Whether you want to be the guy who manages a project, or you want to be the guy who designs the game, you need to understand who the producer is, and what he (or she) does.
If you are the designer on a game, your work is subject to the approval of the producer. He's the guy who manages the project. Yer durn tootin' you better develop a rapport of mutual respect with him (but if you were a professional, a working game designer, you'd already know this without my tellin' ya). He (or she) will most definitely read your design. If there's stuff in there that causes a problem with the game's schedule or budget, or that causes dissension among the game's team, s/he will be letting you know about it.
But enough on "you the aspiring game designer and why you should care about your producer." Let's look at what a producer is.
What's in a title? Many game companies use the title "producer" for their project managers, but some companies use different titles. A frequent alternate title is "Project Manager" or "PM," sometimes "Project Lead," sometimes but not often: "Director." Whatever the title, the person I'm talking about is the person who is responsible for getting the game DONE. I call that person "Producer" because that's the most widely-used term in the industry.
The producer is someone who's got at least 2 or 3 years experience in the game biz. It isn't possible to produce a game without understanding the industry. Some designers, artists, and programmers might look at a producer and think, "that stuffed shirt, she's got such a glorified title, but she don't know crap about what makes a game fun." But nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the time, the producer started in QA, or programming, or art, or marketing, or even game design (like me). The producer cares about much more than just the budget, the schedule, and the personnel management. The producer's task isn't just to get the game done no matter what - it's a big balancing act. S/he has to not only get it done, but also make it fun.
When a company decides to make a game, there are two people that have to be assigned to the project first: the designer and the producer. And not necessarily in that order, either. Often it's the producer who is the first one to start working on a game. S/he may be the one to hire the designer - and to provide the initial guidelines to the designer as to what the game is going to be. In fact, Electronic Arts uses the title "producer" to mean not just a project manager but a creative leader.
There are some companies that don't have anyone with the title of "producer." Some companies prefer the title "project manager" (and that person is mainly responsible for the budget and schedule, with no hands whatsoever on any creative aspects of the project). There are even companies that don't have anyone with either title, but don't ask me how that works, because I don't know.
Starting out - "Producer" is not an entry level position. That means that if you do not have any experience working in a game company, you won't be getting hired to fill the title "Producer" right off the bat. You'll need to have a college degree (see Lesson 3) first, then apply for any job. Maybe this'll help. This illustration is from Lesson 41 (which you might not have read). The game industry is like an egg. There's a liquid inside with a thin but hard shell. The trick is getting through that shell.
It doesn't matter where you penetrate the shell. Once you are inside, you can move around to other positions more easily than you can break through in the first place. The upshot? -- Just get in the company to start.
Salary - See the latest game industry salary survey (link is on the Game Biz Links Page).
Hours - Producers work long hours, as programmers do (the lion's share of a game project workload falls upon the programmers and the producer). The producer who works smart can keep his hours down close to 40 most weeks of a project, though. [Note: you will not become a game producer by putting in a mere 40 hours per week every week, and you will not become a successful producer if you put in a mere 40 hours per week every week after gaining the title. You have to be willing to go the extra mile, not just put in the minimum required effort. See Lesson 9 about Professionalism if you do not understand this point.] That said (the controversial words in square brackets), if the Crunch/QoL problem is going to get fixed in our industry, the solution has to start with project management, and that means you should usually force yourself to leave the office after you've put in your eight hours, as long as you're making your team do the same.
Overtime - No. You'll get a flat salary. No extra pay for overtime. Testers get overtime because they're hourly. But producers are salaried. Unless the producer is a freelancer, in which case the answer is still "no." Because the freelance producer is probably working on a flat fee or a monthly amount -- still not hourly. But the usual disclaimers "it depends" and "your mileage may vary" and "there's an exception to every rule" still apply.
Office - Depends on the company and other factors. Even producers may just have a cubicle. Japanese companies are a different story entirely - forget the luxuriant privacy of a cubicle if you wind up working in Japan. But once a producer has proved his/her worth, s/he usually gets an office - you know, with a door and stuff.
Company car - No. They pay you enough. Buy your own. Unless you're in the process of relocating, then you might get a rental until your own car finds its way to your new location.
Relocation Expense - Yes, for experienced producers, a new employer will pay relocation expenses. Negotiate details in advance.
Health insurance - Depends on the size of the company the designer works for. Big game publishers do indeed provide health insurance benefits for producers who are their full-time employees. Smaller companies may or may not provide health insurance benefits.
Paid vacation - Just about every employer has to provide vacation benefits, else their employees would all burn out and go nuts!
Sick leave - Everybody gets sick once in a while, so every company's policy covers some amount of sick time.
Jury duty - Depends on the size of the company. Most companies keep your paycheck coming for up to 2 weeks jury service.
401(k) - Depends on size of company. Small companies probably don't have any 401(k) plan. Most big publishers do.
Retirement - This is covered in the 401(k) benefit. Nobody has pension plans in the game industry.
Advancement opportunities - it's unavoidable that after you've been producing games for a while, at some point you'll be moving up. Typically, a successful producer might move up into an executive producer or studio VP position (and eventually even higher), or might strike out on his own and start his own game company.
Stock plan - If the company is a publicly held company, there may be a program for employees to chip in a little from their paychecks and purchase stock in the company. It incentivizes everyone to work to make the company successful.
Stock options - Big publicly held companies may well offer employees stock options (the option to buy company stock in the future at the price at time of hiring) to incentivize them to work to make the company successful and to stick around for a long time.
Bonuses - Most game companies will share profits with the employees in "up" years. Each company has a different way of determining bonuses (may be based on longevity, on job title, on level of contribution to successful products, etc.). The average "additional compensation" for producers is $16,800 per year (rounded).
Royalties - Most game companies do not let their employees have any ownership in the intellectual property created by the company, thus there usually aren't any royalties to go to employees.
Job description - Come to work every morning. Communicate effectively with executives, developers, programmers, QA, Marketing, and other disciplines. Call meetings to plan or to adjust plans. Participate meaningfully in meetings arranged by others, cooperate with company requirements in terms of filling out timesheets, filing reports, and a lot of boring stuff like that. When you are assigned to work on a project, you have to put aside your pet ideas (which nobody ever seems to want to spend time and money on) and work on the assigned project. Most of the work of a game producer entails use of the telephone, soothing frayed nerves, using salesmanship skills, attending meetings, and writing spread sheets, short and sweet bullet points, and manifestos.
PRODUCING IS ALL ABOUT PLANNING
The first thing the producer has to do is plan. At first, this plan is just "get somebody to write the design" but soon it comes down to making a detailed budget and schedule based on orders handed down by the executives. Oh - you know what? I neglected to say what kind of company the producer works for. There are "line producers" who work at development companies, but the real power in a game project is the producer who works for the publishing company. So these executive orders come down from the game publisher.
THE ROLLING SNOWBALL
I like to analogize the producer's job to rolling a snowball down a mountain. I didn't always live in Southern California - I grew up in Upstate New York, so snowballs and snowmen and the like were a powerful part of life. When you roll a snowball downhill, it picks up more snow, growing and accelerating as it goes. That's powerfully similar to how managing a game project works. At the beginning, the producer has to pack snow into a ball, then when it's getting heavy, put it down and push it towards the downhill slope. Gravity then takes over...
The most crucial phase of making a game for the producer, then, is pre-production. The producer must plan everything (even the unplannable eventualities) during pre-production.
Before programmers start programming or artists start modeling/animating, the producer is the first one hard at work. He has to:
Once the plan is presentable, the producer goes before the publisher's executives for what's called a "Greenlight Review." If the plan is accepted, production can begin. The producer can start spending money and committing resources to the project.
When production begins, the producer has to make sure that each different endeavor is kicked off when it's time:
Throughout the project, the producer must:
Producing is a game of ups and downs. The producer has to know when to wait, and when to act. When to plant seeds, and when to just water.
At some point (usually Alpha or Pre-Alpha), the producer must take his game before the publisher's executives for another greenlight review. Is the game on track? Will it be done on time, on budget? Will it be fun? Many projects fall by the wayside at this point.
By this point, the game itself is nearing completion. All the graphics and sounds have been created and implemented (those folks are now off the project). Now the programmers are fine-tuning, debugging, and trying to maintain their sanity.
For the producer:
That last line item is key. The testers in QA, and the marketing people, want to keep adding features to the game. But that is no longer possible at this point. The producer has to become somewhat of a teacher at this point, and constantly remind folks that the game has to be released. For more on the producer's dealings with QA at this phase, see Lesson 5.
But even after the game is released and shipped, the producer often isn't finished with the game. See my article, "It's Not Over When It's Over," in the Charles River Media book edited by Francois Dominic Laramee, Game Design Perspectives (ISBN 1-58450-090-5).
PREPARING TO BE A PRODUCER
If you want to become a video game producer, it would be a good idea to take classes or seminars in the following topics:
Note that I say it would be "a good idea" to learn about those topics. That doesn't mean there is any "requirement" that you take such courses. And nobody will be impressed that you took courses on those topics. The reason I recommend these subjects is not so you can point to them on your resume - it's so you can learn about those topics, to prepare you to actually be a producer. Actually knowing how to produce is much more useful than just having some pretty bullet points on your resume.
And of course, as usual, you should have at least a 4-year college/uni degree. An MBA degree would be a really good thing to have, if your desire is to become a video game producer or executive.
And of course, you need to be video game literate. That is to say, you should be able to talk about the most important video games - you should have played them, and you should know why they are important and why they were successful, and you should know what flaws they had.
It would also be helpful to have a marketable video game industry skill (like programming or marketing or design or whatever). Most people who become producers rise up through the ranks from entry level positions such as QA or programming or marketing or whatever.
*Scrum is the current hotness in the video game industry in North America. Some companies might require candidates to know scrum and/or to have experience using certain project management software.
** PRINCE2 is an up-and-coming hotness in the video game industry in the U.K., western Europe, and Australia. Some companies might require candidates to be certified.
In addition to the above, you should check out FAQ 12 ("Things You Can Do At Home To Prepare For A Game Career").
The producer is often underappreciated and envied, both at the same time, as I wrote in my article, "Producer: A Dirty Word?" in The Journal of Computer Game Design (1992). The producer is truly the pivot - the man (or woman) in the middle. Accused by the developer of being uncaring, while being accused by the publisher executives of coddling the developer, accused by marketing of not being responsive to requests for features and enhancements - the producer is the frayed rope in a multi-directional tug-of-war.
I wouldn't trade my job for anyone else's!
Recommended reading: A May 2009 Gamasutra article on what a producer does all day.
School interview project - Producing
>From: Daniel Kam
>Sent: Monday, May 26, 2008 10:27 PM
>Hello i am a student in the 6th grade at heeia elementary school in hawaii, and i have to write a report about what i would like to be when i grow up, and i want to be a video producer. So i had a question for you:
>What classes should i take to become a video game producer?
>If you could please answer asap that would be very helpful
Would you believe nobody ever asked me this question before!? I get a kajillion emails like this about game design, but this is the first time anybody ever asked this about game producing. To expand on what I wrote in FAQ 42 (above left):
The classes you should take are first and foremost, classes related to communication, business, and management. For example:
Of course, you also need to learn how to use computers effectively. For example:
That last one crosses over into the third area of knowledge you should study: art and entertainment. For example:
Best wishes to you in your classes and your career, Daniel.
Los Angeles, California, USA
May 27, 2008
(Still No Subject)
>From: Rohit J
>Sent: Saturday, November 15, 2008 9:18 AM
>Subject: Re: (NO SUBJECT)
>Thank you for youe assistance.
>Another thing i'd like to know is:
>Difference in roles and responsilibities of a Producer in a development studio and a game publishing company.
>Could you kindly throw some light on this?
>Shukriya (thank you)
(Still No Subject)
The publisher producer is mainly concerned with making the best possible game. He has to make sure that the developer delivers what he wants, on time and on budget. He approves the milestones, providing feedback to the developer, and ensuring that milestone payments get made once he's satisfied with the developer's progress. The publisher producer has to deal with the licensor, platform holder, and the marketing people who create the box & docs, and to shepherd the game through Quality Assurance.
The developer producer herds his cats in making the game on time. He has to make sure to satisfy the publisher producer so that the publisher producer will approve payments for milestone deliveries. He doesn't deal directly with the licensor, necessarily, or with the platform holder or the marketing people.
Los Angeles, California, USA
The ides of November, 2008
Would you eat this turkey?
>From: Tyson Crabb
>Sent: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 11:59 PM
>Subject: Career path for Game Production
>I understand that, in order for you to give me the best answer suited to my unique situation, you need to know that...
>My approximate age is: 19
>The level of education I've completed is: 1st year University
>My occupation (if student, enter 'student') is: Student
>The type of game job I aspire to (if applicable) is: Producer/Business owner
>I want to know if I'm on the right track:
>Would you hire this guy (as an associate producer, if you had your own company)?
>This man has just finished his BCOM from the University of Victoria (UVic), and is eager to get a job as an Associate Producer. He has 3 Co-op terms under his belt, and he has worked in QA on a shipped AAA EA title. He has completed the "DP Challange."
>(One plays and reviews the top 100 games; Xttp://www.dpfiles.com/dpfileswiki/index.php?title=THE_DP_CHALLENGE)
>Has aspired for many years to work on, and produce, video games. And as such, has attended many (5+?) conferances throughout his time studying. Throughout University this individual has been a part of, Produced, or helped drive to completion, 3 games. One of which is a shippable product worth $20+.
>As you've probably guessed, this is where I see myself in 3 (or so) years. So, would you hire this guy? Reading FAQ 42 makes me *censored*, and production looks like an extremely satisfying and exciting career. Am I on the right track?
Would you eat this turkey?
Hi Tyson, you wrote:
Would you hire this guy (as an associate producer, if you had your own company)?
>This man has just finished his BCOM from the University
No. Of course not. Would you eat this turkey: It's been killed and has had its feathers removed. (Methinks not.)
Throughout University this individual has been a part of, Produced, or helped drive to completion, 3 games. One of which is a shippable product worth $20+.
Good, you have a portfolio. But no résumé.
Reading FAQ 42 makes me *censored*
Unclear. It makes you what? It makes you poop your pants? I don't follow, please explain. Maybe you should read FAQ 42 again. You need to understand that the job of producer is a position of trust. The way you get trust is to earn it in the biz over time. Not by producing some student projects or mods or indie games, and not by working in QA for a summer. And not by having a degree. You need to be fully cooked before you're ready to be eaten.
Am I on the right track?
Sure. It's just longer than you were thinking.
Los Angeles, California
Turkey Day USA, 2008
For more on this topic, see the Gamasutra article "So You Want To Be A Producer." http://gamasutra.com/features/20060705/mencher_01.shtml - You may need to register on Gamasutra, but you should have done that already, what are you waiting for?!
Read about my 2006 Serious Games Summit talk, "How To Find And Work With The Right Studio For Your Serious Game Project" at http://seriousgamessource.com/features/feature_111706_sgsdc_1.php. You can download the Powerpoint slides at https://www.cmpevents.com/GDsg06/a.asp?option=C&V=1&PV=2.
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