Meet Merric Shank, Video Game Associate Producer
Merric started out as a video game tester, and eventually grew his career into a Senior Producer. We’ve asked him to reflect on the several years he spent as an Associate Producer (abbreviated as AP or sometimes PA) to give you some insight into what it takes to land that job and build a successful career.
It’s worth noting that this advice applies to a PA job at a game developer, which is different than a PA job at a game publisher. There’s definitely some crossover, but a PA at a game developer works much more closely with the game team every day and often serves as the development team’s project manager.
How would you describe what you do each day as a Video Game Associate Producer?
All the various things a PA does in a week could probably fill a few paragraphs. This is a list of the big things that a PA will most likely be doing on a weekly basis:
- Giving feedback on the game. This isn’t just playing the game and writing down your ideas. You’ll be poring through the various documents so you know the game inside and out, and compiling other people’s feedback into useful action items.
- Working on the game schedule. In some cases you may be creating the schedule, but typically you’ll join a team where the schedule has already been created and it will be your job to keep it up to date. This will involve doing data entry, talking to team members and making sure that tasks get completed.
- Attending meetings. You will most likely be taking notes, tagging action items so they can get added to the schedule and then sending the meeting notes to the team.
- Facilitating communication and problem-solving. Problems often arise from team members not telling each other what they are doing or not asking clarifying questions. You’ll be spending a lot of your time making sure that people are simply talking to each other.
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How did you start as an Associate Producer?
I loved video games and while I was going to school for a psych degree, I learned that the school had a game design program. The program quickly taught me that I wasn’t a great programmer and I was a terrible artist. But I did notice that whenever there was a group project, I was the one getting everyone organized, creating plans, and filling in the gaps whenever it was necessary. In the middle of this I applied for a QA job and started working at Microsoft.
A few years and a few companies later, I was still in QA. But I made sure that my boss knew I was interested in learning more about production and that I was eager for more responsibility. After a while, I was given the opportunity to help out on a game – and after a successful trial run I was promoted to PA.
During my time as a PA I attempted to help out the producer as much as I could. I constantly asked to take more and more work off his plate, and the people above me became confident in my ability to do the work and lead a team. Since then I’ve been a producer working with a team of over 25 developers, and I’m now a senior producer.
What’s your favorite part of the job? What’s your least favorite part?
I really enjoy the creative part of the job. I get to influence the direction of a game and work with a bunch of really talented people to make something fun. There’s something very satisfying about seeing a game you made on store shelves or walking into a movie theater and seeing a total stranger playing a game that you worked on.
My least favorite part is the hours. I found that I was constantly working overtime, and the work hours increased when a project hit “crunch time.” Some companies are better about this than others but it can be a reality of the job.
What aspect of the job would be surprising to people looking in from the outside?
There’s the general belief that anyone in the industry spends their work day playing games, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ve found that, occasionally, people on the team don’t even play their own game. Or they only play the small part of the game they are working on. I’ve been in meetings where team members are handed the controller and they barely know how to play their own game.
What kinds of talents and personality does it take to succeed as an Associate Producer?
Communication. As a producer, you will need to be able to talk to anyone and everyone – from a young QA tester, to a veteran programmer, to a company vice president. You may be called on to prepare or give presentations, speak about technical aspects of the game, or give well-thought-out feedback.
Patience. You will bridge the gap between your team and clients, directors, other teams, and various stakeholders. It may be up to you to keep people motivated and make sure that everything is going according to the plan. You’ll get a lot of feedback (not all of it good) and then you’ll have to explain and deliver it to the team. You will have to get people with all types of personalities on the same page and working together, which is not easy. You will need to be calm, cool and collected in order to deal with the myriad problems the job will throw at you.
Microsoft Office. You should have a solid working knowledge of PowerPoint, Excel, Word and Outlook. You’ll be organizing feedback and combining information from various sources, so you should know how Track Changes works in Word. You’ll be organizing large amounts of data and numbers, so you should know how Grouping, Basic Formulas, Filters, Pivot Tables and Charts work in Excel. You’ll be asked to put together presentations, so you should know how to construct and present a properly-structured slideshow in PowerPoint. You’ll get tons of email on a daily basis, so you should know how to create Rules, .PST Data Files, Aliases and Meetings in Outlook.
Scheduling. Get to know the basics of various scheduling methodologies, take a look at some of the tools that they provide and learn how they should be set up. Every producer has their own way of scheduling so worry less about the little details – whomever you end up working with will have their own system that you will be learning and working in.
Listen and Learn. You’re going to be working with people who know way more about their field than you do. Being an AP is a great opportunity to learn all about code, art, production, audio, marketing, and other aspects of the game industry. By paying attention and learning from co-workers, you’ll be able to estimate how complicated a programming task is, how to help break down an animation schedule, and participate in design discussions and discuss technical issues with clients among other things.
Help Out. As an AP you’ll be asked to do all sorts of random tasks. In a single day you might be editing a spreadsheet, copying and pasting German text strings into your game, helping a team member break down their task list into an actual schedule, taking notes during a meeting, editing a video file – and then ordering dinner for the people working late. Be proactive and help people out. If something needs to get done then you’re the perfect person to make sure that it gets done.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s thinking about an Associate Producer job as a career?
Producers can come from all sorts of backgrounds. I’ve met producers with art degrees, English degrees, teaching degrees, programming degrees, and others – and they’re all great producers. Being a good producer starts with an attitude and is backed up by a variety skills that come from all sorts of disciplines.
You should learn how a game is made – you could read design books or even make your own game. There are a bunch of great tools out there to get you started. Learn how the iterative process works. Make something small and simple, play it, then make it better. Make something in Adobe Flash, or make a new level for your favorite game, or make a quest in the latest Elderscrolls game. Anything like that will help teach you about how games are made, but it’s also something you can put on your resume. It will make a great talking point during a job interview.
Understand the basics of programming. You don’t need to master C++, but having a basic knowledge of any programming language will be a huge help getting a job doing anything in the game industry. Again, there are a ton of tools out there and many of them are free. Any time you spend working on that will help teach you about how games work at their core.
Work on your “soft skills.” Take a class on public speaking, take a class on negotiation, be the leader of your next group project, or organize an event at your school. Take a composition class, because you’re going to be doing a lot of writing as a producer. Skills that you’re going to use can come from all over the place.
What would you recommend for education, books, or other learning to start as an Associate Producer?
I think Codecademy does a great job of making learning the basics of coding simple and fun. I had a good time going through their lessons.
Play a game that encourages creation and lets you go a little bit deeper than just a level editor. Little Big Planet or Project Spark come to mind.
Go make something. There are tons of tools and most are inexpensive or free. I know a few people who swear by GameMaker: Studio.
Find people to help you out. Depending on where you live, you or someone close to you probably knows someone who works in games. There are hundreds of gaming companies out there. Get in contact with them and take them out to coffee and pick their brain. Most of the people that I’ve met are more than happy to help out and are happy to talk to someone who wants to get into the game industry.
Alternatively, look for local game industry meet-ups in your area. A five-second Google search will turn up some websites that talk about game industry meet-ups in your area. Go practice your networking skills. Again, people who make games are friendly, I swear. 🙂
These are some books that I read and found interesting. I don’t know how much of the information was actually useful in the real world but I believe that the information gave me the confidence that I knew what I was doing – although looking back I’m pretty sure that I made most of it up as I went along.
- Exploring Scrum: The Fundamentals | read it
- Agile and Iterative Development: A Manager’s Guide | read it
- Leading A Software Development Team | read it
- Game Development and Production | read it
You can reach Merric through his LinkedIn profile. If you liked this interview, say “thanks” by sharing it on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.