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
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
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