In a few words, we can say that a video game producer is a person in charge of overseeing the development of a video game. But how did it all start? Well, let us go back many galaxies, err, years back…
So, according to many gaming veterans, the earliest documented use of the term Producer was used by Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts in 1982. Back then he said; Producers basically manage the relationship with the artists. They seek the latent, work out product deals, get contracts signed, and manage them, and bring them to their conclusion. The producers do most of the things that a product manager does. However, 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 little book editors, a little bit like film producers, and a lot like product managers’.
Thus, Sierra On-Line’s (American game dev and publisher) 1982 computer game called Time Zone may be however the first to list credits for “Producer” and “Executive Producer”. Going back to Hawkins and EA, in the late 1983 EA had five producers: two product marketers, a guy that was “good at working with engineering people”, one former IBM salesman, and one executive recruiter. Hawkins’ vision influenced by his relationship with Jerry Moss (an American recording executive and co-founder of A&M Records), was that producers would manage artists and repertoire in the same way as in the music industry business, and so he brought in record producers from A&M Records to help train those first producers at EA.
Worth to mention here, is that in April 1984, Activision has made Brad Fregger their first producer and as we can imagine the list grows from there. Over its entire history, the role of the video game producer has been defined in a wide range of ways by different studios and their teams, and there are a variety of positions within the industry referred to as a producer.
We have done some research and dug out an article about a producer from Certain Affinity, the Austin-based studio, and world-best-known for their Halo and Doom games, Ryan Treadwell, and found out what he had to say about his role. He describes it in those simple words- “The basic version of what a game producer does- is get stuff done. And the easiest way to put it- we’re the people who are responsible for making sure that a product gets made”.
So to sum up, a producer is a project manager; “their job is to design a reasonable schedule, keep track of a game’s budget, and ensure that everyone is hitting their deadlines”. If something goes wrong along the process, and it usually does it’s a producer role to figure out whether something, somewhere else along the line can be cut from the budget not to delay the whole process. In the game dev, he says, “producers usually figure out the broad strokes of a schedule from the beginning, they plan out what they call ‘sprints’ - two-to-four week blocks with specific goals, what will move and fluctuate as necessary. Goals and ideas are constantly moving, so a schedule has to be flexible.”
So what else do producers do?
Their second, equally pivotal responsibility is what Treadwell calls a ‘soft skills’, which is ‘people management’. A producer can’t study spreadsheets all day, he/she has to “oil the parts of the whole machine that keeps the game dev running smoothly”. And that can mean a lot of different things.
A producer should be a glue that keeps people together, be that go-to person for anyone when they have a question about the project. Every studio has a different structure and works in a different way. The problem remains the same at each studio, and it depends on how much is shared amongst the team members. At some, an art lead will take up a large role in managing and planning and scheduling, and at others, it will be the producer who will take on that role.
About the crunch time…
The job also comes with a lot of responsibility. There is no secret about it, so when the team has to crunch or work extended hours for extended periods of time to hit the tight deadline without having to lose any feature- this is often the result of poor planning or scoping. Let’s not forget that, sometimes the decision to crunch is made by the studio management, however, a producer messing up can lead to rather painful consequences not just for them but for the entire team.
Is the job for you?
Treadwell says-“You’ve got to love and have a passion for the job and the people you can do it with”. “I love working with people, I love helping people achieve their best work, to make them happy to come to work every day, and every day I get to do that. It’s the coolest thing in the whole world. I get to work with absolute geniuses. I’ve worked with a guy who put robots on the moon. That’s crazy. I’ve built games with those people, and to make their lives easier and make it easier for them to create is just the coolest thing for me.”