How to Spot a Bad Game Producer Part 1
Read Time: 6 Minutes
Time for a jump (read: a cannonball) into the controversial side of the pool. Bear with me.
Most of the industry is jaded about game production, and admittedly it’s pretty disappointing across the board. We broadly recognize we’re not getting what we want out of it and find it generally hard to find “good” producers. We also feel like we need to redefine (or invent) what production means without knowing what good looks like, and often are frustrated with our current producers because we don’t seem to be getting much value out of them.
For producers, it’s even worse. We often don’t know what to do to add value, feel undervalued by our teammates, can’t find any way to educate ourselves, and feel pressured constantly to lean into the most boring, unfulfilling, and lowest value parts of our jobs. It creates a ton of pressure and limited flexibility in our roles.
Even the best & happiest producers in the industry have struggled with bad habits or incentives. It’s not an easy job. We fall into these bad habits with the best of intentions, but they still wreck our ability to add value.
I’ll talk about how to spot these bad habits through some common “bad producer” archetypes that you can keep your eye out for, whether you’re a producer or just someone working alongside them.
If you feel indicted by anything I’ve written here, know you’re not alone. My intention here isn’t to make anyone feel bad or be dismissive of the work you do. Let’s be open about this, laugh (perhaps at ourselves), and talk about how we can improve things.
I will cover two “classes” of bad producers over two newsletters.
The first class are the “Sub-optimizers”.
What the heck is a Sub-Optimizer?
Someone who, through an obsession with process & tools, makes the team less efficient.
Someone who, through their over-focus on process & tools, misses the “forest for the trees” and fails to help a team meet the actual goal.
Sub-optimizers are the most common producer archetype in games these days. They make fancy spreadsheets, complex user-story-tier systems, and JIRA dashboards. They exchange notes with other producers on the hottest new JIRA plugin or whether most people use Kanban for live-service teams. Their solution to every problem is their favorite tool or technique.
I’ll be blunt, the sub-optimizing approach to production is ineffective and fundamentally misunderstands our role as producers. The truth is that pure optimization will not lead to good results. Optimization can only accelerate you along the path you’re already on. And since, in creative development, that path winds and forks constantly, we’re likely to be pointed in the wrong direction if most of our focus is on optimization.
Let’s look at some specific Sub-optimizer archetypes, their associated bad habits, and how to combat them.
The Tools Expert
The tools expert is the person who understands every shadow function of Shotgrid, knows the JIRA API up and down, or - through Excel wizardry - can make spreadsheet automation that drops the jaws of other producers. They’re often validated day-to-day because people constantly need their help with the tools. What they do is so esoteric that people assume it must be valuable. There’s always work to be done because there’s always a better way to improve or use the tool.
These folks can wow their teams with fancy implementations in the tool. Stakeholders love their nifty color-coded pie charts. Other producers are spellbound by the expert's approach to nesting epics and stories in a JIRA project.
I’ve seen this at its extremes. Highly paid senior producers were tasked with managing ONE tool. The systems they built were complex and challenging for anyone who would work in them. Thus the organization became dependent on the senior producer to keep the system running. Talk about job security!
These producers often feel that if people just followed the instructions within the tool, learned how to use the tools properly, or had a better tool with x capability; they’d be more productive. They are the producer who interrupts a collaborative conversation with, “Do we have a ticket for that?”
The Process Nerd
This is similar to the tools expert but focused on meetings, documentation, procedure, and compliance from the team.
“Process” producers are less interested in understanding the nature of flow-based development and more in what book you recommend for setting up a Kanban board. Which color the cards are, how many columns they have, and what they’re doing over at Supercell with their boards (via their GDC talk) will all be paramount. They’re constantly focused on coming up with dazzling new ideas for retrospectives (I’m a big fan of the boat one myself) and want to make sure everyone is answering the three questions at the daily standup.
These producers create a new meeting for everything. They are much more likely to give others a hard time for not attending than to cancel a meeting nobody values; the process nerd insists that if everyone followed the procedure, we wouldn’t have “these problems.”
In their view, everything needs to be documented so that everyone knows what’s going on all the time. Painstaking effort should be taken to ensure documentation is thorough and there is no confusion about what else needs to be done. They will often value following these procedures above anything else, including meeting the goal. Typically they’re very concerned about the “right way” to do Agile (whatever that means).
The Planner believes deep within their heart that the entire role of a producer is creating and tracking plans. They typically worry about whether people have entered all of their data into the project tracking tool and want to be sure that all the estimates are “accurate”. Planners will spend enormous amounts of time and effort pulling the team into meticulous planning sessions.
Why? Well, they need to ensure that they have a view of all of the data at all times because they need to ensure that the plan is still “correct.” This will often create a heavy tax on their teams, often leading to resentment.
Because the planner has convinced themselves that if all of the numbers line up, things will work out, they will often be deaf to, or argue with, teams that disagree with them on whether the plan is accurate or whether they are on track to meet the milestones.
The planner tends to view every problem as rooted in insufficient planning and will often respond to issues on a project by suggesting a “replanning” is needed. When these producers run projects, it’s not unusual to see multiweek replanning exercises happening every 3-6 months. I’ve seen it as frequently as monthly.
This archetype, at its most extreme, will drive the organization and stakeholders toward feelings of security as long as “the plan is on track,” regardless of whether anyone knows what the goal/vision is or whether any material progress is being made because after all, we did get 80 tickets done last sprint!
How to Avoid/Get out of These Producer Traps:
I hope you got a little chuckle from these, even if they stung a little. I want to be very clear. I’m NOT saying that processes & tools are not helpful. Many people on social media ask me, "Well if not these things, what do you think producers even do?” I have clear answers to those questions, but the implication in the question speaks to the core problem: A belief that without a constant and intense focus on process & tools, producers have nothing useful to do. This is BS of the highest order, and we need to push back.
Producers are leaders who drive change in their teams, bringing them closer to their goals.
Think of the team (or the project) like a car. We need to know where we’re going first. Then it becomes about whether that car can effectively get us to the destination. We may have a toolkit with a wrench, screwdriver, and socket wrench. Things go off the rails, though, when we’re spending all of our time in the toolbox tinkering, and we don’t notice that we’re driving to the wrong town or that the car won’t even start. Always keep the goal in mind. The tools & processes are a means to an end, NOT the end themselves.
How to avoid falling into these traps (or get yourself out of them):
Ask your team what the goals are (perhaps what the game is?). If you get ten different answers, you have an alignment problem that no tool will fix. This is your temperature gauge on whether you know which town you’re driving toward.
Sit down with the individuals on your team and ask them a repeatable set of questions about what they think is most important to focus on, where their pain points are, etc. (How is the truck breaking down?)
Drop all your tools work for a couple of weeks and create a “value-stream” map for your team.
Create a sequenced drawing showing everything required from when your team gets a new priority to when they ship a product.
Get your team involved and discuss the most painful parts of that process.
Start working toward solutions to those problems and mobilize other leaders around you to help out.
Ask people around you what they think you’re uniquely able to solve for the team. If it’s “do the process & tools,” this illuminates that this isn’t just a “you” problem - it’s a cultural issue inside your team/company. That’s good to know.
Producers have far more work that they could do than could ever be done. The problem is not getting it all done, but choosing what doesn’t get done. If you lock in on process, or plans, or your work management systems and tools, you will always have work to do. It just won’t be the work that matters.
If you find yourself focusing badly, take a step back, reconnect to the goals, and look at what will help you and your team reach them. That’s where you focus.
Alright, that wraps up the “Sub-optimizers”, stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!
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