Having worked in the game industry for close to 25 years — as a producer, project manager, and much more — Ellen Beeman knows a thing or two about the business of making games.
“I’ve got all these war stories where I can tell all the students, ‘Here’s what went wrong on my project. Please try not to do that,’” she says jokingly.
After getting her start at game developer Sierra, Beeman went on to hold positions at Origin, EA, Microsoft, and Glu Mobile. She’s also spent time as an entrepreneur and freelancer for companies like Disney and Sega. In 2006, Edge Magazine named Beeman one of the game industry’s 100 most influential women.
Today, as a senior lecturer in DigiPen’s Department of Game Software Design and Production, Beeman is more than happy to be sharing some of her accumulated knowledge to a new generation of up-and-coming developers.
Specifically, Beeman helps teach the game project courses, presenting on topics that will help students to organize and sort through some of the many challenges that coincide with working on a collaborative endeavor.
“In their other classes, the students are learning game design techniques, programming techniques. And the game class is where they bring it all together,” Beeman says. “And to me it’s so incredibly important, because they’re putting everything into practice. But they’re also learning how to work as a team.”
Prior to joining the game industry, Beeman worked as a writer for film and television. Some of her early credits were for the animated series Jem and the Holograms, and her episodes have since appeared in DVD collections. She’s also a novelist, having authored and co-authored four fantasy and science-fiction novels under the name Ellen Guon.
Beeman’s career took a vastly different trajectory, however, when she began working at game developer Origin in the early 1990s. After being hired on as a writer for the space combat game Wing Commander II — now considered a PC classic — she was only six weeks into her job when the studio pegged her as a capable project manager.
In addition to her story and script work, Beeman went on to be credited as the game’s assistant director.
“I hope what they saw is that the team worked better when I was helping organize and guide people,” Beeman says. “After that … I was mostly a game producer.”
Being a producer, she says, is not for everybody. Whenever someone approaches her for advice about how to become one, she likes to respond with a helpful question.
“Do you want to do the work, or do you want to help other people be better at doing the work?” Beeman says. “Because to me the joy of being a game producer is you help build a team, and then they accomplish amazing things. And it’s pretty magical.”
For students at DigiPen, Beeman says one of the best things they can do if they’re considering a career in producing is to volunteer as the producer on a game project team. They may come to discover it’s not a job they actually enjoy.
She also invites her prospective producers to meet with her for one-on-one mentoring.
“They schedule with me, and we talk about production challenges and how you deal with different things, and I love that,” Beeman says. “It’s funny. The students sometimes tell me, ‘Oh, I’m having all these problems on my project and my team.’ And I’m like, ‘Awesome!’”
While it might not be the response students expect to hear, Beeman goes on to clarify.
“I say, ‘You’re learning things that will help you later. That’s what’s awesome. I’m sorry you’re having trouble now, but you’re learning some really, really useful things,’” Beeman says. “It’s one of those jobs you learn by doing, but there’s myself and the other instructors who have been game producers who are ready to support and help our students learn.”
Professor Beeman writes about a wide range of industry-related topics on her personal website at www.ellenbeeman.com.