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Grant Shonkwiler is a rising star of video game production, having worked on games including Doom, Wolfenstein: The New Order, and Fortnite. He joined Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft and news editor Alissa McAloon on the newly-minted GDC Podcast.
Shonkwiler, who recently joined GDC's advisory board and runs his own consultancy, Shonkventures, allowed us to pick his large brain about being an effective leader and producer. He also talked to us about going on sabbatical and becoming a farmer…Here are some highlights.
GDC Podcast music by Mike Meehan.
I think [a producer's role in regards to crunch] is about helping teams understand why it exists, more than it is to eliminate it. I think that is often a goal – “let’s eliminate crunch” – but what I can help [you do] is not just straight eliminate crunch, but help you understand why crunch exists.
...Usually [overwork] isn’t about deadlines. It’s about mis-scoping…you get to a point where you’re like, “I can’t cut anything.” Ok, but can we limit things just a little bit? Can we focus on things differently, and understand that? As producers, it’s our responsibility to make sure our team doesn’t have to crunch or overwork, ever. So if we get to a point where [our teams] are doing that, then ultimately we’ve failed. I know that can sound a little bit harsh…but we have to kind of stand up [to higher-ups] and say “No, this is the cost – the human cost – of what we’re doing, and here’s possible solutions and ways to work through that.”
The most important thing…is your communication skills. You have to be able to communicate with people at their level and in their language. I recommend all my junior producers to learn a little bit about coding, learn a little bit about design, art. I’m not asking them to become those things, but at least be able to speak the language.
I often tell them to do the thing I do, which is like, “I’m not a senior artist – can you explain to me like I’m five [years old] what mipmaps are,” or whatever it might be. You want start to progress to the point where you’re not interrupting meetings because you don’t understand. So communication is the first one.
The second one is just understanding that people are people, and that is ultimately our job. Our job is people first. So focus on people and make sure they have everything they need. Another thing I tell people when they become producers or junior producers is, “Congratulations, you’re now the lowest of the low.” People think producers are high up at companies because we’re the people doing a lot of [press] interviews and stuff. That’s actually because the important people can’t stop working to come do the interviews!
So I say our job is anything from getting coffee to making big decisions. And we do that for everybody, even if they’re considered more junior than us on the org chart. I tell people in a lot of ways, you’re a servant, you’re a butler, and you’re also a little bit of a camp counselor, because people come to you and complain.
Those are the core basics. If people can understand that, I can teach them how to be at least a decent leader…If you’re not a good communicator and you don’t understand people on a basic level, then you’re really going to struggle to be a producer.
The first common mistake that I see from people is this over-strict adherence to rules that they’ve created in their own brain. What I mean by that is like, “We have to be by the letter with scrum or agile, and we have to make sure that we’re doing this.” And that tends to be to the detriment of the team. If we go back to what I said are the core tenets of being a producer, which is about communicating and being this facilitator and a person who’s focused on people, scrum and agile tend to cause a lot of problems when they first come in, and people get angry and frustrated.
What I say is…we call it “beachheading” a new practice, where you take a small group of people, and you have them learn that practice, and they can change it based on your studio culture. Then they are your champions bring it out to the rest of the team. So that’s one of the main things I tend to see, is that people are like, “we decided to become agile, and here’s our super-strict ruleset,” and they bring it in and everything breaks, then everybody’s heads are on fire.
…The main thing that I usually help my clients focus on is making sure that the team understands why changes are being made, making sure the team understands the goals of that, and then making sure the team actually understands what they want out of these changes.
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