Resources for video game production

Production masterclass by Bernard Yee (Oculus, Bungie, PopCap)

Production masterclass by Bernard Yee (Oculus, Bungie, PopCap)

Mar 11, 2018

I recently watched an outstanding production presentation from GDC 2015, and I wanted to share with you his videos and my main takeaways. Pro-Tip: Constantly check GDC’s YouTube channel, they frequently release videos from past GDCs, and there are many hours of fantastic production videos.

The presentation is called “My To-Do List: Organizing a Producer’s work” and was given by Bernard Yee, a producer at Oculus and former producer at Bungie and PopCap.

Bernie starts his presentation talking about what is the role of a producer and how producers add value to a group and slowly moves into how to become a better producer. Throughout, the speaker does a great job in balancing the more philosophical aspects of what a producer should aspire to do and say with real life examples derived from his own work experience.

Major takeaways


On the producer role


Producers are organizers and communicators (7:18)

Bernie explains that producers usually get hired when teams become too large to be able to communicate without significant distortion or loss of information. The lesson is that a producer’s most important role is that of organizer and communicator.


Great producers want to obsolete themselves (37:48)

The servant-leader is servant first – Robert Greenleaf

A great producer wants to get its team to a state where there are no significant issues and don’t need you. When things go well, don’t ask too many questions, resist the urge to meddle. Let the team work.

Don’t worry about your job security too much, no matter how good you are, things only go well for so long – be there for your team when they need you.


On the production process


Good communication is essential (8:53) & (40:00)

Bad games come from bad communication – Bernard Yee

The producer position is all about communication, communicating problems to people that can do something about it (developers). Ideally, a good producer ensures that errors don’t occur due to miscommunication or ignorance. However, the producer also acts as the champion of the team in conversations with upper management and third parties (publisher, press, etc.).

As a producer, you must be alert to risks (known unknowns), manage crisis situations (unknown unknowns), articulate the team constraints and manage expectations to all parties. Equally important, the producer needs to be careful not to become a bureaucratic obstacle.

My favorite moment of the talk is when he says, “In the absence of communication people assume incompetence” (8:53 – 8:55). My personal experience confirms that observation – I have managed several process improvement projects in the finance industry and the first time the process breaks down the team is up in arms blaming our third parties. This behavior is self-defeating, only by working together can complex products, such as AAA games can be made. It is fundamental that the producer steps in before the blame game starts, to improve transparency and accountability on both sides.


Why crunch happens (11:00)

Crunch is a direct result of the list of work (backlog) that is generated and the prioritization that is given. Crunch happens when the development team decides to take on too much, and there is no flexibility on the deadline date. I would like to point out that this is a production fail – the business is usually up front on whether the release date is flexible or not. Therefore, it is up to the team, to be honest about how much they can accomplish on a regular schedule up to a specific date.

I feel it is important to make a distinction between extended crunch and the occasional crunch week. A single crunch week, if the team agreed to it, will allow the team to cover stretch goals and will likely help the team bond. However, it doesn’t take too much crunching to destroy team morale and productivity. A good producer should always be ready to push back on impossible schedules and be prepared to negotiate a time extension or a reduction of scope if it becomes evident that the current plan is unreachable working regular hours.


The best production process (19:08)

The best process (Waterfall, Agile, etc.) is the one that your team buys into, regardless of your personal preference, and it is your job as a producer to get the team to embrace that process. That being said, some frameworks are a better fit for a particular kind of project than others. Game development is complicated, as in developing a game has many moving pieces. However, not all projects are complex, as in filled with unknowns, for example, DLC. When developing a brand-new game or iterating over an existing franchise Agile is usually the better option, again assuming the team buys into it. The reason Agile performs better is that it is the one best suited to pivot objectives, as it usually happens in game development, and it’s the least rigid regarding process (thus allowing for more customization depending on team’s membership).

Lastly, take care not to become obsessed with following a methodology. Process frameworks are guidelines, not hard rules that need to be followed by zeal. Producers need to question why certain rules exist and be ready to make adjustments that better reflect the project’s needs and the team’s composition.


On being a better producer


Think about the why (2:30)

The importance of being deliberate on what we do. The lesson is to always think why you do the things you do. The moment you forget what and why you are supposed to be doing you become inefficient and ineffective. Conversely, you could be following a process blindly, just because “that is the way we have always done it.” As a producer, you need to be continually looking for ways to improve processes, because the team will expect the producer to drive continuous improvement and remove obstacles.

If you are interested in a structured framework to reduce bloat, I would recommend you research about lean process improvement.


Have a bias for action (31:20)

A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week – George S Patton

It is impossible to know precisely how much time/effort a task will take, the effort used to plan and size every needed task to the smallest level of detail has diminishing returns after a certain point. Therefore, don’t wait for the perfect plan, collect as much information as needed to get started and execute.


Don’t get caught in the documentation (17:14) & (26:54)

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything – Dwight Eisenhower

Planning is one of the most important parts of a producer’s job. However, the project plan will almost never be executed as planned. It is important that producers recognize that the plan is not the objective in itself but understanding of feel free to veer from the plan if needed.

Don’t sweat the small stuff – Richard Carlson

Know what the big stuff is and what is the small stuff. The small stuff is elaborate plans and documentation; the big stuff is how your team communicated and reacts. The reason the first group is small stuff is that these artifacts are not predictors of actual work and usually lead to a false sense of control.


Final remarks

Bernard Yee’s talk is highly recommended to all current and aspiring producers. There are many production talks, but none other focuses on the importance of mindset and attitude as positively as this one.

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