Aaron Hamilton Cook is a United States Air Force veteran and has his Bachelor of Science in Recording Arts and a Master of Science in Game Design. He got his start in the military and medical simulation industries working on mostly SBIR contracts for organizations like ONR and AFRL before shifting his professional focus to game development. He has been a producer in the game industry for the past decade. In that time, he has contributed to a number of AAA titles including Dying Light, The Witcher 3, Halo: Infinite, and most recently Dragon Age: Dreadwolf. He has also worked on a number of games and products leveraging licensed intellectual property including, The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and James Bond. Outside of game production, Aaron spends a small portion of his time visiting Washington DC to speak with members of Congress about post-secondary education policy. In April 2023, Aaron was inducted into Full Sail University’s 13th annual Hall of Fame for his achievements in his career and his demonstrated track record of giving back and helping others. He spends his free time mentoring others and spending time with his wife and their dog Stryder.
Game development is a complicated beast. There are a vast number of concepts and topics to consider at any given moment. Priorities frequently shift. Technical hurdles are encountered regularly. The “Iron Triangle” creates a perpetual balancing act. Being an effective producer in the game industry at any level and on any project can require a lot of folks.
There’s an added challenge to cultivating a career as a producer in games. Every organization and studio leverages the role differently. The responsibilities and titles remain wildly inconsistent throughout the industry. Some studios will offer their staff a better title to make up for a lack of pay. Others will take a more conservative approach, delaying advancement in the title for as long as possible to avoid putting someone in a position where more is expected of them than they are capable of.
Regardless of how an organization, studio, or team leverages producers, there are typically four principles that will be prioritized in differing orders based on the needs of the business and its production ethos. People, Product, Problem Solving, and Process. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to prioritize which principles are needed from production staff, nor is there an incorrect way to prioritize them for any individual producer in question. However, It is beneficial if the organization and the producer are aligned on the order in which these principles are prioritized. Each concept often requires multiple years of study and practice to develop a fluent and personal approach.
Among the core responsibilities that producers are often faced with is that of leadership. There are a variety of theories on what makes effective leaders. Some posit that leadership is an inherent trait, something you are just born with. Others propose that leadership consists of skills that can be cultivated. Regardless of which theory someone chooses to subscribe to, leadership is quite often the keystone in building a solid foundation for one’s approach as a game producer.
Great producers are, at least to some degree, people-oriented. There are a number of styles and techniques producers employ to be effective at managing and leading people. Judy Nelson outlines a number of effective techniques and behaviors to employ to be effective as a producer in her book, “Intentional Leadership: Using Strategy in Everything You Do And Say.” Some of the key takeaways include conducting yourself in the same ways you would want your team to behave, providing examples of success with correcting undesirable behavior, and being proactive rather than reactive.
Learning how to improve at “people” is often deeply challenging and personal work. It involves developing a high degree of self-awareness, situational awareness, and empathy.
Some of the best producers are fantastic product owners. Product ownership, when viewed through the lens of an Agile development environment, ultimately boils down to priority ownership. Capable producers fulfilling product owner responsibilities will need to be effective in focusing a development team’s attention in the proper direction. This often requires an ability to communicate and clarify vision.
Producers often are the owners of roadmaps, timelines that outline what will be done, when it will be done, and by whom. This is where the practical day-to-day of product ownership comes into play. Producers need to gather estimates and work to ensure the accuracy of those estimates. Effective producers work to ensure there is an accurate predictable forecast for delivery timelines. There are a variety of methods to approach road mapping and timelines, but the most practical and broadly applicable method is through the use of Gantt charts.
Game industry professionals in production roles will always need to assist in problem-solving. In some development environments, producers can be leveraged as a floating resource bouncing between teams and disciplines facilitating communication, identifying problems before they occur, and developing solutions in partnership with the team to avoid or counter the problems looming on the horizon.
While not required, being data-driven as a producer helps immensely in problem-solving. It is often beneficial to analyze the project data at regular and frequent intervals to keep an eye out for problems in the various reports. Proactively addressing problems early is always more cost-effective than waiting. Great producers take the time to understand problems and work closely with the folks who will need to implement the solution to develop a proposal that mitigates risk and minimizes adverse impacts on the schedule and the product.
Process ownership adopts a variety of different names. Strictly Agile development environments call these folks Scrum Masters. Under a more traditional waterfall environment, they might be project managers. Sometimes process owners are called business analysts or development directors. Some organizations partner with process ownership with product ownership. Regardless of the studio culture and production philosophy employed, anyone in a production role benefits from understanding process management.
The two main camps in game development, and in software development more widely, are Agile Scrum and Waterfall. In reality, most studios employ a hybrid model borrowing from each other based on business needs. In addition to managing the process for day-to-day development, process ownership often involves a degree of managing gate reviews, scope versus capacity, and data integrity. Employing systemic solutions and agreed-upon approaches are at the core of process management.
Process-owning producers will need to define service-level agreements and work to generate buy-in so that everyone on the team has the same understanding and same application of the process that they often help define and refine. Often this requires a piecemeal solution from a variety of methodologies, models, and past experiences to create the right process for the team, project, product, and business.