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