GDC 2012: Castle, Fryer, Fergusson On Industry's Top Production Issues

To help inspire submissions for the GDC 2012 call for papers, the event's advisory board members for the Production track spoke out on the challenges facing modern producers, and outlined what they hope to see discussed at the upcoming San Francisco-based show.

Seasoned industry professionals such as Zynga's Louis Castle, WB Games' Laura Fryer (Lord Of The Rings: War In The North), Media Molecule's Siobhan Reddy (LittleBigPlanet), and Epic's Rod Fergusson (Gears Of War) all discussed the most critical elements of contemporary game production as part of their drive to inspire submission ideas for the GDC 2012 Main Conference.

These GDC advisory board members oversee the show's Production track, and ensure that each of its sessions remain relevant and hold up the high bar of quality that GDC attendees have come to expect.

The call for papers for GDC 2012 will close on September 6, with a list of production-specific topics available on the official website. In the following interview, the advisory board members discuss key issues they'd like to see addressed at next March's show.

How does a producer's job vary between large and small development teams?

Louis Castle: Small team producers literally do anything and everything that is not being done by a team member. Bigger teams offer specialization and very big teams demand specialization. This usually manifests itself in more creative control and responsibility with small teams, but also requires extraordinary individuals to achieve world-class results.

Laura Fryer: I agree with Louis. The primary role of the producer on both is to serve and support the team. For both they need to be great communicators, but in larger teams, communication is more challenging since your bandwidth per person naturally goes down as you add people. With a small team you are probably sitting close to everyone and can talk to them multiple times a day, whereas on larger teams that's not usually possible.

Siobhan Reddy: I certainly agree with Louis and Laura. At a small studio, it's very important to know your limits and when to hire in experts for areas you aren't so great at -- especially QA, HR, finance, IT. Small implies cheaper, which means you can take advantage of being a more experimental or innovative. Being large implies a higher burn rate, so your approach to experimentation would be different.

Rod Fergusson: Everyone has made great points so to try and add another aspect to this is the idea of managing staff. Most teams I've been on have been "all of the responsibility but none of the authority" types where it's a matrix and no one directly reports to you.

Even in that structure though, as the team grows your job will change, as you need to have supporting producers and associate producers reporting to you to be able to keep up with the team. I don't think you can assume that because a person can manage a project that they can be responsible for the growth of the people that report to them.

It's another skill in the toolbox, as Laura likes to say, and it means you're not just focusing on shipping. You have to think longer term for the people that report to you so that you can plan their development beyond just this ship cycle.

In your opinion, what are the essential qualities of a good producer?

Louis Castle: Cautious optimism informed by rich analytics, good and adaptable communication skills both up and down, and a personality that allows you to lead through service.

Laura Fryer: In addition, I would add that producers are there to serve and support the team just as the team is there to serve and support the game. Producers need to be very organized and do what they say. They don't commit to things and then drop them. They also understand how to get the right people in a room to solve problems and to address things that aren't comfortable. They drag the elephant out of the corner of the room and into the middle of the room.

Siobhan Reddy: On top of these things I'd like to add: You need to choreograph the communication within a team including matchmaking good creative partnerships, overtly or covertly depending on what the personalities need. You need the ability to hold firm to the studio or project goals, and not knee jerking or losing sight of the bigger picture when making the game.

It takes cheerleading, plus the courage to deliver bad news honestly. You need the guts not to just manage upwards, and thick enough skin to deal with not always being loved. Finally, you need the ability to play the game thousands of times, and not get lazy or allowing the team to get lazy with reviews or quality!

Rod Fergusson: To add a couple more, I'm a big believer in the soft sell and leading from the front. It all really comes down to communications, but the soft sell is about using persuasion to move the team forward instead of just using authority. I joke with my producers about the Dragon Age "Persuade or Intimidate" conversation options.

You want to empower the team but if you need to step in then you should be able to do so in such a way that it's seen as a logical step forward and not something they were told to do. As for leading from the front -- your passion for the project and the role should be self-evident in your actions. If the team has to work late, you're there to ensure that nothing gets in their way. You're willing to do whatever it takes to ship, because that's what it's all about.

What are some major issues facing video game producers today -- ones common to teams of all sizes?

Louis Castle: Producers today need to manage ever more complex technical requirements with more time and resource constraints than ever before -- knowing how to use systems to improve efficiency is critical.

Laura Fryer: Multiple diverging platforms with varying interfaces are driving design and technical costs up while business still tries to hold resources and time constraints static.

Siobhan Reddy: There are plenty of opportunities right now and of course this brings challenges. Quality is still key but patchy, choose a path and work tirelessly to deliver the best quality. I am really interested in seeing new genre's on console/ and also integrating learnings from facebook, tablet & phone games.

Teams need to know what they want to achieve and the production need to help define a strategy for you to deliver this (for example how do you incubate/R&D ideas when you have a 60 person team burning cash each day, they aren't problems that can be solved overnight). We have to get better at our jobs every year, producers also need to hit the ground running and so training producers well is becoming even more important.

Rod Fergusson: I think some of the biggest challenges now are extremely high customer expectations (try and make a new first person shooter right now), an evolving industry with social and mobile taking a bigger role and growing the pie an unknown amount and the uncertainty of the future of next generation consoles. What is going to be the dominant platform for gaming 5 years from now?

From your experience, what are some common mistakes producers starting out in the industry tend to make?

Louis Castle: Most young producers believe they are in charge of driving a project, instead of removing the friction for the people they serve.

Laura Fryer: One of the biggest issues is role confusion. New producers don't understand the role, and therefore don't always know how to engage with their team. Some think they own the design and are there to tell the team what to do. They are there to serve the team and to hold the game team accountable to themselves.

Siobhan Reddy: I agree totally. One specific thing for new producers is that in the beginning they need to learn so much, and so much time is spent with conversations that are more useful for the producer getting up to speed than actively being useful for the team members. This can engender bad feelings or a lack of respect. The trick is to turn this around and become useful to the team quickly! Producers should avoid getting stuck in the minutiae and not understanding the big picture.

Rod Fergusson: I definitely agree with you all, if you're new to a team, find a way to get useful fast, so that you're earning the trust of your team. A couple of others things -- new producers will lack the experience required to be proactive, but they should recognize that it is part of the role and strive for it.

A reactive producer has extremely limited value, and while they don't have the experience to learn from their past mistakes, they should be seeking out that knowledge from those around them to try and shorten that learning curve. Also, don't represent a position or an opinion that you don't understand. New producers like to try to speak with authority when they likely don't have all the information.

If you're not certain of something then it's a lot better to simply say, "It's my understanding..." or "As far as I know." This works works better than "It's this" when it may not be. Your primary job as a new producer is to build trust with the team and getting caught talking outside your depth is a easy way to lose it.

What subjects are you particularly excited to see covered in this year's Production track?

Louis Castle: Production in live environments. Quality in unreasonable time frames. Working with analytics.

Laura Fryer: How to manage game teams through rapid change. How to gather feedback on teams and games as well as how to apply it. Techniques for focusing large teams and keeping them cohesive despite their size.

Siobhan Reddy: I'm looking forward to seeing the difference in the approach between sequels and new IP -- we are going through that process ourselves, and I'm interested in getting some tips. Also, I'm excited to train our new producers and level up experienced producers.

Rod Fergusson: I'm really interested in hearing about managing very large teams and how they stay efficient given the challenges of high communication and management overhead and how they're able to give team members the appropriate sense of ownership. Also interested in talks in the "freemium" space and the right way to use analytics to make a better game.

Additional Info

GDC 2012's call for papers for the Main Conference is now open until September 6, with Production-specific topics listed on the official website. Potential speakers are encouraged to send in their session proposals via GDC's online submission system -- the event itself will take place March 5-9 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

For more information on GDC 2012 as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC news page via RSS, Twitter, or Facebook. GDC Europe is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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