Project Management

Project Management 101: Surviving Your First Production

So you have a kickin’ idea, a real cracker of a project. Something you’re going to need to hire people on for or gather collaborators. But maybe you’re a little new to this whole….producer/director/creator thing. Where do you start? Let’s look at a quick rundown of how you can get your project off to a good start. Follow up articles will go into more details on  some of these subjects.

What is your project? What are you trying to do?

A solid project starts with solid parameters. This is called its “scope” and describes the elements and complexity necessary for a project to achieve a given goal. We apply this creatively by starting with a deceptively simple question: What are you trying to do?  Are we looking to entertain, inform, tell a story, explore a theme, experiment with a mechanic, push boundaries, expand your skillset, etc etc. After that you ask yourself how you’re going to pull this thing off, and answering that question gives you the basics of your scope.

The bare minimum for a comic dub, for example, is to have the comic readable while listening to the vocal interpretation. Most people choose to do that via a video, but that’s not necessarily required to achieve the basic functionality of the concept. You may choose to go beyond a basic interpretation and include fancy vfx like lip flaps and moving panels. That’s all part of your scope and should be determined right off the bat.

Scope ostensibly also has you determine what isn’t an aspect of your production. Setting yourself a clear understanding of the extents of your project will help you deal with things like feature creep and game bloat, prevent you from getting overwhelmed, and help you create and keep to a reasonable content creation or development calendar. Not every project has to be your magnum opus. Sometimes the smaller, more compact, and more focused a creation is, the better you’re able to deliver the message you want to deliver.

We determine our scope so early because it sets the expectations for the rest of the project. The very next thing you’ll need to consider is whether this is a thing you can actually, physically do in terms of time and skill and a whole bunch of other smaller factors.

Scheduling is something that a lot of people don’t always take into consideration. If you want to start producing, you need to be able to actually devote the time to managing your project. They don’t make themselves. So, what’s going on in your life? If you’ve got:

  • finals
  • play season
  • competition season
  • a big move
  • a new job starting
  • a family situation
  • major medical treatments or surgeries
  • crunch or overtime at your day job

or anything else that’s going to eat up your life, hold off on the project until your schedule clears up. That also applies to how your time might shift in the near future if you’re looking at something more long-term. You may get a lot of free time between jobs or semesters, and then lose it all of sudden eight weeks later. Make sure you’re working around that, too. In my hobby days I was cast in a lot of projects that never took off because “oop, the producer had finals coming up and disappeared for three weeks” and everyone sort of jumped ship

When all these things are up for consideration, it’s easy to get overwhelmed figuring out what you need to do. That’s fine. Start with a small prototype of your bigger idea, something you know you can do on your own. See how much time it takes you. What you might think will only take an afternoon might actually take you a week. It’ll also help you get your creative bearings. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to do everything perfectly the first time.

How will you do it?

You’ve established your scope. You think you have a solid idea of what you want to do and are pretty certain you can pull it off. Neat. Now you’ve got to start breaking your proposed project down into little pieces.

Say you’re doing the video comic dub we talked about before. You need the comic (and permission to dub it), the voices, and the software and know-how to put it all together. What software is that going to require? What voice actors do you need? How and where are you going to post it? Something more complicated like a visual novel is going to require writing, basic programming and narrative design, sprite art, background art, gui art, music, and maybe voice acting if you want to take on that burden. Other styles of game will have other requirements and additional moving parts. Even an audio drama, which might seem simple on the surface, has hidden complexities in its episodic format, cast management, and soundscaping. Do your research. Play or watch multiple examples of the thing you’re trying to make and look at what the pieces are and all the different ways you can put them together.

Make a list, an actual, physical written list that you can look at and dissect. Divide it up between things you can already do, things you think you can learn to do, and things you might have to find someone to do for you. This is where a small test project and experimenting is going to help you most. You won’t know if you can animate a title sequence if you’ve never done it before. You might surprise yourself with what you’re able to do, but you don’t want to be making those sorts of discoveries halfway into production.

Who will do it?

Once you figure out what you need, you’ll need to determine who’s doing it. The hard fact of this: unless you’re hiring a full staff and monetarily compensating them, you’ll be doing most of the work. You should be doing most of the work. This is your baby. That’s not to say you can’t team up with a collaborator and share the workload. Maybe you’re a voice actor and your friend’s a video editor and you pair up to do comic dubs. Cool. You could be an artist/writer team that creates a comic together. That’s fine. That’s great, even. Learn how to work together.

So what if you want to do something that you don’t know how to do? Maybe you have a really great idea for a novel, but you don’t know how to write. That’s an okay thing. It happens. There’s a whole industry built around ghost writing and script doctors, and you can absolutely pay someone to do that for you. With “pay” being the operative word. Even then, writers require things like outlines and style bibles and an inkling of where you intend this thing to go. In the end, just don’t be that guy who gathers up a bunch of people for a fandub then expects everyone else to do all the work.

When do you do what?

These people you’re gathering up also need to come into the project at the right time. Voice actors don’t want to be sitting around waiting for scripts for six months. You don’t technically need a video editor for your anime abridgement until you have all the component parts ready and have an idea of the time commitment. A composer needs to know things like overall aesthetic and what musical themes might be necessary. In an ideal situation, you’re trying to keep your collaborators from having to wait around while you get your act together.

If you reach out to an artist in May, for example, but don’t get them the materials they need until August, you can’t be surprised when suddenly they can’t work on your project because they have other commitments. This applies even if you’re paying someone on commission to work on something for you. Imagine interviewing for a job and getting hired only to be told the job isn’t actually open for another six months.

We figure this all out by using our list of things to do from before. Reading about, watching videos, and straight up asking fellow creators about their behind the scenes process will start to lay out the order in which things generally go down. Some projects are going to be simple. An audio play goes writing->voice acting->edit it all together->add SFX. An RPG, even a simple one, is going to be infinitely more complicated, but careful study of the medium and its development is going to help you create a timeline you can work from.

These timelines are going to give a general idea of “when to recruit/hire,” so to speak. Things like writing and asset creation are going to be early in production with voice acting being one of the last things you worry about, editing in its various forms will be needed even later, and things like programming will have places throughout. Getting the flow of these things is another reason it’s good to start with less demanding projects.

Where do you find the people/resources you need?

You know what you need to do, you know who you need to recruit to help you do it…where do you find these people? You’ve got a couple of options depending on what you’re trying to make. At the end, I’ve included a list of places I’ve learned of over the years that can be useful for finding collaborators.

There are also media-centric communities where like-minded creators can get together and swap tips and advice. Finding these communities is going to give a you a lot of insight into how recruitment for what you need is done. Every site and recruitment board has its own personality and working parameters. You may have to write a casting call or provide specific details. Observe how veteran members act before you make your first post.

In your recruitment, you’re also going to meet individual creatives that have specific requirements and standards. Some people will work for free, some have certain rates, some will wiggle more on those rates than others depending on what the project is. No matter what, though, if you want to hire a creative, you have to meet their requirements. Period. If they only work on commission, then they only work on commission. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if they worked for free for someone else or they’ve done similar projects for a lower rate in the past. No one owes you their time or their talent. Take “no” for an answer.

Why is it falling apart?

Let’s assume everything’s gone to plan. Your project’s up and running, and things are going great…until they aren’t.

Maybe you lose a staff member. A writer goes MIA, an artist doesn’t deliver on their commission, or an actor never delivers their lines. Maybe it’s a legitimate issue (new job, sudden family situation), they tell you this has to happen, and you all work it out. Maybe they don’t and just vanish on you. In any case, you have to replace them. It happens. Go back to these resources you used before and recruit again. During the recruitment process, explain that you’re partially into the project and what should be expected. If an artist has to mimic the style of another artist or a writer has to fill the shoes of another writer, they need to know this. Joining a project from the beginning is a little different than jumping in half-way, and most creatives are going to want to know that.

Never, at any point, denigrate or publicly defame the person previously in that position. If you’re asked about it by the new staff member or another producer, tell the truth. That’s fine. There’s a huge difference, though, between telling a fellow game dev “Yeah, they stopped returning my messages” and blasting your complaints all over twitter. Maybe they deserve it, but you’re the one that’ll develop the reputation of being difficult to work with.

Which is an additional thing you need to take into consideration if people are dropping out of your project. One person? It happens. Two people? Maybe you made a mistake or two, or got a little unlucky. Three? Four? Five? That’s when you have sit down, look at all the moving parts, and figure out what the common factor is. There’s a high probability that it’s you. Your project may be unorganized or going off the rails. Maybe the communication fell apart on your side. Maybe you’re not easy to work with, and people don’t want to deal with you anymore. You may be the problem, and you have to face that. Part of being a good manager/producer/boss is recognizing when you’re own shortcomings may be negatively affecting the project and how to compensate for that. You may have to make some fundamental changes to yourself or your process, and you need to be ready for that.

You may also run into a host of other problems as you’re developing your project:

  • Fatigue
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Job/school change
  • Family/life emergencies
  • Losing passion
  • Feature creep and loss of scope
  • Funding falling through

Any and all of these things can stall or derail a project. And when things fall apart, they can fall apart quickly. There are different solutions depending on the complexity of your problem, but they all benefit from things like self-reflection and being honest with your own abilities. The project may have been too big for you. New responsibilities may now be taking up too much of your time to be able to keep this project afloat. These are things you might not figure out until well into production and suddenly don’t know what to do. And that’s okay. Sometimes our productions end up being that sort of learning experience. Sometimes the thing that has to give when finding the appropriate work/life/mental health balance is that RPG Maker game you really really wanted to make.

Any production comes with major hurdles, and you’re not a failure if you’re first project or even your tenth project falls through or doesn’t live up to your expectations. Figure out what went wrong, pick yourself up, and try again when you’re ready.


Some resources for recruitment. Will be updated with new information as its learned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.