Gavin Carter is a game producer at Bethesda Softworks – the company behind the The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. GameProducer.net was lucky enough to get to interview him.
GameProducer.net: Hi, first it would be great to hear something about yourself, and your background. How long have you been in games industry, and what have you been doing – besides the big titles such as Morrowind and Oblivion?
Gavin Carter: I started right here at Bethesda Softworks in the summer of 2001 as an intern. I did basic world-building tasks for Morrowind such as laying out the interiors of buildings and creating basic dungeons. The next summer I returned to intern again and did quest design on Tribunal. I did about half of the non-plotline quests in the expansion, including the quest where you bet on robot fighters and the quest where you take part in a play. After I graduated college in 2003, I got hired fulltime by Bethesda as an associate producer and have been here ever since.
GameProducer.net: Then right to the point: what game producers do at Bethesda?
Gavin Carter: A game producer is responsible for making the development process go as smoothly as possible. They’re the ones tracking the game’s progress at every point, so they have to create and maintain the overall schedule and make sure it gets communicated to each developer. You have to make sure that everyone you’re responsible for has everything they need to keep moving on development. This includes everything from assigning tasks, to making sure their computer hardware remains up to par, to making sure an artist gets that troublesome animation over to the programmer when he has time to review it, etc. There are different strata of producers, as well. At Bethesda, we have dedicated producers for each project, as well as a producer to handle each area of our team – coding, design, and art.
GameProducer.net: This is something people want to hear… can game producers participate in designing AAA titles? Or, do you just stick with the business issues, projection planning etc.?
Gavin Carter: Game producers participate quite a bit in the overall design. Again, this varies from company to company. Some companies use their producers as overall quality control types who can pass or fail an individual feature depending on their opinions. Other companies leave jobs like that up to the designers or particular team leads. Bethesda is somewhere in between those extremes, but because the job involves a lot of communication, a lot of meetings, and a lot of coordination of work between people, there are lots of opportunities to express your opinions on any particular issue.
GameProducer.net: Is game production a fun job? What’s the pros and cons being a game producer in a big company?
Gavin Carter: It’s absolutely a fun job. The pros are obvious for the most part – you get to oversee the development of a new game. As a producer you have the opportunity to be involved in many different areas of the game. The cons are that there’s nothing very specific that you can point to in the game and say “I did that” like a piece of art or a cool feature. Also, scheduling sometimes feels like trying to climb a greased ladder. You’re constantly tweaking people’s schedules and rearranging things as the project goes along.
GameProducer.net: What kind of skills do you need as a game producer?
Gavin Carter: Project management skills are really where the rubber meets the road for producers. Experience and knowledge of software like Microsoft Project and Excel for scheduling as well as bug and task-tracking packages like TestTrack Pro, Bugzilla, or JIRA come in extremely handy. Also a deep knowledge of how games are created, both from a coding standpoint and an art creation standpoint, is a necessity when planning out development.
GameProducer.net: What kind of personality is required for being a game producer?
Gavin Carter: A good mediator with an even temperament goes a long way. You have to deal with a range of opinions each day from a range of people, and sometimes arguments can get very passionate. Many times people look to you as the producer to make the decision and set a direction, so it helps not to be a hothead about things and to carefully consider your options.
GameProducer.net: Then some questions about your hit game Oblivion. Can you describe us a typical day in Oblivion production?
Gavin Carter: A typical day involved artists churning out new content, designers setting up their quests in the editor, and programmers squashing bugs and implementing new features. A typical day for me usually started with checking my email and making sure I had no loose threads left to resolve. Then I’d begin going over our TestTracker bug and task database, assigning the new bugs to specific programmers to look at and bugging people to finish up tasks that were due. Usually we do meetings in the afternoon, and then I’d finish off by double checking that the schedule document still conformed to what we had in tracker.
GameProducer.net: Oblivion is out now. Is there still something left to do for a game producer, or are you already planning your next game?
Gavin Carter: Personally, I’ve moved on to another project that we’re working on internally. We have two producers still primarily involved with Oblivion – one oversees downloadable content and the other is mostly concerned with support issues, such as the patch and update.
GameProducer.net: About a month ago, Oblivion was reported to have sold over 1.7 million and climbing. What does this mean to you as a game producer?
Gavin Carter: Nothing specifically other than the great feeling of having been a part of something that a whole lot of people seem to really enjoy. I’ve never been a part of anything like it before and the critical and commercial success makes all the hard work worthwhile.
GameProducer.net: Oblivion was developed simultaneously for both Xbox 360 and PC. How did this affect on game production?
Gavin Carter: Multiple platforms always complicate things. It basically means you have to track the status of two (or more) different versions of the game all at once. The art and design sides were largely unaffected but on the programming side we had to dedicate about half of our resources to each platform to make sure they both kept moving forward.
GameProducer.net: On other interviews you have mentioned Oblivion’s Radiant AI. Now as the game is out, have players noticed the system? What kind of feedback have you got? Did the system turn out as you and your team wanted it to be?
Gavin Carter: Players have commented quite a bit about how big of a difference the system makes over Morrowind’s static NPCs. The stories that you can read all over the internet on various forums have been great. I’ve read everything from people’s reaction to hearing cool unscripted conversations, to crazy stories of massive brawls breaking out in the middle of town, wiping out homes and stores alike. I think the system accomplished the goal of providing a varied and unique user experience, and we’ll certainly look into refining it in the future.
GameProducer.net: How much control did you have over Oblivion? When producing AAA titles, the funding comes from different sources compared to indie game production. Does this mean limitations for the game producer?
Gavin Carter: As we are one of the few independent publisher and developer combinations left, we had absolute control over Oblivion at every point in the project. The best thing about working here is that the company administration trusts us enough to produce a fantastic product and they let us do what we think is best. It’s something so rare in the industry that most people think I’m lying when I say it, but it’s true. I imagine companies that are beholden to certain publishers have to deal with a lot more red tape and a lot more oversight, but I haven’t been in that situation myself.
GameProducer.net: What was the best moment in Oblivion production?
Gavin Carter: The best moment without a doubt was when they announced that we had passed certification for the Xbox 360. This was basically the “It’s done” moment. When we got the call, I remember hearing the cheers radiate out across the office as people learned the news. Of course we knew we’d be supporting the game post-release, but it was a great feeling to hold one of those discs and know that years and years of our hard work was finally ready to make it into the public’s hands.
GameProducer.net: Our readers are eager to learn games production, and one of the best ways to do it is to learn from those who are already producing games. Could you give us TOP 5 tips that you think every game producer should know?
1. Play your game. This is the most important and seems obvious, but lots of producers tend to get stuck deep inside Excel docs or meetings and put off actually loading up the game and playing it. A lot of problems are caused when someone in power waits until the last minute to test out a new game feature, only to decide that they don’t like the implementation.
2. Play other people’s games. Always be on the lookout for new ideas, and how you can improve on the successes of others while avoiding their mistakes.
3. Communicate, negotiate, and delegate. Every project is a team effort, and how you work with and apply the people on your team can make the difference between success and failure.
4. Iterate. Doing something over isn’t a failure but a chance to improve.
5. Read everything. Never stop learning.
GameProducer.net: Big thanks to you Gavin and Bethesda Softworks for the interview. Nice to see you can take time to answer questions from indies. Good luck with the future projects.
Gavin Carter: Thank you, it was my pleasure.