What does a Game Producer really do? | ELVTR

What does a Game Producer really do?

"Producers are very important people – they’re a little like Book Editors, a little like Film Producers and a lot like Product Managers” — Trip Hawkins
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Gaming: from lowkey nerd hobby to multi-billion industry 

At the dawn of console gaming, 1972, Magnavox released the Odyssey. This primitive but influential black and white UFO-looking device cost a whopping $99. Considering inflation, the Odyssey would set you back $619.12 today. At that price, this cartridge gaming console was a toy for well-to-do tech-savvy geeks, not the masses. 

But nowadays, all things geek have become part of the zeitgeist — beloved and accessible. So much that Reddit Users on r/WallStreetBets have artificially inflated the value of GameStop’s stock. A convention-defying game shop that somehow continues to have brick-and-mortar stores.

Over the past 5 decades, careers in digital entertainment have grown exponentially, exploded like an atom bomb — and the fallout is jobs. A single Google query reveals the scope of today’s Video Game Industry, massive!

And perhaps, "massive" is an understatement! According to Entertainment Software Association (ESA) research, during 2015, the Gaming Industry indirectly supported 220,000 jobs and generated an incredible $30.4 billion in revenue.

As of 2016, the Video Game Industry was comprised of 2,457 game studios, who presumably deploy their own in-house Game Producers. That was half a decade ago!

What a Game Producer really does?

David Mullich, a bigwig in the field, provides us a verbose but illuminating (he literally shines a light onto the shadowy realm of game production) answer to this question on Quora.

Mullich stated that Trip Hawkins, a player who deserves the ado showered upon him (more on Hawkins later), based the role of Game Producer on Record Producers. Much like a Producer for a major record label, a Game Producer:

  • Scouts new talent;
  • Finds (voice-over) recording studios; 
  • Creates schedules and budgets;
  • Obtains rights to use any licensed intellectual properties (referred to as samples in the recording industry);
Note: for Game Producers, intellectual properties aren’t limited to bytes of sound. These “samples” may include art, music, celebrity participation, and third-party development assistance like game engine licensing.

 

Unlike personalities in the Record Industry or Game Developers, Game Producers aren’t often in the limelight. In fact, it’s said that if a game is successful — the Designers and Devs receive all the praise, but when things go wrong — the Producer gets boiled. 

In this regard and many others, Game Producers are like Accountants. Often, they safeguard the budgets. 

Essentially, a Game Producer is a liaison between publishers and devs, a diplomat who walks a tight-rope between the money and the talent. Balancing upon this tautly stretched rope, Game Producers: 

  • Negotiate development deals with Game Developers and Publishers' legal departments;
  • Develop game concepts;
  • Present game proposals to management;
  • Provide technical assistance by reducing the project’s scope, increasing the budget, or canceling something that can’t come to fruition; 
  • Works with the Marketing and Sales departments to identify the target audience, competition, play value, and features.

And the tasks at hand for Game Producers aren’t limited to the aforementioned. In fact, the Game Producer’s role is as finite as integers, think one to one-centillion

However, Game Producer was best summed up by Trip Hawkins in the October 1983 volume of Byte: The Small Systems Journal, “Producers are very important people – they’re a little like Book Editors, a little like Film Producers and a lot like Product Managers” (Shaping Consumer Software pg95). Maybe, "accountant" should be added to Hawkins’ list of similes. 

Mullich himself has had an illustrious career, this heavy-weight has acted as Game Producer at Activision, Disney, Electronic Arts,  Bandai, and many other notable studios. 

Historic development of the Game Producer Role

A bit of meta: The following section's chronology is inverted. Together, we delve into the archives of digital entertainment to unwind how the Game Producer role evolved over the years.

A Chronology of Games and Their Producers 

Year 2020 2005 1997 1993 1980 1972
Studio Sony Interactive Entertainment  Electronic Arts Midway Games 3DO Namco Atari
Game The Last of Us Part II MVP Baseball 2005 Mortal Kombat IV Twisted: The Game Show Pac-Man Pong
Producer Kirsten Scoles Brent Nielsen Ed Boon Trip Hawkins Toru Iwatani Nolan Bushnell
Milestone Perhaps not the first, but Scoles is an extremely successful Female Producer in a male-dominated market,  action games.  MVP Baseball 2005 has received new characters for 16 years. Mortal Kombat IV had a plethora of fatalities and fighting styles. Fatalities were updated via the Internet. Twisted was the first game release with an official Game Producer. Inspired by a pizza-pie, Iwatani created the most iconic game of all time, Pac-Man.  Bushnell blazed the trail for Silicon Valley culture with Pong, a simple tennis-like game.

2020 - Kirsten Scoles

To begin, there’s an awesome game on the market right now, The Last of Us II. It was produced by Kirsten Scoles. The game has scored 93 on Metacritic, provoking an avalanche of positive reviews. 

Without a doubt, Scoles is a professional to keep an eye on. Having more than 10 years of experience in the Film industry, Kirsten has disrupted Gaming, working on huge titles including but not limited to Uncharted, Star Wars, Call of Duty, and Ghost of Tsushima.   

She is among the few female Game Producers who challenge the current status quo in this male-dominated industry. And she is a living example that you don't have to be of a certain gender to create fascinating games. 

2005 - Brent Nielsen

Rewind. Back in 2005, Electronic Entertainment (EA) released MVP Baseball 2005. The game was produced by Brent Nielsen, an extremely underrated force in gaming. His passion for creating realistic gameplay helped to realize EA’s most timeless game — MVP 2005. So, his name definitely belongs on this list of legends. 

MVP 2005 is genuinely a knockout game. Just think about it: 16 years after release, EA continues to update the database of players, that must’ve been a call by Nielsen. Either way, this continually evolving feature makes the game a home run.

Besides creating unforgettable games, EA’s marketing strategy is impeccable. It’s said that they modeled their logo after TV channels that host sports tournaments, but this may just be a rumor. And, most are aware of EA’s official thoughts in gaming realism because of their widespread "It’s in the game.” motto.

1997 - Ed Boon

It’s said that there are only two breeds of fighting game enthusiasts. You can either be a fan of Street Fighter, or a Mortal Kombat fan. And, one doesn’t like the ilk of the other.

However, here at ELVTR, we believe that the litmus test for a superior game is innovative features. Mortal Kombat rapidly adapted new features such as digitization of martial arts and frequently updated fatality cheats.

Speaking of the console and arcade games with online connectivity, Ed Boon discussed his disbelief on the Internet during a 2008 podcast with Giant Bombcast. “It took me so long to embrace the reality that the Internet really exists,” said Boon.

However, Ed's techno-skepticism was compensated by his dedication. Here's his commentary on how he made sure that every update was properly implemented: 

[Midways Games] would put a fatality in the [Mortal Kombat] game and [so] I would drive from California down to an arcade in, say, Chicago, see somebody deliver the fatality and that was the realization that there is a line of connection between these two places.

And then I would change the fatalities. In fact, we spent an enormous amount of time putting ridiculous little things in the games (assets).

Special guest - Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson, an esteemed Game Producer, is our resident Guru of Game. He’s produced such hefty titles as Metro 2033 (2010), Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013), and The Banner Saga 3 (2018). 

Andy's name is also mentioned in credits of the Super Street Fighter II Turbo (1995), which virtually makes him Ed Boon's antagonist. 

My passions are teaching, game production and game development.  I've been fortunate enough to work in this industry for so long.

But, I wouldn’t have gotten here without the trust of others or a little help along the way.

So, it's very important for me, personally, to pay that back to the next generation, those who are going to build the next fabulous  games that I will someday play. 

1993 - Trip Hawkins

No tribute to the culture and labors of Game Producers would be complete without Trip Hawkins, he is the patriarch, the first one to be officially dubbed with the title of Game Producer.

He is credited in such perennial games, who isn’t fond of vintage technology, as Twisted: The Game Show (1993) and Blade Force (1995). And, during 1983, he founded Electronic Arts (EA) to boot.

Certainly, Hawkins’ ingenuity forged and legitimized the field of Game Production. Hawkins modeled the role of Game Producer after early 90’s Music Producers and as noted in Quora, he even invited them into gaming studios to introduce the craft of production.

Yet, his contributions don’t end here. He was also a brilliant Software Engineer. Aristotle introduced a systematic method of analyzing literature, Hawkins did the same for software. As noted in the October 1993 volume of Byte:

Software should be hot, simple and deep.

Simple means that I can minimize the time it takes for someone to get into this software. I believe it’s essential for a Game Producer to hook the player in with unique or aesthetically pleasing assets.

Hot has more to do with taking advantage of what a specific computer can do, for example, the Atari has better sound than the Apple II.

And, a game that has depth is unlike an arcade game. An arcade game attracts patrons with noise and various other distractions. For a quarter, game players receive 60 seconds of something more like a carnival than mental stimulation.

But, a deep game arouses the mind.  

1980 - Toru Itawani

There’s no debate over the most iconic game in digital history, it’s Pac-Man. Neither Ed Boon’s Mortal Kombat nor Nolan Bushnell’s Pong trump this juggernaut. Both are integral pieces of American pop-culture, but the 1980’s were Pac-Man, neon, roller-rinks and Walkman

Toru Iwatani’s story is, admittedly, out of place in this article. Well, not so much a hen in a chicken coup, but a tale of luck rather than bulletproof strategy. It was Andy Johnson who said “Game Producers must be able to pivot on-course when unforeseen changeling crop-up,” in an interview for ELVTR. Well, that’s exactly what Iwatani did. 

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During the 2004 Video Game Conference, Iwatani told the audience:

I joined Namco because I wanted to make pinball machines. I quickly realized that Namco doesn’t make pinballs, they make video games, so alas, I learned to make video games instead.

Despite this massive miscommunication, Iwatani did well for himself, he successfully turned pizza into a digital media – he was inspired by a pie with a missing slice to create the adorable yellow character we call Pac-Man.

1972 - Nolan Bushnell

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and creator of Pong, is the fundamental and quintessential Game Producer.

Sure, Trip Hawkins was the first to officially adorn this title, but in a lineage of peculiar luminaries — Bushnell takes the cake, wears it like a hat, and strolls downtown. He created a Game Producer culture as we know it.

However, Bushnell is somewhat humble about being the “King of Pong." 

He stated in Fusion Magazine that he didn’t create the electronic gaming industry. “I enabled it, I was the [...] guy who set it up so it cost you a quarter.” (Can Lightning Strike Thrice).

 

As for the culture, an interview in the Feb 1983 issue of Success Magazine described Bushnell and his project, Atari as “a crucible of long-haired labor, piped-in rock music, profit sharing, veto-empowered employee councils – a  utopianism reflecting what Bunshell called the Atari Philosophy" (The Return of King Pong, pg17). All-in-all,  Bushnell is a visionary, a self-ascribed socialist who created a company that had the atmosphere of an arcade.  

Alcorn recalls the early days working at Atari as “a wild environment,” he went on to say that there wasn’t “AIDS yet and lots of company romances (Sex Drugs and Video Games).” And, alleged hot tub parties.

Of a Game Producer’s attributes — sampling the work of others and a ruthless ingenuity are paramount. In fact, according to Al Alcorn, “Atari purposely mismarked chips so that when other companies tried to re-create the designs, their machines wouldn’t function.” Simply ingenious, this move is up there with putting a clock on a stove. 

How does Bushnell account for his success? 

He candidly spoke with Success Magazine and said, “I have a 14-year-old’s mind trapped in an adult.” (Return of the King of Pong, pg. 18) Perhaps, a 14-year-old’s mind and restlessness are what makes an outstanding Game Producer. 

Wrapping Up

Who's Game Producer in the eye of an Average Joe? A socialist. A libertine. A geek. Maladroit. Avantgarde.

In an article by David Kushner, a writer for Playboy and authority on Grand Theft Auto, Kushner literally wrote the book – a definitive history of the game. Al Alcorn, a name that often surfaces in relation to early gaming (he worked for Atari, Apple…) stated that “smoking pot and doing a lot of cocaine, that was part of the [Game Producer] culture”.

Of course, Alcorn was speaking specifically of life at Atari in the ’70s, but womanizing and drug use is an epidemic at game production studios — was just part of the culture.

And to answer the string of questions, Game Producers (at least in the early days) — were a bit of all of the above. They were definitely perceived as a sort of outcast. It didn’t help that some, like Bushnell, were self-proclaimed socialists too. These fellas musta been odd-ducks to the Average Joe as they walked through Silicon Valley.

Speaking of looking out of place, there’s a humorous anecdote in the same article by David Kushner about Nolan Bushnell. Al Alcron reminisced that Bushnell, while attempting to hammer out a deal with Sears to sell the home version of Atari, wore his usual: jeans (the hoodie he was known for) and a T-shirt, Sears’s executives dressed to the nines.

It was an awkward gathering, but the ice was broken by the gang riding cardboard boxes on conveyor-belts.

For the second meeting, Bushnell wore a suit and the folks at Sears donned T-shirts and jeans.


 

It’s said that “behind the eyes of every genius lies a tortured mind.”

Perhaps that’s why Game Producer is synonymous with an unsavory lifestyle? Maybe, sex, drugs, and Rock n Roll are required to preside over cutting-edge think-tanks, but this is merely speculation.

In the end, gaming inched its way into the mainstream. Or as Andy Johnson told ELVTR, “These days, 60,000 people crowd into a stadium to behold a few kids in the field playing games. We call it Electronic Sports.” Johnson continued with a smirk. 

Certainly, Game Producers were as integral to hitting milestones within budget (arguably the most important aspect of the role) during the ’90s, as they are today. But they were paid a great deal less, even accounting for inflation.

As demand and accessibility rose for digital media, so did salaries. Nowadays, we are witnessing a rapid growth of a whole new industry, that was led by a bunch of nerds some time ago.