What Video Game Producers Do

Earlier this year, a 2009 blog post on why to hire video game developers circulated on LinkedIn. Inspired by that article, I thought I would share some insight into what video game Producers/Development Directors do, relating it to the context of more traditional industries. None of this is specific to how any particular game is built or how any one studio operates. These are simply facts of life for video game development. With the help of technical and content leads, all video game Producers/Development Directors deal with some or all of the following areas during the course of managing the development of a game.

Manage Software Development

Video game feature development is the software component of the production. Just like any other software development, it is done with teams of programmers, product designers, UI/UX designers and testers. In addition, these teams also work with animators who make the features come to life.  Technology needs to be licensed and/or created to support the software development and content creation. While some features are standard, what defines a game are the innovative features, along with the artificial intelligence for the non-playable characters so they interact with the player. Once the features are built, then comes the really hard part: determining if they are fun. Many games go through usability testing to give valuable feedback on whether they have the fun factor. Features that seem fun on paper are not always fun in practice, or simply don’t work together, and no amount of UI or visual effects will change that. As a result, features that have had weeks, even months, of investment then have to be cut, changed or replaced. If the game is for a new generation of consoles, add the complexity of constantly change console hardware and software and the game engine to the challenge of developing features for a game.

Produce Movies

Most video games have cutscenes, which are mini computer graphic (CG) films. While each cutscene is a few seconds to a couple of minutes long, they each have to relate to each other, telling a complete story over the course of the video game. When put together with relevant gameplay links, they can be as long as a full-length CG feature film. Some publishers have even started making these available as movies, such as Lego Batman 2: The Movie. In addition to managing all the storytelling and visual work, voice and motion capture actors need to be cast and recorded, composers and foley artists need to be hired, and, at the end, all text and voices need to be localized in multiple languages.

Run A Factory

Most of my colleagues will likely not appreciate the factory reference, since everything is built by creative people, not machines. Still, how the tremendous amount of art, animation and audio assets are built for video games can be compared to a complex manufacturing business. Unlike traditional manufacturing, there is no bill of materials given to buyer/planner(s) who manage the supply chain and purchase the components for assembly into the final product.  Instead, game asset production includes the assembly of the final product and the design and construction of every single component. Each asset needs to meet subjective visual or audio requirements as well as strict technical requirements to work in the game. Craft leaders provide the specifications for, and review and approve, every asset in the game, in addition to managing their teams. Between internal teams and outsourcing, building assets for one game can require as many people as an entire manufacturing plant. This includes negotiating contracts and setting up processes to handle all those assets throughout the production.

Meet Regulatory Requirements

Console manufacturers and mobile platforms have very specific technical requirements that need to be met before the game is published and released. A few of those requirements cannot even be fully tested by the developers. All games also need to have ratings applied, which determine the age group for which the game is appropriate. Each country has their own ratings system with different requirements. Since these requirements are based on public perceptions and opinions, they can change all the way up until the game is approved. If a problem is flagged in one country alone, that particular piece of content needs to be changed for that specific country, adding to the complexity for localization and SKU management. Finally, games based on an existing franchise need the approval of the IP owners, often down to the individual asset. Producers are responsible for ensuring all of these requirements are met before the game is shipped.

Wear Multiple Management Hats

Since we prefer to allocate the maximum amount of budget toward making content for the game, video game development teams tend to have very lean management structures. As a result, Producers simultaneously wear multiple management hats: project management, product management and people management. Unlike project managers in other industries, many Producers have developers and/or their leads reporting directly to them. Game developers tend to be very smart, passionate, opinionated, hard-working and sometimes undisciplined group of people coming from a wide range of personal and educational backgrounds. To lead such diverse teams effectively, some Producers have developed a wide range of people management, coaching and communication skills. In addition, many Producers are involved in the creative discussions of the games they develop. Producers are expected to be the voice of the business, helping creative leaders prioritize content based on ROI. This means Producers need to stay current on developments and trends in the video game development industry, just like any other business. When it comes time to release the game, Producers are often involved in the marketing and promotion of the game.

As you can see, video game Producers/Development Directors do a lot of different things. You may be asking how we manage to learn and do all that. That starts treading into company, project, and person-specific details. That being said, much of it has to do with who video game Producers are. I’ll save that for a future post!

More posts on video game development you may enjoy:

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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