What Does An MMO Producer Do?

Someone clipping film.

It’s both a running joke and a truism in the MMO industry that no one quite knows what a producer does. Not only is the job description very flexible depending on the needs of the project, but each company has its own system of producer titles. For example, I’ve held the title of Producer for five products (counting expansions) at three companies, and not only were my actual duties different in each case, but my relative authority and autonomy in the company structure varied widely as well.

I recently had cause to sit down and formulate a unified theory of producer-hood based on three different continuums of responsibility. (In other words, I broke up what I’ve seen producers do into three main areas.) Keep in mind, however, that this organization is based entirely on my own experiences; if you have a different organization, I’d love to hear about it — please drop me a comment or an e-mail!

Responsibilities

First let’s take a look at the three axes of producer-hood: bizdev, task management, and leadership.

Bizdev

Bizdev is short for business development. For a producer, this usually means being involved with the business side of the game: talking to publishers and investors, working with marketing and upper management to expand the franchise, or fending off advances from would-be business partners. Bizdev types may also be deeply involved in contracting and outsourcing (for art, sound, mo-cap, what have you). These duties tend to be very outward facing, in contrast to the other two axes.

Task Management

In many ways, task management is the defining duty of a producer. Many producers are first and foremost schedule monkeys. Of course, there are different levels of schedule monkey: a senior producer might build a high level schedule aimed at meeting the business goals over the course of a three-year development cycle, while a junior producer might check up on a list of tasks every day and then report any discrepancies upward. But it is generally true that all producers, no matter what their title or level of authority, are involved with scheduling on some level.

Task management isn’t just about scheduling, though — it may also be about making sure that the team has the tools that they need to work, that the necessary communication is happening between and within the departments, that there’s a coherent process for getting feedback to the right people, that the wiki isn’t useless, that the hiring process is more or less working — in short, that all of the million and one chainsaws are kept up in the air and that no-one is losing fingers. So task management also implies a high level of general trouble-shooting and organizational duties.

Moreover, the more task management you do the more you become point person for external departments and random requests. Since the producer is the person who knows the status of things, they are also the person that the Platform team comes to when they need an answer about character storage, the person that Customer Service calls when a server goes down, and the person that Marketing e-mails once a week about the expansion launch date (yes, even though it’s on the front page of the wiki in large font). This goes for random requests within the team also: if the toilets near the art room back up, the artists will come to the producer for help. They don’t expect him to fix the toilets himself, but they do expect him to call Facilities for them.

In other words, producers are the people you interrupt with your problems so that you don’t bother the people who are doing real work.

Leadership

While task management is fairly easy to explain (even if it does tend to sink its tentacles into everyone’s pie) the producer’s role as a leader can be a lot more nebulous. The producer may or may not be the “Vision Holder” — that is, the person who safeguards the central focus of the game. Often this role is filled by a Creative Director or Lead Designer. But whether or not the producer holds the vision, they are responsible for transmitting that vision — and not just the game vision but also the company culture. In many ways, the producer is the den mother — making sure that everyone is sufficiently excited and happy, that the leads are taking care of themselves and their people, that new employees aren’t being thrown to the wolves, that everyone has a voice but that all the voices are coming together harmoniously to move the project towards its goals.

Titles

Now let’s look at some of the many producer titles that are in common use, and the main ways that these titles match up to responsibilities. Again, keep in mind that this is just based on what I have seen myself and is by no means definitive — each company seems to have its own system for assigning producer titles.

Executive Producer

An executive producer (EP) is a producer, but also an executive. They are often deeply involved in bizdev and even when they aren’t they tend to be much more business-oriented. For example, an EP usually spends more time thinking about the optimal target audience and how to mitigate risk, but less time troubleshooting the art pipeline. EPs are also more likely to be deeply involved with budgeting. In my experience EPs tend to have less day-to-day contact with the team, but they may also be strong leaders, inspiring the team from above.

Senior Producer

Senior Producer seems to be a somewhat less common title that, like Producer, can mean almost anything. Senior Producers are generally somewhere between Producer and EP in terms of authority and autonomy, but this is highly variable. Sometimes the ‘senior’ merely indicates a regular producer with more experience (or one who suffers from title inflation from below), but sometimes it’s used for a very experienced producer who wants some portions of the EP job and not others. For instance, a Senior Producer may be a leader and Vision Holder who wants to avoid the bizdev aspects of being an EP, or one who likes the bizdev but also dips down into troubleshooting the art pipeline on a regular basis. Or they may just be allergic to the word ‘Executive’.

Producer

The Producer title is a tricky one because it might mean any of the different producer types, or it might even be applied to all of them at once. (I used to confuse the EQ2 team by talking about ‘the producers’ — Wasn’t I the only one? — until I realized the problem and switched to the phrase ‘production staff’.) In general it seems safe to assume that the Producer is the main point person, the one who runs the team (and therefore heavy into task management and leadership) unless there is a Senior Producer or actively-involved Executive Producer in the picture.

Line Producer

Line Producer is a term that comes from Hollywood, although the Hollywood version is rather different than the game industry version. In some contexts a line producer is a low-level schedule monkey — someone who maintains the schedule but doesn’t make scheduling decisions. In other contexts, a line producer is a producer who concentrates wholeheartedly on the task management octopus and leaves the bizdev and leadership duties to someone else. Regardless, the line producer is almost always spending a significant amount of time running around talking to people in an attempt to find out what is actually going on.

Project Manager

I nearly didn’t include Project Manager as a production title here. Most of the Project Managers I’ve met haven’t been part of the teams they work with at all — they are more similar to an outside auditor assigned by another department. For example, the Platform team may assign a Project Manager to work with a game team on a particular platform upgrade. On the other hand, I have occasionally seen the title Project Manager used as an upscale alternative to Line Producer. Either way, Project Manager seems to indicate less active involvement with the team — less running around talking to people and a lot more fiddling the colored boxes in MS Project.

Associate/Assistant/Junior Producer

This role varies quite a bit also, from completely independent producers who are responsible for a subsection of a team (i.e. an Art AP, who handles everything a producer would but only for the art team) to people who fetch coffee. The most common role in my experience seems to be similar to a junior line producer — minding the schedule, making sure tasks are getting done, and letting someone higher up know if there is a problem. On the other hand, the EQ2 team had a complement of experienced APs who would have qualified as full producers on a slightly smaller team.

So there you have it — my answer to the age-old question, “What does an MMO producer actually do?” is “It depends.” … which makes it somewhat difficult to explain what I’ve been doing for the past five years. But the important thing, when you’re trying to hire a producer, is not to get too hung up on titles but instead figure out which roles your team needs. You can use these three axes as a guideline — or you can just wing it. After all, most producers are good at winging it.

This entry was posted in Production. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What Does An MMO Producer Do?

  1. Dana Baldwin says:

    Reading that kinda makes me glad I work for a small independent MMO as Senior Producer. BizDev is probably the least of my worries. Task Management is a necessary evil and Leadership is the fun part. On the way through the ranks as a producer I’ve added to that list with content creation from world building to implementing the data side of every art and code asset. I also get to have a hand in every design team, I run the QA, I build all the installs and patches, I write the read me, I file all the bug reports, I manage the beta test team, I oversee the live game management, I interact with the community on a regular basis, I play art director, I run the coder meetings and I clean the white board. If all I got to do was run the spread sheet and talk to the suits I think I would go nuts!

    My answer to the age old question “What does a producer do?” is always, “Everything but the code and the art.” And there’s a lot more to an MMO than code and art.

  2. Sandra says:

    Hello, Dana! Thanks for responding. :> I agree with you that leadership is the fun part. And you bring up my second favorite part of being a producer as well — filling in the gaps! Although unfortunately I glossed over this in my post … I suppose it fits in best as a side effect of task management, similar to being point person. If there are tasks that aren’t being handled for whatever reason, they often end up on the producer’s plate as well. (As I told one of my APs on my last team, all you really need to be a producer is an inappropriately broad sense of responsibility. The rest grows out of that.)

    As producer for Asheron’s Call Live my duties sounded a lot like yours: design, content, QA, build master, patch notes, community, etc. I handled code as well, however — I was also our Lead Engineer. But no art, thank goodness! We had a good artist.

    Anyway, I’m excited that another producer responded to this, especially one from a small indepedent MMO. I get to meet so few people with similar experiences!

  3. Babs says:

    Don’t forget the part about ordering crunch dinners… =D

  4. Kuba says:

    I agree, the title is bumped around a bit, from my Position, EP/Operations, I have to maintain many projects at once from negotiating to assigning. I also do a bit of the Graphic arts, however I don’t get to spend much time there at all, its always the next lead that will be conducive to an available source sitting in a file somewhere, usually for a producer that file is locatable by some random factor more so than memory.
    There seems to be a level of serendipity that a Producer perceives and by this perception is able to help keep the increasing momentum of the tasks at hand., Im not saying that synchronicity is the responsibility of the Producer, just saying that its neccessary that someone is looking at the big picture.

  5. steffenj says:

    So you Producers also do the design? I find that … discomforting.

    But “filling in the gaps” really describes a producers role IMHO, plus he/she should be an excellent leader and motivator. Ideally someone you can talk about anything.

    For smaller developers i see Producers cleaning up the mess behind developers. Things that they would let fall by the wayside, eg. meeting discipline, wiki structure and content, regular non-work activities like training sessions, making sure the game installs fine, copy protection is added at the right time, being the voice of the team to biz and community, writing up the credits, managing risks, praise individuals and the team, involving them in decisions that affect their career or workplace like outside hiring of a lead position or working on the seating plan for the new office….

    I could go on and on and on …