What makes a great video game producer?

During my time at Bioware (I prefer to do Bioware with a lower case “w”.  I’ve always hated the “BioWare” thing) I had an opportunity to work with a large number of producers.  I’ve worked with developer side people and publisher side producers and noted the differences between the two.  The largest challenge I faced was recruiting good producers.  It seemed for every positive facet a producer candidate had they had offsetting negative traits.  In most good producers I never noticed a common trait or approach.  I did however notice a common missing component in the less successful candidates.  At the time I called the missing component “Tactical awareness”.

To me tactical awareness is the ability to examine your surroundings and “feel” when something is off course or in trouble.  In a producer the only more valuable trait are excellent prioritization skills.  A good producer can talk to a few team members and from the common data and differing data discern a pattern of concern.  People rarely come out and say “X is off the rails and out of control” early enough to head trouble off before it becomes a large scale concern.  But if you talk to a variety of people on the project and they mention some minor concern about a common area, you have a pretty good idea what might be going wrong.  In the best case, you dig in and find the issue is miss-communication and get the involved parties together to fix the confusion.  In the worst case, you’ve uncovered a disaster before it gains a lot of visibility.  At this point I’d usually report up the point as an area of potential future concern and get hard to work fixing it before things got worse.  In most cases, the issue could be fixed before a major issue emerged.  Tactical Awareness, the ability to read the signs of a problem and track it to the source is of paramount importance to a good producer.

The other part of tactical awareness is an understanding of where you are in a project and what the challenges you need to prioritize are.   In the development of Neverwinter Nights we ran into a number of issues which required completely different management due to the differing stages of the project.  Early on you need to focus on the technology and getting a stable pipeline up and running.  In the middle of production, you need to focus on improving workflow and asset quality.  At the end you need to focus on locking everything down to remove variability so the title can ship.  The same scenario is treated quite different in each stage of the project.

I tried in a few cases to teach or mentor tactical awareness, but was unable to do so.  I tried sitting back and letting scenarios unfold and trying to nudge candidates in the right direction without avail.  In the end, I came to the decision that tactical awareness is much more rare than I had originally thought.  I think in the people who gravitate to work on games the social awareness required is hard to come by.   I also think too many people become comfortable in the day to day and lose sight of the big picture.  My best work historically has always been after some big picture reflection and a slight dose of paranoia.

The best producers never seemed to care about the boss or reviews and how management perceived them.  They were driven by the project and did whatever they felt was required to get the game one day closer to ship ever day.  I’ve been trying to formalize how to recruit successful people.  So far, I’ve had little luck nailing it down to common traits or backgrounds.  The best people I’ve hired just had energy, some tactical awareness and a desire to make something great.