How to Spot a Bad Game Producer Part 3
The Most Damaging Production Archetype
Read Time: 7 Minutes
We’ve been going through a series on “Production Traps” and how to avoid them. A “Production Trap” is work producers overinvest in, while failing to do what matters most.
In this newsletter, we’re going to talk about the “Actively Dangerous” Producer archetypes. These are traps that don’t just fail to add value, they actively hurt the team and product.
To recap past traps: our last newsletter covered the hapless “Supporter” Producers who react and endlessly serve the team while doing nothing to solve the huge problems it faces. Two newsletters past, we talked about the “Sub-Optimizers” who over time end up believing that the process, planning, or tools are where we need to invest our time and how we’ll solve all the problems our team faces.
Alright, onward to the Actively Dangerous Traps!
Producers have authority in most game dev companies. Whether as team managers, de facto leaders or shot callers, or extensions of senior leadership, the production discipline has - even at more junior levels - significant influence. They are often able to change local team goals, adjust processes, and share and distribute information. This gives producers the ability to direct and guide team direction.
In good hands, this is helpful - perhaps essential! - in keeping teams and groups of teams moving together towards the shared goal.
But misused, this authority is like giving a 2-year old a hammer in a glass shop.
The Actively Dangerous category contains people who believe their job is primarily to direct others. This isn’t necessarily malicious, but it is authoritative. They often appear confident and capable, but the outcomes of their direction and decision-making will take a toll on whatever organization they are a part of.
Here are the three different archetypes of the Actively Dangerous category.
You’ve probably experienced this person at some point in your life. In every situation, no matter how obtuse, they have a clear path through it, an answer that removes all uncertainty. They provide the vision everyone can follow, seemingly without effort. A group of people could be talking and debating and trying to work something out for an hour, and this person will speak up with a clear declaration of ‘the right thing to do’ and end the discussion.
At first, this seems helpful, and many people observing are happy to have such a seemingly decisive and clear thinking individual around to guide the team. But eventually, the truth starts showing. Cracks in the system from so many ‘decisive and sure choices’ start to show up. It doesn’t matter. They are met with the same confident answers. There are always answers.
A common place for an Always-has-an-answer producer to thrive is a place that is riddled with problems where nobody knows what to do. When someone finally shows up and provides clarity, it is grabbed onto with both hands. It makes this archetype persuasive. We all struggle with anxiety over what to do, this producer resolves it for us.
But it’s not real. There’s a mask of confident knowledge often hiding someone just as insecure as everyone else, wielding their authority to ‘fix’ things as a cudgel. It makes things worse. Reality hasn’t changed, the uncertainty is still present. The truth will assert itself again, and over time the continual confidence creates a cynicism from everyone else. Poor decisions stack on poor decisions, but in a strange twist of fate it often seems that before everything implodes Always-has-an-answer moves teams, or gets promoted, or leaves for a different company. The mess they’ve created with their assumptive confidence is left to the next poor individual who inherits the position. By that time, the team is often in shambles.
I want to be clear about Always-has-an-answer: while this is sometimes a malicious actor, usually this is someone desperately living out the ‘ideal leader’ they think they are supposed to be. We are taught in so many environments to be confident, lean in, and assert our view. In some work cultures, this is the dominant pattern leaders exhibit around decision-making. Underneath the facade of ‘perfect leader’ you may find someone struggling with imposter syndrome - as insecure as anyone else! - and with no idea that there is a better way for a producer to behave.
This archetype should be more rare than it is, considering the circumstances required for it to exist. For the Expert-masquerading-as-producer to be on a team, you have someone who was (or is) a craft expert in some other discipline. Engineering, design, art, whatever. They realize that producers have more authority, and it is authority they need (or want). So they swap tracks, jumping over to be a ‘technical producer’ instead of a tech lead, or an ‘art producer’ instead of an art lead. Sometimes that’s because they weren’t really able to cut it in the original discipline, but didn’t want to go through the painful process of growth to change that.
This archetype can be a very well-meaning person who wants to have a positive impact on the project, and believes that the authority that goes with production will provide them the ability to carry out their vision of ‘better’ for everyone.
Here’s the problem: producers are to lead and support teams. They are not on teams to give art direction, or dictate architecture, or design systems. Craft experts do that. Producers support them, force multiplying the people around them. They may ask questions, but they don’t dictate how the CI/CD system is written. But the experts wearing producer masks use their authority to get their own way, rather than guiding the team to great solutions.
A tip-off for this archetype is a ‘producer’ who is often deeply embedded in the tech or style guide or character ability conversations, not just asking questions and deepening the discussion, but overriding and deciding for everyone the path we’ll all travel.
This archetype often actually has the expertise to make a ton of great decisions! It can work! But you are losing the value producers are there to provide.
Now, I want to be clear about something: sometimes we wear multiple hats. I am not calling out every producer who happens to have expertise in another discipline for exercising their potentially powerful other abilities to help the team and game. This isn’t a producer who happens to write some code because they can. I’m calling out the Expert-masquerading-as-producer using their authority over the team to get their own way.
By the way, this is also more common when teams have had a ‘fill-in’ producer for a long time. Someone else who didn’t understand the role stepped in and started basically being the craft lead, but with an interim production title. Cut these folks some slack, because they are often forced into the role and are doing their best, usually without any training or direction.
The real harm here is that one person is disempowering their team and using the producer title to enforce non-production systems and decisions. Over time, it will be demoralizing for others within the discipline, as they have limited recourse to resolve disagreements with the person in charge of the culture, process, organization, and now also craft decisions.
The Authoritarian Taskmaster
This destructive archetype combines some of the worst traits of bad leaders into a single, terrible package. They are arrogant, they are insensitive, and they don’t listen. Instead, they direct, they demand, and they compel.
The Authoritarian Taskmaster is akin to someone whipping galley slaves to keep rowing. They view their role as being ‘in charge’ of everything. No questions are allowed, you just work and do what they tell you. If there are problems, tough. If you’re having a hard time, don’t care. If you threaten to quit, GOOD. They’ll find someone else. This archetype has never heard of the carrot and definitely carries a big stick, so get in line and stay in line.
You’d think this would be an easily spotted and removed leader, but these individuals can often be quite charismatic to the right people. They are usually great at blaming the team when things are going poorly, and they have no moral issue with tossing an exhausted recently flogged employee under the bus to divert attention from themselves.
Even so, this would still be easy to spot, but usually the circumstances where the Authoritarian Taskmaster arises are when everything is on fire and we need someone in charge NOW, making sure everyone is working hard. In this archetype steps, providing fire and brimstone to the team while using them as an excuse for anything that goes wrong. But “difficult times call for difficult measures” as we all know, and so they are allowed to reign far longer than they should.
Because they believe the job is to get and keep everyone visibly working, things like alignment to the vision or removing impediments are far from their mind. The team is left worse than unsupported, being berated while trying to climb over crazy obstacles that the Authoritarian Taskmaster prevents anyone from helping them solve.
As I reflect on my own past, I recognize that I have been the ‘Always-has-an-answer’ leader. In both the military and at Riot, I learned the wrong lesson from people around me. I took that lesson to teams and hurt them. I broke their systems, I messed up how they worked. Rather than removing unnecessary pain, I heaped more on.
If you see yourself in the above, past or present, recognize that all of these Actively Dangerous archetypes are the result of an incomplete or wrong understanding of leadership and production. Often, this is a response to what you’ve seen other producers do and sometimes even what seems to lead to success.
What I would ask you to do is take a second and pause. Think about the times in your life you’ve been under someone from one of these archetypes. Before Stockholm Syndrome kicked in, did you consider it positive? My guess is no. The mental hijinks we’ll go through are insane to justify this stuff, but if we pause and really consider it, it becomes clear that if we behave in this way, it isn’t going to help our teams or the product in the long run.
I also want to be clear about a potential misunderstanding in this newsletter: I am not saying it is wrong to make a decision, nor am I saying it is wrong to at times provide direction to teams. The error is not decisiveness, it is decisiveness without thought or need. It is decisiveness because it gets you your way, or decisiveness because it makes you look good, or decisiveness because you misunderstood your role. THAT I object to. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be decisive.
Speaking of the production discipline, let’s come back to how we’ve been thinking of the proper role of producers in game dev: Producers are leaders that drive positive change for their teams and bring them closer to the goal. They force multiple others. They prioritize those they lead and the vision above themselves.
OK, so here’s some tips to avoid falling into the Actively Dangerous traps:
Ask yourself who makes all the decisions on the team. If it’s you, you may have a problem.
Take stock of your definition of production and leadership. If you think they are the people who always have answers, or who must resolve all uncertainty, you need to re-evaluate those beliefs. They are not serving you or your team.
Recognize the boundaries of production. Depending on the studio, producers may have authority over many aspects of game development. Things like culture, vision, priorities, process, and tools may be in their purview. Now, ask yourself about the decisions you make: are they in those areas? Or are you constantly using some of your experience to influence or dictate choices that are outside the production role? If so, you may be disempowering your team. That will negatively impact things down the road.
Imagine you are in a high stress environment. Now, think about who you want to be in that environment. Is it any of the above archetypes? Hopefully not! But without forethought, we can easily become a producer and leader we don’t recognize by reacting instinctively to anxiety-inducing changes. Knowing who you want to be in advance will help keep you grounded.
If you’re in a time of high stress already, think about how you are responding. Are you living up to your values? Or have you been making expedient choices because they seemed necessary or were just easier? Has that happened more than a few times? Pause and think about the best leaders you’ve seen under stress. Are you on the journey towards that ideal, or moving away from it?
ANYONE can fall into these traps. I have, maybe you have too. That we all can stumble doesn’t mean we’re bad, but it does mean we’ve hurt others when we were supposed to be helping. Something I say about leaders is that other people pay the consequences of our mistakes. It’s going to happen. But don’t let it go on. Make a change.
The core of all the Actively Dangerous archetypes is the active manifestation of a desire for control. The things causing this response can be arrogance, fear, insecurity, or excitement. Be willing to let go of your need for certainty. The best producers I’ve ever met were not people who immediately resolved any uncertainty their team encountered. Instead, they guided the team through the uncertainty, recognizing it all the way.
Be the producer who can live with uncertainty and let go of control.
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