Sara Guinness – Senior Producer
“Never a dull moment, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Sara G-zeey!! Been awhile since we’ve spoken, how are you?
“Marcus! It has, but when you develop games together, time doesn’t ever break the bond does it?”
How true, we’ve been in the trenches together. Where are you working now and what is your current title?
“I’m at Telltale Games now, as Sr. Producer – been there a little over 3 years.”
You’ve been a producer since I’ve known you. A pretty good one. Describe your typical workday to me.
“If we’re goin’ for typical here, I’ll break it down this way. Step 1: coffee. Step 2: unlock computer. Step 3: make sure there are no immediate fires to put out. Step 4: self-organize. Step 5: get shit done! (wait, can I swear?). Step 6: high-five a lot of people (but never a fist-bump, that’s too insincere).”
I don’t think the FCC will fine me if you swear. We’re good. What’s an example of a fire that needs to be put out?
“In my current role I work in our ‘Distribution & Release’ Dept. which is focused on getting all of our games out on all of the platforms in the same week. So a fire in our world could be missing a submission date, or failing 1st party cert, or having some heinous bug rear its ugly head at the last minute. Of course, we do what we can to avoid the fires, but we’re in an industry of unpredictability so we have to be buckled up and ready to be flexible with plans & priorities.”
How do you stay organized? Any high level guidelines or tips?
“I’m pretty old school when it comes to how I organize myself. A pad of grid paper and a cool 4-colors-in-1 pen are always by my side. What’s more important to me is how to keep everyone else organized, and there are many avenues to do that. A giant whiteboard resides behind my desk with a calendar of critical dates. It’s become a living bible for all of us. We also use JIRA for bug-tracking and tasks, which is always a great way to keep things prioritized and the status of any given item transparent to all the stakeholders. Google Drive is also a life-saver.”
JIRA seems to be the unsung hero of most projects. What are some game titles you’ve worked on in your career?
“I produced a few episodes of The Walking Dead: Season 2 and Tales From the Borderlands before I shifted over to the Release group, where I’m now able to get my hands on every game TTG publishes. Prior to that I produced Rock Band PSP, Dark Void Zero PC/iOS/DSiWare, Tenorman’s Revenge 360, MechAssault DS and others. My favorite by far was Duty Calls PC.”
Duty Calls was amazing. Such a funny project.
“Yeah it’s ridiculous in such a lasting way. Comedy in a game is really difficult to get right. Telltale nailed it with games like Sam & Max and Tales From The Borderlands, but Duty Calls is a different ball of wax. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it was a free game that parodied Call of Duty, as a promotional tool for Bulletstorm. We didn’t have much time with it, so it was *all hands* on deck and I don’t think there’s a person who was involved in that dev cycle that doesn’t look back on it fondly, and laugh. Interesting how such a short n’ sweet project can stick with you.”
I think it did very well as a promotional tool. What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Hmm. For me it’s not about a single accomplishment. There’s no ‘hit song’ I’m after. It’s really a series of moments. All of the small accomplishments can add up to something amazing, just like fixing 50 ‘C’ bugs is just as potent as fixing an ‘A’ bug. If I had to pick one thing, it would probably be that despite all the years of being in this industry, I’m just as stoked about making games as I was when I started.”
It is the little things that make a game seem polished. Where did you grow up?
“Yes, it all really adds up.”
“I’m from the east coast originally. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York were my stomping grounds until my mid 20’s. Then I moved out to sunny California, and never looked back (except on holidays!)”
Did you move to California to get into games? How did you break into the industry?
“I always knew I wanted to be in an entertainment industry. Music, Television, Games. It started with a high school internship at Columbia Records. Then my first job out of college was at Comedy Central. I started in the legal department, with no long-term goal of being a lawyer, but rather to get my foot in the door. It wasn’t long before I struck gold and got a job at SoftKey in Cambridge, MA. Fun fact: this is famed Shark Tanker, Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary’s company. They made everything from games to productivity software to edutainment. After spending years in the legal team helping manage the dozens of companies they acquired, I decided that I no longer wanted to convey legal risk to the dev team – I wanted to BE a part of the dev team! A lateral move later, and a free ride to California, and here I am.”
Where did you go to school?
“Clark University in Worcester, Mass. – where I often heard, but refused to use the term “wicked mint”. I majored in Business Administration, mainly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but wanted a degree that gave me the freedom to figure it out. Typical producer move is to run with something practical, right? It worked out in my favor, so I’m glad, but a game producer role is more about the experience than the degree in my opinion.”
What traits or set of skills make for a good producer?
“Instinct. Something you can’t learn in school, but something you’ll hopefully develop with experience and time. You need to understand what’s important and how to be decisive. I’ll never forget a quote from our CEO, ‘We have to make 100 wrong decisions to get to the right one, so let’s start making mistakes.’ (not verbatim, but you catch my drift).”
‘Plate-spinning is huge. The more plates you can successfully spin without one crashing, the more effective your team will be over time. If one drops, just make sure it’s plastic and won’t matter in the end.”
“Sense of humor. Be serious when needed, but you gotta keep it light to maintain your sanity and everyone else’s.”
It’s so true that you have to make mistakes to find the right decision. Doing it fast helps you course correct quickly. What is the one thing that got cut during production that you wish you could have saved? This is extra funny because as producer you’ve probably instigated most of the cuts.
“Mr. Montgomery, I think you know the answer to this one already. Gauntlet DS. A feature wasn’t cut, nor was a level or a character. The game was, and it’s still tragic to this day.”
To be fair, Guantlet DS was a full product that got cut. Not a specific feature. Hilarious. That game still haunts me. Did you see the videos DoubleFine did replaying Gauntlet DS with Mike Mika and Anthony Vaughn? Classic.
“You bet I did! I soaked that shit up like a white shirt soaks up a wine stain. Mike & the A-Train reliving the dream. It was brilliant.”
What advice would you give to someone pursuing your career?
“I think production is unique in that there’s no reel to show, no pet project app you developed yourself. My advice can only come from my personal experience, which is to get in the door. Life is not as short as they say, you have your whole career to change positions, change companies, etc. Don’t be tied into thinking ‘but I love XYZ game so if I don’t get a job at XYZ company I’ll never live my dream.’ Game development and game production is about being passionate about every game you work on, no matter what type, what platform or at what company. Be open, be confident.”
“Game development and game production is about being passionate about every game you work on, no matter what type, what platform or at what company.”
What are common misconceptions people have about producers?
“That people don’t know what we do. Most producers aren’t glory-seekers – we’re in this to make games and get the best out of the talented team members we’re lucky to be managing. Since a lot of our job is behind the scenes and in a support role, it remains a mystery to many. We don’t build 3D models, we don’t write code, we don’t compose music – so we can be perceived as not creating something tangible. However, in the end, a game is made that we hope fans enjoy. That’s tangible!”
That’s fantastic advice. Are there any trends currently in the industry that interest you? Any new production tricks?
“I’m seeing a lot of sequels, some worthy – some not – but all familiar. Lots of robust DLC too. If you love the game you’re playing, chances are it’s about to be expanded. While not my personal cup of tea, I’m fascinated by the free-to-play online competitive games like DOTA and LOL. They’ve transformed games outside of the living room into insanely popular stadium-sized competitions. It’s today’s version of the arcade, on a larger scale.”
“As for production tricks, the obvious answer here is agile. If I could produce a game that’s just a giant boss battle between agile & waterfall, then I could die happy. I would root for both. It’d be an endless fight.”
There seems to never be a final solution in the battle between agile and waterfall. I think I’ve yet to actually be on the team that ran true agile. Hoping to try it one day.
“Agreed – you often find a blend of agile & waterfall in practice, and honestly, that’s where I lean. Wait ‘til you try Kanban!”
Is there one game that has influenced you the most?
“Going old school again on the game answer. Honestly, all of the games I played from the N64 era are rooted in my soul. Take Star Fox 64; you can complete it in an hour or two, it’s endlessly replayable, it’s got tons of heart despite the aging of the system/graphics/processing, and that map! Such a simple, arcade-like execution of non-linear travel.”
“In more recent times, I’d say the whole Mass Effect series left a huge impression on me.”
How do you like to spend your free time?
“I’ve got a double bass drum kit that goes well with blasting metal music, and a karaoke system that came out of the box with instructions only in Chinese. This is where marrying a programmer really comes in handy. Using a DMX controller to program a light rig that simulates concert lighting is a great way to nerd out. It’s nuts and awesome. Driving around no man’s land or up and down the coast is my stress-free sanctuary. Binge-watching amazing TV series and being an obsessed completionist with games I’m playing about rounds it out.”
If people want to get ahold of you, how can they find you? Twitter, Facebook, email?
“I’m on Twitter (@CowbellPrincess) and my goal is to have as many followers as possible despite the fact that I never have, and never will, tweet. Folks can reach me at email@example.com as well. Time allowing, I’d love to help support anyone that has any questions about this game world we live in.”
Describe yourself in one sentence, what is your tagline?
“Never a dull moment, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Sara, thanks for your time today! Been good talking to you today.
“Miss you man! Keep designing amazing shit that I can look forward to playing!”
Great read! (Yet again, it was Sara G… Duh)… It reminded me of a few principals of the industry that had gone dormant in me over time… Miss you, Sara! Thanks for continuing to help me develop even after all these years 🙂
Great interview and read Sara!! Gaming is in your soul and you wear it well 🙂 Stavros