Special Inside Irrational Edition: An Interview with SWAT Producer, Sara Verrilli

Those of you who know what a game producer does, please raise your hand. I'll tell you a secret---I didn't really know either, and I wanted to find out. For years now I have seen SWAT 4 producer Sara Verrilli running madly around the office. Some days she looks stressed, some days she looks elated but she always looks very busy. Either she has perfected this look to discourage people like me from asking her questions or she is working extremely hard! I grabbed her earlier this week and decided to get to the bottom of things:

What is the overarching role of the producer in game development?

I think my short answer would be---whatever needs to get done. The producer is the go to person for a project, working with the team leads to make sure that all the departments are getting what they need from each other and from any outside contacts as well. As the internal producer at Irrational, I'm also the primary contact for our publisher, working with their producers to make sure that they understand what we are doing, and making sure that their concerns get relayed to the IG team and fulfilled. And, when the inevitable conflicts arise, whether among team members, departments, or between the developer and our publisher, it's the producer's job to find a solution that both sides are willing to live with. A producer is also responsible for project planning, before, after and during a project --- drawing up the schedules, budgets, and figuring out appropriate personnel for the tasks to come.

Especially in a small company, producers can also serve as the project lead, providing a design vision and steering the design, art, and technical decisions on a project. For Swat 4, the team had a clear vision, and each of the leads (programming, design, and art) was in charge of their particular discipline.

What do you on a daily basis? Describe a typical day.

First thing, check my email. Actually, I spend a lot of time checking and responding to email, since that's where I find out if people have responded to the ten or twelve or twenty issues that I'm usually following up on. Depending on what needs to be done, I'll either start up a round of phone calls to people outside the office---most often, to the publisher's producer, to find out how things are going and what he needs. Then there's project reviews---talking to the developers and leads on the project, making sure things are going as planned, checking the bug list for any critical problems, checking the task list to make sure things are getting done---and if not, figuring out ways to deal with any upcoming problems. Sometimes I feel like the evil Mistress of Meetings, since most problems need two or three heads in the same place at the same time, and most developers (including myself!) would rather be working on problems than talking about them. But for a lot of issues, one half hour meeting really is more efficient than two hours spent wondering what the lead programmer actually wants. I spend a surprising amount of time scheduling meetings, and then getting everyone there. Then, with the copious free time left, there's actually playing the game, so that I can give my opinions on it and get a genuine feel for how it's going.

Are certain types of projects more or less desirable from a production standpoint?

I'd say anything that involves more involvement from outside the development house---projects with publishers who have very strong opinions about their IP, and who want to have a lot of control over the design and artistic development of a project---are the hardest to manage. While all projects should have a review process, having someone out of house worrying about what shade of green a particular creature's leg is can really stifle the team's creativity, and it's the producer who has to keep things running smoothly on both sides of the fence.

How does one end get into producing as a career?

Well, there are several paths. Most producers in the game industry come up through development teams, often serving as a design or programming lead before moving into a team leadership position. Some of them come from other industries where they usually have extensive project management and communications experience.

What kind of educational/work background is desirable and/or helpful for the job? What skills are useful for the position?

Practical experience in developing games is invaluable as it gives you a good understanding of what the team needs to do and how a project works. Degrees in computer engineering and experience as a programmer are very useful for better understanding of the technical problems. Knowledge of project management is a must since producers need to be able to schedule realistically, even under pressure from publishers and sometimes your own management to 'get it all done for less.' Most important of all, a producer has to have good communication and mediation skills---a producer spends a lot of time hammering out compromises with the publisher, with other people in the company and with the team members at all levels.

What is the most satisfying aspect of the job?

Two things, really. One is coming up with a great solution to a tricky problem. Not that they're my solutions, generally, but working with a pile of super creative people to solve a problem is dynamite. The other is actually getting to see a finished game and watching the testers and the developers enjoying it, even after they've been working on it for months! That's when you know you've got a great game!

What do you find most frustrating?

Limitations. For every feature that goes out the door just the way the designers wanted it, there are four more that got compromised and squashed down or rewritten to make them more technically feasible or to make the schedule, or to allow a more important feature to be polished. A lot of times, as the producer, you end up feeling like the Grinch, since you have to tell the team, Yes, I know that's the way it OUGHT to work, but there's just no way it CAN. And, if there was infinite money, infinite time, infinite resources, well, then it all could get done, but there isn't. It's difficult to play the bean-counter for a brilliant, hard working team.

-- Meredith Levine