Home Breaking into the Industry Advice from the Trenches: Smart Video Game Production

Advice from the Trenches: Smart Video Game Production

Many people have a strong desire to make games, but don’t know exactly what that means.  Enter the video game producer, the person who is in charge of making sure a game launches.  These guys know what it takes to run a team, and they have many different strategies on how great teams can make great games.

Steve Jaccaud

This month I interviewed Steve Jaccaud, who last worked on The Sims as an Agile Product Owner (more on that below).  He gives his advice on how to run smart, efficient teams.

Deborah: Can you describe your career path from first job to now?

Steve: After years of web development product management, I decided to transition to the games industry. I started my career unglamorously in 2004 by play testing dozens of games like Hitman, SOCOM and Rachet & Clank for a bunch of Silicon Valley companies.  I made a ton of contacts and landed a QA Tester gig at Electronic Arts, testing games like Tiger Woods, Battlefield, Batman and Lord of the Rings.

Within about three years I was managing coordinated test efforts.  From there, I transitioned to a small R&D project in The Sims division in 2009. Because this team was truly self-organizing and cross-functional, I embraced the role of Scrum Master as another means to directly improve quality. As the team and product grew, I dusted off my product management background and officially transitioned to the role of Agile Product Owner (Producer).

Deborah: What is Agile and Scrum?

Steve: In my own words, Agile Software Development references a set of values and principles that address some of the problems in software development: harnessing change, delivering working software incrementally, and frequent reflection/adaptation. I see it as more of a guiding philosophy – you don’t “do” agile, you “become” agile. This sounds a bit new-agey, but when you get a whole team practicing with Agile, it’s amazing what they can do.

Scrum is a prescriptive framework that’s congruent with Agile principles. If Agile is the philosophy (the why), then Scrum is the playbook (the how). In Scrum, everyone has a symbiotic role on the team that fosters continual improvement. Through learning, trust and reliability, Scrum creates the environment where self-organizing teams can make better things and in better ways.  There are many facets to Scrum, so check out sites like scrumalliance.org for more info.

Deborah:  What are common mistakes teams make when creating a game?

Steve:  One mistake I’ve seen many times is a team not staying as small as they can, for as long as they can. There’s a tendency for big game publishers especially to throw more people at a project in an effort to “speed up.” Unfortunately, this often has a compounding effect on things like managerial overhead, higher defects, loss of productivity due to on-boarding, communication breakdown, etc. It’s like stuffing more people in your car in the hopes of getting over the bridge faster.

I also think some teams fail to prioritize quality into their game or think there will be plenty of time for cleanup later. They treat quality as a definitive phase to be tacked on at the end after all of the sexy, back-of-the-box features are developed. Quality is everyone’s responsibility. This often means making hard choices between new features and “paying for” cleanup and addressing technical debt as you go.

Deborah: Do you have any advice for someone determined to work in games?

Steve: Try to be better by making things and people around you better. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO, a rock star engineer or the janitor. If you can make your co-workers lives a little easier, give more value to your customers or plug a small hole here or there, you’ll be someone that people want to work with or for. Ask people around you “How can I help you accomplish more today?” and you’ll notice people will infectiously do the same.

Also, always think critically and stand up for what’s right. My team and I nearly got fired for reporting a catastrophic DRM failure on a huge PC game that was about to ship in a few weeks. I stood in front of a room full of directors, managers and corporate security guys to challenge a ridiculous, unpublished policy that prohibited my contract test team from trying to crack their copy protection. If we hadn’t unwittingly hacked it, the game would have been on every torrent site within 5 minutes after launch. There was no way I was going to let that happen on my watch.

Oh yeah – don’t forget to have fun!


Deborah Fike’s Bio

Deborah Fike is a project manager and writer for video games.  She’s worked for the Disney Interactive Media Group, GarageGames, and InstantAction.  She is currently doing social media consulting.  Look her up at Avalon Labs.