Just lately this noob has been promoted to an Associate Producer (yay!). After nine months on the job, doing my best to coordinate the production tasks I think I can fairly certainly say... Damn, I still don't really know what being a producer really is all about. Therefore, I am putting "part 1" in the title, but part 2 won't follow straight after it. I will probably write part 2 in a year or two, just to revise and maybe contradict the statements I will make today.
So many producers...
If you look at all the "kinds" of producers, you can find out such names as Producer, Executive Producer, Junior Producer, Associate Producer, Senior Producer, or even such weird thingies as Art Producer, Design Producer or Technical Producer. What is the difference between them? In many cases, it strongly depends on the company, but generally speaking, the main difference is the level of competencies and responsibilities. The core concept of the job stays the same whether you are a Junior Producer or Executive Producer. The only real difference is the number of decissions you will be expected to make and broadness of topics you will have to cover.
A producer in gamedev is kinda like a manager
In this case it means that he's as much everyone's boss as he is everyone's bitch. From all the info I've gathered so far, his role varies greatly throughout the life of the project. Producer needs to know what everyone in the project is doing and why. He manages the priorities of the tasks and is responsible for achieving the milestones within planned deadlines and budget. This part is almost like any other project management in any given company. On the other hand, however, producer can often be the guy that does things others don't have time to do. It can be anything from covering for a sick animator at a motion capture session, through attending meetings that just popped out, running the team's Twitter, helping with the game's slogan or logotype, to all the things people in the trenches don't have time to do while crunching: ordering lunch, helping QA check out the latest build or the most basic and tedious jobs, like renaming files, creating backups or watching the progress bar of the compiling build as the programmer gets his 15 minutes of rest. It is also quite safe to say that if there is a task where nobody knows whose responsibility it is, it is most probably producer's.
Job of a producer, despite its name, is one of the few jobs in development that doesn't produce any assets for the game. Producer doesn't code, doesn't animate, write, design or draw. His job is to make sure everyone who actually produces assets, does the job they are supposed to be doing. There may be moments where a producer gets to add something to the game, like a line of dialogue or some idea for a feature, but it is never in his job description.
Producer = an universal translator
You need some serious people skills for this job. It is pretty common that people involved in the project are all on the same page, all wanting the same thing, and still arguing over it, mostly because they are just miscommunicating. That's where the producer can shine, serving as a facilitator, translator or decission maker. In many cases, instead of making a decission, producer's role is to make the right people talk about the right thing and just observe the result, eventually, if it's necessary, choose one of two options that are presented.
The way I see it, the aim of every producer should be to speak as many languages as it is humanely possible. I'm not talking foreign languages, although English is a must and man, I wish I knew Chinese and Hindi. There are other, more important languages though. A producer should be able to speak business, art, programming, marketing, legal, PR, hardware, software, design, poetry, math and depending what kind of game he's working on, languages like medieval weaponry, womens clothing, dogs, space travel or alien mutants ninja hot dogs. Why? Because anyone in the team can approach the producer and everyone expects him to understand what they are talking about. So he should be the nerdiest nerd when among nerds and the most reliable business partner when with investors.
I remember when I got one of the first e-mails from a guy responsible for, among other things, compatibility of the engine with APIs. The mail was somewhere around 10 sentences long and I have spent at least an hour deciphering it with help of Google and Wikipedia. And well, I managed to reply with some moderate understanding of the subject and ask questions that actually got us closer to reaching some conclusions and - in turn - solution. Sure, I could have replied "please tell me what you mean", but then I wouldn't be a discussion partner for him, and that's probably the last thing someone on a producer-related position wants.
Knowledge isn't the key - understanding is
Obviously, it is impossible for the producer to know everything: every detail of every task and every bit of everyone's job. Producer never has the greatest knowledge in any field. In any given aspect of game development there is always someone who knows more and better. That's why the producer first listens, then listens, then talks. One great thing is - as long as you are able to understand what people are telling you, it's fine. Nobody really expects you to have the in-depth comprehension of the subject.
I think that being a producer requires as much humility as audacity. On one hand, you need to know your own limitations and be able to trust the judgement of people responsible for their parts, on the other, you often get thrown into situations or dragged to meetings where you have a really faint idea what's going on and still need to take part in a productive way. Quick learning is probably one of the most important skills for a producer.
Great place to... start?
Paradoxically, an entry-level producer is a really great position to start your gamedev career. Sure, it is pretty demanding right from the start and you most probably need some prior project management experience, but it has one great perk no other position has. You can learn a lot about every element of making games. Being in the middle of it all, meeting with all the people inside your team and outside of it, you have the opportunity to see pretty much everything there is to be seen. In a mere 9 months on the almost-producer job, I was taking part in countless visual art feedbacks, some music feedbacks, a motion capture session (also as an actor!), a creative session regarding the story, business meetings regarding the future of the project, QA tasks, focus tests analysis, cutscenes planning... And if I wanted and/or had any basic skills to do so, I could have tried out any kind of 2D or 3D software or played with the engine. I can't imagine any other position that would enable me to learn this much in equally short period of time.
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