Pathfinding: Communication across disciplines is vital
Learn how Naoko Takamoto navigated her career from contract musician to QA Lead to Senior Producer.
Over the summer, we learned how several women used their backgrounds in music to launch very different careers in gaming. To wrap up this feature series, today we're introducing Naoko Takamoto, a Senior Producer at Double Fine Productions, who shares how she made the journey from music to QA-focused roles and into production.
Growing up Naoko describes herself as "the kid with piano lessons who joined every band and choir I could find." She loved singing and writing songs and by high school had formed a girl group. After graduation, Naoko decided to skip college to focus on projects with local musicians and to join bands. She worked for several DJs and rappers and released her own solo album as "Plural". Looking back, Naoko says that not going to school both helped and hurt her. She says there are still many people in the game industry who are self-taught with an absolute love for video games, and that she has been given opportunities by studios that embrace that passion and allow for on-the-job learning. But she also remembers being unemployed and struggling to get interview call backs because there was no formal schooling on her resume.
During those times Naoko was looking for any job in which she could use her musical talents. So when she heard that Harmonix Music Systems was looking for contract musicians to compose and perform songs for their new game, Amplitude, she jumped at the chance. Although only one of her songs was used in the game, Naoko wasn't discouraged and returned to Harmonix soon after to be a QA tester for Karaoke Revolution. Naoko remembers thinking "Yeah, I'll sing all day. That sounds great, not like work at all."
While she enjoyed having a full-time job, Naoko still wasn't sure that the game industry was for her. She wanted to actively be a part of the entertainment industry and felt like games were just an adjacent interest unrelated to live entertainment. However, while working at Harmonix she came to realize that games are a unique part of the entertainment industry. Rather than putting pressure on herself to perform perfectly each night on stage, Naoko found that she enjoyed the extra time and effort she could put into making a game ready for release and appreciated that games could be purchased once and enjoyed repeatedly with friends and family.
After working her way up to QA Lead, Naoko decided to make the transition into Production, where she has stayed for 15 years. After over a decade at Harmonix, with career highlights including being Lead Producer on The Beatles: Rock Band, Dance Central, and Dance Central 2, Naoko decided to make a career change. She spent a year at Hasbro and two years at start-up Ice Crushed Games before joining Double Fine. Naoko is still an active musician as a backup singer in That Handsome Devil, a band that has been performing for 20 years and got its early boost from songs on the Guitar Hero 2 and Rock Band 2 soundtracks. She also has a personal project, Princess Problems, with music she writes and co-produces from her small home studio.
What a Senior Producer does
The central part of Naoko's job is planning, scheduling, and resourcing, skills she leveraged while owning the roadmaps and calendaring for Psychonauts 2. Still, Naoko says the key to being a successful producer is "getting a feel for the room and helping the team, figuring out what people need and what needs to happen. I have to make sure I understand the vision of the game and where it's going, then stay ahead of the team to make sure they are all unblocked and have what they need to make sure the game happens the way we all want."
As with many roles on a game development team, communication is key. Naoko works across the teams to understand what they need from each other and keeps everyone communicating. Starting out as a musician for games, Naoko needed to understand the meaning and tone that game creators were trying to convey and write lyrics that would further the storyline and game experience. Reflecting on how her time in QA prepared her for being a producer Naoko says, "In QA I was playing the game, trying to understand the game and what it's supposed to be versus what I was actually seeing. I needed to be meticulous about reporting and if something didn't seem right I needed to communicate that well, and learn how to communicate with each individual person. That was a transferable skill I got out of it."
As a Senior Producer, Naoko runs meetings, makes sure tasks make sense, and keeps everyone on track so they hit their deadlines. She says being a producer is similar to being a software scrum master, but she doesn't strictly follow the scrum process because she has found that a custom created process works better for the teams at Double Fine.
Life at Double Fine
As Naoko sees it, working at Double Fine is like being part of a family. There are some people that have been at the studio since its founding, and they make it a point to welcome new employees with open arms. With fewer than 100 employees, the studio is relatively small and often has multiple teams working on smaller projects. Psychonauts 2 was the exception, with a majority of the studio contributing to the title. Naoko said working with Double Fine founder Tim Schaefer "was exactly what I hoped it would be. He's silly, funny, and nice... and also smart and intimidating and sometimes drove me nuts, but he's just going to be himself all the time. I was a huge Psychonauts fan, but I never could have imagined I'd work on Psychonauts 2 with Tim. I'm a lucky girl."
Life at Double Fine had to evolve further during the pandemic. Allowing employees the flexibility to take time off to care for their families and their mental health was discussed openly as a studio priority, and they identified additional days off so that everyone could recharge. As it became clear that Covid was going to last longer than a few months, the studio pivoted to supporting employees even more by addressing home office needs and allowing people to relocate. As an East Coast native with an aging parent, Naoko made the decision to relocate to New York after Psychonauts 2 launched. She says Double Fine "has been really supportive. They are understanding about a lot of people needing to change how they live, where they live, and how they do things to support their families."
"I love video games. I've always loved video games," Naoko shares. "I didn't have a lot of access to video games when I was younger, but I always looked forward to playing Nintendo at my friend's house." When Harmonix was looking for musicians, she was excited to work for a video game company – and especially interested in the video game library that they had in the office.