Jack Ward Fincham is a Senior producer at Chunk Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Before that he was an Assistant Producer at Stainless Games where he worked on Wizard’s of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering 2012. He received a screen BAFTA nomination while still in university and graduated from the university of Abertay Dundee in Scotland in 2008. During a trip to Holland to give a guest lecture at NHTV’s International Game Architecture and Design course he took some time to explain the somewhat confusing field of game production, branded entertainment as well as his views on game education and entering the job market. He is joined by Andy Sandham, Lead designer on Magic: the gathering 2012 and lecturer at NHTV’s IGAD course.
Jack Ward Fincham and Andy Sandham
Elroy Aarts: What would your description be of what a producer does in the game industry?
Jack Ward Fincham: Okay so.. that’s a really tough one, because a producer does a different thing on each product as well as each game studio around the world. Some producers are like project manager, who are just focused on getting all the tasks done, on making tasks on tracking changes in the game design document. And you have producers who are focused on the clients side, on making sure that the clients happy at all times, the right amount of communication is being put out and that if anything is going wrong that there’s somebody that can barrel into it and go: “Okay, right.. Stop. You and you, two guys, lets get together and sort this out”. Because we’re talking about people who are under huge amounts of pressure so sometimes it can be quite difficult to get people moving when they’re under that kind of pressure, they almost get frozen by it. Even the absolute best people, even the producers themselves sometimes are. And the best thing is to just grab people and be like: “look we have got to get this sorted and it’s going to be sorted today because the client is expecting it today”.
So you got two very different types of producers who both hold the name producer. Additionally you’ve got different tiers of producer. A lot of places have junior producers who are essentially almost like coffee boys, they make sure the production team has everything it needs and they do a lot of printing, copying, writing of notes, stuff like that. Because this gives them an idea of how everything works before they move up to become an associate or assistant producer, which is a misconception that these two types of producers are subordinate to a producer, because assistant and associate producers will work on their own without any real oversight. Yes, they are still in training to an extend but I know guys who are 45 who are assistant producers until very recently because they were just really good at supporting production in that capacity. They were really good at the internal stuff, like the tasks management and those sorts of things and maybe not so great with clients, but they embraced their position and they went on with that so i think that’s a whole other job that you can do simultaneously. The producer itself can be quite broad but i’d say a producer has to be the person that’s in charge of making sure the product that comes out in the end is the product that the client is going to be happy with. That does not mean that he is in charge of the development team and a producer should never see himself as above everybody. The simple fact is that, you as a producer, are there to support development and makes sure that it happens the right way, that everybody is happy and at the end of the day the right game comes out there won’t be many times where you will happy to assert yourself as “No look, actually, we have to do it my way”. In fact that’s the wrong thing to do in almost every situation. And then above producers there are executive producers or game directors, they will be involved with the client because quite often they have previously run the project at a producer level, or they are at a higher position within the company so they are involved in all client relation and an executive producer makes sure that the team is up-to-date and the client is up-to-date on what the team is doing. They will always have high level tasks and then they have complete faith in the team as the client does. A producer obviously has to know how to schedule and he needs to know how to balance tasks, because when he is looking at the information of the product he needs to know how to read it. But the further you get up, the less of that you will be doing day-to-day and the more of it you’ll be doing at the start of the project. As a full producer you’ll essentially be involved in a lot of high level “this is when things should be coming online” and “when new features should be going in” at the beginning of the project. And then stepping back from the day-to-day scheduling to be more involved in milestones and making sure that those are going out. And being essentially a leader for a team, there is a huge component to being a producer that has to do with charisma and leadership. And if you are sitting in your office with your headphones on with a copy of Microsoft project, you’re not speaking to anybody and the only thing you do is email them.. yeah you might succeed as a producer, the game might actually be pretty good, but it would, to me, feel strange to be in a position as leader of the project and not speak to people. Producer is not a position that a lot of people get into, its very much that people have to be outspoken and you need to listen and all those things, but they also have to be very measured and careful of what they say.
Andy Sandham: Yeah, i always mention during the lectures that in regards to design, I always had problems getting information across to the coders. I would go straight to Jack, as he was project manager, so that he could get information out of me which he would pass on to the coders so that I could continue on with what I was doing. Because sometimes I simply had problems communication with programmers and Jack, and producers in general, are trained to deal with those kinds of situations. A really good producer does that, he takes the burden of clear communication between departments off the development team.
Elroy Aarts: Do you thing the client-side job of a producer is more present in branded entertainment?
Jack Ward Fincham: I differs from project to project, what it mostly depends on in branded entertainment is educating the client as best you can. Now that is something that in the game industry we are to working with publishers who know about games and we take that for granted. If you work in almost any other industry you have got to assume your client will want something, but won’t necessarily understand what they are asked for. Like in web design for example, clients don’t understand what they are asked for, they just want a product that’s good and does all the things they need it too. So its a lot of analyzing their requirements. Now they client side will come into the fore if you’re working on a particularly big brand or if you’r working on a particularly challenging brand, those will involve a lot of throwing information around, a lot of pitching of ideas and concepts, and getting verification and approval of things which can be a nightmare sometimes but at the end of the day you’re making sure that they are happy. You have got to make sure they’re happy. When you work for a publishers in a more traditional game relationship, I think that some publishers almost take advantage of the fact that they know so much about games and they will force a studio down a particular route. At a publisher, a producer there can want to see something done in a particular way, and unfortunately you can be put into a position where you can’t get around that as a studio. I’m not saying that is the norm in the game industry, but it is something that can happen. So you don’t have the same sort of challenges, its very different working styles.
Elroy Aarts: Is a basic form of psychology useful for a producer?
Jack Ward Fincham: Psychology is a really dangerous thing. Because people can often realize quite early on if you’re trying to use psychology against them, especially if you’re not very good at it. And it takes a long time to be good at it. What you can do is, over years and years of experience, is build up a knowledge base of how each individual person works best and also how teams react to certain situations. That experience is essentially psychology because you can predict how things are going to happen and try and work around that, which is the best thing to be doing. Recognize what type of person an individual is an knowing how to deal with that is possibly one of the key abilities to being a producer. I won’t always be quick, people can take time to come out of their shell when you start working with them, but really understanding someones strengths and weaknesses professionally, how they react to different stimuli. During the lecture i gave an example of a guy who was in quite late a couple of weeks ago, and i had to send him home because he is just so driven that way. And you have to understand that if you let him do it he will burn himself out. So its about taking care of people as well as taking care of the project. And psychology should always be used for good, with great power comes great responsibility.
Elroy Aarts: How did you transition from university graduate to being a producer?
Jack Ward Fincham: I had the screen BAFTA’s nomination on my C.V. which was useful to talk about. Without bragging too much i could take a lot of credit on what came out there, as could everybody because it was a small team and all of us put in a hell of a lot of work. What I can say is that being personable and being chatty but knowing the limit to when you should keep talking can really help. I only had one interview to get into the game industry, I went down and I talked about growing up playing golf, my love for rugby, my love of snowboarding and sky diving. I say my love for sky diving, but I was more involved in sorting out drinking expeditions for the guys so wasn’t a particularly good sky diver. But yeah, just kind of going through that and finding the thing that the interviewer reacted too, thinking okay I’ll push on that. It really helped that he was asking questions that helped me pick myself up. So when he asked me questions I could sell myself on. My personally helped, because the director at that studio had recognized that I would work really well with the producers he had, and that was what he needed. So i was lucky in that instance, I was incredibly naive about what the industry was going to be about and like. But I was very grateful for the opportunity that he gave me because he did take big risk on hiring me. Taking on a graduate student is always a big risk, but they know that ultimately it really can be worth it. So i can say that being diligent and making sure you’re not just sending hundred C.V.’s to everybody and expecting them to get back, make sure you got good stuff on you’re C.V. that your show-reel is valuable.
Andy Sandham: I always try to push something like this with the students, because we’ve had a few interviews and we’ve all practices interviewing each other. Recording yourself is also really helpful if you want are not that good at interviews.
Jack Ward Fincham: I think everybody was quite surprised during the guest lecture when I told them how long an interview in the game industry can take. It can take up to 4 hours straight, which can be really intensive. But when you really start talking knowledgeably about a subject, it does take a long time to get very complex points across. And what you’re showing is that you can’t just say the point but you actually understand why it is that way and you made some deductions based on that. That’s the key to it, its like i said to you guys. Its the basics, that’s why you go back to mentor people because you’ll understand those basics even better than when you experienced them before. You develop from them and make sure you execute them.
Elroy Aarts: You see a lot of new game educations rising all across Europe, what do you think the benefits of education are to the game industry?
Jack Ward Fincham: That’s an interesting question. Game education, on a whole, has to improve. But what I’ve heard of NHTV university here in Breda is really impressive. The things that they’ve got you guys doing and the facilities they put at your fingertips, the knowledge base that they give. I mean they’re hiring people like Andy Sandham, I mean.. Andy worked on bloody Tomb Raider. 10 years ago Andy, or Andy’s equivalent, who worked on something on the Atari i guess, did not come and work at a university. He doesn’t teach, he goes and swans off and lives off the fact that he worked on that game. So universities like NHTV are getting guys in who really know their stuff. I mean, Brian Beuken’s a lecturer at NHTV as well, and he’s been in the industry for an unbelievable length of time. I mean Brian worked on games that Andy played when he was a kid. It’s actually ridiculous, the man has decades of experience and that man has come to teach at a university because, not only are universities hiring guys to teach students, they’re saying to guys like Brian and Andy, “Hey come and really part your knowledge”. One of the problems a lot of other universities have is that they’ve got people who never worked in the industry. And one of the problem that you kind of will come up against is that game education, I think people believe, especially with coding and stuff, that really a computer science degree had been better or straight straight up programming instead of just game programming. But you really have to come in and show the skills that you cultivated are there, and a lot of companies don’t know how to test that knowledge. The grand scheme of things is that education on a whole is getting better, because it has to get better. And as its getting better, as people are getting more invested in it, companies will thrust it a lot more. The industry has changed fundamentally, and is still changing, from being guys who picked up consoles for the love of programming and doing these things to people who come in and a just looking for a career in games. There are a lot of guys who have been worked for 20+ years in games, they started out just doing it because it was something to do. Didn’t really have much else to do so they turned it into a career. Whereas you students are saying, I’ve done, I’ve studied, I’ve trained. In broad strokes the education will get better and then the reputation of education will get better. But it will take a year, every time it gets better it will take a year for the reputation to reach that level again. Because companies need to see this, students that are coming in and showing all the great stuff that they’ve done over the courses of their education, rather than “oh I went to university and they told me about game design and than I played with unreal and than I had a copy of Photoshop and now can I come work at your game company?”.
Andy Sandham: Yeah we had that at Stainless, where new graduate programmers came in at relatively high level positions, which was unheard of 5 years ago.
Jack Ward Fincham: Well, that’s because the industry is creating a level into the job market from education. You know, this graduate program level, because a couple of years ago or ten years ago you got a job because you knew somebody. And you’d have a couple of pints and maybe test some games and they’d be like “Oh you can do programming as well? Well, what would you do in this situation? Oh that’s a pretty good idea, why don’t we give you a job”. And then it went to “Oh we’re all professionals. We don’t need young students, we’re a closed industry. They could prove yourself in software development before you can come work in games”. Nowadays its opening up a bit more but it has not lost that professionalism. There’s this graduate level that exists now for students at university like NHTV, for people who can come in and, as I said before, you will be learning from the day you turn up. And you will feel like you learn more in the first few month’s in a game company than you did in your 4 years at university. But its all about adjustments and adaptation, it doesn’t mean your education wasn’t worth anything. What it means is that university gives you a great toolset that when you do have to adjust, you can do it gracefully, professionally, quickly. That you come out of every challenge you’re faced with and go “Yes what’s next”. Because you guys are given that attitude while you are here. From what I’ve seen at NHTV, you guys work pretty damn hard for your degrees, and that’s something that other game educations across Europe need to improve on. People should be working damn hard for their degrees because it will prepare them for the game industry, which requires you to work long hours and its expected you deliver your absolute best, not just today, but every day.
Elroy Aarts: You said you worked 7 days a week for 8 weeks straight during crunch time, how do you cope with that stress?
Jack Ward Fincham: Well , I’ll tell you what’s a really bad idea. Giving up some of your favorite things right at the beginning of that and then not being able to eat or drink properly during crunch. That’s a terrible idea, who would have done that…? Crunch.. yeah there is a psychological factor, you will eventually burn out. But the coping mechanism isn’t actually the problem if you have a love for the product that you’re on. If you don’t necessarily the product you are working on, well.. first of all why are you still working on it? Go work somewhere else, because somebody will be in love with the project you are working on. I mean, I don’t say dump your employer but make sure that you’re making active steps to enjoy your job. Because that’s really important. We didn’t get into the game industry to work on stuff we didn’t like. But.. yeah, crunch can become a big psychological drain. Dealing with it, anyway you can, the most important way is that if there are people working as hard as you are, or harder than you are, put them first. In my case, that is actually what gets me through it. These other guys are coming in and doing this so I’d better be in to do it with them, because they are doing the crunch for me and for the project that they love. So if they’re in then I make sure I’m in as well, and I make sure that they are fed and watered and that when they want to take a break, that there is somebody for them to talk too, that they feel like they’ve got a bit of a social life and stuff like that. Even if the best you can do is knocking off at 7 O’clock and head for the pub on some nights. It all boils down too, I Mean my coping mechanism makes sure everyone else is coping, but how they cope with the crush is different for every individual. What I’m saying is that you won’t discover it until you have been through it a couple of times. You will be able to put your finger on what it is that keeps you going and in a certain instances you will not be able to keep going. Your mind will almost break out and rebel, and that’s when you need to start assessing like, “Alright, I’m burning out here. A burned out employee isn’t good for any company what do i do?”.
Andy Sandham: I did recognize that after having gone through a bunch of crunches you do get a feeling of a really strong team spirit within the development team. You kind of shift from the way you were originally to everybody supporting everybody else and it becomes a sort of union that keep everybody going and stops individuals from going mental.
Jack Ward Fincham: The weird thing was, after I came off this, I mean having a weekend, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was doing work for a project last week and my boss comes up to me and says “Look Jack you’re exhausted. You’ve been working like a dog, take a couple of days off, give the guest lecture in Breda but just take a couple of days off before you go”. So at home I sat down and started playing Mass Effect and 40 minutes into it I started thinking to myself, I probably should be going to bed. And then I realized that it was 9 O’clock in the morning. Because the only time I played a game in 2 months has been for 40 minutes before bed, and its this weird thing, though you do adjust to it quickly. I actually find it harder to adjust back to having free time.
Elroy Aarts: Last question, in 5 or 10 years, will you still be a game producer?
Jack Ward Fincham: Ehm I don’t know. All I can say is that you’re never certain of where you’re going to go. My family has got a really strong media background, one of the reasons I’m changes jobs in a few weeks is because I want to see more of that side of it, a company that has both the traditional advertisement media and the game side to the company. And I don’t know maybe in 5 or 10 years time I will stay at that company but run across to advertisements for a while and see what that is like. But what I can say is that I can’t see myself wanting to leave a position where I’m working with clients and educating and working with clients is what I really enjoy. The only way I would like a situation like that is to do what Andy’s doing now, where I would become a lecturer at a university. Because lecturers actually treats you guys like clients, where I would be able to work through ideas and concepts with students. I mean, what I’ve seen at NHTV the last couple of days has been incredible, the amount with which it overlaps with what i do day-to-day in my job is incredible but I’d be able to meet lots of different people instead of working with the same four faces over and over again. So I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years time, hell I don’t know where I’ll be in 2 years time, But I’m sure that whatever it is its similar to what I’m doing now because I really enjoy it.