Playable Profile: Jess
Welcome to another Playable Profile! I hope you’ve been enjoying meeting our team and getting a closer look at what different roles at a game company actually do!
The latest interview is with Jess, our Senior Producer. We chat about what the day-to-day looks like for a producer, what people think a producer does vs what they actually do, and Jess’ hopes and dreams for the future of gaming.
VioletLight: Let’s start off with you introducing yourself and telling me a bit about your role at Playable Worlds!
Jess: I’m Jess Hartung, the Senior Producer here at Playable Worlds. Essentially, a Senior Producer is a producer who helps run the day-to-day team functions, while an Executive Producer handles things at a company-wide level.
What a producer does varies widely, depending on what studio you go to. There’s a fantastic video from Extra Credits, “So You Want to be a Producer?” that covers the basics really well. It was done a while back, but it's still one of the best videos I’ve seen about what a producer does.
Essentially, we're not here to have the best ideas, or force the team to do anything. We're not even here to nag anyone to death, despite the joking reputation producers have. We're here to make sure that the game goes out as close to on time and on budget as possible. We're here to make sure things run smoothly. When a producer is doing a good job, you won't always even recognize they're doing anything at all because their job is to make sure other people don't run into roadblocks.
V: What is the role of a producer within a project?
First and foremost, it's important for me to know what's going on with each discipline and each scrum team within the project. That way if anything comes up, I can effectively set priorities and help determine the best way to resolve any challenges that come up.
Let's say someone had to go out on administrative leave for some reason. It would be a producer’s job to work with that person’s manager to help determine how to distribute their workload.
On top of that, we’re also usually responsible for scheduling. We need to know what is getting worked on, when, and in what order, as well as what dependencies exist that will need to be cleared up before work can start.
In many cases, we're also the ones that make the final calls on whether something makes it into the game, but only to make sure that we don’t exceed the scope of the time and money that we have available. That’s the part of our job nobody likes to do. But if we didn't do it, the game would probably never ship.
I like to tell newer producers to think of themselves as the personal shopper for the players. At the end of the day, the player is going to hopefully give us money in some way, and we want to make sure we're investing that wisely. So we work really closely with design, engineering, art, and the executive team to make sure that happens.
V: What do you think the common misconceptions are about producers?
J: A lot of folx think of us just as project managers, which is only a little true. We do some project management, but there’s a lot more to it.
In the Extra Credits video I referenced, they refer to us as “the supreme court”, the idea being that we're not the ones that are making every single decision about the game, we are getting people together and helping them communicate so they can make every single decision about the game. In situations where they cannot come to an accord, we will step in to make the decision.
On the other hand, if a decision is made, but would put the project schedule and budget in jeopardy, the producers step in to redline those things. Because of that, a lot of people think producers are just picking and choosing what they want to be in the game. But a good producer isn’t putting their personal preferences into play, they're looking at what's best for the game and what's best for the players.
If you see a producer calling out something to be cut from the game, it's not because we didn't like that feature. I’ve had to redline some of my favorite features in a game, and it sucked. But even if I get heat from the team - or more rarely the community – the decision was made that we couldn’t include that feature and ship the game on time.
V: Sometimes those things are inevitable, but we never want it to happen.
I know you’ve had a few different roles during your time in the gaming industry - what drew you to production?
J: At the start of my games career, I was simultaneously a community manager and a quality assurance analyst at Metaplace because, at the time, they didn't have need for both positions full-time. While I enjoyed them both a lot, I really preferred working with the community. Not just helping them when they had trouble or running events and things like that. I enjoyed talking to the players and helping figure out what they wanted to see in our game and what would help them feel like our game was somewhere they wanted to continue to be.
From those experiences, I ended up interested in both production and design, which have a lot of overlap. I was a Senior Designer over at Disney for a good chunk of time, and there the design department actually reported through the producers. We were basically half-designer, half-producer and wore both hats. I'm glad to be in a situation now where that's not the case, because I think that it's good to have those two teams separated. You've got the creativity of the design separate from the more no-nonsense, process focus of a producer.
V: Do you have a producer or someone in game dev that really inspires you?
J: There's a lot of really wonderful producers out there and also game directors like Mr. Naoki Yoshida - Yoshi-P, that is - who is currently the game director for Final Fantasy XIV. He is one of the people that really inspired me to go into production and help shape what the game is. Of course, as a game director, he's a lot deeper in the creative side of things than I am now, but one day I aspire to be a game director, too. Right now, I am very happy to be here working on [REDACTED] -oops! I mean, our unannounced title!
V: That was close, you can’t reveal our secrets yet! Okay, continue.
I know, I know. But I really want to!
Right now, I’m getting a chance to really dig my teeth in because we don't have an Executive Producer on our project yet. When I started, I was the first producer on the project, so it's been a lot of establishing what our processes are that allow us to have that more creativity and flexibility, and will allow the EP to come in and have all the support they need to be able to do more managing up and managing out.
V: Do you find that to be a great challenge?
J: I would be lying if I said that it’s been easy, but I also would be lying if I said I haven't enjoyed the challenge. I think a producer needs to be a person that thrives on those challenges and thrives on being able to extend themselves into other areas as needed.
In addition to all of our regular tasks, it's normal for a producer to have to fill in other places. It's been a great learning experience for me because I’m getting to get exposed to a lot of things that a “standard” Senior Producer might not get to do. It's been really cool and I feel like when I am ready to take that next step, I’ll be even more prepared for it.
V: What’s your favorite part about working on games?
J: This is really cheesy. My favorite part of working on a game is the first time you see someone touch or play with something that you were a part of making. Just that gratification of seeing somebody's reaction to what you've created is amazing. Especially if they like it! If they don't like it, that can be kind of rough, but knowing that someone enjoys and appreciates something that you helped make is just the best feeling in the world. Knowing that somebody's day has been enriched because of you.
V: Can you tell me about a rewarding or challenging experience you’ve had in your career?
J: I think one of my most challenging experiences is also one that I learned the most from, which was the first game I worked on that didn't ship. I don't think people realize how many games and projects get started, and then just don’t ship for whatever reason.
This project started as a maybe three to six-month Facebook game project, and ended up taking well over a year. The developers were burned out and exhausted, and the producers were equally exhausted and frustrated. The game finally went into beta testing, and it flopped. It wasn't what the players wanted. We decided that we’d put it back into development and figure things out. Does it need more development? Can we polish it up and change it into what it needs to be? We tried everything, but ultimately, it was never going to be what we wanted or what the players wanted.
That was my first realization that a producer’s job isn’t just to help drive the team and be there to lead and inspire, but it’s also to protect the team from outside influences that are going to push really hard to include aspects or features that might not be the right thing for the game. With the studio atmosphere we were in at the time, we were told there were things that “had” to go in the game that we couldn't push back on, and it is what it is. And while sometimes that can be the case and there’s no way around it, this game taught me about managing expectations, and making sure we’re clear with both our audience and our stakeholders about what their expectations should be.
This experience also taught me the importance of not being afraid to speak up and say "This isn’t going to be good for the game. We thought it sounded really cool, but we've had to change our minds." That ability is so important and it's something I wish the games community at large understood more. Any time a game team cuts a feature, it's not because we hate you, it's not because we want to make you miserable. It’s for the good of the game. And throwing hate or heat at the dev team isn’t going to be helpful for anyone.
I wish people wouldn’t put producers of games and game devs on such a pedestal. Many people seem to think that either we can do no wrong or that we somehow knew these things were coming and could have done better.
Maybe it's out of our control. But if we as game players did more to reward and trust companies that are honest and forthcoming, we’d be a healthier community. Yes, hold companies accountable, but also try to be understanding if a company is being honest rather than trying to spin things or make excuses.
But because this happened to me early on in my career, I think it really shaped the way I work with my teams and the way I view production. I like to think of myself as an investor of the community's money and goodwill. I’m here to make a good investment for them and make sure that the game we do make is awesome because I never want to put something out that players don’t want.
V: You make a really good point - it can be really challenging, from a community perspective and from a developer perspective. If we can go into this just being open and transparent the whole way through, that will make a huge difference. Hopefully, we can help encourage other studios to be more open with their players, too!
J: I've seen some studios that have been really open lately and it's been such a nice refreshing change. I don’t mean to bring up Final Fantasy XIV again, but they do a really great job of engaging with their community and being playful with the way that they reveal things. A lot of the startups here in San Diego are also doing cool stuff as far as community engagement.
Not just to talk up the San Diego game studios, but you know, we've got a great environment out here, just saying. It's great to see so many studios being more open. That's one of the reasons why I like being at a startup. You have that flexibility to be a little more open because you don’t have to worry about jumping through as many hoops. You get to make that call for yourself, which is really cool.
As for communities getting a little heated with developers, it’s honestly because for a long time they had to in order to be heard. Game companies weren't listening to them. That's why we have community managers now, whose entire job is to interface with the community, talk with them, and find out what they want and why.
I’m so glad that we have these strong communities. It's much easier to hear what they want faster than we used to be able to. We have to find that balance between making games by consensus versus making them in this little private silo where nobody sees it until we're done. I think that's a challenge all of the game companies today are running into, but it's also a challenge that we can all overcome together and we can make the next generation of games that much better.
V: What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work or games?
J: You're gonna laugh because you're like “outside of games,” and in my free time I love to play White Wolf and Pathfinder tabletops. I also do live-action roleplay, so yes that does make me a larper. Yes, I am that kind of nerd.
V: No judgment here :)
J: I obviously play my share of MMORPGs, too.
V: What are you playing right now?
J: Shock of all shocks, I’m playing Final Fantasy XIV. I'm very excited for their next expansion so I can try the Sage class. I've also been playing Dungeons and Dragons Online, and of course a big shout out to Cozy Grove, which is like if you put Animal Crossing and Don’t Starve together, but took away like the survival elements.
Also, I hang out with my cat - she wanted me to throw that in.
V: She's very important! We need a picture (see above hehe)
Okay, and now for my favorite question. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into production or even just games in general?
J: The best thing that you can do if you want to get into games is play games and have opinions about them. Not opinions like “I like it or I don't like it”, but opinions like “I like this feature and here's why I like it” or “I don't like the way this feature was implemented, but I can think of a few things that would make it something I would like”. So when you decide that you like or don't like something, take the time to dig into why you feel that way, and figure out what you could do to change it. Knowing why you do and don't like things can help you figure out what our players are actually asking for.
My advice for people that want to get into production specifically is to really examine and figure out what it is that you think a producer does. Everywhere you go, you're going to be told that producers do something a little bit different. Figure out what your definition is for what you want to do, and then when you go into a new place, let them know “here's what I can do for you, here’s what I am good at, and here’s how I think I can help your team. If you'd like me to do other things I can.”. So always knowing what you define yourself as, as opposed to what other people define you as is important and that just goes for life in general. Let other people tell you what you need to do to help them, but at the end of the day define yourself, don't let other people define you.
Thanks for joining us for another Playable Profile! Tune in next month for the next one!