GAMEDEV INSIGHTS #1 – Błażej Żywiczyński, Executive Game Producer
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What is it all about? We’re inviting gamedev professionals representing all roles in game development to share their insights on their work in the gaming industry. All that is to help you grow within your own role and to help you get the answers to the questions that are hard to answer through a google search.
Please welcome our first guest – Błażej Żywiczyński – Executive Game Producer from Little Red Dog.
Here is our guest’s short BIO:
“In the last decade, Błażej has managed to experience a variety of aspects of video game production. He’s led internal, external and remote teams of different sizes as a producer and as a creative. With hits such as This War of Mine, Frostpunk and Ori and the Will of the Wisps behind his belt and after a brief romance with publishing, he now provides production consulting services. Currently affiliated with Little Red Dog Games as Executive Game Producer.
Personal quote: “Making good shit and making bad shit takes roughly the same amount of time and effort… So why waste that time making bad shit?”
Before we start
Today, we have Blażej Żywiczyński – the Executive Producer at Little Red Dog. We will be talking about what a producer does, their responsibilities, and how they contribute to a great game.
Blażej, is someone who has more than ten years of experience in game dev and has helped ship some incredible titles. We’re really happy to have him here today to share his experience and insights on what it’s like to be a Game Producer.
I mentioned that you have more than ten years of experience in the games industry. So what’s the biggest nonsense you have heard about the work of a producer?
It’s hard to choose the biggest nonsense. There’s a bunch of classic ones like people asking me, “oh, so you code games?”, or “so you’re the project manager?”, or “oh, so you’re everyone’s boss?”. Ultimately those are fairly harmless because they mainly come from people outside the industry. But I think the biggest nonsense I encountered regularly was when in a job interview, I heard: “We want to hire a producer but not a production partner.”
And it comes from a situation where very often the company grows from a handful of people to 20-30-50 employees, and suddenly whoever was in charge feels like they don’t have an overview of what people are doing anymore. Automatically, they think: “okay, so let’s hire a Producer!”. And they do that with the irrational expectation that the Game Producer (also a single person), will somehow magically be able to have that overview.
And ideally, of course, while keeping the same pipelines or production style because why to change something that the person previously in charge is so familiar with? So I would say that this is one of the biggest myths about the work of a Game Producer, especially in the small companies that go mid-size.
LG: Okay, so at what growth stage does a studio need to hire a Game Producer?
BŻ: I don’t think that there’s a silver bullet there. It depends on the setup of the company. I think it’s more of a question of when the company needs a producer in terms of their setup rather than their size.
I don’t feel that every team needs a producer. However, you might need a producer when someone who is supposed to focus on some other things spends most of their time making sure that other people are doing their jobs.
Improving the pipeline or task tracking system could also do the job in a smaller team distributing the production / the producers’ work between the leads. That can be a very healthy setup.
If you doubt whether you need a producer, ask yourself, “What do I need the Game Producer to do? What do I need to have done?” And then figure out whether you can do it with the skill set that you have in-house. Or do you need a specialized Manager/Producer?
LG: How did you become a Game Producer? You majored in HR, you worked in marketing. So how this transition to the games industry happened?
BŻ: It was all rooted in extreme unhappiness. <laughs> Just as your research said, I joined the industry quite late.
Many game devs start as testers quite often in their late teens even. But I was 26 when I joined the industry. I built a track record in project/production management, but in different fields: marketing, logistics.
I just hated what I was doing, I felt that it was a job that’s not helping anyone.
The last job I had outside gamedev was in value-added services for B2C customers for a telecommunication company. And I was managing really bullshit services that nobody needed. Smartphones were on the rise, and I was still trying to offer people Nokia Mail, BlackBerry services in Poland.
All of that was very demotivating.
In the grand scheme of things, as far as society is concerned, I’m totally useless. I’m making good money, but I’m completely useless. I decided that I could go two ways: I always liked writing and I always played a lot of video games.
On the one hand, writing was cool, but I don’t really like starving, as an artist. So I went “okay, let’s try to go into games”. And I started applying to pretty much all the studios in Warsaw (because that was the Dark Ages before the remote tour). After a bunch of rejections and quite embarrassing job interviews (there weren’t really that many resources regarding what the game industry looks like back then). I finally got my foot in the door at CI Games.
I took a severe pay cut back then, but I never looked back.
LG: Awesome! At CI Games, as you said, you worked as a producer and nourished your inner artist working as a narrative designer. If I’m not wrong, you’ve balanced the game design and the production, and managed internal and external teams. But what was this turning point in your career? What event pushed you on the path that brought you where you are now?
BŻ: I don’t think there was like a single event that struck me anything like that. But closer to the end of production of my first game “The Lords of the Fallen” I realized two things.
First: every le person should work for experience, not for money. And that doesn’t mean “just do it for your portfolio”. <laughs>
That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that when you choose what you’re doing or what job you’re taking, it’s more about “What kind of things you can learn on the job” than rather “how much money you will get”.
Because if you are just trading your time and your expertise for money, that’s a simple trade. But if you’re trading your time for money and for additional experience, that’s an entirely different thing. That’s how you grow as a person, as a professional.
And the second realization was that the industry is much more project-driven than studio-driven. I always strive to finish the game I’m currently working on. However, after that, I will kind of open myself up to new opportunities. Sometimes I will take them; sometimes I won’t.
But suppose an opportunity to learn comes along. In that case, everyone should very seriously consider it because joining various companies in various roles and working on various schemes can give you a wealth of experience. Experience you would never get if you stuck to the same company that keeps doing things (evolving of course) but still doing things with the same people.
If I didn’t get that, I could have been an art producer in a single company for the last 10 years. And be the only non-art person that’s been that with the art department. So yeah, that was it.
LG: Walk us through your responsibilities as a Game Producer. General areas where Producer can help your team, help your game, and the studio overall.
BŻ: It varies wild across the industry, and the teams I’ve been working with. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff over the years, from running to getting people Red Bulls because they were crunching, and that was a big part of my job at that time then to this day, where at Little Red Dog, as a producer, I’m also in charge of the design. This might sound weird and quite uncommon, but it is what I’m doing right now.
So the expectations the company places on the Game Producer are very individual, depending on what the company needs. Sometimes when you get hired as a producer, you get to put together your own pipelines and management style into work. Sometimes the expectation is that you will be more of an extension of the board or whatever boss you get, instead of having the flexibility to make your own calls. So your calls are kind of narrowed down into certain expectations.
Theoretically, the Game Producer is supposed to be the glue of the company. The one that makes sure that everything stays on track and that people don’t have communication issues. That the departments are actually talking to each other and that everything is properly planned and estimated.
It varies through many cases and stages of the project. It’s hard to estimate when you’re in very early prototyping stage, so that gets taken off your plate.
But if you’re trying to manage documentation, it’s probably the hardest question in the world when you ask a producer. I’ve been in interviews when someone went, “okay, so let’s start with something simple. What do you do as a producer?” And I went for like 30 minutes, “what do I say?” <laughs>
LG: That’s an existential question.
BŻ: Pretty much, yeah. What am I doing here? What have I been doing for the last ten years?
LG: What is it that makes a good game producer a successful game producer? What traits, skills, qualifications, and knowledge must one nurture and obtain to be good in their line of work?
BŻ: I know what usually gets listed in the job interviews for low / mid / senior level of production. It usually focuses on helping to grow the team, helping run the daily Scrum, and all of the technical things.
Don’t take my advice here as gospel because this is just how I do things, but if you were in an interview with me, this would get you far. But if you were in an interview with other Producers at other companies, you could be asked for a lot harder, skill stuff.
When recruiting a Game Producer, I mostly look for two things:
First is being a natural organizer. The kind of person that in any group of friends always calls the restaurant to make a reservation or puts together a spec, who owes whom how much money after the road trip. I find people generally lazy. They look for this kind of self-driven individuals to do those jobs for them. On the other side, those individuals believe that if they don’t organize it, nobody will, which is not far from the truth. Being a natural organizer is an essential quality I want to see in the Game Producer.
If I see someone who had a bunch of extracurricular activities that revolved around helping with conventions or volunteering to organize stuff, that means those people are actively looking for an outlet for doing their thing. I’m not limiting myself to whatever is in the CV. I want to see that in the interview. I’m asking targeted questions to see if that person has this kind of mindset because I feel that this kind of productivity is going to get them far in being a producer.
The other qualification I’m looking for is a genuine and in-depth love for games. I always ask for favorite games, genres, and reasons for them being their favorite. And I’m looking for people who will tell me they can dissect those games. That they analyze them on a deep level. Deeper than (and this is an actual answer that I’ve gotten more than once), “My favorite game is Counter-Strike because I’ve been playing this game with my friends for the last ten years.
I get from that answer that you’re not seeking new games. You’re just playing what you’re comfortable with. It’s possible that you don’t have a wide variety of references you can use in your work as a Game Producer. This love and understanding of games is what makes a difference between a Manager and a Game Producer.
I am a Manager. I could probably manage anything, but I am managing the production of video games because that’s what I love. That’s what I feel I’m good at. That’s something I understand. In order to manage something very efficiently, you need to understand it. On a deeper level than just the “consumer level” or “reviewer level”. You have to understand how the thing is made.
Of course, hard skills like administering Jira, running stand-ups, or other various production methodologies come with time. And a producer might stay long in their field without learning them. But without the two qualities: the love of games and being a natural organizer, I don’t think any producer can really become successful.
LG: What other technical skills should a producer have or acquire to help them improve their work?
BŻ: Required? None. Especially at the entry-level. However, the better you understand the work of each of the departments, the more successful you will be as a Producer.
You want to be in a room full of artists, designers or coders and fully understand what they are talking about because otherwise, you’re useless.
You’re just taking notes of things you don’t understand. Of course, most fresh producers are doing that. But that’s how we learn, right? That’s how you understand what’s what. You’re taking your notes and start Googling for the words you didn’t understand. Or ask people. However, it’s really good to make some effort first instead of just going and asking. Because that’s the difference between you being a nuisance element and putting in some work by yourself. Anyway, you want to understand what they’re talking about to the point where you can propose organizational solutions that consider the nuances of those disciplines.
However, as soon as you find yourself in a room where you are the best artist or the best designer or the best coder, that means something is wrong. That means you either need to recruit a new, stronger lead for that discipline or you need to become one yourself.
LG: You have stated how important it is to understand what each person is doing, their job, et cetera. But how can you acquire the trust of the team you’re working with, especially if you’re not very technical? How does one do that?
BŻ: Some producers will tell you that managing people is a very different skill set that you bring to the table. And that is enough as a value that you don’t really need to know how to do their job to successfully help manage your artists or designers. I call bullshit on that. You never want to be as skilled as they are in their disciplines, and they are spending their share of time while we don’t.
But having no idea about their job is only going to hurt you. You are going to be the spreadsheet manager, not their Producer. And you will stay in your task tracker without any understanding of why things are slipping. You definitely need to get your hands dirty, especially early in your career.
The more things you try, the better Producer you will be.
One of my programmer friends told me that while I’m not a programmer, I am kind of an engineer, where I am able to think like a programmer without actually knowing how to code. This came with time. Nowadays I’m able to sit in a meeting with a programmer and help them find solutions to a design problem that we were having and be productive in that conversation.
Without asking questions like, “hey, what can we do to make it faster?” This is not productive. But if you understand what things are involved in what’s happening and what the problem is, then you can actively start searching for solutions. And if you understand what their expertise is, and what their limitations are, that helps you have a healthy dialogue instead of just you coming across as someone with the expectations.
LG: What advice would you give to your younger self? What would you say to a 26-year-old Blaze starting in the game industry?
BŻ: I would tell myself to make a game by myself as early as possible. I did that after a few years in gamedev. I know you have no idea how but you can just figure it out. You can get an infinite amount of wisdom from experiencing all those things. Perhaps you might hear how much your coder hates debugging code, but you’ll never know the pain until you spend three days looking for something that should work and have no idea how to fix it only to discover the answer was ridiculously simple. You will never have sufficient respect for the sound designers until you try to make all your UI sound effects, sounds exactly the way you want.
Just make the game — even a terrible one.
BŻ: Game Jams are fun. I think that they definitely bring a lot of value. You should do game Jams if you can. If someone will have you on their team, you will never learn during Game Jams what a prolonged game development experience is.
LG: Let’s talk about situations a lot of producers encounter. The classic story goes that on the one hand you have a team that wants and needs time to produce a great product, a great game that they will be proud of, highly polished. And on the other hand, there’s the board; there are the investors who want to produce the game as quickly as possible.
Publish it because it’s draining them.
How do you behave in a situation like this? How do you know what is worth fighting for? What should stay in the game, which path should you follow, and what should be cut off? How do you balance your wins and losses?
BŻ: I would start with not fully agreeing with the situation.
I’ve met all of the setups.
We have to remember one thing: investors and managers they’re people too. Sometimes they speak a slightly different language. But the first step is always to get everyone on the same page.
If your organization has conflicting internal or external goals, that’s never healthy. That’s one of the most common sources of crunch. But you’d be surprised how many investors don’t really care about making games quickly or cheaply. What they are actually after is proof that they are not burning money. And that is a fundamentally different need you must cater to as a producer. But regardless of the outcome of those talks, like whether you manage to get those people on the same page or not, you should always aim to keep your scope clean and focused.
LG: You, as a producer, are also responsible for managing the budget and the project’s planning. And you set it up, of course, before anybody does anything. But what happens when you realize that your expectations have changed throughout the game, throughout this preproduction or even like production phase? The project’s scope has changed, some fundamental fundamentals of the game have changed, and it will affect both the budget and the timeline. So how do you handle that?
BŻ: Here’s a pro tip: If you don’t want to miss a deadline, don’t agree to one. <laughs>
I mean, I kind of disagree with the notion that that game needs to be planned and budgeted before it starts. That you shouldn’t touch it before you plan it.
First of all, it’s completely impossible to do. It’s a waste of energy. And any developer or investor knows that every early estimate, plan or budget is just there to look pretty because you have absolutely no idea early on what you’re making. My advice here is to avoid scoping the project too early. You should communicate the short-term plan, and explain what questions need to be answered before any kind of longer term plan can be made.
Don’t just go, “We are going to have a prototype in three months, and then who knows?” Although that’s usually true.
Tell everyone what answers you need to get from them and what they will allow you to scope or plan. The closer you are to being in the game, the more accurate your plan will be because your uncertainty drops.
But until the vertical slice, I would say less about planning and more about managing that uncertainty. Making a plan early and sticking to it is probably one of the best ways to release a good game. You’re going to be this guy / girl who gets accepted for what they are, whether people feel you’re the necessary evil or not.
I’ve met producers who are very focused on people liking them, and that was a disaster most of the time. I’m not saying to be unfriendly or anything, far from it. You should be friendly with people. People need to trust you. That’s one of the requirements of being successful at asking people to do hard things. If they don’t trust you know what you’re doing, they will feel like slaves. But if you have built a rapport with them, if you’ve shown them that you are not just a manager, that you’re sitting there with them in the trenches and you’re actually the hardest working one there, that changes the perspective.
You might not be the one drawing this stuff, you might not be the one coding that stuff, but you’re always working to make their lives easier in some way.
At Little Red Dog, we have a very strong anti-crunch policy. It tells a lot about the studio culture, really, because in the past, as I mentioned before, I was literally asked by my supervisor to use all the tools I have, including crunch. Like, literally saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t be so happy with people, and so on. You should make them crunch.” We were in a pickle, of course. Yes, it wasn’t all great, but also having this expectation, when the owner of the company tells you, “I want people to work harder”, that just tells you a lot about the culture of the company or the expectations of the owners and how they actually perceive their employees.
Sometimes in order not to ask people to crunch, you just need to start adapting. You need to find yourself in a situation in a place that doesn’t push you to do so. Because I’ve been in more than one company where I’ve been actively pushed to push people, and that’s a very bad position to be at.
This is actually what drains you mentally the most. When you have to be the tyrant to people while other people are just sitting on your back whipping your ass. So that’s when the hard part comes.
LG: And when does a Game Producer feel happy?
BŻ: There’s this scene in the movie Hail Caesar in which a movie producer (and they are very different people than game producers), goes through a corridor and people approach him from left and right, asking to find something to make a shift, to put a decision and so on. And in the span of maybe 15 to 30 seconds of that scene, he manages to push forward, like five to ten different aspects of producing his movie.
These are the good times when you feel that people are engaged, that people are coming to you not with just questions, but solutions. People often are scared to make a decision, even though they know what needs to be done.
It happened to me when designers or programmers were asking me stuff while they were actually proposing a solution within the question. And I was able to just say, “yeah, do that” because I trusted them.
I knew that they were good at what they were doing. They just needed someone to sign off on that, just for peace of mind, and just find someone to blame. But I don’t really care about being blamed. I just want things to progress forward. If you find yourself in a situation where a lot of stuff is happening, you are in a productive place where everyone’s contributing to a solution and those solutions are being found quickly and efficiently. That’s where you are happy as a producer.
Sometimes there are days like that. They’re very rare. But everything falls into place. I want more days like that.
LG: Awesome! I can’t thank you enough for joining us today, for sharing your experience and knowledge and insights of the industry. We really appreciate that!
BŻ: I’m happy to be here. It’s a lovely, lovely interview. So thank you.
And that concludes our first episode of GAMEDEV INSIGHTS. We hope that our conversation helped you get to conclusions regarding your own career as a video game producer or a person working in game production in general.
Special kudos to our invaluable Senior Recruiter and an awesome spokesperson Ljubica Garic! Remember to reach her if you have any questions about open roles at 8Bit or if you’d like to discuss GAMEDEV INSIGHTS related topics.
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