“Great ideas are common… Great executions are rare.”
Greetings Travis! It’s been awhile.
“Yes, it has been a while. Thanks for reminding me how old I am.”
“I am currently working at Magic Leap my title is Senior Producer (Content)”
What is Magic Leap’s focus? They create augmented reality content, correct?
“Well, I am really not allowed to comment on what we are doing specifically. All I can tell you is that the work I am involved in sure is fun. You are free to go to our web page and see what you can see. Anything beyond that is mum for now. When I can speak, I will let you know.”
Prior to Magic Leap, you worked at a few different game companies. Could you list a few of the released titles you’ve worked on?
“This is always the question that makes me feel old. I really started making games in 1990 at a company called White Wolf Game Studio. We were a pen and paper RPG company where we were mostly known for the World of Darkness setting. That includes: Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension. After working in pen and paper gaming I transitioned into electronic gaming. Companies like Gametek (Tarzan, Super Street Fighter II Turbo) to Acclaim (X-MEN Children of the Atom), ASC Games (Sanitarium), Interplay (Giants, Run Like Hell) Warner Bros (Matrix Online, DC Universe), Sigil (Vanguard), Sony (PAIN) I could go on but even typing this makes me tired….”
I completely understand. I think when we first met, it was at E3 in Atlanta and you were working at ASC. I believe the game One, was about to come out.
“Yeah, I had a lot of fun at ASC a lot of us left there to start what really became some of the foundation of Rockstar New York. We published the PC version of Grand Theft Auto at ASC. It was a fun time. I also did Sanitarium there which won CGW Adventure Game of the year. I really loved that place. I also remember getting a pitch from my old co-worker Vince Zampella. He described a first person gaming experience that was not unlike what I believed was possible. I told him it wasn’t possible. When his team made Medal of Honor I was humbled. He and his team have been making hits ever since. (Call of Duty anyone?)”
You are one of the few people that I’ve heard make a leap from paper and pen into digital media. I’m sure it’s not unusual for some, but can you describe how you ended up at White Wolf in the first place?
“I was always the Dungeon Master as a kid. I remember the Wilderness Survival Guide came out and I didn’t have enough money to buy it. So I looked around for another book. I came across a book called Ars Magica that was cheaper so I bought it. I then ran games using that system. After doing that for 3 years I knew the rules and the systems better than the people who wrote the books. I moved to Atlanta and so did the company making Ars Magica. So I hung out with them all the time and eventually they asked me to run games for them at conventions. The company was called Lion Rampant which eventually became White Wolf. So I was there when all the madness started. Some of the people who helped start White Wolf eventually became founding members of Wizards of the Coast.”
Where did you grow up?
“Everywhere. I was a Military brat… Mostly in the south. Born in Miami but lived in Germany (K-Town) Georgia (Savannah and Atlanta) and Louisiana (Baton Rouge).”
So, how did you make the leap from White Wolf to digital games?
“I always wanted to make games. Back in the early 90s gaming was really getting big. So I was also in charge of talking to companies about taking properties like Vampire and making computer games. When I would talk to companies about that it would turn into some odd sort of interview. So they would end up offering me a job instead of licensing the property. Eventually I said, ‘OKAY’.” [Laughs]
“There are plenty of schools that teach you how to make a game. There are very few that can teach you how to manage the BAND that makes a game.”
So, trial by fire. You showed knowledge and it led to opportunity.
“Essentially. I had been programming since I was nine. My whole teenage life was spent as a hacker. So I knew games like no other person I knew. I knew I wanted to eventually make them. White Wolf was a step in that direction but once I had a shot to make computer games it really was where I wanted to be. I’ve been here since ‘93.”
Did you go to college? Or did you jump into the workforce?
“I went to DeVry and ALMOST graduated. I already knew how to program and so I really just wanted a way to get into gaming. It was rough because there really was no way to educate yourself into gaming in the late 80’s. So if you wanted to be a designer for example you were just out of luck. Now it’s odd for me to see college level courses in things we ‘made up’ in the 80’s/90’s.”
Yeah, I remember trying to teach myself game programming. There were some books, but it was sparse early on. Did you program professionally at first or were you a producer?
“College cured me of wanting to be a programmer. All of my time spent as a programmer was a loner life. I enjoyed it. When I had to collaborate in school I found that I was either vastly inferior or superior to my peers. It frustrated me. So I just ended up being satisfied with knowing how to program. When I entered the professional world it was as a designer. I became a producer when I found that bad producers mess up products. I wanted to enhance and protect the process.”
“You keep the process going. Usually a producer will champion a product and get it going. He keeps the product from going haywire and is responsible for its health. That means any and all things really. You hire/fire. You order dinner. You guide the leads of product (Art, Design, Code, Music) and you are the liaison to other departments in the company. Since you supervise the leads you know what the status is of your project and can tell other departments if you are on time and what the project needs at any given point… So kinda like a janitor. Yeah…”
You wear a lot of different hats. You jump in and do what’s needed.
“A good producer does wear a lot of hats. Producers usually come from another discipline and become producers so they know enough to ask the right questions. A good producer enhances a product. Bad producers meddle and don’t give teams the opportunity to be great. You should empower a team not lord over them. Producers have a lot of power, and I have seen it go to their heads.”
What are key traits or skills you need to be a successful producer?
“When people say they are a people person you have to MEAN it as a producer. People who make games or art in general are a mixed crew. You need to know how to motivate and inspire. Know when to get in the weeds and know when to shut up and let other people be GREAT. You have to change depending on the team you are managing. You must be organized and have attention to detail. It’s not an easy job.”
Those are hard waters to navigate. In my experience, having a producer know when to push and when to back off is the biggest challenge. Is it easy to learn the line between the two?
“When I first met Warren Spector I asked him when was the best time to take a team to task on something. He said when they are working on items that don’t support the mission statement and when you think the choices the team makes will cost you sales.”
“Usually, when you are making a product you have some sort of goal in mind. Making sure the team always keeps that in mind is one of the core things a producer must do. Not having ego and always keeping the team’s health in mind is essential. They are all artists (Code, Design, Art, Music) and it’s better to empower them than to oppress. No one makes fun when the team isn’t having any themselves.”
Having a clear and focused mission statement creates a razor by which all chaff can be eliminated. As a producer, there a many things to keep track of through out the project. Are there any tips or tools you use in your day to day that you cannot live without?
“There’s been a move to Agile development in games. I like agile for one reason; It makes people responsible for what they are doing. Well, two reasons; It forces people to also communicate. You’d be shocked at how two people who sit right next to one another won’t talk to one another unless they are compelled to. So having those daily standups where everyone says what they did, what they are doing, and what is keeping them from being awesome helps a lot. It’s the questions producers have been asking since I started. Agile forces people to say those things to one another on a daily basis. THANK YOU, JESUS!”
“Usually, when you are making a product you have some sort of goal in mind. Making sure the team always keeps that in mind is one of the core things a producer must do.”
The gaming industry is always changing, such is tech. Are there any new trends that interest you?
“I am always interested in gaming as a lifestyle. How can games be integrated into your daily routines? Not in an intrusive way but how they can enhance your quality of life. How does gaming equate to your morning cup of coffee/tea. I don’t think graphics for example matter as much anymore. We could always make pretty pictures. How does that improve how I feel on a daily basis is my question. So real cohesive social hooks that aren’t really money related but just an emotional tissue. That’s what interests me trend wise.”
I’ve been asking this question to a few other people, looking back over your career. Is there anything you would do differently? Anything you wish you knew before encountering it?
“I think I wish I got into the mobile space earlier. I think mobile games are GREAT at compelling people to engage. The problem is they are engaging in shallow experiences. So it’s almost like they are good at keeping your attention as long as you are hypnotized but once the spell is broken you don’t care because the game loop is stupid. It’s kinda like a black art. Now mobile games are starting to have more meat, which is great. I think that it’s not that they generate so much money but it’s usually a shallow experience, which is sad.”
It’s kind of funny. Mobile is almost like the arcade of “yesteryear”. Remember, an arcade game had to catch you in like the first 30 seconds. Attention spans were short then, and they are now. With so many games on mobile, you have to find a way to catch them. And if done right, they will age into an elder experience that is hopefully less shallow.
“Yes, but I think the arcades were more honest. They asked for your quarter right away and didn’t tease you. If they did tease you you knew what you were getting immediately. Most gamers don’t mind giving you money. You have to let them know why.”
Some have said, they feel like an outsider in game development because of their skin color. I’m sure women and some LGBT folk have had similar feelings. What would you say to those folks?
“I remember writing fiction for World of Darkness and being the one person in the room screaming: WHERE ARE THE BLACK PEOPLE?! I went so far to insist one kind of Vampire got BLACKER as they got more powerful (Assamite Clan in Vampire). This eventually got my coworkers to include more people of color into the fabric of our mythos. Prominent minority characters were always included because it was fitting and proper. Not just because they didn’t want to answer my pointed questions like how come white people are the only people allowed to be Vampires, Werewolves and Wizards. I am sure my years of doing this led to my character Dante being on the cover of Mage: The Ascension.”
“I honestly give the gaming community a lot of credit for being progressive. In my history of being in this business some of the most influential and creative individuals have been gay, lesbian and transgender. I have been lucky to be in that mix because it really reaffirmed for me what I already knew. It doesn’t matter who you love or how you feel about yourself… you just need to have creative ideas and you can make it in this business. Good ideas come from everyone.”
“Diversity (in my opinion) means you will have the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. That perspective is important in entertainment. I think it’s the nexus of a great narrative. Think of how different Star Wars would have been if Chewie told the story.”
“When I started in this business I was typically the lone minority in the room full of white guys. Last year I went to a Blacks In Gaming function and we filled up a whole ballroom. It was a fantastic experience. It made me feel great to see how diversity and tolerance is getting better in gaming. We are not done yet, but it’s far better than when I started. I got a little emotional during that function, it wasn’t because I won some XBOX games.”
True. So, last question, if I wanted to become a producer. What advice would you give me? How could I break in?
“I don’t believe you can start off being a producer. A producer is a job that you get after you understand the game making process. Starting in QA or Art, Code, Design is the best route to go. A producer is as good as her gut tells her. So what you need to do is spend time inside the process first so that your decision making is ‘seasoned’. You will be leading people and they need to be secure in what you know what you are doing. There are plenty of schools that teach you how to make a game. There are very few that can teach you how to manage the BAND that makes a game.”
“That being the case… Be addicted to detail, quality, and people. I don’t manage projects as much as I manage the team that makes the product and when I do that correctly the by-product is kick ass software. They respect you for that, trust me.”
Thanks Travis. This was very insightful. I appreciate your time.