Say you want to have a party. You want it to be the most incredible party on the planet, one that all of your friends will remember forever. You’re putting a lot of money into it, so you can’t afford to fail. It’s gotta be perfect.
To pull off an event like this, you’ll need to get a bunch of things: balloons, chairs, pizza. You decide that just holding it at some bar won’t be cool enough, so you’re gonna hold it in France. You hire a bunch of people to help you make this party happen, with the promise that it’s going to be goddamn legendary.
“Everybody’s excited,” says Ryan Treadwell, a producer at the game studio Certain Affinity. “They’re gonna be willing to put forth all their effort in order to do that, but then once the excitement dies down a little bit, they might start having questions. Like, ‘Alright when is this party? How are we getting there? Is it just in France, it’s an entire country, how are we gonna know how to meet each other? What types of balloons?’”
To answer those questions, you’ve gotta hire a producer.
“Producer” has always been a nebulous title, not just in party-planning but in video game development. Most casual observers understand the role of a programmer, an artist, or even a sound engineer, but the word “producer” is more vague. They… produce things? What does that even mean? Are they the ones in charge? Do they make all the creative decisions? Pull all the strings? What do they do, exactly?
In the interest of edification, I reached out to Treadwell, who has been working in games for ten years, first at Blizzard and then at Big Huge Games and BioWare. Now, he’s a producer at Certain Affinity, the Austin-based studio best known for designing the multiplayer in games like Doom and Halo.
“The basic version of what a game producer does is get stuff done,” he said. “That’s the easiest way to put it—we’re the people who are responsible for making sure that a product gets made.”
That means playing two big roles, Treadwell said. First of all, 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’s hitting their deadlines. When a development team has to bump everything back a day because one engineer just broke the build, it’s a producer’s job to rearrange the game’s schedule accordingly. If a bunch of computer gear winds up costing twice as much as everyone expected, it’s the producer who has to figure out whether something else can be cut from the budget.
To illustrate this, Treadwell offered a simple example: an in-game chair.
“So let’s say we need to make a chair,” he said. “We need to have this chair done next week. But we don’t know who’s gonna be able to do this chair yet, we don’t know what the process of getting this chair is gonna be, and we really don’t know what’s gonna happen if the chair doesn’t make it in a week. So my first step on that would probably be to say, ‘OK, what is this chair a dependency of? Is a character gonna sit in this, are we gonna need this for motion-capture, do we need to know the exact dimensions of this particular chair, do we have the ability in the studio to make that, do we have the artists available that week, should we reach out to an outsourcing studio in order to make those?’ As you can see, making a chair has a tendency to snowball.”
In game development, producers usually figure out the broad strokes of a schedule from the beginning, then plan out what they call “sprints”—two-to-four week blocks with specific goals—that will move and fluctuate as necessary. Goals and ideas are always changing, so a schedule has to be flexible when it needs to be.
Often, Treadwell will work backwards, he says. He might look for a hard deadline—say, a motion-capture session in two weeks that requires use of the chair—and design the schedule around that, ensuring that every “dependency” is hit. Maybe on day one, he’ll find a designer to come up with the chair. Then the concept artist will have a couple of days to sketch it out and get approval from the art lead, who might have her own comments. Actually, this chair needs some rubies. Then the 3D modelers will have a week to create in-game models of the chair and get it all ready for motion capturing. If something falls apart during this process—say, nobody can figure out how to make the chair stand upright—the producer needs to step in.
But of course, this is game development. Things are always falling apart.
“So what do you do when you have that nice schedule and then the director says, ‘Actually, we don’t need a chair, we need a table?’” I asked.
“That happens on a fairly regular basis,” Treadwell said. “If you’ve done your job well as a producer, you already have a backup plan. But let’s say you don’t already have a backup plan, or you’re making that backup plan, then you’re gonna need to be able to shift things in the schedule. Now with big complex projects like this, luckily there’s usually something else you can move those people onto. Hopefully it’s not what people call a drop-dead date, which is the last possible time a thing can be made in order for it to get in the product. Hopefully we’ll have something else to move everybody else onto. Maybe that animation can be captured at a later date. So we’d reschedule the mo-cap session or possibly we’d be able to get the basic information or a ‘gray box’ version of the assets, so that it would unblock motion capture, and we’ll finish the thing later, whenever we actually need it down the line.”
A ‘gray box’ asset, in game development, is a 3D model that uses either incomplete or nonexistent art. It serves as a substitute that can show where something will exist, even if that object doesn’t exist yet. Developers frequently use gray-box assets while designing levels and testing out mechanics.
So what else do producers do? The job’s second main responsibility is what Treadwell calls “soft skills”—people management. A producer can’t just look at spreadsheets all day; he or she has to oil the gears that keep the game development machine running smoothly. That could mean a lot of different things.
“When I joined Certain Affinity, the first thing I did was I sat down with all the teams that they wanted me to work with, and I just listened to them,” Treadwell said. “I listened to their problems, I listened to where their frustrations were, and I listened to all their successes and the things they felt were the most valuable to them, and I kinda built a model in my head about how people work together, what the team dynamic is, are these all people who are very detail-oriented? Are these broad-strokes folks? How big is the team?”
A producer is the glue that holds people together, the guy or gal that anyone can go to when they have a question about their project. Treadwell says that Certain Affinity, which employs around 120 people, has six producers. “There really isn’t a general ratio,” he said. “I’ve been at some studios where there’s been a very small producer-to-developer ratio, and I’ve been at a couple others that they’ve had a very large amount of producers. The trick is that all this work still needs to get done, so it just depends on how much it’s shared amongst the team. At some studios, like an art lead will take up a larger role in the managing and the planning and the scheduling, and at others, it will be the producer who will take on that role.”
It’s also producers who bear a lot of the responsibility when a team has to crunch, or work long hours for extended periods to hit a tight deadline without having to lose any features. Crunch is often the result of poor planning or scoping. And while sometimes the decision to crunch is made by studio management, a producer screwing up can lead to painful consequences not just for them but for their entire team. It’s a high-pressure job.
Still, Treadwell loves the gig. He says he wouldn’t want to do anything else. And for a certain type of person—the type of person who loves organizing schedules, working with people, and even planning elaborate balloon parties in France—the nebulous job of “producer” seems like an excellent fit.
“The second I heard about, the second I knew ‘producer’ was a thing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Treadwell said. “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 is 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 what they want to create is just the coolest thing for me.”