How To Become A Video Game Product Manager

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This interview is part of the Quest for Your Career series. We focus on each specific job in the video game industry by interviewing an expert in the field. Learn what they do, how they got started, and whether it's a good job for you.

Big Data isn't just a buzzword - it makes games more fun.

Diana analyzes data from millions of players to make games more fun

Meet Diana Hsu, Video Game Product Manager

Of all the jobs in games, the Product Manager might be the newest. Forged in the rising popularity of online and free-to-play games, Diana Hsu is among the first generation of “digital native” product managers: She’s shipped several titles in her career, none of them boxed products, all of them online 24×7.

And it’s exactly that “always online” nature of modern games that enables the Product Manager to work her magic. Always online means there’s always a stream of big data coming in from millions of players – and somebody has to make sense of it all. Somebody who can filter the data through a rare mix of talent in game design, human factors, psychology, and economics, and use it to improve the live game. That person is Diana Hsu.

We’re talking to Diana today to learn how she got started, what she does at her job every day, and find out whether being a Product Manager in video games might be a good job for you.

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What exactly does a Video Game Product Manager do every day?

As a product manager working on free to play games, I’m responsible for the business goals of my games. This means defining a strategy to achieve “key product indicator” (KPI) goals – such as the percentage of people who install the game and then return the next day – and working with the game development team and other stakeholders to achieve product requirements.

What I do on a day-to-day basis depends on what stage of development a game is in. When a game has already been released and people are playing it, I look at game data on a daily basis to determine how successful previous updates have been, and to inform what the game team’s future business priorities should be.

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When a game is early in its development lifecycle, I’m focused on defining a product strategy that will give the title its best chance of being successful out in the market.

Although it varies based on the team, I usually work most closely with the game’s producer to schedule upcoming features, and with the game’s designers to design upcoming features.

How did you start out as a Video Game Product Manager?

For my first job out of college, I created puzzles for a Facebook game. That led into a production job working on free to play MMORPGs.

There were two parts of that job – production (scheduling releases and being the main point of contact for overseas developers) and product management (responsibility for achieving the game’s business goals). I was more drawn to the product management part of the job, which led to my first product manager job in the mobile game space.

What’s your favorite, or least favorite, part of Product Management?

“It’s awesome to see all the hard work come to fruition and have evidence that it’s having an impact!”

My favorite part of the job is keeping the development team updated on how their work has positively changed the game for players. It’s awesome to see all the hard work come to fruition and have evidence that it’s having an impact!

I don’t know if I have a least favorite part, but sometimes I need to choose between exciting, creative ideas, and other features that will have a more positive impact on the game’s other metrics.

What parts of the job would people find surprising?

Something that might be surprising for the average person is that a product manager makes most major decisions about a free to play game’s direction based on data about how players interact with the game. Although certain choices may seem random to a player, a product manager needs to have solid information to base their decisions on.

What special talents does it take to succeed as a Product Manager?

“A Product Manager must use data and research to make decisions about a game’s direction, over and above personal opinions or ego.”

Personality-wise, you need to be the kind of person who’s both eager and comfortable taking ownership of a game, and can think rationally about how to make it successful. This often involves using data and research to make decisions about a game’s direction, over and above personal opinions or ego.

A Product Manager must use data and research to make decisions about a game’s direction, over and above personal opinions or ego.

A background in statistics is helpful. Good communication and negotiation skills are important, as the job involves working with several different business groups (for example engineering, design, and marketing) in order to make your game successful.

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What advice would you give to students thinking about Product Management as a career?

I was an economics major, but that’s certainly not the only path. Most of the product managers I know have some kind of quantitative background, such as statistics, finance, economics, or computer science.

Some game PMs I know used to be SaaS (software as a service) PMs, others came out of MBA programs, and others were game producers, programmers, or designers – they moved into product management by showing initiative in owning a game’s business goals.

What education would you recommend to start down the Product Manager career path?

The industry moves very quickly, and free to play games is a relatively new area, so there isn’t a big lexicon of literature on the topic. To follow the latest industry trends, I’d recommend gameindustry.biz and gamasutra.com.

I recommend playing lots of free to play games with a critical lens. What makes these games work? Why do people like them? How do they encourage players to stick around and want to spend money? What are the core game loops?

Diana can be reached via her LinkedIn profile. If you like to share cool info with friends, please share this interview using the buttons below.

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