Murad Musakaev moved to the game industry from law, got the chance to work at a small Russian game development company, and is now the producer of the mobile puzzle game Penny & Flo for the Danish developer Tactile Games. The Inlingo team spoke with Murad and learned what working in court has in common with project management, what team a good producer plays for, and why delicious buns are just as important as successful games.
“Compared to government agencies, game dev wins out, no question.”
— How did you end up going from the field of law to game development?
— Actually, it’s not as dramatic of a change as it may seem. It was a smooth transition. I started working in the courts because I was educated as a lawyer, and I had basically always wanted to do that. In my last few years there, I served as a senior judicial assistant, which is kind of like a project manager. You have to manage the work of the regular assistants, plan the schedule, and determine which of them will work with which judge. This experience came in handy later. But, after working in the courts for five years, I got a bit disillusioned with the system and became interested in trying a more creative profession.
Before that, being creative was like a hobby: I made music, wrote stories, and played games all my life. I have extensive experience with games, which now helps me in my daily work as a producer because it’s all applicable one way or another. It’s just that I didn’t think it was possible to make a real living in games before. And when I was at this crossroads in my career, I met a former classmate who happened to be opening a mobile game dev company. Back then, it was called Fahrenheit Lab—now it’s Full HP. And he invited me on board, as a lawyer initially, to handle copyright issues. But, as often happens at small companies, I ended up playing several roles: I handled legal concerns, project management, and business development, which involved talking to our partners. Eventually, I decided that, of all the possible options for career advancement, I was most interested in overseeing projects, planning, and management.
— How different is working in game development from your experience in the courts?
— The court has more strict rules. And often you have to follow them not because it’s better for the process or it’s the right way to do things, but because that’s just how it is. You do still come across that in the game industry too, but generally, it has a more flexible attitude. Compared to government agencies, game dev wins out, no question.
In the courts, the conventional categories of “client” and “contractor” are much more regulated because how you interact with the judges and how you interact with citizens are two completely different universes. But in the game industry, you’d talk to a player more or less the same way you talk to your art director because there isn’t a strict hierarchy. That said, the experience I got in government agencies communicating with people from different backgrounds and of different ages is a really big help in my everyday work in the game industry.
In some situations, a problem is really easy to solve: you just have to go to someone who can solve it and talk to them. But sometimes you need an intermediary to do that, someone who will hold you by the hand, lead you along, and help you find common ground. That’s who a producer is. And being a mediator who can help people to develop a shared understanding is what I learnt in the courts.
“It’s very hard to be a good producer with an inflated ego.”
— What duties does a game producer’s job consist of?
— It’s different in different companies. In some places, the producer is a one-man band who has to be able to program, make analytical requests, and also know game design. Sometimes, however, it’s more of an economic position where you handle resources, teams, and planning their budget. But generally speaking, a producer is a problem-solver: you have to identify problems, the pain points of your project, and deal with them on a daily basis.
In my case, the job boils down to searching for management tools and rituals that will cause my team the least amount of distress. That’s the foundation that the demands of different teams and companies build on. Let’s say, for example, I had to dive into the analytics at Tactile to test hypotheses about how users behave under certain conditions. If you know basic SQL, you can weed through ten crazy theories to find the one that actually resembles the truth. Then you take that to a professional data analyst and go deeper with testing to find out why, for example, your retention fell.
On the whole, as a producer, you look at product issues from your own vantage point and examine pain points within a team—you operate things both internally and externally.
— So, is a producer’s job more about the product or the team?
— It depends on the team’s needs. In some companies, there is no producer. There’s the project manager and the product owner. Broadly speaking, the project manager deals only with processes, and the product owner deals only with the product. A producer is somewhere in the middle, a combination of these positions, plus a little more.
For example, in my previous company, there was no game director or product owner. There were a CEO with his vision and game designers for each game. And my job was more about processes than the product. I had some ideas and comments about the product, but they were minimal for the most part. I was more involved with meetings, exchange of experience, and team building.
At Tactile, we have the position of game director. They completely shape the vision for a project and come to the producer with creative proposals like, “This week, let’s do an episode where our heroes go into space.” And you try to balance resources and the time you’ll be able to do that in, as well as put these creative ideas into a defined framework. In other words, at Tactile, the game director deals more with content, while the producer deals more with form. But, once again, it all comes down to processes.
— Does a producer need to know everything that’s going on in the company?
— My previous company had 30 employees. Tactile has 300. And the difference in how many tasks you can take on was immediately obvious. At Tactile, there are two main big games, a whole smattering of smaller ones, and a few projects in development. It’s extremely hard to keep it all under control.
We have a head of production who handles high-level problems and delegates what’s happening with projects to the producers. So, head of production doesn’t always have to delve deeper. On the other hand, as the producer of Penny & Flo, I have a general idea of what’s going on with Lily’s Garden and occasionally take part in some broader processes. But if my job was to fully maintain both these games, I wouldn’t have time to give them the attention they need. And the quality of my work would suffer as a result.
At larger companies, especially in the AAA industry, the situation can be the reverse: there’s sometimes almost one producer for every employee. This turns into micromanagement. There should be a common-sense balance based on what’s useful for the project. When you’re in charge of a lot of stuff, it doesn’t allow you to notice the little details, but they are crucial to making the product better. It’s when we miss the little details that we fall short.
— When you’re working on Penny & Flo, do you need to know what each member of the team is doing?
— Ideally, I need to have a general idea of what stage each employee is at. Because, when you’re discussing processes in different teams or for a project in general, if there’s a bottleneck somewhere, it tends to come down to two or three people communicating.
Again, the Penny & Flo team isn’t the biggest at Tactile—we have almost 40 people, not including the teams that are outside of Denmark. With that amount of people, it’s possible to keep an eye on them and have a general idea of what they’re doing. But if my team had 100 people, it would be much more difficult. In that case, I’d need additional points of contact—team leads or senior specialists.
— How do you know if a game producer is managing their work and doing a good job?
— No sprint is the same as the previous one. In other words, you can’t compare them directly. However, you can compare a team’s productivity in different sprints. That’s the first measuring stick. The second is a project’s KPIs. If, over a particular period of time, you managed to improve a game’s metrics through product- or process-related decisions while using the same amount of resources, then good job. But the credit goes to not just the producer, but the whole team. And therein lies the cornerstone of this job: it’s very hard to be a good producer with an inflated ego. Because, most of the time, your achievements stay under the radar, behind the scenes. Everything that happens on stage is the work of the team. I guess it’s like the film industry: you rarely remember who produced a film, but you know the director and who played the lead role. But, again, there was a lot of work behind it.
“Any minute you save is a good thing.”
— How has COVID changed a producer’s job? Has it made it more difficult? Or maybe the opposite: has it made some things easier?
— There have been changes, of course. I think it’s been a great experience, very useful, because even without COVID, many companies have offices in different countries. The entire situation forced humanity to fine-tune working online. And I think that benefited distributed teams like ours. We found tools that help us work together in a more active and visible way. Three years ago, let’s say, I couldn’t have imagined that four people could work on an online whiteboard simultaneously and brainstorm in a format like that. But now it just feels natural.
Tactile gives opportunities for learning but also for sharing best practices
However, I still think that working together in person, when the entire team is in front of you, is much more effective, simply because my job is mostly about communication and response speed. Plus, more ideas emerge in an office. There’s a lot of “work-adjacent” communication there: when you ride in the elevator together, go to lunch, or wait for the coffee to brew, you talk about something. Those conversations sometimes give rise to very interesting ideas that then turn into something bigger. In the virtual workflow, I miss that, and I still haven’t come up with a way to reproduce it online. Somewhere there are probably geniuses who are already doing it.
— You mentioned online whiteboards. What other life hacks or tools for work management can you recommend?
— My number-one life hack is to try to avoid using tools you don’t need. I recommend concentrating everything in one place rather than spreading things out across multiple services. Otherwise, your workflow turns into chaos. I can’t say I have preferences when it comes to tools. For example, there are lots of task trackers: Jira, monday.com, Notion, ClickUp, Asana. That doesn’t mean that one of them is better or worse than another. They all have their advantages. The question is what exactly your team needs.
For instance, we had a situation where we had to use planning poker to prioritize tasks. That’s when a few people pick a number from the Fibonacci sequence, and you try to figure out how much of a priority that task is—how much it’s “worth” in points, so to speak. If you’re sitting in the same room, you can use real cards. If you’re online, there are different sites for it, including paid subscriptions. The task tracker monday.com has a setting that lets you do this kind of prioritization. However, monday.com doesn’t have a way to structure processes, specifically your workflow dependencies — what follows what. Jira has this feature, and you can automate it.
Small improvements to your workflow that save you, let’s say, a minute per hour, are still important. In the long run, that’s an extra half hour a week, two hours a month. In those two hours, you could do a global retrospective of a project and hear your team’s report, which you didn’t have time for before. So, any minute you save is a good thing.
“I’ve never considered mobile games garbage, not in the past and not now.”
— You were involved with mobile games before this job, and you still are. How do you organize the work for mobile games?
— Often, it’s several processes that build on one another. My previous company made shooters without a storyline. The new content for them all had the theme of “more in-game purchases”: more weapons and skins, more maps, and new game modes. It wasn’t as time-sensitive as the storylines that we release at Tactile, where a new episode comes out every week. Lily’s Garden has been doing this for four years now, and Penny & Flo for two years. That doesn’t mean that every week we’re thinking, “Alright, and what about next week?” The work proceeds in layers, in several parallel stages that are planned in advance.
— So, for games like Penny & Flo, the narrative plays a pretty important role, right?
— Yes, we’re very proud of our narrative. We believe that, compared to many games, ours is rather strong. I can’t say our competitors are writing trash and we’re making a masterpiece, because that’s not the case. I know many great games of the same genre on the market. But we touch on more hot-button social issues in our storylines at Tactile. They may reach a smaller audience, but our players end up being more engaged as a result. If you look at our positive reviews in the app stores, around 80% of them mention our stories in one way or another. People love them.
— Still, building an endless process seems a little frightening.
— The process itself is almost entirely built on analytics. It’s important to keep audience demand in mind—how often they need new content. Experience has shown that releasing stories even once a week is not often enough for our players. That’s why we try to add events such as tournaments in the middle of the week. But even releasing a new episode on Wednesday or Friday can play out in different ways. Because players consume a story over a certain amount of time, and what day they finish it on also matters. In other words, first you release an episode any which way, and then you collect data about it, optimize it, collect data again, and after that it’s an automatic process. Release something, collect data, see the mistakes, start a new stage. That’s the only way to do it.
— Then the launch of every new season gets more and more seamless?
— Right. I joined Penny & Flo after the soft launch at the start of the first season. The second season started in July 2021, and the third in early May 2022. The transitions really did get smoother and smoother. And we saw great improvements in both transferring processes from one game director to another and preproduction for a season. Big intervals of time help you see how the production quality of a season grew, even though the number of people on the team stayed the same or was even reduced. Accordingly, if you manage to earn the same amount of money with fewer people, that’s a very good indicator of a producer in particular doing great work.
— Penny & Flo was recently nominated for a game award. Can you tell us more about that?
— Penny & Flo was nominated for the best game with live support by the Danish Producers’ Association in competition for the Spilprisen prize. But we didn’t win. But this prize is aimed at larger platforms, and when you’re nominated in the same category as AAA games, it’s obvious who they’re going to pick.
With conferences and nominations in general, when you mix the mobile and computer game industries, mobile suffers the most. Everyone who does business in the computer game industry treats mobile games as inferior, especially content consumers. “Mobile games aren’t real games,” even though they make up a huge part of the market. But the tide is changing, which is nice. I’ve never considered mobile games garbage, not in the past and not now, so I’m very glad people are starting to understand that too.
Now the line between the mobile market and the desktop and console market is growing increasingly blurred. More and more companies are paying attention to mobile games and bringing well-known franchises into this market. Sony recently announced that half its games will be released on mobile platforms and PC by 2023, whereas previously they were only available on PlayStation. Microsoft created a great solution with Project xCloud, which allows you to play Xbox games on your phone. That’s really exciting. If five years ago someone had told me that would be possible, I would’ve thought they were nuts.
— Some people think the classic, giant traditional game companies can’t do anything on the mobile market. What would you say to that?
— You can look at the success of Call of Duty: Mobile and say that’s not true. The mobile adaptation of EVE Online that NetEase and CCP released has performed well, and the same can be said of Call of Duty and Crash Bandicoot. Apex Legends Mobile came out recently, and while it’s too early to draw conclusions, the initial reviews have been good. I played it and liked it. I play the “older” version a lot, and the mobile one is very well done. It’s colorful, it’s easy to play, and the controls are awesome.
— What new trends have you noticed in the mobile market?
— The latest trend is cryptocurrency and NFTs. It’s especially relevant when you think about recent global events and how Russian players can’t pay by bank card internationally. They’re not going to take over the world in the next year or two, at least not until someone offers an actually worthwhile way to use NFTs and crypto—for players, not just for businesses.
Also, after Epic Games’ lawsuit against Apple, alternative mobile app stores are actively promoting themselves, getting in touch with developers, and making partnership offers. But I don’t think any of them will go global.
“In Europe, a producer at a mobile studio is like a baker or a carpenter.”
— What’s the most difficult part of your job right now?
— The hardest thing right now is working with the department that makes the levels or areas with rooms that you decorate. At the moment, we are actively working on improving the area production, together with the new art director. The visual style and our internal processes are changing, and now I’m trying to make this transition as painless as possible for the team and as effective as possible for the project. Everything changed right in the middle of a season—that’s just how it worked out. As a result, we need to tweak our processes as carefully as possible so there isn’t a negative impact on the team or players.
— Are you more on the side of the stakeholders or the team here? Which side do you play for, in other words?
— That’s the nice thing about game dev compared to my court experience: I don’t have to make a choice like that here. Everyone who’s part of the game’s development, by default, is on one side, and the players, or content consumers, are on the other. Within a team that’s producing content, there shouldn’t be any “sides.” If there are, that’s a problem with the process that the producer needs to fix. So, I don’t take anyone’s side. I’m trying to find a balance between interests.
— You worked in the Russian game industry for a while and then ended up at a Danish company. Are there any big differences in the processes or the approach to work?
— Maybe it’s subjective, but I have the impression that, in Russia, game dev considers itself a special caste. When I talk to Russian developers, I often get the impression that game dev is above everyone, IT comes next, and then everyone else is at the bottom. And IT specialists think the opposite, that they’re on top.
But here, a producer or developer at a mobile studio is like a baker or a carpenter. They’re just another profession. And that creates a more comfortable work environment, at least for me. Because I don’t feel like the people who’ve come to work for the company treat game development as something extraordinary. It’s clear that they are awesome specialists who make great games, but it doesn’t mean that they are better than the baker who also makes a great product—they’ve got amazing buns and their own bakery.
— Did you have a hard time adjusting to work in a different country?
— Surprisingly, no. Tactile cares about its employees and helps them cut through red tape, and everything’s as painless as possible. I moved with my wife. First, I came, and some time later, she followed with our dog. And Tactile helped not just me, but her and the dog too. It’s definitely touching because you can see that the company isn’t apathetic—they really are interested in you joining the company and feeling as comfortable here as possible. This makes you want to extend this feeling to everyone who comes to the company and show it through the processes that are in place: “Guys, I hear your feedback, and I want to create a more comfortable environment for you. Let’s do it together.”
— Is it also the producer’s job to make sure their team doesn’t burn out?
— We have regular development talks with everyone on the team. They discuss what has gone well and what they want to achieve in the next three to six months. This is where they give signals: for example, an employee is tired of the art style, doesn’t like working with this game director, or just feels like doing something new. As a producer, I also periodically meet one-on-one with my team. It’s a long but very important process. It allows you to see where there’s a misunderstanding or dissatisfaction bubbling up and respond to it before the person comes to you themself and says, “Man, I can’t work on this project anymore. Move me somewhere else.” When people see this kind of approach, they are more open and inclined to share.
We’ve had cases where people changed positions because they no longer enjoyed what they were doing. They wanted to find themselves doing something else. In that situation, Tactile makes accommodations. There’s no point keeping someone in a position if they’re not happy there, because it doesn’t do anyone any good—not the employee, and not the company.
— Let’s say you wake up a year from now and realize being a producer isn’t making you happy. What would you want to do?
— Well, I did once wake up like that and realize that law wasn’t making me happy, so I’ve been in that place before. So far, I enjoy being a producer. But I still love to write. I used to do it as a hobby in my pre-game dev days and still do on occasion. So, I’d say narrative design would also be interesting.
— Would you be interested in moving from mobile games to traditional game development?
— I talk a lot with people who work in traditional game dev, and they all say it’s different from mobile. Many say it’s not different in a good way. However, I would still be interested because I’ve played traditional games for most of my life. For me, they have a romantic mystique. As a specialist, I’m interested in looking at games from all possible viewpoints.