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  • Ask the Experts: Courses for Video Game Producers

    [11.05.07]
    - Jill Duffy
  •  Dear Experts,

    I'm currently enrolled in a university in Perth, Western Australia and am in a multimedia design program in the hopes I can become a video game designer or a producer.

    My skills in Photoshop are not that great, so I am leaning toward becoming a video game producer. I enjoy doing presentations and have good speaking skills. Also I have a good interest in video games, in particular, playing video games for fun. So what courses or subjects I should take that will help me develop as a good video game producer? In other words, what skills do you companies look for in a good video game producer?

    Lastly I am thinking of taking some marketing units and some game design units, but is there anything else I should be aware of when choosing courses for video game design or video game producing?

    Producer Sometimes

    Dear Producer,
    I'm glad to hear that you are fairly clear about what your goals are, and that you're in a multimedia design program that can help you get closer to achieving those goals.

    Designer Dilemmas
    I'm curious to know who told you that strong Photoshop skills are needed to become a game designer. I've never heard that before, and if I were you, quite frankly I'd forget all about it. Oftentimes, the application a designer will use most during game development is the editor, which is very often proprietary software, meaning the company itself has developed it and it is not commercially available.

    Jez Harris, a designer at Relentless Software who formerly worked for Electronic Arts, recently spoke at the Game Career Fair in London about this sort of thing. "[F]rom my experience in design, I've had a custom editor on every single game that I've worked on," he says. "You have to learn a new skill set on every single game that you make." In other words, designers typically learn the major software they need on the job -- not in college or on the side.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that few people get into game design without first having some other professional experience in video game development, which is why I'm relieve to hear that you have an interest in production. Game designers have varied backgrounds and diverse skill sets. Some are strong programmers. Some are very artistic. Some think of themselves as much as writers as designers. If you were to first develop some producer skills, you might be a more valuable game designer later.

    While it's true that some very large companies hire designers straight out of college, those positions aren't always game design as we tend to think of it. Harris says the work of a designer is only to design sometimes. For example, on one project, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he spent a good deal of his day-to-day time placing objects and enemies in the game world. On the sequel game, Quidditch World Cup, Harris' role was more inclined toward business. "A lot of my job at that point was to look after the vibe of Harry Potter," taking care of the intellectual property in a way that would respect author J.K. Rowling's vision, stay true to what she wrote in the books, and at the same time ensure that the game was fun and would profit EA.

    Producer Prep
    There are two educational routes one might take to become a producer. The first is what you might do at a major university, and it sounds like it's what you're doing already, Producer Sometimes: major in something of interest to you and then take a few extra classes in programming, art, design, or audio production. Those of you out there who are not in a multimedia design course should know that you can major in anything of interest to you -- anything! -- and that a course of study in the humanities would actually work in your favor.

    The second route, for people who are not cut out for a traditional four-year university, is to find a program in project management.

    But first, a little background:

    More and more jobs are becoming available in the producer discipline. In the annual "Game Developer Salary Survey" (I analyze the collected data and write the survey) I've seen more and more producers respond to the survey over the last three years and have had multiple people suggest that we now include the title "assistant producer" and "associate producer" in addition to simply "producer," because there are enough of them in each category that professionals find it useful to differentiate between them.

    My theory about why there are more assistant or associate level producers is that they are being hired in with less experience. It used to be the case that producers worked their way up from some other department, much like game designers usually do. But in the past few years, it seems that companies are hiring for this role specifically from the outside, maybe even hiring candidates directly from college, or at the very least, hiring people who don't have any game industry experience yet.

    The point of explaining where producers come from is this: it used to be the case that you learned how to be a producer by being in the game studio in another role. It now might be the case that you can learn some of the necessary skills before going into the studio. And for all you breaking-in types out there, this is really good news.

    The major skills a producer needs to have are: written communication, verbal communication, organization, and time-management. Granted, you can sort of learn these skills by taking college courses, but more likely than not, you either have them naturally or you don't, and what college classes provide are opportunities for you to prove and further develop those skills rather than learn them.

    So what classes will help you prove these skills and further develop them? Really, almost any class can, but particularly those in which you participate in group projects or presentations will be most helpful.

    Your program in multimedia designs sounds like a good fit. In addition, you might want to add some courses in the humanities (for example: classics, communication, literature, women's studies, history) which tend to grade students based on their ability to write papers rather than take exams. Writing papers proves you have solid written communication skills, strong reasoning skills, the ability to both read closely and to support and refute arguments, and analytical thinking skills. Classes in humanities or liberal arts sometimes also have students present their ideas orally as a group, which would help you further develop your verbal communication skills and interpersonal skills.

    Producers tend to be even better producers if they know a little bit about at least one of the other major disciplines, be it design, programming, art, or audio. The multimedia design major you have sounds like it will round out your education pretty well. You might want to try to pick up something specific to the game design disciplines while in that program, something like C++ programming or audio production. A foundational studio art class would probably be a good choice too.

    On the other hand, for students who are not suited to a traditional university environment, there are training programs on the market now in project management, which is a very close match for video game producers.

    Finally, if you very specifically wanted to work for a large corporate game-making company upon graduation, you could attend a game development-specific school that has a producer's track, though typically, you won't focus exclusively on production and will have to pick up at least one of the other disciplines as well.

    Good luck, Producer Sometimes!

    Jill Duffy is editor of GameCareerGuide.com and senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine.

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