The Crystal Habit Podcast: Episode 23

07 Ottobre 2013
Meagan Marie – Community Manager
Sam Goldberg – Assistant producer
Kam Zambel – Producer

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[Musical interlude]

Segment 1: Intro

MEAGAN MARIE: Welcome back, everyone. Thank you for tuning in to episode 23 of the Crystal Habit podcast. This month, we’re actually continuing our ongoing feature that offers up some practical advice about how to break in to the game industry. Last month, we went over a high-level overview of the industry and offered general advice. We spoke to our brand director, a senior producer, as well as a senior designer, and to our recruitment lead, so if you missed that episode, it has a lot of fantastic advice. I highly recommend going back and listening to it. This month, we are going to start breaking into specialties. The podcast this episode is going to focus on production. We are going to have an assistant producer, Sam Goldberg, as well as a producer, Kam Zambel, in to chat with you guys specifically about what it’s like to work in production when it comes to gaming. Enjoy the episode!

[Musical interlude]

Segment 2: Production.

MEAGAN MARIE: Thank you all for tuning in to episode 23 of the Crystal Habit podcast. As I promised, we now have two producers on the team at Crystal Dynamics, and they’re going to talk specifically about production and what it’s like to work in the game industry as a producer. So, I have Sam Goldberg, who is an assistant producer here. Hi, Sam.

SAM GOLDBERG: Hello there, Meagan.

MEAGAN MARIE: And I also have Kam Zambel.


MEAGAN MARIE: She’s a producer here also. So to provide a little bit of context to listeners, can you guys introduce yourselves first and then share a little bit of what production entails? We’re going to get into more of the detail as you go along, but what do you do on a daily basis? We’ll start with you, Kam.

KAM ZAMBEL: Let’s see. I’ve been in production for about 13 or so years. I started from the very bottom as assistant producer and worked my way up. Now I’m working here at Crystal Dynamics. As far as day to day, I spend a lot of my day just interacting with people, managing them, helping them facilitate on their goals, and putting out fires.

MEAGAN MARIE: Putting out fires?

KAM ZAMBEL: Putting out fires.

MEAGAN MARIE: Awesome. How about you, Sam?

SAM GOLDBERG: I was going to say, I couldn’t easily describe it in one sentence, but hearing Kam say “putting out fires” is a pretty good description. Every day is totally different. Some days I’m just ordering food for everybody and putting up builds. Sometimes I’m building Excel sheets. It’s a million things in one. It’s pretty cool.

MEAGAN MARIE: Yeah. Alex was on the last podcast, where we did just a general overview of the industry with some vets from the studio. Alex was like, “Sometimes I’m taking out the trash,” and I thought that was some sort of metaphor for making sure things are running smoothly. He’s like, “No, I’ll literally take out the trash. If that needs to be done, then that’s something that needs to be done.” So it seems like production is enabling people to be their best, helping the project run smoothly, and so on. Would you say that’s fair?

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah, I agree. The biggest thing for me is just supporting my team to make sure that they’re successful. Whether that’s making, like I said, baking cookies or whatever, on a day to day basis, I want them to be successful in what they’re doing.

MEAGAN MARIE: Great. So what sort of education or training have you guys received? This is something that’s actually very interesting to our readers, because we have people asking, “Is there a course for production? How do you prepare yourself is production is something that you’re interested in?”

SAM GOLDBERG: I can maybe speak to this one, because I’m relatively new in the production field. I’ve only been doing this maybe two and a half years at this point, and all at Crystal. I never got any sort of formal education that would really lead into production. In school I studied art and programming. I knew I wanted to go into games, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a producer. But when I started making my own games and it kind of snowballed, I was managing other people and helping them make games. Then all of a sudden I wasn’t making games anymore. I was just helping other people do it. I was like, “Oh, okay, somehow this works.” I had to figure it out on my own.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah, I would have to agree with Sam. I didn’t have any formal production skills or education. I learned a lot of that on the job, but a lot of the skills I use day to day. It’s like training for a marathon. It’s setting goals and helping to achieve them. That’s basically what I do. I work with the team on a daily basis just doing that. It’s a lot of on the floor experience that you get. My educational background is I studied German language and linguistics. So totally away from games. But I got in games because I started to manage all the text. Then, from there, I loved it. I moved on to the development team.

MEAGAN MARIE: All right. So you touched on how you got started in the industry with German language. You said you were making your own games, Sam?

SAM GOLDBERG: Yeah. I found a bunch of guys on an online forum, the TIGSource forum. They were running competitions and I found some people to collaborate with. Our game came in second place in the competition we entered. We had tens of thousands of people downloading it in a matter of weeks. Then all of a sudden we had a sort of successful multiplayer indie hit. It wasn’t just a one-off that I could do and then ignore it for the rest of my career. I actually had to maintain it for a year and a half afterwards. By doing that, I gained the experience I needed to actually break into the industry.

MEAGAN MARIE: What would you say. If you had to break down the day to day of working in production, what do you think is the most frequent activity for you? Are you in meetings constantly? Are you running around the office? What is the bulk of your day?

KAM ZAMBEL: I think for me, especially lately, it’s probably just managing time for people. Because people are working on multiple things, so it’s working with each individual, understanding what their focus is for that day, helping them set goals, helping them manage their time. It’s a daily routine. That’s probably the most important thing I do on a day to day basis.

MEAGAN MARIE: How is that broken apart in the studio? Do you have teams of a certain size? Are you managing everybody on a certain project? Can you explain the production hierarchy and how that works at Crystal?

KAM ZAMBEL: I can start with that. Usually a team, a development team, is broken down into more teams. We usually assign a producer that works with from three to maybe eight, maybe 10 people per group. And sometimes you work with two or three groups at a time. It’s just managing their schedules and day to day needs. I spent a lot of time running around on the floor, assisting. Sometimes even when. I don’t even assist my team, but I help out anybody who’s on the floor. So you share between teams as well and help with other producers. You’re a great helping hand, basically, to the game.

MEAGAN MARIE: How about you, Sam? Meetings for you? Running around? You’re always loading technology up places.

SAM GOLDBERG: Yeah, I’m a little bit further down on the totem pole than Kam is. I’d say my two primary, if I had to break down my time, would probably be note-taking and setting up builds and computers and pressing all the right buttons to get something on screen and getting up and running. But on top of that, I’m also doing scheduling. I’m managing Excel sheets. I’m building macros and doing video editing. It’s all over the place. But if I had to choose two things, definitely note-taking and plugging things in.

MEAGAN MARIE: I touched on this briefly, because we do get a lot of questions about whether there’s some sort of curriculum for production, which. I don’t think there’s a Game Production 101. I haven’t seen that. Correct me if I’m wrong. Is there?

SAM GOLDBERG: No, definitely isn’t. But a good skill to have, at least I’ve found, is a really good understanding of Microsoft Office. It sounds silly. It applies to just about every business. But knowing how to work Powerpoint and Excel and even making a basic website or editing basic videos, just being a jack of all trades and having a lot of basic skills under your belt really helps.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah, I would say that too. Especially, it can get so hectic during a project that having very difficult software is just cumbersome. Simple Excel and Word, or even whiteboards. Simple things are the best skills to have.

MEAGAN MARIE: Yeah. And it’s probably not just knowing them. It’s more like excelling at them. I’ve been using the Office suite for some time, and I still every once in a while find a shortcut, and I’m like, “How did I not know this existed for the last decade? This is the most important feature ever! My life is easier!” So that’s definitely one thing, knowing the tricks of the trade. I can imagine it would be really helpful to you. So we had someone ask, could your first job out of college, whatever you go for, could it actually be production, or do you guys see production as something that you have to be at the studio and meshed with the team, and then eventually, if something opens up or you’ve seasoned yourself, then you get into production? Is it an entry-level position?

KAM ZAMBEL: I would say yes, because that’s basically where I started at.

SAM GOLDBERG: Yeah. That’s what I did too. I showed up right out of. Well, a year out of college, after doing my own stuff.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah. I think it’s going through the interview process and really meshing with the team, like you said. Being able to give really good examples in your own life experience and through school that relate to managing people. That’s how I got in.

MEAGAN MARIE: So is there anything that you can recommend in terms of projects or how someone can kind of keep track and keep tabs on the things that they’ve done in their personal life, or projects they’ve taken on that would lend themselves to showing they’d be a good producer?

KAM ZAMBEL: I guess I can give one good example. This is just my own personal one. I always identify production with how I train for a triathlon. So I’m a person who’s able to identify my end goal, and sub-goals to reach that, and a plan of how to achieve it. And how I can show my success. So if you were to take that model itself and apply it to school projects you did or something you did on your own, like what Sam did, it’s a perfect example to show that you have experience.

MEAGAN MARIE: Very cool.

SAM GOLDBERG: Yeah. My general advice isn’t necessarily as applicable to just production, but for the game industry as a whole, just start making games. As I was looking for jobs at big studios and stuff, I was also playing around in Game Maker and Flash and making little weird games on weekends and in the afternoons. Just putting those out there on the internet for people to play and give feedback really helps build up your skills, and also builds a portfolio and a resume. It can lead to a lot of other things.

MEAGAN MARIE: Speaking of dabbling in other areas, we had quite a few questions about, how impactful is production on game design or any of the creative direction? Do you get to dabble in that or influence that, or is it more about the bigger picture of the project?

SAM GOLDBERG: I think it’s generally about the bigger picture, but there are often little opportunities here and there where you can sneak in a little idea or get your fingerprint on the game somehow or another. Looking back to TR9, I never made any content or anything, but I remember they were having a lot of difficulty licensing a piece of music, so I just spent like two weeks wrestling over this piece of licensed music, and I was like, “Oh, I sort of contributed this song to the game a little bit. This is sort of mine.” Little stuff like that.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah. Even the V/O, too, we do V/O. You get plenty of opportunities to actually go into the recording studio and record some V/O for the game, which is great to hear. Also, you know, you’re kind of in the game every day. You’re playing the game every day. I always give comments, whether they’re relevant or not. People are always open to listen to them. Sometimes your small little idea turns into a design. You just never know.

MEAGAN MARIE: I’m definitely getting the impression that production is. It would be a good outlet for people who are exceptionally well-organized and personable and so on, but may not have the technical skills. They know that they want to work in gaming somehow, but they’re more like the team leader.

KAM ZAMBEL: Leadership, communication, organization, project management. A lot of times, remember, people are getting those skill sets at the university level. You can bring those, definitely, into an entry position in production.

MEAGAN MARIE: Looking at production, what is the potential advancement for a producer? Is assistant producer kind of the foundation? Is that where you start off? Is there something even before that?

SAM GOLDBERG: I think that’s generally where you start off. When I started at the studio, I started as a production assistant, and then they switched my noun and my adjective and I became an assistant producer. But yeah, this is pretty much the bottom of the totem pole. Then you slowly work your way up from there.

MEAGAN MARIE: Was it just that the title changed, or did you have any new responsibilities when you went to assistant producer?

SAM GOLDBERG: I’ve been constantly getting new responsibilities the entire time that I’ve been here, so it wasn’t like a switch was flipped and all of a sudden I got a new title and new responsibilities with it. As I was progressing to that point, I was managing people a little bit more. I was more on the floor. I was given a longer leash and more leeway to make my own decisions and calls on stuff.

MEAGAN MARIE: When you say, “on the floor,” what does that mean? I really can never find you two. So you really are on the floor. Is a lot of your day just walking around talking to people, then? Do you just go up and down the aisles and see if people need help? How do you on the floor?

KAM ZAMBEL: Wow. Yes, I’m all over the floor. I work for the directors right now, who are probably the most fun to rally into meetings and work to get answers out of. I spend a lot of my time just getting them to meetings and getting them out of meetings and then searching for people. Lot of times, you’re tracking down answers and status on stuff. So I may need to go to a dev to get the latest status and then communicate that to one of the directors, or vice versa. It could be anything and everything.

MEAGAN MARIE: I like that. You help keep people’s heads on straight. That would really be nice to have, if a meeting was running long. They’d come in and say, “No, you’re needed somewhere else.”

KAM ZAMBEL: Basically pull them out of the meeting and set them into another.

MEAGAN MARIE: I like that. So Kam, you are a producer. Are there any responsibilities that you have that maybe an assistant producer wouldn’t have just yet?

KAM ZAMBEL: I guess, as you grow through your career, you start to learn additional skills. You start to work more toward leadership. Perhaps. I remember, as assistant producer, I was doing some of the things Sam is doing, which was just assisting another producer or assisting a dev to accomplish something. Now I’m to the point where I’m helping, say, the lead producer set goals for the team. I’m also helping the team learn about team management. I’m developing those leadership skills to drive a team to success. There is outlining goals and tasks, but how do you motivate that team to actually have the passion and energy to achieve them throughout the week?

MEAGAN MARIE: Is executive producer, then, the step above? Can you speak to what the difference between an executive producer and a producer would be?

KAM ZAMBEL: It is another step for you. In my career, I tend to have gone wide. I learned an array of skills. Now I’m starting to accelerate on a few of them, starting to go further on them, and so executive producer would be more in charge of the whole team, working with a production lead to drive the production team. So it’s further up, answering to a wider outlook on the game development process than down in the details and on the floor.

MEAGAN MARIE: Okay. And some of those things would be. If you can’t speak to this, that’s fine. But would the EPs generally do more with, say, the budgets and so on, the high end, super high end big picture stuff?

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah. They certainly are. They’re managing that level of information, and then communicating that down to the team.

MEAGAN MARIE: Okay. And then you guys would establish how to reach those goals.


MEAGAN MARIE: What would you say is the best and the most difficult aspect of being a producer? What’s your favorite thing, and what is kind of the toughest part of the job?

SAM GOLDBERG: I think my favorite thing is probably coming in and having something totally new to do every day.

MEAGAN MARIE: I can imagine.

SAM GOLDBERG: I’m a bit of an ADD person. I like trying out new things and coming on to new projects and learning new skills. One day I come in and I have to learn how to script something in our game GUI. The next day I’m figuring out how to be a video editor. I just love that it changes every single day. I’m always having a chance to learn something new and work with new people.

MEAGAN MARIE: Yeah. It’s like a continued education, it seems like.

SAM GOLDBERG: Yeah. It’s really fantastic.

KAM ZAMBEL: I have to agree with Sam, too. I think I would definitely get bored if I was doing the same thing every day. And so every day is different for me. When I don’t have anything to do, I feel really odd, so I find things for the team to do. I think that keeps me going through the day.

MEAGAN MARIE: What about the toughest aspect?

KAM ZAMBEL: Um. Hm. There are a lot of challenges you run through, but part of being in this job is I love tackling those challenges.

SAM GOLDBERG: The toughest thing for me is that producers are often the deliverers of bad news. If we’re behind schedule or something’s getting cut, we have to be the ones who stand up and say, “Hey, we gotta cut this feature. Hey, we’re working this weekend.” It’s never fun to be the bearer of bad news. That’s often something that falls on our shoulders.

MEAGAN MARIE: I can imagine that’s a little tough. But I hope the team understands that you’re just the bearer.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah. That’s part of your job, too, working and building relationships with each of the devs. You do deliver bad news, but we’re all on the same team, in the same boat. We’re always there to help them succeed.

MEAGAN MARIE: I can imagine you also get to deliver good news.

SAM GOLDBERG: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

MEAGAN MARIE: That helps balance it out a little bit. Sam, your answer made me think of another question. What about the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to do? You said every day is a new challenge. Have you ever been asked to do something totally bizarre or research something or.

SAM GOLDBERG: Oh, yeah. I have two that I would call out. The first one was very early, when I started working here. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. We were having some trouble with pacing in Tomb Raider 9, so one of my tasks was to watch the movie Aliens and make a very detailed spreadsheet of the pacing through the entire movie, documenting who was in what scene and when they died and when they were introduced. That was pretty bizarre. The other really weird thing I wound up doing, I was working with the audio team and we were looking for generic, “My house is burning down” sounds. So we took some microphones out to the field and there were just 10 developers running around screaming so we could get the sounds of chaos. It was just the funniest thing in the world. I really enjoyed that one.

MEAGAN MARIE: I thought that you were actually going to go somewhere and say, “We burned down this house.”

SAM GOLDBERG: We’re not going to go burning anything down. We kidnapped a couple of people, locked them up, hit some.

MEAGAN MARIE: Maybe we need to cut that from the podcast so we can keep you in the studio and out of jail. How about you, Kam? Anything bizarre? You do some interesting things in your personal life, with sports shooting and so on. Did you ever get to do anything related to Tomb Raider in production, like showing people weapons or going to ranges or anything like that?

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah. On the side, I do shoot guns. The thing that was interesting, when I got on to TR9, was that, okay, now I’m doing a game that actually has weapons. I’d been working on The Sims and sports and totally different game genres. So I was like, “Oh, this is great. Awesome. I shoot these rifles. I shoot these pistols.” So I was able to give feedback on that. We did mocap sessions where I was demonstrating how to shoot a pistol, those types of things.

MEAGAN MARIE: See, that’s super cool. That’s neat to know. I like that. We touched on this very lightly, but when applying for a production role, you can’t really submit a portfolio, can you? Or can you? What do you submit? Or is it all about the resume and highlighting the projects?

SAM GOLDBERG: I think it’s mostly about the resume, but again, I was kind of lucky going into it that I did have a sort of portfolio, just because I had been making games and some of them had evolved into popularity. If you do have that, you’re probably very lucky, but it’s a fantastic thing to have, because that’s what they’re used to looking for from artists or designers or audio guys or whatever. But if not, just having a good strong resume with leadership skills, management stuff, Office software, is helpful too.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah, I would have to agree with that too. Definitely, when you are in the interview process, we’re looking for great examples of where you’ve shown leadership, management, delivering on projects. The other thing, too, is getting to know people in the industry. Do a lot of networking. San Francisco is great for that. If you’re getting out of school, I recommend highly to be attending game shows and making those connections, because once people start to know you, then your name gets around. That gives you a great opportunity for an interview.

MEAGAN MARIE: Right. We touched briefly on the tools, on Microsoft’s Office suite and so on. Is there anything — that’s non proprietary, obviously – any sort of tools beyond that spectrum that you guys recommend using? Any specialty project management tools or goal-tracking software or things that people can look into that might be helpful? Or can you really get by with just the Office suite most of the time?

SAM GOLDBERG: You can probably get by with the Office suite most of the time.

KAM ZAMBEL: I think so as well.

SAM GOLDBERG: This is not related to task-tracking or scheduling or any of that stuff, but I’ve found just having a good sense of. I don’t know how to articulate it. A good sense of other software is helpful. Going back to video editing, because it’s something I’ve helped out with a lot – we don’t have a video editor on the team, and often when there’s a hole to fill, they’ll be like, “Oh, is there a producer who can figure that out and patch that hole?”

MEAGAN MARIE: So some multimedia tools.

SAM GOLDBERG: Yeah. Just a general sense of how movies are made and how games are made. Flash. I don’t know. Basic scripting. VBA. Stuff like that.

MEAGAN MARIE: So being able to diversify the programs that you work with would not be a bad thing.

KAM ZAMBEL: No, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. It just gives you another point, if you’re interviewing. If you have those additional software skills, it’s great.

MEAGAN MARIE: We had a couple of people write and say that they were in high school or just about to enter college, and they are very interested in production. Is there anything in particular for the younger crowd that you could recommend? Getting involved in charities, helping run drives or things that they can do at their level and at their age that might be helpful to start building those.?

SAM GOLDBERG: Something I did at that age, which I had no idea would lead into game design but I later found was very helpful. I was doing a lot of volunteering as a tour guide. I worked for a whale-watching ship. I worked at a couple of museums. It just gave me some confidence for public speaking and leading people around and keeping track of a group of people.

MEAGAN MARIE: Making sure you don’t lose someone.

SAM GOLDBERG: Making sure things are going on. Just working with people in general and having some sort of big leadership-ish sort of role is definitely helpful.

MEAGAN MARIE: So just look out for any of those opportunities.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah. There’s a lot of community events that you could volunteer for and get recognized for the work that you do and be able to bring those in as examples of your work.

MEAGAN MARIE: It seems that if there aren’t opportunities, the whole point of production may be to create your own opportunity.

KAM ZAMBEL: Certainly.

MEAGAN MARIE: So if you’re interested in production, maybe start your own team or start your own charity drive or start your own organization.

KAM ZAMBEL: Definitely. Show some initiative.

MEAGAN MARIE: That sounds great. Leading off from that question, do you think that producers have to. I know it would be helpful, obviously, to understand how game design works and to have worked in a studio before, but do you feel like you don’t have to come from the game industry to be a successful producer? Or is that. Obviously it’s an advantage, but it’s not a deal-breaker?

SAM GOLDBERG: I don’t have the greatest experience on this. I don’t think it would be a deal-breaker. I think somebody coming in with just good general project management skills could pick up the game part of it pretty quickly.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah, I’d have to agree with that.

MEAGAN MARIE: Great. A couple more questions. Or maybe just a single question? What’s the single biggest piece of advice you would offer up to someone who wants to get his or her feet wet in the industry specifically and with production?

SAM GOLDBERG: I mentioned it earlier, but my advice for anyone who wants to get into the industry is to just start doing. If you want to be an artist, start drawing. If you want to be a programmer, start coding. If you want to be a producer, you might have to cheat around a little bit, but find some other people to start programming and doing art with. Just start demonstrating that you’re capable of doing those things and you can learn a ton just by doing it, instead of sitting in a class or reading a book.

MEAGAN MARIE: I can imagine you could just internet and find people that are. Find a stray artist over here and a stray programmer over here and bring them together.

SAM GOLDBERG: There are so many communities and so many people trying to get into the game industry. They go online to find other people, other like-minded people. So yeah, there are definitely tons of opportunities to start doing.

MEAGAN MARIE: Don’t wait. Assemble your Avengers if you need to. Make your own team and start producing, start going.

KAM ZAMBEL: Yeah. I think experience, and anything that you do toward games, is going to get you closer to having a career in it. So yeah, you can sit and learn a lot in school, but it’s really that experience in the production of games and making games that’s going to move you forward.

MEAGAN MARIE: That sounds wonderful. It sounds like it’s actually a pretty cool thing to be tasked with, to create your own opportunities and execute your own opportunities, because then you have so much choice in what you want to do. “I need to build my resume up and get some project management.” You can pick and funnel all of your energy into something that you want to do. That sounds very cool.

KAM ZAMBEL: Exactly.

MEAGAN MARIE: Okay. Well, thank you very much, Kam and Sam.

KAM ZAMBEL: Thank you!

SAM GOLDBERG: Yeah, thank you.

MEAGAN MARIE: I think that this has been really interesting and great advice for our listeners. So! Until next time.

MEAGAN MARIE: And that wraps up the Crystal Habit podcast episode 23. I hope you found all of that information very useful. Next month we’ll be back with another focus on. We’re most likely going to look at game design, but we’ll also break into animation and art and so on in the coming months. So remember, if you have a specific question that you’d like to know about a particular specialty in gaming, you can send your questions We really want to make sure that you guys are involved and that you’re finding this practical and helpful to your game industry pursuits. Until next time!

[musical outro]