Money & Career, So You Want My Job

So You Want My Job: Video Game Producer

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

If you haven’t played a video game since PacMan, you’ll be blown away by how elaborate games are these days. Each is like a long movie, only one which unfolds differently depending on the decisions the user makes. There are complex story lines, realistic characters, and immersive settings. And that’s just the background to the captivating game. This combination of game, narration, and art makes working on video games one of the most creative jobs out there.  As a video game producer for Zombie Studios, John E. Williamson works on all the different aspects of bringing a whole new world into existence. As we’ll see, the job isn’t all fun and games, but it is pretty darn cool.

1.Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc).

First off, great site. Lots of fun articles.

I’m John E. Williamson. I’m a video game producer/writer/designer. I am 47, which makes me 123 in the games biz. I live and work up in the great Pacific Northwest. The only place I’ve ever moved back to on purpose. My dad was in the Army, so I have lived in or visited all 50 states.

I have been making games and simulations for 20 years. I’ve worked on titles such as Spec Ops, America’s Army, SAW, Rainbow Six, Delta Force, Shadow Ops, Disney’s Atlantis and many others. I have a BS and MS in Experimental Psychology. I was on my way to the publish or perish academia treadmill, but I got distracted by Virtual Reality and 3D computer graphics for the military, and that evolved into making “pure” games about 15 years ago. Though now, it would actually be possible to get tenure studying games and simulations.

My main job is a producer, which means I guide the game from inception to completion with three main tools: Communication, Filling In, and Triage.

Communication: making sure everyone is on the same page. Lots and lots of detailed lists that everyone signs off on is the best tool. Sometimes my day is spent just making sure that people 2 desks away are working on the same solution to the same problem.

Filling In: Any time we are shorthanded, the producer should fill in or be able to get someone to fill in. On my first few games, in addition to my role as a producer, I made 3D models and textures, designed the menu and the interface, designed and constructed the missions, wrote the manual, wrote, edited and directed the videos, and even did some voice acting. Those were the days.

Triage: Making sure everyone is working on what is truly important. What is important changes from month to month. The ability to anticipate what will be important next month is a very important skill. In my 15 years, I have never had a game canceled by the publisher, and nearly 60% of my games have sold well enough to warrant a sequel. Another way to put it is this: “There are two types of games. Perfect games and games that ship.”

2. Why did you want to work on video games? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I work on video games because I love games, and I’m pretty damn good at making them. I used do what I’m doing now for free, making mods for retail games at night and on the weekends.

I knew what I wanted to do at a very early age, but it took the world a long time to catch up and make game development a viable profession. Thanks to my parents, who always tried to broaden my education, one of my very first exposures to computer games was to play Trek at the university. We had to walk uphill, both ways in the snow to get there and back in the good old days; there were no monitors. Every move printed a page of paper with your results on it. Look at these next gen polygons…Sadly the only part of this story that isn’t true is the snow.

Compare that to the most recent game the team and I have finished-SAW II: Flesh and Blood:

3. If a man wants to become a video game designer/producer/writer, how should he prepare? Is it something you can go to school for, and if so, would you recommend that?

First off, if you are a man, you have a leg up. The industry remains predominately male. That is changing, though very, very slowly.

You can go to school and earn both 2 and 4 year degrees in gaming. Digipen, Full Sail, SMU GuildHall all have good programs in a wide range of tracks from programming, to animation, to art.

If you can, I would recommend getting a degree at a traditional 4 year university. Preferably in one of those “real” majors that would make your parents proud.

You probably will not retire from the gaming biz. Odds are you will do it for 5 years or less, and move on to something else. It is a stressful, demanding profession. A more traditional degree could make that transition easier.

I used to think this was a very depressing statistic, but it turns out it is pretty common. Even the majority of teachers move on to a new profession after 5 years, and it is not like people don’t know what it is going to be like to teach. They have been taught for 17-18 years if you include pre-k and Kindergarten, they take classes in teaching, and they even practice teaching for years, but still most first year teachers aren’t teaching 5 years later.

4. How does working in the video game industry work? Do you work as an employee of a company or do you freelance and try to get hired on a project by project basis?

There are no shortages of ways to work in the industry. Each has their own set of advantages and disadvantages and cost/benefits. Each seems to go in and out of favor every 3-5 years. You can work directly for a publisher, you can freelance, you can work through a temp agency, you can work for an independent developer, and you can work for yourself as your own developer.

I am working at an independent studio. When we first started out, publishers were looking for original content, and they wanted us to use our own tech. That does still happen, but publishers are looking to reduce risk more these days. So they prefer existing brands, and proven tech (UE3, Source Engine, etc.). Sometimes we pitch original ideas; most times of late we are given a project to bid on, and we are competing against other independent studios.

5. How competitive is the video game business? What separates a candidate for a job from the other guys?

The video game biz is crazy competitive. More so in the current economic climate, and this is after it got competitive after the industry went international.

If I have two equal candidates before me, one with a college degree and one without, I’ll always take the one with the degree. It shows the ability to show up on time and commit, even when you don’t want to. Two skills that can be very underrated.

The easiest/surest way into gaming remains programming, and it pays the best and typically has the best job security. Another way in is to make a mod or even your own game depending on our tech set. Having something tangible to demo will go a long way to getting you an interview. Portal started out as a mod, and look at it now.

Having great communication skills is important as well. And you have to be willing and able to keep up to date and try new things.

6. What is the best part of your job?

I have to call out three things.

I get to learn something brand new, in depth, every year or two. Not quite as cool as being George Plimpton, but pretty close. I’ve been immersed in a great deal of special forces training; I’ve directed music videos. I’ve been given sideline photography passes to everything from NASCAR to NBA and MLB. I’ve raced cars, flown airplanes, climbed mountains, learned to SCUBA, and visited other countries, all in an effort to make better games. In addition to all of that, the games’ paradigms change as we learn our medium, so we are always tested and pushed to try new designs and art styles.

I get to work with creative, passionate people. Because of, or in spite of, how hard the work can be, the people in the industry all want to come to work every day. That makes a day go by very quickly.

I get to play games for a living/I am getting paid to do my hobby.

7. What is the worst part of your job?

There are a few things: I get to play games for a living, but it is the same game, every day, for a year, while it is broken…

90% of my job is being rejected. Ideas rejected by publishers, milestones rejected, internal ideas, etc. I’m thick skinned and I know not to take it personally, so the rejection doesn’t bother me in all but the rarest of circumstances. But what I don’t like is that by not taking it personally, it makes it harder to enjoy the positives.

The trick is to learn from the rejections, adjust, know when to really hold your ground, know when you are actually wrong, and know when to lose the battle to win the war. One of my rules of thumb is if arguing about a task is going to take as long as doing the task, just do the damn task.

Lacking any better segue, here are my other 3 rules of thumb.

Never have issues on your project. Issues are talked about. Only ever have problems. Problems are solved.

Your Mom is her own rule of thumb. The rules of the game need to be clear enough that Your Mom can understand them. If you are going to change something, the difference should be big enough that Your Mom could spot it to make it worth doing.

Lead from the front, that one I learned from Dick Maricinko. Too many game producers and executives don’t play, understand, or even like games. They simply work off a set of checklists/project files/calendars, and they could be building mini marts or a new brand of soap as far as they care. Business decisions have their place, but Games are an art form, and they should be nurtured and respected as such by teams who want to make games.

8. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

There have been times in the past when the work/life balance has been horrible. But as I’ve gained more experience and learned to build better teams around me, and I’ve learned to say “no,” that hasn’t been the case of late. On my last 3 games, I don’t think I’ve had to work more than 3 or 4 weekends per year. I try and make use of my commute time, doing paperwork and correspondence on the bus rides to and from work, freeing up more time at home.

Team members with families are usually motivated to come to work, stay on task and go home. Younger team members without families have more freedom to experiment. It is good to have a mix on the team. The second best piece of advice I ever got: the only thing worse than working on a Saturday is having your family call you at work on a Saturday, asking when you are coming home/why you aren’t home already.

Henry Ford didn’t give his workers 40 hours a week because he was such a kind and magnanimous person. He did that only after long experiments in his factories with 6 and 7 day work weeks, 8 to 12 hour work days. He reached the idea of a 40 hour, 5 day work week because he found that was the most productive/efficient way to make automobiles. Longer working hours actually cost him money in mistakes and absences.

Short sprints of crunch time are needed to hit deadlines in games because not all the pieces get done until the end of the project. But repeated, prolong crunch times lasting months are signs that a project is in trouble. Typically in these situations, the changes that are made make the game different, but not better.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

The biggest misconception is that we need ideas for a game. Just as movie producers get pitched movies at the car wash or vet’s office or grocery store so do video game producers. We don’t need game ideas; we all have tons of game ideas we’d love to make.

Another misconception is that I get showered with free games. Sorry, I have to buy games just like everyone else. Often the publisher doesn’t even provide us with copies of the games we developed for them.

10. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?

The anecdotes I’d love to share….sigh…It’s a small biz and some secrets are best locked away. Even though they make awesome stories.

But some of the anecdotes I can share.

Every game I make, I go out and buy a retail copy and play it. At least the first few levels. Typically it can be 6-12 weeks since I last played the game in-between when we send the game off and when it shows up on the shelves (or ready for download). Or if it is a multiplayer game, I’ll go online and see what people are doing and if they are having fun and what we can do better next time. I also check to see what last minute changes may have been made to the manual, see if our names were spelled correctly, etc. This was driven home to me when one of the games I worked on was released with blank CDs in the box. I bought a copy and tried to install it, only to find out the disc was blank, despite the silkscreen label. I returned it and got a new copy, same thing. It took me 48 hours to convince the publisher to look into the problem. Sure enough, every disc they sent out was blank.

When I was in Moscow visiting the cosmonaut training area, the retired officer doing the tour was training N. Vietnamese fighter pilots the same years my father was in South Vietnam trying to shoot them down with AAA.

On a SWAT training, I asked where I could safely put my camera to film when they set off the explosives. I duly put my tripod down where they said it would be safe and watched it get blown to bits. I took solace in the fact that I was much further away and safe.

I have been able to spend quality time with some interesting celebrities. Dick Van Dyke actually does computer animation, specifically stereoscopic 3D computer animation as a hobby. He and I traded tips and techniques for a few years. While we were having lunch, John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy creator) came over and joined us. After our trade show booth obligations were over, Tobin Bell (Jigsaw) and I traded tips on how to coach youth sports.

Of late, I have been leveraging my contacts as Hollywood and Gaming merge, and I have been able do my share of meetings and pitch my own movie ideas. Just like in The Player.


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