry, all about looking after artists and licenses. This is a far cry from the resulting evolution of the producer role, to which was added responsibilities such as project management, product management, creative direction, team lead, scrummaster & unqualified Agile coach (increasingly popular), troubleshooter, status reporter, all round general organiser of the games teams. Games producers became the 'mother' archetypes of games teams, be they a single art team or the entire group making a AAA IP; carers, enforcers of rules, making sure that everyone is doing their homework on time before they can sign off and play games. In a male dominated industry, it is no wonder that women can find an important and powerful place as games producers, but that is a discussion for another time.
The wikipedia entry is actually very dated and in serious need of an update, but it seems nobody knows what to replace it with, or what producers do these days. Let us try and rectify that.
We asked the question at the outset - why is the role of Games Producer so ambiguous? It stems from its own origins, as well as the games industry's own unusual evolution. From the well-known exploits of solo programmers to small bands of legendary game studio founders (as well as the heady days of Apple, Microsoft and other garage-based start ups), we now find ourselves up to our necks in business and money. From obsessed coders in dark rooms to 400 people working together over 3-4 years to produce a single game, this is no longer about having fun. Of course, in the mobile arena and to a degree the world of Indie, there is still room for swift development and deployment of your product, but swift is a relative term. Also, deployment nowadays comes with a slew of marketing expectations if you wish your game to stand a chance of being noticed. Discovery is a thing. Players streaming your game. Viral word of mouth promotion. Sure, I can go grab Gamemaker or similar and throw out a game in a day, but it will make not even a ripple on the monstrous lake. If I want to be successful, to be recognised, to make a living from making games, I actually need to sell my product. I need to compete in a saturated market. I need to stand out.
Twenty years ago you would have been lucky to have found a degree in game development and many still thought the games industry was a cheeky adolescent. Ten years ago this started to change as a surprised world realised that game studios had been routinely ploughing $100m+ into marketing for their biggest games and the annual turnover surpassed the movie industry. Gamers grew up - the big spenders were now in their 30s and 40s and able to afford the latest big titles and consoles, as well as the ingame loot boxes to avoid having to grind to catch up with the kids. Addictive habits from psychology studies were harnessed by gaming and gambling alike, so that we now see online casino games as the precursor to most of the biggest mobile titles. Habit and addiction is big business now - go grab the top few titles from the mobile gaming segment and you will experience a slick form of hypnosis, as millions seek to repeat the cycle of behaviour that forms habits until they cannot put the game down. Video gamers tend to be exposed to different kinds of games, but still you cannot escape the lure of the loot box. As someone who worked (briefly) in the "i-gaming" industry as the gambling world call themselves, as well as in mobile, I can tell you that making money is not hard once you plug in the psychological habit-forming addictive behaviour loops that capture minds. Especially young minds.
Into this maelstrom of bigger and bigger money to be made you through venture capitalists, publishers and the rest, all trying to help fledgling game devs make their dreams come true. Where there is big money to be made, we must also concede there is a high risk of failure to return on the investment. Is it any wonder then that the investors wish to know that their investment is being cared for and nurtured and given the best chance of success?
We are now in a highly competitive market, filled mostly with sincere and decent human beings who never wanted to work for a bank or become an accountant. These same fun-filled young people land dream jobs with games studios, or start their own studio, and life is roses. Unfortunately, they are soon to discover that they have fallen through the crack in the mirror and entered a Dickensian workhouse, a Tayloresque conveyor belt of churning out small pieces of work that other people tell you they need. Only those who have climbed to the top (or started there) are able to truly step above the grind and be truly creative. Even they may well be beholden to a publisher or others holding the purse-strings. This is a job. You are being paid. There are harsh deadlines and probably a whole bunch of overenthusiastic deadline promises that have been made. Have you found the fun yet?
It then becomes a choice: are you happy to work with others on someone else's ideas? Are you indeed happy to have a job in your dream industry? Great! Now, are you happy that the work you are being paid to do - for it is work - is the right work? Is it being accomplished in the most effective manner, using best practice and collaborative techniques? Are you confident that the work fits well into the bigger picture and contributes clearly to the vision and pillars for your game? No? Then you need a decent producer to come sort that out for you.
These days, game producers are seen as the master scheduler of work for games. They (probably in a pack of roving producers) scour the design, art, code and audio departments, asking questions about deadlines and tasks. The more junior the producer, the more likely they are to be seen opening large spreadsheets or jira backlogs, making little ticks and tweaks to numbers. They are reporting back.
The more experienced producers are receiving this feedback and deciding what to do with it. Perhaps they see some problems looming as they are more aware of dependencies on other departments, on external outsourced devs, of the upcoming milestone submission, or E3 trailer. Perhaps a feature is falling behind schedule, perhaps a level is failing to live up to expectations. Perhaps a key member of the design team has just quit for another job and they need to consider how to juggle the team as a result.
Above them the exec producers and dev directors sit, considering the game vision, release dates, marketing strategy, budget, resources, risks and their bosses. Perhaps they need to horsetrade people with the skills they need across other game teams. Maybe they are painfully aware they have inherited a promise from their higher-ups to deliver a game a year before it could possibly be finished, in order to be ready for a new console launch.
That is a single vision of a production team for a large game in a large studio, but it is far more complex and various that that. What about mobile games, that may have a smaller team, far faster turnaround and far greater dependency on user acquisition and promotion? Here a producer might not even be called that - there may be a product manager and a project manager who assists them. They are both still serving under the production umbrella though. They make the game happen and they try to make it happen on time and within budget. In the case of the product manager, they do so much more. In mobile, you will not have 3 years to make a game - you are making a product and you need to determine its value and validate your design and execution of that design. Product managers are from the Agile backbone of data-driven thinking and hypothesis testing. They will still need project manager assistance to look after schedules and resources.
Take a look at the career paths of product managers in mobile gaming and you will see that there is an uneasy crossover between producer and product manager. Mobile gaming is in a way more sophisticated in its use of Agile methodology than video game development - I have always seen mobile development as more blatant in its approach to being a business first and a game product second. Far too often in video game development, the game is seen as a baby being nurtured to fruition, with exposure to the consumer being restricted to occasional scheduled user testing bouts. Agile product management knows that the players need to be playing your game from the moment you have anything ready to gain the maximum information and be able to iterate. This trend is beginning to become truer with smaller, newer teams, especially those that come out of university degrees where some level of project management was offered.
The rambling tale of production ambiguity should probably end there, but it has only touched the surface - what of external producers sent in by publishers to monitor games being made for and with them? What of the project managers? What of the dev director?
Where is the producer left in all of this? The producer needs to be seen as an umbrella term for a myriad of roles, none of which have ever really been fully described or explained consistently. The ambiguity of the role means that many feel they never really grasp what they are supposed to be responsible for - the "if you see something wrong, get in there and fix it" approach to career development. We will be working through the ambiguity over the next few months and building a strong and coherent picture of what the producer is and is not.