Product managers (PM) play a pivotal role in the games industry. Many PMs run their game(s) like a CEO runs a company. They manage a team, fulfill a long roadmap with countless deliverables and strict deadlines, and full P&L responsibility. Producing a successful live-operated free-to-play (F2P) game with frequent content updates, one-off events, tournaments, special sales, and a vocal community would not be possible without a PM navigating the ship.
Like the CEO of a larger organization, PMs face constant prioritization battles. They need to balance learning from the past through data analysis and player feedback with the challenges of swiftly pushing product development, meeting financial goals, and building corresponding roadmaps and teams, all while testing as much as possible. Simply put, PMs need to stay on top of everything. Needless to say, most of them are permanently overworked, and time (or rather the lack thereof) is their very own “premium currency” challenge.
Because PMs are so crucial to today’s game industry, I wanted to understand what makes them tick, how they work, how they solve distinct problems, what they enjoy, dislike, and wish for. To find out, I interviewed over 60 industry veterans, working at big name companies such as Electronic Arts, King, Disney, Rovio, Activision, Tencent, Mixi, ZeptoLab, Zynga, Wargaming, Scopely, Pokerstars, NBCUniversal, Flaregames, Kixeye, Outfit7, PeakGames, Plarium, BigPoint, GSN, Natural Motion, Nexters, and Gamigo as well as PMs at small indie studios. On average, my interviews lasted for an hour. This is the first post in a series dedicated to PMs and their incredible work.
To understand a PM’s work, we first need to understand his/her mindset. In other words, what motivates a PM, what they love about their jobs, and what they hate:
What Product Managers Love About Their Job:
1. Insight Generation
Almost every PM I interviewed expressed a profound love for “generating insights.” Coming up with a “key hypothesis,” “digging into data,” “observing how players interact with the game,” and “understanding human behavior” are frequently labeled as “very enjoyable” parts of the PM role. A product manager that runs a movie-branded game for a major publisher passionately described how he feels when he uncovers new insights:
“You are closest to data, you are the first to understand if a feature you shipped works or not. These aha-moments, the moment where you see the connection between X and Y, the detective work, these things are super satisfying!”
Many went even deeper and specifically mentioned that they particularly enjoyed “solving hard problems” that require unusual, outside-the-box thinking. I got the impression that the holy grail of problems a PM can solve is improving the core game loop such that player retention is boosted. “Sharing newly gained insights” within their game team or even “evangelizing” them within the whole organization were also mentioned as particularly rewarding activities.
2. Creative Process
Not surprisingly, product development, in all its facets, was also mentioned by many as highly enjoyable work. “Designing and developing new game features” and improving existing ones based on “learnings” received many votes. Not quite as popular, but still appreciated by several respondents, was “improving processes” (related to game management), working on “overall strategy,” and “catering to the player community”.
3. Managing a Team and Resources
A few PMs mentioned that they enjoyed their leadership roles within their teams, particularly “managing people” and “hiring new team members.” Others expressed pleasure in “financial forecasting” and general “planning.”
4. In General, Just Being a PM
The general sentiment among the PMs I spoke to was that they were overall very happy with their jobs. Generally, there seems to be a high satisfaction rate. Some of them went as far as stating, “I love everything” or “I enjoy all aspects of my work.”
What Product Managers Hate About Their Job:
1. Manual Work
Not surprisingly, there are also aspects of being a PM that almost everybody agreed they hated: “manual work” due to the use of “poor tools.” The most common responses in this category related to “tedious” tasks like “offer management,” “segmentation work,” “campaign configuration,” “in-game event scheduling,” “creative optimization” for offers and user acquisition (UA), and “test coordination.” According to many PMs, these are the biggest time sinks, with many reporting that, on average, their team spends at least one day per week manually working on recurring offers and campaigns -- time that should be spent on other, more important and financially fruitful tasks. One PM from a big publisher said that he had to literally manually copy and paste over 70 JSON files per week to support campaigns in different locations. Another PM said that she had to set her alarm clock for early hours every weekend to log in to their live-ops console and manually hit the start button for events and accompanying currency sales in different time zones.
2. Flawed and Insufficient Data
Almost equal to “manual work” PMs mentioned that “tedious data work” was among the most frustrating parts of their role. This category encompasses everything from working with “crappy tools,” “cleaning data,” and “maintaining the data pipeline” to “matching various data sets” and “losing time because of other people’s messed up data.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a widely loved aspect of the PM role (“generating insights”) is directly related to one of the most hated. Understanding player behavior becomes incredibly hard when you have faulty data or insufficient tools. However, understanding behavior is so important that dealing with the bad data can’t be avoided. PMs (begrudgingly) work with what they have, wasting precious time and energy along the way.
3. Redundancy and Friction
This third category has an even broader scope than the previous two with each of the mentions receiving fewer individual votes. All of the comments below share a common theme: redundancy and unnecessary friction. “Too many meetings” was mentioned several times as was working on things that “make no difference.” Many PMs disliked the process of “pitching to leadership” and “advertising within the company,” which required them to “frame numbers” to fit a particular context, and “make PowerPoints.” Some even went so far as to specifically mention ego-infused “leadership drama” and “politics”. “Managing people” got a few negative votes and therefore represents the only aspect of a PM’s work that was controversial between the respondents (a few specifically mentioned they liked this aspect of their work, while others made clear they did not).
Product managers are passionate and driven people. They are dedicated to their jobs, but probably even more so to their beliefs. They are curious, hungry for progress, and always challenging the status quo. They do everything in their power to understand player behavior. They want to have an impact, push the envelope, be the first to discover something new. They like responsibility, being thought leaders, and to “own” their game’s business in the best sense. But, because they are so aspiring and hungry, they also get frustrated by inefficiencies and redundant work. PMs hate to waste time, insufficient tools, and (unnecessary) manual labor. As process and results-driven people, they are irritated by company politics, confront boiler-plate meetings with impatience, and have a strong distaste for massaging a message and numbers so they can be internally sold, rather than assessing them purely as fact-based. As a group, PMs have many things in common. But they are also a particular bunch. They differ in how they come up with hypotheses, in what they consider to be the most relevant data, and in how they approach problems. Managing people is not every product manager’s dream, but some do enjoy it thoroughly.
Great product managers are versatile human beings that possess a broad array of game, data, business, and interpersonal skills. Finding all those skills combined in one human being is rare. That’s why great PMs are so valuable and sought after. I have heard countless times from C-level executives and top publishers that they desperately need a “great PM.”