This month, we spoke with games producer George Rowe about making Aardman’s first console game, maintaining a work/life balance, and what he gets up to on the day today.
- How did you start out in the industry and what is your role at Aardman?
What got me in to this in the first place is: I was trying (and failing) to be a journalist, and learning some web coding/digital stuff for that as I thought it would be needed to be a journalist in this era. I wasn’t making much money, and so I took a job at a small digital agency called Thought Den two days a week, just doing admin. Quite soon, they asked if I wanted to do more hours and get more involved with projects, which I jumped at – I was really enjoying working there (and being paid). I worked there for a couple of years, making games and interactive things predominantly for the Arts and Culture sector. A production coordinator job came up at Aardman, where I had always wanted to work after playing Home Sheep Home, and six years later I haven’t yet been fired.
My job title is Senior Producer – what that actually entails as a role is real varied, depending on what type of project I am working on, and what stage of production we are at. On paper, my main responsibility is making sure things get done to the highest possible standard, on time and on budget. What this means in practice ranges from developing new game IP to pitch out, recruiting teams to work on projects, prioritising tasks and deciding what features we can cut, reviewing game progress and feeding back to my team, confirming QA tickets, sorting out disputes, telling everyone it’s going to be alright, crying in a dark room, talking about our work, buying the team dinner, and generally really caring about every single little piece of what we are making.
- To date, what has been your biggest professional achievement?
I think the fact that we managed to ship 11-11: Memories Retold, our first ever console title, on time for the very hard deadline of the centenary of the WW1 Armistice, despite the very ambitious scope and short production timeline, and that people liked it. With the unique rendering style and difficult subject matter, it was risky title, but we’ve got 77 on metacritic, very positive user reviews, and people genuinely engaged with the story and dug the art style. BUT, that achievement really has to go out to the entire Aardman and Digixart teams that worked on the game.
Edit: since this blog was originally published, 11-11 has been nominated for two BAFTAs – Best British Game, and Best Game Beyond Entertainment.
- Name three people who inspire you:
Anthony Joshua (boxer): I’ve been following this guy for a long time, and his calm attitude, work rate, and how he conducts himself at the very top level are something to be admired. Plus, he’s a tank.
Dan Efergan (Aardman): I work with Dan every day, and he is an amazingly talented guy, not just as a creative director, but in the way he approaches problems and manages people. He paid me to write this.
Playdead (company): Not a person, but I absolutely loved Inside and Limbo. The level of craft and quality, the passive storytelling, and the style of both these games is truly inspirational.
- Tell us what a typical day at the studio is like for you?
As I say, it can really vary; a typical day when we were in production of 11-11 was something like…
Leave the house at 7:30am and walk the hour to the Aardman studio. On the walk, check in with Slack – as we had people working all across the globe, plenty of stuff will have happened overnight, so review new art/anims etc, discuss any problems that might have come up, and start to put my task list for the day together, and any new tasks for the team. Then, when I get to the studio, I’ll then review the schedule of what the team are supposed to be working on that day, and see if there is anything of higher priority that needs to be shuffled around. Catch up with the team, discuss what they did the day before, work for that day, and anything that might be stopping them doing what they are supposed to be doing. Next could be a few hours of in-depth review meetings – assessing the progress of the levels with the designers, artists, animators, art director, game director, and anyone else required.
Eat lunch, and a few days a week we’ll do yoga in the Aardman cinema, or maybe go for a bike ride or run with some of the team, or go grab a coffee out of the office for some fresh air. The afternoon, I’d chat to the publisher and update them on progress, and any risks or worries that I might have. About 3pm I’ll start going through my actual task list for the day, and work up until about 7pm, or later if we have a milestone coming up. Long hours aren’t healthy or sustainable for the long term, but I quite enjoy short bursts of it – the war room mentality, everyone banding together to get stuff done.
- What do you like most about working at Aardman?
There are a few things…we’ve got an amazing canteen which makes really tasty home cooked food every day (shout out to Stu, Gemma, Mel and the gang). I suppose the thing I like most is the people who work at Aardman. There are so many inspiring, awesome, talented and lovely people to be surrounded by. You can’t get better than that.
- Do you have a particular production management style? What workflows and techniques do you usually use to maintain an efficient production?
That is potentially a very large answer! To keep it simple, my approach is pretty much a Lean production management style, with some elements of Scrum. I like lots of internal communication, in showing progress to the team and making sure everyone is fully bought in to what you are doing, to keep them motivated. I also like to get stuck in when needed, to make sure everything gets done. And lists. Lots of lists.
- What’s your desk/work area like – messy or tidy?
Somewhere in between… It gets slowly messier in busy times, but then I have to tidy up every few weeks. Tidy desk, tidy mind and all.
- What are your goals for the year ahead?
For work, to get the next Aardman game off the ground and in to pre-production. Personally, I’m doing the Ride100 cycling race in August for the charity Special Effect, so to finish that with a good time and raise lots of money for the great work the charity do.
- How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Well, I know that long periods of crunch are not healthy, sustainable, and don’t make better games, so I never make long hours mandatory on my projects for myself or the rest of the team, and I make sure I am putting in as much time as the team is. Personally, exercise is very important to me – it keeps you mentally strong and healthy, and gives you energy, so no matter how busy we are I make sure I fit in my varied exercise based hobbies: cycling, boxing, archery, skateboarding, a bit of yoga, table tennis etc. I’m currently experimenting with sleeping for 6 hours every night, so I can fit more stuff in. It also keeps me sane to have a totally different creative output outside of work, where I can make things quickly and see results in hours rather than years, so I have been making code driven generative art for a few years now.
- What has been your all-time favourite project that you’ve been involved with and why?
11-11 will always have a special place in my heart; for what we tried to achieve with the art style and story, but also for the awesome team we had working on it. It was all I thought about for a couple of years, and it was a pleasure to spend it with the team that we did from across the globe. And we had Elijah Wood and Sebastian Koch voicing the main characters, a truly amazing soundtrack by Olivier Deriviere and recorded by the London Philharmonia. It’s kind of amazing to think that now, remembering the first chats we had with Yoan Fanise (game director from Digixart) a few years ago, about doing this WW1 indie game together. Madness.
- What’s your best advice for people wanting to get into interactive production/game development?
There isn’t really a well-trodden path to becoming a producer. I think I learned the most about doing the job by putting on ‘alternative’ Xmas pantomimes in Bristol. As well as writing and directing, I had to make sure that these pantomimes actually happened and wrangle all the volunteers involved. You learn a lot of problem solving skills and whether you can keep calm under stress in a situation like that. So I would say, be really interested in the field you want to get in to, and start volunteering to organise stuff in that field: game jams, local events, short films or performances, anything. The most useful learning you’ll come away with is that you can pretty much do anything if you really try and make it happen, you just have to be really committed to finishing it.
- Who is your favourite Aardman character and why?
Purple and Brown! How Rich Webber gets so much expression out of little lumps of clay I’ll never know, but those shorts fill me with joy every time I see them.