IGDA Toronto Producer Panel Stocked Game Industry Heavy-Hitters

The IGDA Toronto Chapter ran its final content event of the year last night before a final December social, when the reins are handed over from outgoing president Josh Druckman to incoming president Lesley Phord-Toy, a producer at the newly-minted Ubisoft Toronto studio.

Lesley Phord-Toy predicts the end of the world

Lesley writes the date of Armageddon on the whiteboard, when she will purge the world of the faithless through her righteous anger. Tickets available online or at the door. [thanks to Jason MacIsaac for these photos]

[Read my interview with Lesley Phord-Toy, IGDA Toronto Chapter’s new President]

Last night’s panel was stacked with three game production super-powers:

  • Alex Parizeau, Producer on Splinter Cell Conviction at Ubisoft)
  • Lesley Milner, Producer on Bioshock 2’s multiplayer feature at Digital Extremes in Toronto, and a former Relic employee
  • Rhys Yorke, Producer on The Secret World at Funcom, About a Blob with Toronto’s own Drinkbox Studios, and formerly of Marvel Comics.

the IGDA Toronto Chapter producers panel

From left: Rhys, Alex and Lesley.

My capsule review of the evening is that the panelists played very nice, were careful not to dish any dirt, and generally didn’t say anything too alarming, surprising, or even insightful for much of the hour and a half. i much prefer solo speakers to panels, because soloists can give very personal, opinionated lectures. Panelists have a real challenge, because they can only dole out their wisdom in bite-sized nuggets, and there’s this constant pressure to wrap up quickly so that others have a turn to speak. As a result, much of the content on the panels i’ve attended is safe, pleasant, and dull.

The panelists had a challenging room. Despite the IGDA being a professional organization, the audience, when polled, admitted that over half of the standing-room-only crowd were not making video games professionally. About 10% of the people in the room were producers of various stripes. This was a great panel for the folks in the room to learn what a producer was, and to learn about the responsibilities that come with the position. But for professionals seeking more insight, and producers wanting more take-aways and tricks of the trade, the content was disappointingly lightweight.

IGDA Toronto chapter crowd

The discussion may not have been as relevant for me, but it was a very large room filled with people of varying experiences and backgrounds. It was hard to gauge the efficacy of the talk. [Thanks to Lesley P-T for the photo]

i spoke with a colleague of mine whose producer pal said the panel was helpful in upholding staffing decisions they were considering. The panel revealed “nothing revolutionary”, but confirmed that they were on the right track with goals they were trying to accomplish.

For a very small business owner, a panel like this is a bit like a Cessna hobbyist hearing from three commercial airline pilots. But it was definitely good to hear the panel humbly admit that despite their massive teams and budgets, they didn’t have it all figured out, and still struggle with many of the same issues you’d have on much small projects. The plane still has to stay in the air, after all.

If you can stomach it, here’s a very rough transcript of the evening with each panelist’s responses, based on my amateur shorthand note-taking.

How do you divide your teams?

Alex: It depends on the game. I like to reduce dependencies between teams, and to create multi-disciplinary teams that can accomplish a piece of the project on their own.
Rhys: My teams are grouped according to discipline – concept artists, environment artists, animators, etc. Team sizes are from 8-10 people at their smallest, and 30 people at their largest.
Lesley: We take a hybrid approach of forming multi-disciplinary teams and specialists.

What is the size of your teams during different development cycles?

Alex: It depends. Pre-production is about 70-80 people. Concept phase has 40 people. Full-blown production is at about 200 people.
Rhys: Secret World was in pre-production for about 2 years. It started with a team of 5-8, and had reached 130 people by the time he’d left.
Lesley: Prototype phase is about 5 people. Pre-production is 20. Production is 60.

How do you decide what your team members work on?

Lesley: It’s mostly top-down. I supply tasks, and the team decides how to split them up (a good example is the concept art team). Programming is almost entirely top-down. Other teams can be self-directed.
Rhys: Top-down.
Alex: It’s a balance. Prioritized tasks come down from on high. The team is left to decide how to split up a task and tackle it. Giving the team input and autonomy like that increases morale.

Do you prefer Agile or Waterfall methodology?

Rhys: We used Waterfall, due to inertia. That’s the way it had always been done, so we continued in that vein.
Lesley: The AI group uses Agile, but the whole team is more of a mix. It’s Waterfall in general.
Alex: We try to create a generally Agile studio, but we have priority tasks that we know we must accomplish. If we don’t finish these, we can’t ship the game.

Does Scrum work?

Alex: Agile/scrum is common sense stuff. It’s a lot of confusing lingo to describe stuff we do anyway (e.g. stand-up meetings, prioritizing tasks).

Do you need a Certified Scrum Professional to train you?

Alex: I once talked to one, and I asked him how scrum works when you have 200 people. He drew a complete blank. He said you’d need to do a scrum of a scrum of a scrum of a scrum …
Lesley: I went through the same thing at Relic.
Alex: It’s not that tough:

  • Have a backlog of features
  • Give it to the team
  • Define what they’ll do in a 2-3 week sprint
  • Complete a task with measurable results
  • Remove any existing roadblocks
  • Hold daily meetings
  • Achieve your objectives

Rhys Yorke checks out Lesley's tats

While Lesley makes a point about Phord-Toy’ss megalomaniacal plans to destroy the Earth, Rhys surreptitiously checks out one of her tattoos.

How much authority do you have to hire and fire staff?

Alex: I have final responsibility for the project. I don’t make rogue decisions – I share a vision with my creative director Max.
Rhys: My role was advisory to HR – I wasn’t directly responsible for staffing decisions.
Lesley: We would hold operations meetings with the producers, HR, the company owner and the operations manager. Terminating someone is a pretty long process. I rely on my leads strongly for hiring recommendations, because I lack specific creative experience. I studied project management, not art.

What is your role as a producer?

Alex: Define a vision. Ship it.
Rhys: I ran meetings, I managed the Beijing team, I counseled the art team … (there was someone breaking down every week.) I kept the game director away from the team because he wanted to fire someone every week.
Alex: Job titles are a big problem. The role of a producer is different everywhere you go. There’s no consistency.
Rhys: My title was “Project Manager : Art”.
Lesley: At EA, Development Directors are producers, and Producers are actually designers.
As a producer, I oversee the entire project, liase with the publisher, give out tasks, remove roadblocks, give out coffee if people want coffee … i don’t do any design at all – that’s the Creative Director’s job.

What tools do you use daily?

Alex: Nothing ultra-fancy. Outlook, Excel, MS Project, Jira. Mind Manager works really well for mapping new ideas.
Rhys: Bugzilla, and Alien Brain for art assets.
Lesley: Excel, Jira, and a Confluence wiki for our game design documents. Anything but MS Project!

How do you handle time tracking?

Alex: We use Jira, but it’s a little like predicting the future. I’d have more luck calling up Jojo the psychic. I wish we did more in this area, but things change constantly. I have 13 years experience, but I feel like I should be a junior producer. Every time I work on a project, I need to re-think it. On each new project, you have to do better with more people.
Lesley: It’s definitely difficult to try to go back and learn from past projects. We use milestones. We have to predict the future in broad strokes. Everything’s different.
Rhys: I used to try to track time to the minute. Now I try not to sweat it.
Alex: Sometimes I wish I was in a job where I had a roadmap, like in film, where they know how long things will take.
Rhys: Or in construction. We’re in a young industry that is like film was in the 30’s and 40’s.
Alex: The most important thing, despite the change and the uncertainty and the volatility, is the people. Producers aren’t experts on anything. They rely on their people.

Are you more valuable as an employee the longer you stay at a company?

Alex: Outsiders can bring a lot of excellent experience and freshness to the group. We’ve built the Ubisoft Toronto studio with a lot of outside talent. I’ve learned more in the past 4 months than I have in the past 4 years.

What tools do you use to predict the future?

Alex: There are a lot of good psychics in Toronto.
Lesley: That’s not our job. We make the present go smoothly. I count on my leads to help me predict the future. I stick to milestones – broad stroked. I don’t want to promise anything I might not be able to deliver.
Rhys: Give the team ownership, and let your leads delegate responsibility.
Alex: It’s not about predicting the future, but one thing we’re getting better at is knowing where we need to be at the main gates of a project – measuring where we are vs. where we need to be.

Andrei Petrov

Many of moderator and fledgling producer Andrei Petrov’s questions presumed the panelists had Magic Producer Powers that Andrei could wield like the sorceror’s apprentice. Sadly, no such luck – there were no magic talismans or secret pieces of software that could make someone a better producer.

How do you deal with conflicting game design ideas from team members?

Alex: It’s important to stick to a clear vision.
Rhys: Design by committee never works. You have to make people feel respected even if you decide not to go with their idea.
Lesley: Weigh all ideas against your core goals. Remember what it is you’re trying to make.
Alex: Sometimes we’ll give an idea a shot, and allow for maybe a month of experimentation. This happens more toward the beginning of a project, not the end.

How do you determine the value/return on investment on a new feature?

Alex: There’s absolutely no way to do that.
Rhys: I was just told to “make it more like World of Warcraft, and we’ll be fine.”

Note: At this point, i shot up my hand and said that metrics-driven companies like Zynga would whole-heartedly disagree with Alex. Alex was enthusiastic about the direction metrics-driven design was taking, and admitted it’s more difficult to do that with boxed products, but pointed out that it’s becoming easier with downloadable content. He referenced the kind of ongoing maintenance that companies like Valve put into their products through digital distribution.

What can you tell us about overtime?

Rhys:I’ve found that buying people beer and pizza works quite well.
Lesley: We’ve had a revolt against pizza, but yeah – beer works. At our studio, OT is not mandatory, but sometimes you have to make it mandatory. (What in bloody Hell? – ed.) We run activities, special dinners, and parties to compensate the team. We offer time in lieu, and we shut down the studio between Christmas and the New Year.

How do you get people to work overtime?

Lesley: This industry is known for its long hours and OT. We hire dedicated, pro-active people who automatically put in OT because they’re passionate about the project.
Rhys: In Norwegian culture, people go home every day at 4 PM. It wasn’t unusual for me to stay until 10. It’s important to maintain morale, and to work with passionate people.
Alex: It’s a sensitive topic. We try to work with passionate people who love video games. It’s not just a job. People have to believe that their project is run well, managed well. I strive to be transparent with the team so that there are no surprises. You have to communicate. You can’t just spring crunch on people – you have to have a goal. OT cannot be mandatory. Some employees are students with no girlfriend and nothing better to do, and it’s nothing for them to put in the extra time. But other employees are at a different stage – they may have three kids, and have to arrange all week for Nana to pick up the kids and babysit them, and they can only put in that extra four hours.

When do you decide to pull OT, cut features, or push back on the client’s deadline?

Alex: It’s a judgment call. If you predict that a push will achieve your goal, do it. Otherwise, review it. You don’t always predict it accurately. If you let people down again and again with a push that doesn’t end up achieving your goal, you start to lose the trust of your team.

How do you recruit your leads? Are they usually internal or external?

Rhys: You need to take the time to get to know your team. We may promote someone who is not the best programmer or artist on the team, but he’s well-organized, confident, can communicate well, and holds up in a crisis.
Lesley: Leads must be well-rounded, and good communicators. We promote leads internally because trust is already there, and they’re already friends with the team. You don’t get that with an external hire.
Alex: We look for qualities of leadership, organization, good communication skills. We have three types of leads at Ubisoft:

  • Managing Leads – these people are well-organized
  • Technical Leads – they understand tech well and can teach it to others
  • Content Directors – they show good judgment and organizational skill

Organizational skill is very important for a lead.

How do you communicate with your team?

Lesley: It depends on who I’m communicating with. I use MSN, email, face-to-face time, team meetings, some ad hoc meetings, and I have weekly meetings with leads.
Rhys: For best results, I prefer to meet face-to-face.
Alex: I got this link from the IGDA Production SIG, and have been reading an article about how proximity improves communication.

Do you use middleware?

Alex: Yes. Havoc, ScaleForm.
Rhys: Yes. Havoc, SpeedTree. We write our own game engine, but we use middleware whenever possible.
Lesley: Yes. We have our own engine as well, but we do use middleware.

What was your biggest unexpected hurdle in your role as a producer?

Rhys: I didn’t know that managing hundreds of people wouldn’t be the same as managing a small team. I had no experience with that, and no background in business. I tried to micro-manage everything.
Lesley: Communication. I can’t name all the people on my team. I wish I could.
Alex: You start losing track. Things start out small, and then they grow and grow and grow, and suddenly one day it’s a few hundred people. It’s freaky. You think, “am I a bad manager?” It’s more like you’re building a business or an organization.

How to you keep from over-polishing a game to the point where you polish out the charm?

Rhys: It’s very difficult. Make sure you follow the Creative Director’s vision.
Alex: We never really have the problem where our product is too polished! Bigger games don’t tend to surprise people. It happens sometimes, but more risks are being taken by smaller indie studios – those games have charm – and then bigger games start to incorporate those ideas and innovations, in much the same way that indie movie ideas make their way into big blockbusters.

How do you incorporate testing and act on testing results?

Rhys: Test early and often.
Lesley: We do QA from day one. We get as many people involved as possible. We try to get fresh eyes on the game all the time. We put the game in front of friends, family, and focus testers.
Alex: We’re starting to put metrics in the code to replace purely observational playtests. We can figure out what people are actually doing in the game, and whether they’re favouring one weapon over another, or missing this or that pick-up or game area. It’s worked well.

When does audio come into play in your projects?

Rhys: Audio is the forgotten love child of the video game industry. You need to get audio in early.
Lesley: You need to consider audio from day one. It’s hugely important.
Alex: We solved the problem by hiring the tallest sound designer in the world, so you can’t ignore him. Get audio in early. We consider a whole sound strategy, instead of doing integration right off the bat.

Alex falls asleep

While Rhys reveals his findings about Lesley’s tattoo, Alex falls fast asleep.

By this point, time was up. We all got up and stretched our legs, and then about half of the attendees went across the street to crowd into the Elephant & Castle for a tall mug of sarsaparilla.

3 thoughts on “IGDA Toronto Producer Panel Stocked Game Industry Heavy-Hitters

  1. Bwakathaboom

    Correct me if I’m wrong but Digital Extremes is in London – so did Lesley travel from London to the Toronto IGDA? At least I hope I’m wrong because Shmalz (also of Digital Extremes) used to do the same thing.

    We have an IGDA chapter in London but it’s run by some guy with defunct website and no organization. It could really use the weight of, I dunno, LOCAL developers taking part rather than running off to Toronto.

    We could also use a Hand Eye Society chapter here but I won’t hold my breath on that happening.


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