Skill Build: How to become a game producer

Caoimhe Roddy, producer at Wargroove and Stardew Valley publisher Chucklefish, tells us what it takes to keep development on track.

When most kids dream of the sort of job they want to do when they grow up, no-one really goes for the realistic jobs. You'll hear firefighter, or cop, or chef, or zookeeper, but despite there being 18 billion chartered accountants they don't appear in many aspirational lists. That's mostly because of the lack of visibility of chartered accountants compared to firefighters in children's story books. But even for grown ups there are some jobs that get all the glory.

Take game development, for one. Many people want to get a job making games, but if you asked people the sorts of jobs that make games you'll hear back about artists or designers until the cows come home. But in between these engines of development you'll find equally important support roles, that few aspire to but are nevertheless essential. In this week's episode of Skill Build, where we talk to games industry employees to find out what their job does and how they got it, we're talking to the humble producer.

Caoimhe (pronounced kee-vah) Roddy is a producer at British indie studio Chucklefish, best known as the publishers of Stardew Valley and developers of Wargroove and the upcoming magical school simulator Witchbrook. Caoimhe worked as the producer on one of Chucklefish's other published titles, Inmost, as one of her first credits in the industry. So, with her route in so fresh in her mind, we asked what it takes to become a producer in the games industry. 

What sort of school subjects prepared you best for production, or used the same skills you use in later life?

I'm not sure any subject at school in particular prepared me. For my A-Levels I did IT, Art and English Literature. All of them were a good stepping stone into the games industry, and helped me focus my interest in Art and Design fields. My interest in production came towards the end of my Games Design degree when I had worked with a couple of teams on projects.

How did you first realize you were a good fit for production?

When I was in my final year at university, I had a group project. I liked having visibility over the team and figuring out what stuff we could do and when. I started making spreadsheets and Trello boards that were a little too complex for what we were doing at the time. I think I spent more time on team communication and organisation than I did artwork. I didn't realize at the time that something had struck a chord with me, I just knew if we were going to do well as a group one of us would have to be on top of things. I can be quite particular about quality and it was our final year so I was keen to get high marks.

I didn't realize what I was doing was production until later when I applied for a UK based graduate competition called Tranzfuser, a tutor of mine told me about the role. It was never something I had intentionally set out to do, since my course had primarily pushed me to focus on either art or design. While I really enjoy the creative side of developing games as a hobbyist, it would stress me out when I tried to approach it as a professional. Organising the team and seeing what steps would take us forward really settled me. I also just had a knack for seeing the potential impact of each of the teams decisions, despite not have a lot of experience at the time, which is something that set me on the path to where I am now.

Caoimhe won a grant through the UK's Tranzfuser program.

What work did you start straight doing out of education?

I ended up jumping straight into production at my own studio because of Tranzfuser in 2016. The competition was focused on getting more graduate companies to start up and giving them a platform to do that, so I started Cold Sun Studios with my friends! It was really awesome to get a lot of experience and make a lot of mistakes that working at a larger studio would have held us back from. It definitely gave me a good understanding of why studios implement the processes they do. We started working on our own IP and we took on contracts to keep us going. It was interesting working with so many indies, but like most companies without a real plan, we were a bit of a mess.

We had entered the competition to get some experience that would make us look appealing when applying for jobs. However, without starting Cold Sun Studios I wouldn't have gotten the footing in the indie scene that I have so early in my career. The work we had wasn't consistent. I spent a year working in a bar to support myself while getting trickles of contracts and trying to pull a vertical slice for our own IP together. We ended up calling it and moved to different studios after a year of running the studio. I ended up working in QA at Team 17 for a few months, before getting offered a few freelance gigs as an Associate Producer.

Inmost released on Apple Arcade at launch and is coming to Switch and PC this year.

Who did you turn to for help when you were starting out?

When I was starting out? I still turn to people for help all the time! Every stop-off I've taken so far I really appreciate what I can learn from people with different experience than I have. I still regularly turn to Benni Hill (Ether One, QUBE 2) who was my course leader when I was at University. I worked with him on some Humble Originals (Thor.N and Crescent Bay) when I first went freelance and learned a lot about managing teams at that time, and I can still turn to him if I'm stuck on a problem.

Even though I was only at Team 17 for a few months too, I made some valuable friends there. I ask my old QA Manager questions often and my friend Hollie Emery (Overcooked, Yoku's Island Express) also went freelance shortly after I did so we often get together and chat through issues and figure out how to approach problems. I'm a very anxious person when it comes to doing the best I can for my teams and ensuring they can get the most out of having a producer. I have no problem admitting when I don't know something and taking steps to find the information I need.

What sort of software or programs do you use for keeping track of development?

There's a lot of programs out there and finding the right one really depends on the team. At Chucklefish, I ask teams about their experience and what they want from their tools when we're setting up a project. Quite a few teams already have some processes implemented and are using the tools that work for them. There's some simple ones for light tracking like Trello and Asana, that can be made more complex if you need them to be. The teams I work with that use those are people who don't want heavy processes in their work. Tracking metrics and changing up how we approach works isn't something they find valuable so simple tools that let them know what there is to do that week gets the job done for them.

There's some game development specific tools like Hack n' Plan which we used on Inmost. I'm about to try out Codecks for the first time on a new project too. These teams are a little more interested in process and getting the most out of the team week on week. So we'll carry out frequent build reviews, sign off tasks and analyse metrics and use those to identify problems in development.  For communication, I'll usually jump on what the team is already using since I come in as a project is signed and usually there are already some processes in place. I have only worked as a producer with remote teams so I tend to be used to over-communicating via messages or jumping on calls frequently on Discord or Skype.

Plenty of specialized programs exist for producers to track projects.

What does the workflow look like for a producer?

This question is going to be different for whichever producer you ask because it will vary according to the studio and team size. From an indie perspective and more recently a publishing perspective, I don't feel like I have a set workflow. In very general terms, I'll support the team depending on where they are at in the project. In the early stages, I'll help the team get the most out of pre-production by establishing goals, carrying out risk assessments, establishing processes and building a project timeline. As a team steps into the bulk of production, I try to maintain consistency and support the team with what they need, while helping them strive for quality.

That looks really different depending on the team I'm working with. Some want close project management support to help build sprints and carry out reviews of their work. Some teams I help with high level stuff by chatting through issues they're having and implementing solutions, almost like a consultant. Towards the end of a project I will start organising QA, localisation, submissions and liaising with marketing to help the teams plans align with a marketing strategy. I'll also help coordinate updates post-release and carry out reviews of the project with the team so that the team can take the experience and consider mistakes and successes for the next project.

What is your role in putting a game together?

Honestly, I just see myself as a support structure, I ensure the team isn't stressing themselves out by crunching and utilize their energy in the best way possible. Chucklefish is a particularly good fit for me because they're very mental health focused and have anti-crunch policies in place. So, we usually don't have stakeholders that are pressuring developers to work to tight deadlines and when we do, we do what we can to protect developers from that. When I come on to projects, I'll ask the developers what limitations they're working with. Those will usually be budget related or sometimes a platform deadline, and I'll help them work with those limitations.

We don't set contractual milestones because the game is ready when it's ready and often those kinds of deadlines can mess with the team's production goals and send them into a disorganized panic trying to achieve particular deliverables. It's important to me that the team always feel like they're making progress and they're continuously achieving their goals and overcoming issues. Some developers can really lose themselves in the stress of a project if goals aren't established, and some of them can forget to celebrate their small achievements. Pointing out a team's achievements and making a deal of them can help a team build some energy they can use to drive the next goal. That's what I like to bring to a team and I primarily do it with impact assessment. I don't take on a leadership role, I'm more like a scout that looks ahead and comes back to the team with their options and the potential impact of those options, they'll make a decision from there and I'll help them carry that decision forward while mitigating any issues.

Try not to let your developers overwork themselves. Let them out every now and then.
Try not to let your developers overwork themselves. Let them out every now and then.

Is there a usual daily routine to your work, what does that look like?

Kind of? I tend to write a list of stuff I'm working through as I go. I'll usually check emails and add anything to the list that needs to be done that day. I then jump on calls with my teams and establish if there are any issues that need to be resolved during the day. Then I'll start updating our tools, sprints and timelines. I liaise with any external partners like QA, localization or platform holders. It will depend on what the main focus of the week is as I'm working with multiple teams at different stages of development. Some days are really quiet and other days everyone needs you for something!

If people were looking to enter production from other fields, what skills would be most valuable to work on?

If I was picking a skill that you should work on regardless of your role it would be communication. You could be the most organized person on the planet but if you can't communicate, that doesn't really mean a whole lot. You need to be able to bring things up to your team and keep yourself informed. As a producer you need to know enough about a lot of stages of development, and of course you're not expected to have that information to hand at all times. You have to get pretty confident with asking questions even if it seems like stuff you should know.

You need the full picture before you start figuring out effective workflows, or why a bug is taking some time to solve, or why a problem is popping up again and again. If you're in indie development in particular, and in a team where everyone has a stake, you need to be dynamic and flexible and willing to take feedback. I'm always following up with developers and making clear, actionable points so that teams are always aware that our communication has a focus and achieves something when we're interacting.

Project management doesn't have to be scary.

Are there any other skills producers use that are hard to teach or learn?

Good communication skills also include how well you can read and understand people. I have to know what makes every individual tick and what helps them get the most out of the work. Some team members might sound like they know what they're doing but come back with something that isn't to the teams expectations frequently so you need to follow up with them often and ensure they're not wasting their own time. Other people might not sound enthusiastic about suggestions but could need time to sit on things and process, so you figure out not to push for decisions straight away.

Other people might consistently be against your suggestions so you might have to figure out how to get them on board with your ideas in creative ways. It's very much different folks, different strokes and being a dynamic and often-times creative communicator really helps a producer thrive. So, if you're coming from another area you might not have to interact with the different personalities in your team usually, but it would be good to start paying attention to what methods get the best out of a team.

Do you have any advice you wish you'd received when getting started?

I'm not sure, because I'm pretty confident with asking questions if I'm not sure about something. Things might have surprised me in development, like working with such varied personalities and learning how to handle that. I go and seek advice as soon as those issues come up and I need someone to bounce ideas off. I think it comes from being a mostly self-taught producer. I have to recognize that in comparison to producers that had seniors to handle problems for them or guide them through stuff, I have to utilize my circles and ask for advice when I need it.

If you're interested in learning more about getting a job in the games industry, check out some of the other entries in our Skill Build series where we talk to developers about their jobs. It might be the start of a long journey, but you can do it, we believe in you.

Editor-in-Chief

Chris is the captain of the good ship AllGamers, which would explain everything you're seeing here. Get in touch to talk about work or the $6 million Echo Slam by emailing chris.higgins@allgamers.com or finding him on Twitter. 

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