Nickelodeon’s Kevin Richardson talks about his experiences as a producer

Nickelodeon’s Senior Producer Kevin Richardson talks with us about his most valuable lessons from being a producer, winning Volkswagen’s Fun Theory contest, the difference between personal and professional passions and how to make sure you enjoy your industry job without being disappointed by it.

A producer’s best practices

Richardson worked an entire year in Taipei with artists at Wang Films in 1986 for Hanna Barbera's The Pound Puppies and Flintstone Kids productions.

Richardson’s time in the film industry also played a great influence on how he looks at his projects, namely that the passion of the creator definitely leaves a mark on the final product. “You have to care about what you’re producing,” he argues. “If you don’t like the genre, material or content, then it would not very fun to go to work. I’d like to be very passionate about the content and the goals we want to achieve. If there’s nothing exciting in what we’re doing, we need to keep designing. The more fun the team is having, the more passionate the producer is, the better for the player. It’s always clear to the player if the team didn’t really care. That’s not to say we don’t get it wrong sometimes.”

When the going gets tough, Richardson looks back at the initial stage of each project he works on. He makes sure the bar is always set high from the start, removing doubt or uncertainty about the vision of each game. “I’ve learned that you have to make sure to have art, gameplay and other criteria in place before proceeding,” he says. “That you have some tangible measurements of quality that you establish before you begin the production, so that you don’t have to fix things later when everything is too far along.”

One of Richardson’s worst experiences as a producer has clearly shaped this approach and made sure that he never wants to have a similar experience again. “When you have a great game design document, a quality criteria document, an agreed budget and schedule, then the one thing that is out of your control is if the development team is on the verge of bankruptcy,” he says without mentioning at which company or team he was working with. “Twice I’ve had to deal with production where I was not getting the resources, teams were laid off in the middle of my production and I had to keep those productions going by calling up the CEO on the phone every day to keep the team on my project. To the point where they were considering to change their phone number. But I got those games out.”

The Speed Camera Lottery

The Fun Theory awards ceremony was held at a Stockholm Volkswagen dealership, which gave Richardson yet another great excuse to plan a trip to Sweden together with his family.

Richardson recently experienced a different kind of attention for his ideas when his entry won the Volkswagen Fun Theory contest. His winning concept called the Speed Camera Lottery, is currently being developed further in Sweden.

As many developers have tried very often, Richardson’s idea came forth from the desire to combine videogames with real life. He had read that speed cameras have had a proven negative effect on the number of traffic accidents and went to work. “A study shows that more people are having traffic accidents now with speed cameras at intersections than they did before,” he explains. “People think they might get caught, slam their breaks on and get rear ended. I think the Speed Camera Lottery has potential, is because it has an earnest intent to it. Its goal is not to make money, but to make driving safer, and obeying the law more fun.”

The rumour is that three prototypes are being built and are planned to be used in summer in various cities in Sweden. “Sweden has a goal to have zero fatalities from traffic accidents, so they’re very open minded to all kinds of ideas,” says Richardson. “And in Sweden your traffic fine can be up to ten percent of your yearly income, Recently a guy was fined two hundred and fifty thousand Krona I think. So theirs is a lot of enthusiasm about winning that kind of money.”

What excited him the most about the Fun Theory contest, was that it once again got him outside, just like his earlier work on the Ghost Town Mysteries franchise. “The fact that it’s an outdoor game and actually doing good is very exciting to me. It really tapped into my passions.”

Distinguishing personal and professional passions

Richardson is also currently developing a feature film with Bubble Guppies overseas animation director Claus Dzalakowski, who did the concept art for the project.

The recent Fun Theory experience has made Richardson appreciate the value of following his personal passions aside from his professional ones. “The personal thread I’ve had in my recent projects is looking for things that leads to some kind of personal adventure and personal growth.” Something that acknowledges his passion for the outdoors and entertainment was a winning mix.

There are a lot of industry professionals out there that have these passions and have not been able to express them in their work, even though they like their jobs. But how does Richardson handle that? What would his advice be for other? “I talk to my daughters about this all the time,” Richardson admits. “When you go to a job, working for and with other people and you’re hired to specifically build a role and accomplish certain things. The mistake is to believe that that specific job is going to satisfy all your professional and personal yearnings. That’s an unreasonable expectation.”

Among Richardson’s former colleagues and friends are people who have taken up doing comic strips, writing a children’s book or little flash games aside their regular day jobs. “I think the best time to start these projects that you’re super passionate about is right now,” he argues. “If you have a job that is so draining that you can’t do those things, it’s possible that it’s just not the right job, too. I get empowered from my work during the day, but when I get home I’m working on a screenplay or a children’s book with a guy in Tazmania. People I know in the audio side of the games business are doing record albums, personal projects, just for themselves.”

For Richardson himself, it is important to honour the things you’re passionate about. “That’s what will make you feel fully alive,” he adds. “Otherwise you get resentful about your job during the day because it’s not giving you everything you thought it should. Well, your job will never give you everything. Any more than your significant other should fulfill every emotional part of you. You have to hang out with your friends, go to museums, play sports, watch movies, take classes, and do other things. Don’t live life like wash-rinse-repeat, the instructions on the back of the shampoo bottle.”

Beyond the game gig

Richardson: “I tried for years to break into the newspaper comic strip business. However I must have drawn hundreds of comics, submitted them to newspapers and all the major syndicates, all rejected. Its a format that is very difficult.”

Richardson: “I tried for years to break into the newspaper comic strip business. However I must have drawn hundreds of comics, submitted them to newspapers and all the major syndicates, all rejected. Its a format that is very difficult. Try to draw a comic strip and immediately you have respect for the people who do them and what an art it is. Part of my therapy in raising daughters was drawing comic strips about them. Here’s one I found which is about a typical parent dilemma: How do you get them to stop playing video games and do their homework?”

The issue he and I discussed reflects on many other game professionals that enter this industry because of their passion for the medium, but too many tend to forgot that their work will also involve many aspects that are not as personally fulfilling as they would’ve expected. For Richardson, it goes beyond that and is something that has been engrained into our culture. “The mistake is that you’re going to school, work, get through your degree program and job into the job market,” he explains. “That’s kind of as far as you ever thought things should go. Nobody ever said to keep doing things on the side, to follow your passions, enrich your life and that your job is just one expression of your passion and gifts. You do that because you need to make money.”

The comparison to getting married was easily drawn. “The movie always end with people getting married,” he says. “They never talk about how difficult it is during a marriage and that you have to work at. Your spouse should not be the sole source of your happiness, just as your job shouldn’t be either.” Similarly, most people who get into this business are super creative people, but are often given the illusion that everything they will end up doing professionally is directly connected to their personal passions. “But you’re never going to get all your creative ideas out in any business,” Richardson argues. “You’re going to get out the ideas that are applicable to the specific game or company that you’re at.”

Honour your passions

One of Richardson’s many storyboards (there are tons) from the upcoming second Ghost Town Mysteries casual game, a franchise Richardson created together with Indian media companyHangama. This second installment in the franchise is coming out at the end of 2011 with Richardson as one of the artists on the project.

While the games industry is receiving a massive influx of passionate young people, lots of experienced professionals who get out of games seem to not be noticed as much. “If you think that everyone you’re working with loves to make games, it’s not true,” Richardson admits. “ If 95% of the world doesn’t like their job, that means that a fairly large percentage at each game company actually would rather not be making games. So you might be one of those passionate people who really loves making games, but a lot of people aren’t around you. I always thinks it’s a cause for celebration when someone finds their calling and goes for it. Many people are making games because that’s the job they fell into. In the film business I’ve seen animators become dancers, insurance salesman, writers, fine artists and so on. One of the big game engineers from the Learning Company now does database systems for Fells Fargo. He never ever wants to go back to games, but he was one of the best game engineers at that company. I think that you have to keep evolving and honour what you’re really passionate about, even if the answer means a complete 360 on where you are. If not now, in what life will you make that change?”

Seeing this happen around him, Richardson looks back at both his careers as enriching, but not the sole purpose of his enjoyment of life. “You could be a 3d animator and now you’re working for Pixar where you may realize that they’ve become really super corporate, since now they’re owned by Disney,” he explains. “But you tell yourself you don’t want to be a little fish in a big pond. I know guys like this who are now making comic books or personal films. They have a calling and they honour it.”

The big thing at CalArts when Richardson graduated was for graduates to go and work at Disney studios. “I could never see myself working there,” he admits. “I just couldn’t see myself be part of this huge corporate system, though at the same time I was jealous, too. Not because I wanted to work at Disney specifically, but because I wanted to avoid the loneliness that was ahead, where I’d have to carve out my own future and career path. Working for Disney would have prevented me from having to figure out my career on my own. But that’s the path I chose, and I am glad I did.”

Despite this comment we note that Kevin is credited for working on Disney’s Brave Little Toaster. “It was a great team, and I ‘ve never had so much fun,” he recalls. “And it made me realize I want to be in charge! So that experience just led me back to where I am today, still looking to push the envelope and stretch myself in the entertainment business as a creative person and producer.”

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Written by Vlad M.

Vlad wears many hats, but he's mostly known for his work as a freelance game journalist, researcher and consultant. He's always looking for the next game related project to sink his teeth in. You can find his adventures over on www.VGVisionary.com

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