Producers Roundtable – Questions and Answers

In this roundtable session, we’ve picked questions posed by you readers. The questions vary from game design to game producer salaries. Seven questions were presented, and the following professionals gave answers to these questions:

Harvard Bonin, Senior Producer at Sony
Hendrik Lesser, Managing Director and Executive Producer, Remote Control Productions
Jeremy Lee, Development Director, Double Helix (formerly the Collective and Shiny Entertainment)
Robbie Edwards, Senior Producer Red Storm Entertainment / Ubisoft.
Frank Rogan, Producer, Realnetworks

Here are the questions and answers.

Sargon asks: How do you know that your game is fun?

Harvard Bonin:
Rabbit Hole question! This might be the hardest of the seven. Its kind of like “How do you know a joke is funny?”

Webster’s defines “fun” as “what provides amusement or enjoyment.” The trouble is that fun is subjective and what’s fun for some people is not fun for others. The easy answer is that there is an inherent ability in people of make this judgement.

For me, I believe that the judgement of fun is a personal choice – voluntary or otherwise. It stems from a person’s life experiences and emotional mechanisms that have been reinforced over time. Also, fun is a product of social mores in the society you reside. We can only judge if our game is fun by 1) relying on our own game playing judgement and 2) observing other players and their reactions. You think your game is fun based on your own judgement but you know your game is fun by watching others play it.


We play the game a lot internally and discuss the fun level.

Of course we also ask family and friends what they think.

Later in development we start doing focus group tests to refine the fun factor.

You should be checking on the fun factor at every stage of development, and several times before you even start really working on it.

If you don’t think your game is fun from the initial whiteboard, brainstorming session, you’re in trouble. If you don’t think your game is fun after you’ve playtested with pen-and-paper, Lego blocks, sand tables, prototype code, using free tools (e.g. Source engine, Torque engine, etc), you’re in trouble. If you don’t think your game is fun after you’ve prototyped a level or two in pre-production, you’re in trouble. If you don’t think your game is fun after play-testing, usability testing and focus testing, you’re in trouble.

So, how do you *know* it’s fun? That’s a difficult question to answer. But the path to answering it can be found all this testing and all this iteration.

Jeremy Lee: You never know if your game is fun – you can never be certain I don’t think anyway.

You’re can get glimpses of fun throughout production, but it’s particularly difficult to separate “fun” from “done” at the start. When something is grey and blocky and has no audio, it’s hard to have fun with it unless you can anticipate the result when it’s finished.

The best way you can tell if parts of the game are fun, is to put it into your audience hands as soon as possible and watch the reaction. If they look engaged, excited, and involved you know you’re on the right track.

Ricardo asks: When the producers or game designers start thinking in a new game/IP in what area he or she usually starts planning?

Harvard: When creating a new IP it usually depends on the strengths of the team and technology that I have at hand. If there is an existing, quality game tech I look for ways to leverage it. If there is a great team with a specific expertise I do the same. From there its about working with a great game director/lead designer to allow them to find their inspiration. I provide them with the box and they can pretty much explore all the directions they want. My only concern is that the game is marketable in the key Sony territories and that it fits within the basic criteria established (specific genre, use of technology, etc). Those criteria usually point that creative leader down a certain path…but its one in which they have a lot of freedom. Here at Sony its important that team members realize that its the creativeness of the team that strengthens the game.

Hendrik: It could be different things depending on the scope for the next project. If the scope is not really limited, the game designer starts with some core mechanics mostly and a rough layout of the game system. Some suggestions for style and setting are there too.

We meet then and discuss the different ideas to find out which we proceed with.

Mostly the story for example is talked about briefly but not in detail for some time.

Frank: A creative manager I once worked with had a funny story, about meeting a budding game developer who asked if he could pitch him a game.

“OK,” said the creative manager, “let’s hear it.”

The young designer straightened up and launched into his pitch.

“In the early days of the 32nd century…”

“Stop,” said the creative manager. “Your game idea sucks.”

The point being, if you’re starting with some deeply worked out, personally fulfilling, epic story, with your sweat stains and your little nerd footprints all over it, you’re on the wrong track.

Now, you may be on the right track for writing a novel or a screenplay, which is fine. But it’s probably not a video game.

Start with the gameplay. Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. Take Portal, for instance. Everyone loves the story, such as it is, but it’s all about the gameplay that starts with a simple premise: “I can open a door here, that opens up over there.” Then move quickly into the visuals.

Jeremy: For us at Double Helix, it almost always starts with the gameplay. What will deliver a good experience when the player interacts with the game. But in reality all those things have to start “first” too – you can’t design in a vacuum but I would always prefer to weave a story around a great piece of gameplay than the opposite. I know many would disagree with that, but stories are usually easier to revise and reshape during production than core gameplay.

Sean asks: I would still love to know why dedicated server files are not a priority in online gaming. Aside from iD Software, Epic, DICE and Valve everyone fails terribly in this dept, and it seems that dedicated servers are afterthoughts to most companies.

Frank: The flip answer is that setting up and maintaining dedicated servers costs real money, and unless you’re an MMO, there’s no ready way to monetize that outlay. The game developers you mention have developed games for which there are usually strong communities that set up their own server playgrounds at no or low cost to the developers. Some of these developers you mention have also branched out to offer their engine technologies as licensable software products, which is a business in its own right, and further defrays and justifies development costs.

Hendrik: For most “normal” multiplayer games you don’t need dedicated servers. A simple matchmaking is enough. It is the same in more detail then with spectator mode etc.

Harvard: I agree with Sean and that’s why we have dedicated servers for Warhawk and/or any project I work on. I suspect it has mostly to do with the expense of setting up servers, maintaining them, etc. There are a lot of costs involved and services behind the scenes to accommodate the player base. Consider the servers, the maintenance personnel, bandwidth, etc. Personally, I prefer a hybrid model where there are dedicated servers and also player servers. That way the game can keep on keeping on long after the publisher and game team have moved to another title. Servers are only the tip of community support. For Warhawk we have released 5 content updates and 3 expansion packs since Fall 2007. Its very important to work with the community after release in order to maintain consumer loyalty.

khanstruct asks:

I wanted to pose this question to the AAA guys out there to get a broad and more real-industry opinion. Now personally, I’m a firm believer in Howard Aiken’s quote, “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

I’ve heard a lot of “would-be” developers saying “Protect your ideas! Make everyone sign an NDA! Post armed guards around your laptop!” (ok, the last one was an exageration). Then I’ve heard a lot of actual developers saying “Don’t worry about it. No one is actually interested in stealing your idea, if for no other reason than they have far more to lose in a law suit than you do.”

I’ve personally been blatantly robbed of a few ideas (none related to gaming however) and have seen it happen to others, but never on a life altering scale. So my question is this; how closely do we (indie-developers) need to protect our IP? Being unfunded and small scale, we obviously need more exposure during the development phase than the big companies (searching for investors, developing an initial fan-base and even securing a solid team), but are we setting ourselves up for disaster?

Harvard: Any major, reputable company will have you sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) or a Submission & Confidentiality Agreement (S&C) before viewing your title or idea. Most will not take unsolicited ideas unless they are legally protected. If you are showing your ideas without either of these agreements then you are at risk. These agreements are offered by companies not to protect you, but to protect them. Most will not sign one from you…only theirs. Plenty of developers have ended up suing large companies as no S&C was filed. They are at much more risk than you…after all, the publishers have the deep pockets and usually the garage developers don’t. Do yourself a favor, just make sure these two documents are signed before showing your idea. It will protect both parties from unscrupulous tactics and is really no big deal to do.

Hendrik: “It is all about execution” is a well known quote from a lot of people. I tend to agree. Having a background as a business development guy with a major publisher I know that it does not really make sense to steal an idea. You need the expertise and the motivation of a team.

I have some many ideas in my notebook, why would I steal someone else?

But besides these abstract thoughts it is good to protect your IP. So if you talk to well known publishers tell them you talk to all of them. If you talk to small, sometimes mostly unknown publishers have them sign NDAs.

In the end to keep an IP is much more important than to protect it before execution. If someone steals it, have another one.

Frank: There’s a few different points to make here.

You should take reasonable steps to protect your IP – proper use of copyright marks, NDAs when you’re asked to submit demo code and so forth. I wouldn’t let that get in the way of you developing a personal relationship with a publisher, though. If you’ve documented your copyrights, you can always enforce them after the fact, if it comes to it.

Most publishers don’t want unsolicited submissions, because of rights issues, but the real reason is that most publishers/developers already have more workable ideas than they can use at any given point.

Don’t underestimate the power of parallel thinking. It’s likely that your brilliant flash of creative insight has happened before to other people. Blizzard wasn’t the first group to think, “Hey, a fantasy MMO might be a good idea.” The key is execution on good ideas, not the idea all by itself.

You can’t copyright an idea. You can copyright the expression of an idea. It’s a key legal and logical difference.

Jeremy: You need to protect yourself, not just because somebody may steal your ideas, but to instill confidence in the future investment you and your investors will eventually make.

Publishers and investors won’t want to fund a game that’s going to get leaked on the internet or wind up so accessible to the outside that people are no longer interested in it. I wouldn’t worry as much about the impact of a potential theft as much as the impact of not effectively demonstrating your ability to ensure confidentially.

Robbie: For me, there are 2 parts of a successful product. There is the creation of the idea, which is certainly important, but even more important is the execution of that idea. I think every successful game clone shows that the idea alone is not enough to create a successful title. Ideas, even good or great, are pretty easy to create. What sets Diablo apart from all the clones? It’s certainly not the idea, but clearly the quality of the game and the execution of that idea. So, having a great idea is a good start, but without the ability to realize it fully, it will remain just a great idea.

Emmanuel asks:

We’re currently implementing Scrum, and it’s looking very promising. I think the method will work wonders to implement features incrementally.

Where we are more uncertain is how to handle things like:

  • designing missions for a solo campaign: can you really build and tune a campaign through a series of user stories?
  • tool building: there’s a lot of work going on to build tools for level designers and developers, how can we account for that? can you take a scrum approach?
  • performance tuning: this is an ongoing concern, and we struggle to build that as part of the “potentially shippable” in small iterations.
  • fragmentation vs aggregation: we’ve had a lot of pushback in some cases where the developers believed that by building incrementally certain features, we would end up paying a higher cost in the long run (either in dollars or performance). But taking a more aggregated approach would make it impossible to deliver anything in a sprint (we run 2-week sprints), which kind of defeats the purpose of Scrum.

So it would be great to hear of the producer’s experiences in dealing with that.

Harvard: SCRUM in the words of a respected colleague of mine is like many other methods. Its kind of “new agey”. Its a little hand wavy, a little unpredictable and professes to be the savior for game development. I believe that any methodology needs to be tempered with the judgement of the implementers. Wholly hanging your hat on one method is naive. The participants in the process need to evaluate what works and what doesn’t for their particular project and team. In my experience SCRUM works well if there are real, tangible features that are reasonably known and can be evaluated in a hands on way in a collaborative environment. It seems to work better in focused, small pods but gets too laborious on a very large team. It can work well with prototyping but not as well in major cycles when the team is deep in production and execution. Used intelligently it can work but not for every case imaginable.

Hendrik: All questions regarding scrum have to be decided and sorted out by either yourself or a scrum trainer who knows you, your team and your processes well.

Scrum is no silver bullet with a specific rule set to follow. It is a philosophy which you have to adopt to your situation.

If your sprint length is not enough for some things expand it, of course you can develop tools with scrum etc.

Sebastian asks:

Unlike most of the indies, the AAA game producers are able to survive and earn a living from their games. They pay well their employees and continue to develop new titles from the money their games generate, but it is still tough for many of them. However they have the advantage of having publishers and a distribution network. They have more visibility than indies. In surface, they seem to succeed more easily than indies.

How can indies develop great selling strategies like AAA game producers without a marketing department of many people?

Harvard: Without a top marketing, QA, Customer Service and Distribution partner you are really putting yourself behind the eight ball. Don’t forget, financed development teams usually have a lot more $$$. That said, creativity can suffer – which is where the indie devs can shine. Consider other distribution sources like the Playstation Network. Most games there are a fraction of the cost and see sizable units sold. At this point, on-line distribution is the way to go.

Practically, find an MBA school, talk to their dean and offer your game up as a project for their business students. Often they love to work on real world problems and I’ve seen many students help struggling small businesses.

Jeremy: I don’t know if this is a surprise to anyone or not, but it’s rarely the game producer who lands a project. AAA game deals are generally born from business development teams that go from publisher meeting to publisher meeting.

They usually come armed with a few game pitches that are unique IPs and then the publisher will view those and say something like “Those are cool, but we have a big movie coming out next year, how about making that game instead?”.

So much of the business is relationship-driven and getting an original IP signed is never, ever easy because there’s more risk involved. If you can find ways to minimize the risk for the buyer that will help.

Robbie: I personally feel that a great product will sell itself, especially in the internet age. The internet makes it so easy to promote your product with small budget if you are willing to put in effort.

Word of mouth is really the best type of advertising, the challenge is to get people to talk about your game. That’s where sites like Facebook or Digg provide you with an easy avenue to get eyes on your product. Also, have the developers blog about your game.

I have wanted to do this for about 4 years now, but unfortunately, I’m pretty boring. I have always thought it would be a great way to create a connection with your consumers and generate a great deal of buzz. I mean what is more exciting in game development than working in a small indie development house where every day is a fight to survive. That’s great drama.

Frank: This is a tough one.

It’s one of those questions where the answer is, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

I will point out three areas that I think are underserved by independent game developers:

  • Your Web site must be professional, easy to use, up-to-date and provide me with all the information I might ever want about your company. It costs next-to-nothing to maintain, and speaks volumes about your ability to execute.
  • Your projects must have consistent production values. Pay attention to all the little details — UI, installation procedures, audio. Don’t just throw your material out there and hope it makes an impression. Make it look as slick and as polished as possible.
  • Respect the power of personal connections. Recognize both the macro-goal of a publisher (i.e. make money, manage risk), but also the micro-goals of the personalities that comprise the publisher (i.e. locate and nourish partners that can execute on projects with little help, direction and attention). You need to make it as easy as possible for people to say “yes” to your proposals.

If you want to do a AAA first person shooter witch a small team and a small publisher, forget it basically.

Everything you do has to be related to the situation. If you have a nice indie developer at hand, do nice, smaller sized projects and check out alternative distribution and marketing channels like PC-online, PSN, XLBA, Wii ware or Steam or build up your own which most browser game developers do.

But beware, it is getting more and more difficult to do everything on your own. Better think about teaming up, create a joint venture etc.

If you want to do AAA games then you have to work a while and be damn lucky to reach the point were you can handle that with your team. If you as an individual want to work on AAA games work for bigger companies and try to climb the ladder.

Saad asks: What kind of salary game producers or executive game producers have?

Robbie: According to the Game Industry Salary Survey, producers average $78,716 annually.

Harvard: It really depends on the company. Here’s a helpful link.

Hendrik: Totally depends on the company and the territory you work in. the IDGA does regular market research on that. Overall it is in average 5-12k a month depending on your experience and your former success.

Frank: Some key points to make here is that titles and salaries can vary widely from studio to studio. But I think Gamasutra’s salary surveys are fairly accurate.

Jeremy: It’s a huge range, depending where you are and what you work on. The last salary survey I have handy is from 2007, but it puts the average salary for producers at $78,716.

Thanks everybody!

This concludes the Round Table session. If you are a producer in a major studio (doing AAA games with a budget over one million), feel free to contact me and tell your interest in contributing to these sessions.

Thanks Robbie, Jeremy, Frank, Hendrik and Harvard for your contribution – I really appreciate you taking time to answer these questions, and I’m sure the readers feel the same!

And everybody: if you want to get informed about the next session, subscribe to the mailing list to get informed.

The opinions expressed by these producers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, plans or positions of the companies where they work at.

Juuso Hietalahti

One Comment

  1. Nice read.

    A little biased towards AAA and the underlying feeling I get is that they think that all indies really would like to do AAA stuff, working with major publishers etc. Not that useful for us that publish games ourselves.

    Personally I would have liked a round table with successful self publishing indie developers. This AAA stuff is not for me I guess…

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