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  • GDC 08 Coverage: Production Basics and Beyond

    - staff
  •  Laura Fryer has long been a member of the Microsoft clan. Once upon a time, she worked in tech support, but nowadays she provides support of a different nature. Fryer is an executive producer at Microsoft Game Studio, currently working on Gears of War 2, a game whose scale and budget probably rank among the largest in the world.

    Although she's involved in a project of enormous magnitude, Fryer is calm, cool, and collected. But that's all part of her job.

    Last week at the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Fryer explained why having a collected demeanor is one of the essential job functions of a producer. She gave a talk at the conference called "Production Basics and Beyond," in which she explored what it really means to be a producer, and why they are indispensable to game development.

    A Producer is a Producer is a Producer?
    Many people believe a producer's job is that of task manager and whip cracker, but it actually encompasses a lot more than putting numbers on a schedule, Fryer said. The producer's foremost job is to be "the person who is responsible for making sure the project meets its goals." Additionally, the producer is the person who sets up the project, defines and doles out the responsibilities, and then makes sure everyone works together as a team to deliver on those goals.

    Throughout all the changes that occur during the project (technology and tool changes, people and staffing changes), the producer has to readjust the timelines and pace of work to keep the team on a path to success.

    Fryer's take on game production is a little bit laissez-faire when it comes to the game and code itself, though other producers in the industry may take on more hands-on duties, such as fixing bugs, placing enemies, or even designing levels. "We run into a huge problem when we start talking about production because every company in this industry seems to define it differently," Fryer said. "We run into a big challenge of trying to define what is production."

    As unformulated as game production might be, one of the more definitive moments came a few years ago, according to Fryer, when Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, brought into his studio a few music producers, in an attempt to model their industry.

    Since then, production has evolved. It's had to, to keep pace with the dramatic growth in the size (from team size to number of lines of code) and budget of games.

    While job titles such as "producer" or "associate" or "assistant producer" do indeed fluctuate from studio to studio, the fact that those terms lack a specified set of responsibilities isn't all that different from the way a job like "game designer" is differently interpreted at different companies (see also "Designing Video Games ... Sometimes"). In other words, it's nothing new to the industry to have a job title that might mean one thing at Microsoft and something very different at, say, Foundation 9.

    Crunch Time Producers
    No game producer is unfamiliar with crunch time. Crunch time, or the phase of production when developers work overtime to get the project through its final push and meet its shipping deadline, has been known to last anywhere from a week to several months.

    Horror stories about working in crunch mode abound. Some people claim to have not gone home in the final week of production, choosing instead to sleep under their desks so they can get back to work quickly when they awake. Others tally how long it's been since they've had a day off, working Saturdays and Sundays for three, four, five weeks in a row. Birthdays have been missed, and marriages have ended. Working in crunch mode can be a demoralizing way of life.

    If it's the producer's job to keep the project on target from beginning to end, isn't it his or her responsibility, too, to eliminate crunches?

    Even the best producers can't completely erase crunch time, Fryer said. The only exception may be producers who work in a corporate culture that refuses to tolerate extreme overtime, which is rare in the video game industry.

    "All projects become schedule-driven at some point," which is "rather scary" for producers, Fryer said. Once a game is announced, and particularly if the announcement includes a release date, the producer and her team become bound to shipping on time. That's usually how crunch starts.


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