Developer’s Advice: Graeme Bayless

Graeme Bayless is the Production Director at Fireforge Games. Previously, Graeme worked at companies including Namco Bandai Games America, EA, Crystal Dynamics and 2K Games. Here’s Graeme’s advice in response to my 7 questions for students.

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1. Briefly describe your current position at Fireforge (for context).

I’m the Production Director for the company’s flagship product.  I can’t go into much detail on the product, but suffice it to say that we’re a video game company working on what the industry terms as “AAA” games (basically, multi-million dollar developments with expected sales in excess of 1 million units).  My responsibilities revolve around the production planning and oversight of the actual construction of the game. In short, the production team is responsible for the project management aspect.

2. Name one person (feel free to name more if you prefer) who had a strong positive influence on your career, and explain their most important action/advice/reason you consider them so influential.

Tough to name just one as so many have been influential.  I think I’ll narrow it down to two specific cases…

First, before I ever got into the video game business, I worked in sales. I had *just* completed Carnegie Sales Training, and with that fresh in my mind had a longtime major customer of our business walk in.  His usual sales rep wasn’t available so I stepped in, eager to “close a sale”.  Long story short, I fumbled it badly and the customer stormed out somewhat frustrated.  I turned to see the sales manager looking at me, motioning to his office.  I went in, suspecting I was about to be at least sternly admonished but expecting potentially to be fired.  He sat me down, and asked me what happened.  I explained how I’d tried to put into play all I’d learned at Carnegie.  He asked how I think it went, and I told him how I think I’d blown some of the steps badly, and why I felt it had gone wrong.  He asked me what I’d do differently in the future, and I explained.  He then said “ok, thanks” and opened the door for me.  I hesitated and asked “am I fired?”.  He smiled and asked me if I wanted to be fired.  I said “no… but I just blew a sale and potentially cost us one of our best customers.  He responded “yes… but you also seem to have a good handle on what you did wrong, and based on that understanding seem prepared to not repeat that mistake”.  That was a huge moment for me… as it taught me a crucial lesson… mistakes are part of life and part of growth.  Expect mistakes… but focus on them as learning opportunities. If you learn from your mistakes, they become valuable lessons.  If you repeat mistakes… THEN you are failing.  That sales manager was a key figure in my early development.

Second, a few years into my work in this industry, I got an opportunity to work for a true genius… to this day probably the smartest person I’ve ever worked with.  He was my boss, and ran a studio making cartridge games for the Sega Genesis back in the late 80s.  He graduated from UC Berkeley at 17 with a Masters in CompSci… by age 24, was a Director in a large Japanese corporation (as a gaijin, no less).  So, I went to work for him… and in the 18 months that I did so, learned two hugely valuable lessons.  First, I learned that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was… I was used to being the young hotshot, quick on my feet and quick to the answers… and this guy could run circles around me.  Secondly, he taught me that being smart wasn’t  everything, as he was a truly terrible manager and his mishandling of the projects and the studio led to mass desertions of personnel and eventually the closure of that studio.  I learned humility as well as a deep understanding of values that weren’t purely entrenched in hard skills.

3. Is there a particular piece of career advice you got (or imagine you could have heard) early in your career you wish you’d have acted on?

I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had some early influences that have allowed me to succeed and grow.  Still, I wish I’d listened more closely to my father’s sage advice about the difference between “winning and being right”.  I’ve all too often held to my higher “moral ground”, at the cost of career.  Sometimes, it is far better to win than to be right.

4. What are the qualities you would suggest are important for a student to have, who wishes to enter your profession, specifically?

That’s a pretty substantial list, given the difficulty and complexity of what we do… but I can quantify…

a) Communication skills… both written and verbal.  It is imperative that anyone planning to be a Producer much less a Production Director develop strong communication skills.  This includes things like writing a great memo, and public speaking to teams as well as the daily aspects of interpersonal communications.

b) Organizational skills… a Producer must be personally organized and able to organize and present their thoughts.  They must be able to quickly sift and sort priorities, identifying the critical ones and pushing those to the front of the “to do list”.

c) Management skills… a Producer must know how to work with all types of personalities and all types of people, and learn how to motivate each of them to work together in a collaborative way.  You must learn how to be a teacher… a coach… a mentor… a leader… a manager… and an evangelist… all as needed.

d) Hard skills… everything from learning how to properly manage projects and resources to building data sheets in Excel… from writing technical documentation such as design documents to creating compelling presentations in things like Powerpoint.

e) Passion… an intangible that is absolutely invaluable in this business.  Folks working in games will work harder, usually for less money, than in nearly any other similar field.  Unless games are the only place you can see yourself being happy, chase those other options.  To succeed in games, one must be deeply passionate about making great games.

f) Work Ethic… a successful Producer must have a strong personal work ethic.  The former Attorney General of the State of Oregon once spoke at my company, and told us that if you do everything that’s assigned to you to the fullest, you’ve completed 33% of your responsibility and will fail, just as on a test.  You should also be looking for ways to help your team succeed, and to help your company succeed.  If you do all three, THEN you’re on the track to success.

5. What is a common mistake you notice students / recent graduates tend to make when looking for a job?

The most common is probably underestimating the level of passion and commitment required to succeed in games.  If a graduate seeking a job in the game industry comes in expecting to play lots of games and work 9-5… they are sorely disappointed.  The game industry is hard… often incredibly trying on families and relationships.  While some companies successfully navigate the balance between work and life, most struggle at this and can really be a challenge for new graduates expecting their hard work in college to instantly turn into a 9-5 job that pays amazingly. Success in the game industry comes from hard work, dedication, passion, and often sacrifice.

6. What inspires you in your position? Are there any influences that you bring to your work?

Mostly, I’m inspired by the great folks that I work with.  I’m privileged to work with some of the very brightest minds and most talented brains in the industry, and have been for years.  I grow from my contact with them every day, and it makes me better at what I do… makes me want to be better at what I do.

7. Are there any other advice you would offer to students entering the games industry?

Absolutely.  The biggest piece of advice I can give is to work on games on your own.  Mod them, build them, design them… try (and fail) as often as you can.  When a new potential employee comes to me, I am far less interested in  hearing about the project they worked on in school, and far *more* interested in seeing the game mod they made on their own time on the weekends that they did as a passion project.

 

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