How to Spot a Bad Game Producer Part 2
Read Time: 5 Minutes
Last time we had some fun diving into some producer archetypes we’ve all seen and that often don’t work out very well. We covered the “sub-optimizer” category: Folks who are so focused on tools, processes, and planning that they lose the plot.
Game companies don’t understand production, and don’t know how to hire or train producers. It’s reached a point where many game developers feel like they don’t need production at all. I believe many of the archetypes we discussed are responsible for some of this confusion & resentment.
I have lived out these production anti-patterns in the past. There’s no shame in it. Most of us have had to figure this out as we go. It’s a learning journey, so take this as an opportunity to grow and make things better.
Today I will dig into our second category - the “supporters.” They’re much more controversial to discuss. After all, who doesn’t like support? Doing nice things for people, taking care of your team, and putting together fun activities can all be awesome (and noble) activities. But the reality is they don’t necessarily have anything to do with shipping a great game or helping teams achieve their goals. That’s what we (as producers) should be here to do.
Like many of the tools the sub-optimizers over-focused on, supporters are not inherently bad, but when focused on the wrong things, they fail to get to where they want to go. Let’s dig in.
The team supporter is a category of archetypes defined chiefly by what they can do to make people feel good. As I mentioned above, the intention here is noble. Still, these people are in constant danger of becoming glorified interns at the whim of everything and everyone around them. Since their stance is entirely reactive, they aren’t able to drive change or lead the team to a better place or product.
Additionally, it’s common to see people in these roles for long periods feeling undervalued, underdeveloped, or underutilized. I’ve seen people with 20+ years of experience who were mainly notetakers. No joke. Companies exist that act as if the most important thing a producer can do in a meeting is take notes.
Many supporter producers are viewed as unskilled labor in game development. “You can’t program, create art, or make cool sounds. You might as well grab us coffee”. It’s a misuse of production and leads to terrible patterns within game studios.
Let’s outline the different specific archetypes in the support category.
The Super Coordinator
The super coordinator is incredibly diligent. They will pop into every meeting like a ninja, ready to take notes. They will be seen at their machine within 30 minutes, sending those notes to the team. That nobody reads said notes doesn’t matter.
They will organize events, help with agendas, and create task lists wherever they go. When asked about strategy and goals, they often respond with confusion or question if anyone is consuming the documents they create.
This is the kind of role a coordinator right out of college would do, as they are developing skills from scratch and lack the experience to create frameworks or make more significant decisions. Unfortunately, I’ve seen senior producers with decades of experience still here.
Teams or developers frequently dump work on super coordinators that they don’t want to do like writing documents, attending boring meetings, or grabbing food. Often super coordinators will input each individual's work tickets into the PM software and be the interface between the team and its process so no one else has to “waste any time” on it.
Super coordinators will always be busy trying to plug every hole they see, without thinking about how everything is or is not working as a whole.
The Information Conduit
The information conduit is someone who places a premium on information and its movement. They tend to be obsessed with communication but struggle to define what it means or what precisely needs to be communicated. They take pride in “knowing things” and being present in as many meetings and conversations as possible to be the person that has all of the information.
Typically they view their role as moving information around in the form of emails, messages, and conversation so that everyone knows everything. They usually place themselves in critical paths between people to avoid the chance that they won't know the details of something. Instead of asking two developers to have a discussion, they’ll schedule a meeting in which they will be present.
This very passive role ferries around information, documentation, or even gossip. The Information Conduit will only take an active stance when someone doesn’t give them the information they “need” to pass on.
They will create a lot of inefficiencies because they place more value on what they (and others) know than on how well the people on their team are collaborating. Conduits regularly put themselves in between every relationship, taking autonomy from the teams and slowing things down.
Above all, despite the massive amount of information they assemble and pass on to to others, they will do nothing useful with that information. No changes, no decisions made. Instead, even onward to the next piece of information to acquire and move.
The Team Cheerleader
The team cheerleader is one of the more subtle archetypes to run into because, on the surface, they’re doing great stuff, everyone loves them, and they set up fabulous team outings and cocktail Fridays!
Like the conduit and coordinator above, they are trying their best to add value but fail to focus on what matters (usually due to a lack of education). To confuse things further, the cheerleader often goes undetected because who doesn’t love a good morale boost?
The team cheerleader will be the resident hype person. They add positive energy, set up team-building activities, and rally the team. However, it will often feel like when a non-sporty parent attends their kid’s sporting event. Having them cheering feels good, but they don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Inevitably, Team Cheerleaders are on the sidelines. It will become frustrating when, as a developer, you raise legitimate problems only to have them written off as “negative thinking” or be told to “just have faith.” Where’s my leader to help me get this solved?
Likable, energetic, and ineffective. It’s a bad combo, and easy to fall into.
The Team “Therapist”
This one has come to prominence - perhaps out of necessity! - more than ever since the pandemic started. Most of us have been hurting in some way or another from isolation and challenging work conditions as we figure this new world out. It’s been a crazy time! It’s safe to say that more leaders and managers than ever are helping out with their team's psychological issues and safety.
However, a destructive pattern here can emerge when a producer takes on the sole role of emotional support for a team. They spend far too long talking about each individual’s issues, and a big chunk of their time-pies go to hearing people gossip, venting, or complaints. Team “Therapists” provide a welcome ear but stumble into a passive/inactive role along with the super coordinator, information conduit, and cheerleader.
Frequently, “therapists” emerge when the team is overworked and the org has widely accepted it as “just the way things are.” A producer steps in to take on this emotional support role in order to console people and prevent them from quitting. This reinforces the idea that there is nothing to be done. The outcome is a toxic and passive relationship between a leader and their team.
If there are more significant organizational issues impacting the morale and culture of our teams, producers need to be first up to take an active role in solving them. As a leader, listening is necessary. It is not sufficient.
I want to be clear: these supportive skills are critical for producers. However, they are not the primary role of a producer. Alone, they do not get you to real value (producing excellent games for players). Most producers I know want more out of their jobs, and when they fall into these production anti-patterns, they find them unfulfilling. Most of the time, their teams agree.
Remember, Producers are leaders that drive change for their teams and bring them closer to the goal.
How to avoid falling into these traps (or get yourself out of them):
Ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be. What would your key focus areas and changes be? Write down your current focus and inspect the gap.
What are your company/team’s expectations of a producer (or someone in your role)? Are they trying to keep you away from making decisions or driving change? How does that make you feel in the context of your goals from #1? Talk to other leaders in your space, including some above you, to clarify what they want from producers.
Take a second to write down what your team should be accountable for. Sit down and go over the list with your boss. Once you know what those things are, talk with your team about them. It’s not healthy for you to just be their friend. You need to be accountable to lead them and for mutual respect to be present.
A common theme in the ‘supporter’ archetypes is reacting to symptoms. Note-taking, encouragement, listening to venting, and passing info along are all symptoms. When you see those symptoms, don’t jump to solving them right away. See if you can find the what’s causing them. The problem with symptoms is they keep popping up as long as the root cause exists. Identify and work to fix the root. It’s harder, but it’s worthwhile.
Remember, listening to others, typing up tasks, ordering food, and passing along information are not always bad things to do. You’ll get better at all of these (yep, even ordering food) if you’re a producer for a long time. Just recognize that they aren’t your purpose. As a producer, you are there to set up an environment where the team and game can succeed. Whatever changes or actions get you further along that journey are where you should focus. Keep your eyes on the goal and don’t get sucked into reacting to every detail, and you’ll do well.
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