Interview with Jesse Smith, Firaxis Games

GameProducer.NET had the chance to talk with Jesse Smith, game producer at Firaxis Games, who have recently finished Civilization IV: Warlords – the newest game in the legendary Civilization game series.

GameProducer.NET: First of all, tell us little bit about yourself. Who are you, what games have you done and how did you ended up working at Firaxis?

Jesse Smith: My name is Jesse Smith and I am a Producer at Firaxis Games. In 1997 I decided that I wanted to get into video games, so I went to Firaxis and asked for a job. Firaxis told me that I needed some experience before I could work here; they helpfully suggested that I check out a Hunt Valley, Maryland based outsource QA facility called “Absolute Quality.” AQ hired me, and after three years I moved to San Francisco to help run AQ’s West Coast office. From there I was hired by the publishing company Activision, where I worked in production on a number of O2 sports games, including the Tony Hawk, Mat Hoffman, and Kelly Slater series. With this experience under my belt I reapplied at Firaxis, and this time I was hired. This was a great opportunity: not only did I get to work with some of the best in the industry, but I also got to move back to my home town. At Firaxis I’ve worked on Sid Meier’s Civilization III, Civ III: Conquests, and Civ IV; and I have just finished producing Civ IV: Warlords.

GameProducer.NET: Your merit list is impressive: you’ve been working on many AAA games. How did you find the time to involve in production of all those games?

Jesse Smith: The first half of my gaming career was in QA (quality assurance, a.k.a., playtesting). At Absolute Quality we saw a wide spectrum of titles come in for full testing or just safety-net testing at the end of the cycle. This exposed me to a lot of different types of games and a variety of testing roles, including management. The sheer number of titles we worked on during that period is almost unbelievable. Of course, once I started at Activision in 2001, I had more time to work on each product, and I was able to begin honing my production skills.

One of the amazing things about this business is how different the creation of each game is. The production cycles may be similar but because of rapidly developing technology the challenges you face change with each game you work on.

GameProducer.NET: You now work at Firaxis. Is Sid (Meier) nice guy to work with – in case you get to see him once in a while…

Jesse Smith: I can see Sid’s office from mine so I bump into him quite frequently. Sid is a genius and truly inspires those he works with. He is very hands-on with the projects and focuses a tremendous amount of effort on making sure the game is fun and exciting. When he is involved on a project you can feel the entire company humming with excitement. It isn’t often you get to work with a legend so it is an experience just to be a part of the team. And he’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with.

GameProducer.NET: You were finishing Civilization 4: Warlords. How are things going?

Jesse Smith: We just finished with Warlords last month and things went extremely well. The Civ IV team did a great job when designing and coding the main title to ensure that it could easily be expanded. This allowed us to come up with a solid vision for Warlords and execute it on time – even when our release date was moved up a few months.

GameProducer.NET: Can you tell us more about Civ4 production and schedules. How do you use timetables and deadlines? How do you schedule game production?

Jesse Smith: There really isn’t a specific science to the way we generate the schedules; they are mostly based on our previous experiences and knowledge of the product we are creating. There is one hard and fast rule, however: at Firaxis we do extensive prototyping before we begin production.

Due to the sheer scope of Civ IV we divided the prototyping into two phases. The first phase was Ancient to Medieval. The second phase was Renaissance to Modern. By the time we finished the first phase we were able to begin production on all of the early game’s assets while we continued to prototype the second half of the game. Once we finished prototyping the second half of the game we were then able to begin full production on the whole project.

During the prototype and production portions of the development cycle we typically set monthly milestones. They measure chunks of the total job and usually include tasks which demonstrate progress towards solving all of the challenges. Each milestone also includes a set number of assets which need to be completed. This allows us to make sure we remain on schedule. During late production and the polish phases our milestones are mostly driven by marketing requirements. Getting the product in the best shape possible for GDC, E3, press events, demos, previews, and reviews determine the final milestone dates.

GameProducer.NET: That sounds great. In busy times – perhaps before deadlines for events such as GDC or E3 – the workload might cause stress. How do you deal with stress in challenging times?

Jesse Smith: During the development of Civ IV I dealt with stress by working more hours. This wasn’t the optimal solution since it typically just generated more stress! I have since learned to deal with the stress of the project by going to the gym. We are fortunate enough to have one in our building so I can go down there for an hour any time I begin to overload. If I enter the gym with a problem I need to solve I usually have a solution by the time I finish working out. As a general rule, exercise helps tremendously when dealing with the pressures of a project.

GameProducer.NET: From stress to challenges: what have been the most challenging moments in Civ4 development?

Jesse Smith: One of the most challenging parts of Civ IV development was getting the community involved in the project 18 months prior to release! This required a lot of work on our part to ensure that we always had versions which were in good enough shape to be played by outsiders. We spent a lot of time testing versions, posting them, reviewing feedback, implementing changes, and retesting/posting versions. In the long run the effort was worth it because the feedback we received helped us make the game what it eventually became.

GameProducer.NET: How about the best moments? What have been best times in Civ4 production so far?

Jesse Smith: I would have to say one of the best moments for me was when we went gold. Almost the entire company was involved with Civ IV, and everyone was committed to seeing it succeed. We had pulled the schedule in a couple of weeks so everyone was crunching to make sure we hit the deadline. I remember burning the gold master discs and leaving the building to fly them to the duplicators when I heard over the intercom, “Elvis has left the building!” to a loud cheer from all of the employees.

GameProducer.NET: How would you describe the Civ4 production in one word?

Jesse Smith: Educational! Civ IV was the largest coordinated project Firaxis had developed at the time and involved a lot of people, many of whom were recent hires. We all learned a great deal from this project. I personally found the entire experience to be enlightening and enjoyed every stressful second of it!

GameProducer.NET: How’s game production job at Firaxis. Is it fun? And the pay is good?

Jesse Smith: Being a Producer at Firaxis is awesome! The job is extremely rewarding because of the incredible people you get to work with, the fun games you work on, and the responsibility the company gives you. Each producer is handed a project and a goal but given the freedom to lead the team in whatever way suits their style. Management is always there to provide insight and help if needed but otherwise they allow you to focus on the task at hand. I find it to be extremely rewarding and fun. The pay and benefits at Firaxis are outstanding.

GameProducer.NET: Responsibility comes hand to hand with leadership – one of the skills or qualities that game producers need to have. What leadership means to you, and what have you learned about leadership in Civ4 production?

Jesse Smith: The importance of leadership ability in a game producer cannot be overstated. Once you have a huge team working on a project everyone must understand the direction the project is heading and the role they play in getting the project there. A good leader listens to the team and watches the flow of the project and makes decisive decisions which keep everyone moving toward the final goal. Without good leadership the quality and timeliness of the product is at great risk.

While working at Activision as an Associate Producer I was managing managers. This was very different from what I am doing now as a Producer at Firaxis, which involves direct interaction with the actual content creators. Managing and motivating creative individuals requires a vastly different approach!

During the final six months of Civ IV I was the only Producer on the project and this was pretty overwhelming: it was my first triple-A title as a development producer, and I was working with the largest team the company had ever assembled! Finding myself becoming overwhelmed, I went to my bosses to ask for assistance, and they brought Barry Caudill, producer of Sid Meier’s Pirates!, onto the project as Senior Producer. This turned out to be an excellent decision for everybody. With Barry as my mentor I honed my game production skills, and I really came to understand what it means to produce games at a cutting-edge studio like Firaxis. In the end the project came out on time, under budget, and to rave reviews from the critics and audience alike!

Asking for help is never easy but it is an important part of being a leader. You always need to be willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure the success of the game you are working on.

GameProducer.NET: Besides leadership, there are several elements that make a good game producer. How would you describe a professional game producer? What skills and knowledge he has? What kind of person he is?

Jesse Smith: Though the roles of development producer and publishing producer are very different from one another they both require someone who is a strong communicator. The Producer needs to be able to listen, manage, motivate, direct, and coordinate the efforts of a lot of different people simultaneously. They must be organized, analytical, and above all, solution-oriented. They need to be able to motivate people to do the best work possible. They must be able to clearly define a vision for the project, develop a plan to create it, and then execute it with decisiveness. It is also useful for a Producer to interact closely with marketing to make sure that everyone in that department understands what is cool about the game and what elements should be emphasized when selling the product.

In summary, a Producer must be able to manage and lead a project to successful completion.

GameProducer.NET: I often hear people saying they want to become game producers, but they just don’t know what to do. What would you suggest an aspiring game producer to do in order to get his dream job?

Jesse Smith: For someone who is just starting out I would suggest you get a job where you are in some level of project management. As you improve your skills with organizing projects, managing teams, and creating success you will develop the skills to be a producer. The first and perhaps hardest step is to get a job in the gaming industry.

In my case I started out as a tester – I loved breaking games! This position evolved into managing testers and eventually to leading entire projects. As I gained experience it became easier for me to lead projects more effectively. My experiences as a project leader honed my skills to allow me to be able to produce games.

I believe that the path from QA to production is a natural progression. If you really want to be in video games I recommend that you get a job as a tester and put your heart and soul into your work. Learn everything you can, ask for responsibility, demonstrate your willingness to take on new challenges and you may very well work your way up to production.

GameProducer.NET: Do you have any good book recommendations for game producers?

Jesse Smith: Recently I have read Game Production Handbook by Heather Chandler which I found to be very good. Game Design Theory and Practice 2nd Edition by Richard Rouse III is also an excellent read with a lot of useful information.

GameProducer.NET: Anything else you’d like to add? About production? Jobs? Games in general? Anything you’d like to share with other game producers?

Jesse Smith: Not that I can think of!

GameProducer.NET: In the end: what are your TOP 5 tips and hints that every game producer in the world should know?

Jesse Smith:

1. Know your team. Be aware of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, utilize their strengths and use training to reduce or eliminate a person’s weaknesses.
2. Triple Time. Always assume any complex task is going to take about three times as long as everyone believes it will take. You must plan for iteration!
3. Prototype! Make sure the designers have a clear idea what they want. Anytime you hear the words “I think” from a designer ask them to turn it into an “I know” by writing out or demonstrating exactly what they need and how it will fit into the game.
4. Do everything you can to make sure the game is the best it can be. From strict attention to details to asking for help; be sure to do whatever is necessary to accomplish your goals.
5. PLAY YOUR GAME! As a producer you have limited time so you can’t spend as much time playing the game as you might wish, but you must have a solid working knowledge of the game and how fun it is. This will become especially useful for demos and press events.

GameProducer.NET: Thanks for the interview!

Jesse Smith: Thank you for the opportunity!

4 thoughts on “Interview with Jesse Smith, Firaxis Games

  1. I definately agree with the Triple Time principle: I had started an adventure game engine based on Princess Tomato and the Salad Kingdom (an old NES game) which I thought would take one day to code, turned out it took three days.

    But it might actually be a good idea *not* to keep the Triple Time principle in mind when you estimate how long something will take, otherwise it has the danger of acting on itself and becoming Nine Times Time…

  2. Two Interviews…

  3. [...] Jesse Smith, game producer at Firaxis Games, was interviewed by GameProducer.net. Working on the Civilization series, he bumbs into Sid Meier quite often: “Sid is a genius and truly inspires those he works with. He is very hands-on with the projects and focuses a tremendous amount of effort on making sure the game is fun and exciting. When he is involved on a project you can feel the entire company humming with excitement.“. [...]

  4. Just had to say that : wow! :)

    Keep doing the good interviews!