Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What Does a Game Producer / Manager / Leader Actually Do?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 23, 2011

When I was in the trenches of game development early in my career, I was lucky enough to have some producers / managers who were pretty good at their job. Later on, in other jobs (including many outside of the games biz), I wasn’t always so lucky. A couple of days ago, in response to my little commentary on interesting bug reports, we got into a lively discussion about some producers in the games biz who are pretty much useless. Late White Rabbit even asked – as an experienced Marine with a business degree – questioned the value of managers or “producers” (as they were called in my first company) at all.

One of the things that really shocked me when I released my first indie game was how much of my time – particularly during the latter stages of the project – I spent doing “management” type things. Here I thought, as an indie with a principle team of one (plus contracted help), I’d be rid of that entirely. So I figured I’d post on this – based on my experiences (good and bad), and my ideals of what I think management SHOULD be like in my own little imaginary world. But I was spending a lot of time emailing or talking to contractors, signing paperwork with e-commerce and distribution sites, working out launch & marketing plans (evidently I didn’t do so well, as the game was never a big seller), talking to journalists, working on the website, etc.

So this is valuable stuff for indies, too.

First – a quick review. How things work in theory. These lessons come directly from Mount Obvious, so you should already be familiar with them.

Let’s say you are a “lone wolf” developer. You are really good at just about everything. I hate talented guys (and gals) like you. 🙂 (Actually, I want to be a guy like that, but I hide my aspirations with jealousy.) Anyway, you the lone-wolf can devote your full attention in a  day to your game  – whether that’s a full-time day, or a 2-hour evening working part time, doesn’t matter. Let’s call that amount of work a “zot.” So your productivity is 1.0 zots, and the game gets the full zot. Life is awesome. Ain’t being a lone-wolf indie grand?

Now lets say you are awesome at programming, but not so good at art. Maybe that part of the game development process only has you operating at 0.25 zot efficiency. Or maybe you think you can only achieve your full productivity if you don’t have to be distracted by things like level design, dialog, and so forth. Whatever the case, you decide it’s best if you have a partner. Now there’s two of you working on the game. Should get things done twice as fast, right? Well, not quite. As soon as you have other people working on the game, there’s some overhead introduced involving communicating and coordinating with each other. Let’s say it’s a cost of 0.1 zot. Believe me, it’s cheap compared to the alternative – major, major disasters have been caused by teams NOT paying that cost and the project descending into utter chaos. While not a disaster, we ran into similar issues when I was working on Jet Moto, where some team members had a different vision of the game than others, and ended up generating assets that were totally incongruous with the expected gameplay (and code).

Anyway, both of you are now spending 0.1 zot coordinating and communicating, and then putting 0.9 zots into the game. Now the game is receiving a combined total of 1.8 zots, for 2 people. Not too bad.

Rev it up to three people – say a designer who is also taking on the role of tester, an art guy, and a programmer. With everyone spending 0.1 zot talking to each of their other two team members, that leaves them 0.8 zots working on the game . That’s 2.4 zots spent per day on the game, total. Four guys, the total is 2.9. Five guys, it goes up only a tiny bit, to 5 x 0.6 = 3.0. And then… we bring the team size of six people. same values. If every team member is spending 0.1 zot coordinating and communicating with the other five members, then they are spending 0.5 zots on overhead, and only 0.5 zots on the game itself – for a total of still only 3.0 zots per day.

What? No improvement at all over a team size of five guys? And it gets worse! As the team size expands above six, productivity drops even more with a flat team hierarchy.

I may be pulling numbers out of the air, and in reality guys may spend more time talking to some and not to others, but in my experience the break-down usually starts occurring somewhere between four and six team members where “flat” fails. Also, once you get more than two people involved, politics may happen. Democracies are great for getting people to coexist freely and peacefully with each other, but they don’t work well for getting  a job done. And the more people you have with different roles, the more potential there is for something “falling through the cracks” and not getting done until it’s a bad, expensive surprise.

And that’s where you get some kind of management involved. You break things into a hierarchy. Even something as dumb as the picture to the left will work — now we have seven people working, but only “talking” to the producer (who is probably, in reality, facilitating coordination between members rather than just acting as a single point of communication — this is all theoretical here…) So in this example, adding a seventh person as the producer theoretically brings everybody up to 6 x 0.9 = 5.4 zots. And even the producer may have 0.2 zots left over to do some direct work on the game himself, right?

This gets even more important with larger teams that may have two projects in development at a time.  As studios grow, this is key, as games have different manpower needs during development. Having someone at a higher level who can perceive the “greatest need” and shuffle resources as needed can be very helpful.

Obviously, there are probably much better ways of doing this that would be cleaner than having one dude doing little more than just “managing,” especially for a very small team.  But this was a theoretical exercise to illustrate about where a “flat” model breaks down very quickly, and why some kind of hierarchy gets needed after about three or four people. Anyway, that’s the basic theory, if you have a good producer managing a team. Now we’re going to some personal theories / ideals of my own –  based loosely on what I’ve seen work.

First of all – the rank or position of the manager. This is a tricky situation. And this is why I drew the picture with the team surrounding the manager instead of being “under” him. I do believe, especially for small companies, that management should be pretty much equal in pay / rank to the rest of the team – or at least no different from any of the other “stakeholders.” It’s not unheard of that a small team might actually hire someone to manage them – making the manager their employee. I do acknowledge that the lack of authority may cost them some of their tools. But I do not believe that is necessarily the case, and I think there’s something inherently healthy about the “leader” of a team also being answerable to the people he leads.

Secondly – there are lots of leadership roles on even a small team. Or maybe especially on a small team. Not all belong to one person, but I do believe there should be one person for whom the buck stops with them.  That person is the project lead / manager / producer / whatever. But whenever more than one person may be involved in a task, one person should have the leadership role related to that task. You have the art lead. The programming lead. The design lead (or “keeper of the vision.”) Someone leading marketing efforts. Someone handling the business end of things – particularly when it comes to setting up contracts with third-parties or distributors.  You could have one person doing that role. For many indies it comes exactly down to that, as there’s one person running the show and working with contractors.

But the role is always there, even for lone wolves who must wear a dozen hats daily. Someone needs to be making sure the project ships in a timely manner, doesn’t blow its budget too badly, is of reasonable quality and addresses the needs of its intended audience. In other words, they have to lead the team to success.  Someone needs to have both the will and the authority to cut features and make other hard decisions necessary. It shouldn’t be done in a vacuum, but someone has to have the final say.

One final role I admired in team leads / managers was to be the “mother hen.”  This person, whoever they are, may also be in charge of removing obstacles to the team’s success – whether it is in internal argument between art and programming, or deciding whether or not to buy a new tool for the team that would theoretically boost their productivity.

Unfortunately, as Late White Rabbit noted in his comments, this isn’t all “industry standard” even in the software industry as a whole, let alone the games biz.  Too often they end up doing the opposite of  what I feel their jobs should be. They create long meetings to feel busy and collect information so they can report to their own superiors as if they actually knew what was going on. They nitpick the small stuff, and are afraid to make a decision on the big stuff. Or worse, they play tyrant, and make fiat decisions without gathering information from the rest of the team.  And worst of all, they don’t seem to consider themselves part of the team, but rather someone aloof to the fray.

But then I’ve always been a “lead from the front” kind of guy.

(Updated: Capitalized “Marine.” ‘Cuz it’s right, and ‘cuz they deserve it!)

Filed Under: Biz, Production - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    My own experience with management has been mostly negative, but that is the reason I’ll be the first to advocate our need for GOOD leadership.

    I worked at a company where we all worked directly under a lead designer who had never actually made a full game. He got the job because he liked to make demos with game maker. Yet… he had never finished a full game. (But he did work for cheap 🙂 )

    He had a tendency to lead by his gut on whatever stuck out. As time passed, we started missing deadlines, hacking jobs in record time, and working insane overtime. Yet, for every problem we fixed another three would appear.

    Looking back on the final release, I’ve come to believe that the reason we failed is that we didn’t have a head. We didn’t have someone who would sit back and look at the big picture. We never saw the obstacles as they developed because we were too focused on “What needs to be done”.

    Now that I’m my own “boss”… I find myself struggling with this same fact. I start working and then lose sight of everything other than the problem at hand. I missing deadlines, I’m doing work other than what I’m supposed to… I never thought I’d say this… but I miss having a real boss sometimes. 🙂

    I believe that any leader who has a genuine understanding of what it takes to make a game is an important asset. He can help us all stay on the right road even when things are getting crazy.

    PRAISE GOOD LEADERSHIP… For it must exist somewhere…

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Excellent write up, Rampant. That explained everything beautifully.

    Small nitpick, but “Marine” is always spelled with a capital letter, whether it is the U.S. Marines, Royal Marines, Chilean Marines, etc. It is a title – we aren’t egotistical, it is just to distinguish us from the generic word marine, as in marine life, marine studies, etc.

    You made the perfect case for leadership. I knew all that stuff (it triggered some buried memories from my business classes), but had forgotten most of it under a barrage of years of working under bad management.

    I think the key is something you mentioned – making management accountable to the people they are leading. Democracy doesn’t work for efficiency, but dictators aren’t any good either. I read somewhere that the best form of government (or rule) is a benevolent and wise monarchy. Decisions can be made quickly, changes and reforms enacted without delays or dithering, while advice is listened to, and the people being ruled are cared about. Unfortunately that good monarch may be replaced by a son or daughter that is a monster. Too many times in business the good and caring managers are replaced by ‘monsters’.

    I often encounter management that treats itself as a higher class than the teams they are leading, and that is reinforced by larger salaries and benefits. I also have seen cases where there are too many managers, splitting managerial duties to the point where many were left with essentially nothing to do for long stretches of time. No doubt this causes some panic in the individual managers, who fear THEIR managers will discover their is no reason for their job to exist, and thus start inventing duties for themselves, making everyone miserable to cover their asses.

    The need for a hierarchy in the military is well established, but it suffers more than its fair share of bureaucratic nightmares when units get “top heavy” with more “brass than iron”. I once saw a piece of paperwork (a single page) take SEVEN months to move up the chain of command. A chain of command that all had offices in the same hallway. A page that merely needed a signature of approval at each stage and then be handed up the chain (you know, dropping it on another desk ten feet away). At each step in the chain the paperwork sat for several days or weeks. (One officer let it sit on his desk for FOUR months – meaning, I guess, that the best one could have hoped for was a THREE month turnaround.)

    One job I worked at had a manager in every single room of the building. All in charge of monitoring YOUR job at all times. Making a mistake in one room caused a cascade of every manager in every room correcting you (they had headsets to talk to one another), so you received the same admonition or warning OVER AND OVER AND OVER again until they had all spoken to you. It was enough to make you ax happy.

    I always appreciate the leaders that “lead from the front” as you say. No matter if the job is horrendous or they must correct you, you don’t mind because they are in the trenches with you (sometimes literally). They are the type of leaders military personnel say they would “follow to Hell and back”, because those leaders are up front kicking in Satan’s front door instead of telling you to do so from their position a safe distance away.

    I guess it all comes down to respect. And competency – competency is very important!

  • Leo said,

    Any good two dd-ish (isometric) rpg games coming this year? Will probably buy if there are good ones coming.

    I get motion sickness from any fps types of 3d games. Despite my loved for fallout 1&2 & BoS, I can barely tolerate 3D in the F:New Vegas. I already got all the games from Soldak / Basiliskgames…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    There’s a good chance we’ll see Age of Decadence before year’s end… I’m expecting that one to be a winner. And the new expansion for Din’s Curse was just released. Telepath RPG is going to be top-down, not iso, but I’ve got high hopes for that one as well.


  • Gareth Fouche said,

    Great write up Jay. It’s surprising how much time can be spent working with contractors, giving direction and feedback etc. It’s a completely worthwhile exchange, 1 hour of my time for them to produce something that would have taken me 8 hours otherwise, but still, you forget that aspect of indie development, the management side.

    I must admit, I’m a pretty terrible manager. But trying to be better. 🙂

  • Random Guy said,

    This is the basic premise/problem of the historic “Mythical Man-Month” essay, which should be required reading for people in the software industry as it helps give context for a great deal of what we consider these days to be modern software development practices.

  • MadTinkerer said,

    “Believe me, it’s cheap compared to the alternative – major, major disasters have been caused by teams NOT paying that cost and the project descending into utter chaos.”

    You know what’s even worse than that? Taking a class where the teacher tells your programming partner to deliberately NOT “pay that cost”, the project descends into utter chaos, and you are completely scapegoated for everything. And then the college doesn’t even have a process for when things go wrong on that kind of level, so the teacher gets away with it. Your only consolation is that at this point quitting higher education completely is far more sensible than continuing under those circumstances so you might as well get a job at the bank. So at least the bills are getting paid.

    And that is why I am no longer a Game Design major.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Ouch. Not fun, MT. Did the teacher have any real experience in the industry?

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