Leaving CDProjekt RED, a first step in the dark (Part 3)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Most game releases feel like an explosion. Pressure rises for months until the big boom of the release, followed by an incredibly calm, often boring, period.
The release of The Witcher 3 didn’t feel this way.
It was more like climbing back down after reaching the top of a mountain. You are tired and your feet hurt, but it’s not really over.
From this point on, however, things would slowly get better.
Signs of improvement
A few months after my first raise, my financial situation stabilizes.
It takes most of the money from my raise, but I move into the apartment I still live in today, for an additional 100 euros a month. What an improvement that is! I now feel good when I am home and I am pretty sure the birds sing better around here.
The other great news of the end of 2014 is that I finally reimburse one of the banks, so my payments drop by half.
I am 26 when the Witcher 3 comes out and I earn 1250 euro after taxes. My living expenses, including my student loan, leave me 300 euros. Half of it goes into a saving account, which gives me 150 euros to do things like going out, enjoy a good movie or buy a game here and there.
Things are starting to look better, but hell… I have been living like a student for the past 8 years. Honestly, I don’t understand how people even afford to buy a car in one lifetime.
Let’s jump back to May 2015.
Now that the game has been released, each employee gets called in over a few weeks, for their annual review. It is the opportunity to hear what management and your team think of your work, as well as to give some feedback on how you feel here and what the company should improve.
Crunch, salaries, management, there’s not a single point I forget to talk about. I try to balance everything out with some good stuff about working here: the incredibly talented people, the creative freedom, and the responsibilities. I also hear some very positive feedback about my work, so that’s great.
After about 30 minutes, the review is coming to an end. I am about to stand up when my lead starts talking again.
“One last thing. The release of the game is the opportunity for the company to offer a salary bump to all the employees”
“We’ve been very satisfied with your work and agreed to give you an 18% raise. It’s amongst the highest bumps, so congratulations.”
*Animated GIF of a rapper wearing an extravagant outfit and making the money rain*
To create a company… why not?
We are about a year after the release of The Witcher 3. Since then, I had the opportunity to work on the first big DLC for the game. Some people crunched to make it happen. I didn’t.
Among the improvement that followed the release of the game, there is the more lenient policy on crunch. It’s still a thing but much less encouraged.
One thing I haven’t talked about yet is my long-term goal for my career.
When I started school, I built a clear plan: I would work 10 years as a designer, to gather experience, then create my own company using what I had learned.
Since then, I had cut it down to 8 years, so that I would create my company when I would be 30 instead of 32. Round number, nice and smooth.
Only I start to meet several people who already own a company while working at CDProjekt. Apparently, to create a company is not such a big deal. One of my good friend, Łukasz S. – the designer who actually interviewed me 4 years prior – tells me he can set me up if I want.
Is it that hard to create a company?
Here is how it works:
- He gives me the contact to an accountant friend of his
- I pay her a 50 euros fees per month
- She takes care of everything. Opening the company, keeping it running, taxes. Everything.
Running a company in Poland would apparently cost me 100 euros per month for the first 2 years, then 400 euros monthly.
I basically just learned that for 150 euros per month, my dream can come true right now. Of course, I wouldn’t have any employees or anything but…
I have been working on several side projects since few years, even in the middle of the crunch. I just cannot help it, having my own projects is, weirdly, a way to get my mind off work.
I am thinking that doing something more serious with these projects on the side could compensate for the money that I am not making. Indeed, I learned the concept of “Financial freedom” recently.
It’s the idea of having a cash flow that does not require you to work full time on something but still make a living out of it. For example, having a bunch of apartments that you rent, or in my case, building an online service that does not require constant maintenance.
Financial freedom means that you work because you want to, not because you have to.
I also live by a saying that I made up: it goes something like “You will run out of time before you run out of fear”. Meaning that if you wait to feel ready before taking action, you will often be too late.
This works for every situation where I need to gather some courage or prepare myself for doing something – like giving a talk in front of 200 people or, worse, approaching a stranger.
Fun fact: I rewrote this saying for this post, cause it initially was “if you wait to be ready, then when you will be ready… it will be too late”.
Why don’t you come up with a saying before judging, hm?
Plus, this 2 years timer before I have to pay full price is the perfect kind of motivation to push me forward. You are never as productive as when you have your back against the wall.
So I give it some thoughts, and a few days later, decide to contact the accountant.
I will open my company while still working at CDProjekt RED.
About the name of my company
It actually took me weeks after I contacted the accountant to give her the go. I spent all this time trying to come up with a name for my company. I may be opening it on the side, but this shall ultimately become the company of my dreams.
It deserves a proper name.
Since I am a kid, my goal has always been simple: I want to make the best games on earth. The baseline is still the same nowadays but my experience added to my mission statement.
You see, one day, during a heated meeting where I was being vocal against the idea of crunch, someone from management told me something that represents the views of many:
“Ryan, do you know a single game company that produced a critically acclaimed game without crunching?”
This single statement is the whole reason why crunch doesn’t disappear.
The answer that ran through my mind – but not through my mouth – was “I’ll show you”.
I could talk about crunch for hours, but I will just summarize my beliefs here. It’s quite lengthy, so feel free to skip if you are not interested.
- I believe that crunching for one or two weeks does boost productivity. It’s actually even fun and creates some bonding in the team.
- I believe that the results of 10 hours of intellectual work when someone has been crunching for more than two weeks is below the results this same person would provide with a fresh mind, over 8 hours.
- I believe that when you force people to crunch for more than 2 weeks, the amount and duration of breaks they take explode. This make them work about the same amount of time as without crunch, only without the feeling of rest.
- I believe that you never have enough time for a project, no matter its size, and crunch always appears as the only solution. If we all agreed that a normal day was 18 hours long, crunching for 23 hours would still feel like the only possible solution.
- I believe that if we could go back in time and give all critically acclaimed projects we love 6 more months to be developed, the team would still crunch and think “we would not have been able to make it without crunch”, even though the version they had 6 months ago was already top-sales worthy.
- I believe that a good team will always produce a good product, and a bad team a bad one. No matter how much time they have to put it together.
- I believe that crunch still exists because people still feel cool when they say “I haven’t slept in 2 days”. I sure do.
- I believe that crunch is the result of the line of thought “If they can do this with 40 hours a week, imagine what they can do with 60!”, which is the same concept as “If Usain Bolt can run 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, he can probably run around the globe in a few days”.
- I believe that once you started to crunch and you are still running late, it’s impossible to say “Let’s work less”, because of how counter intuitive the idea is. The right thing to do is to start working smarter, but that’s way less intuitive.
On top of making great games, what I strive to build is a company that would do things in a way I believe is right. A company that wouldn’t just do things because “it is how it is”. There are so many things I truly believe to be wrong and that we still do because “everybody does it”, or because it’s the easy answer. Because it makes money, even if it’s commonly accepted as bad.
$9.99 price tags. Why are they still legal?
I want to build a company so that next time someone says “Do you know any successful company that doesn’t do X”, a Ryan – or any other name – somewhere can answer “Yes” and point at it as an example.
So after weeks of searching, I decided to call my company Lodestar Team.
Turns out, in Poland, people don’t really care much about the name of their companies.
So my accountant went ahead and registered my company as “RYAN GAMES”.
Fortunately, it’s not so hard to change the name your company is registered under and I eventually got it changed to Lodestar Team.
Creating my company was only the first domino on the chain that would lead to me quitting.
After the release of The Witcher 3, I get contacted by headhunters on a monthly basis.
The thing is, I am starting to feel good again at CDProjekt RED. I moved back to Cyberpunk 2077 and I have crazy responsibilities. I am in charge of the design of the A.I and systems for the whole game. Crunch is now a thing of the past (and even if it was not, I already decided that I would rather lose my job than crunch again) and my finances are good enough for Warsaw.
However, for months, I get hammered with stunning offers. And if you remember, one of my rules is that I now want to be paid fairly for the time and skills I put in a project.
The final hammer strikes when I decide to follow up with a job offer for London.
Just to see how it goes.
The first interview goes very well and they fly me over for an on-site meeting. There, I end up having lunch with the CEO and some other high executives.
I am happy because they are paying and I haven’t had such expensive food in forever.
I end up talking most of the time – sharing my experience on The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, as well as at Ubisoft Paris -, the mouth full of delicious sweet potato fries.
Their projects look interesting, but the only problem is that they are Free 2 play.
Free 2 play (or F2P) are games that you can play for free. These games have a reputation for being designed in a way that exploits psychological tricks so that players will buy in-game elements.
Not all F2P are evil or born from bad intentions. But I do have a problem with the idea of designing a game mechanic, not for the love of creating an entertaining experience, but as a way to push someone to spend money.
A week after this event, I am back in Warsaw when I receive their offer (it was in pounds but I’ll translate to euros): 42k euro per year.
That’s 3400 euros per months. It’s exactly double my salary.
I am flattered, but really, I wouldn’t be happy working on F2P, plus is not really London but a small town nearby.
I tell the headhunter to say that I am happy they liked me but I don’t think I want to work on such projects. I also hope they will find someone because they are great guys.
Less than 30 minutes after, the headhunter calls me again. The new offer is 44K euro, 3600 euros a month. It’s not such a big difference with the first offer, so I stay on my decision.
One hour later, another call. 49K euro. 4000 euros a month.
I am speechless. I tell him I need time to think it over.
I think it hard. Will money make it okay to do something against my beliefs? I mean, it’s not such a bad F2P… these people are just trying to make it work, not to abuse players…
I fight myself until I agree that I don’t want this job. What I want is the money. I spend way too much time trying to convince myself, it’s obvious that I am not interested. If it was just about money, I could have picked another job.
I ultimately refuse and decide to stay at CDProjekt.
It’s the headhunter’s turn to be speechless
A seed was planted
From here on, things are not the same anymore. Companies are willing to pay a lot to hire me, and I am working for the one that pays me the less. It’s a hard thing to ignore.
Eaten away by the thought, I explain the situation to my Lead.
Just a week later, I have a meeting with HR, my Lead, and the Design Director where they explain that they have plans for me.
First, they were already talking about giving me a senior position. They believe I deserved it, and I just need to improve some small areas to get it. They chose to be open and tell me what I have to improve, to make sure I get the promotion within 3 months.
For the second thing, the director shows me a graph on a big screen. It’s an organigram for the whole team. Something he has in mind for Cyberpunk 2077.
It goes from the left with Adam Badowski, Head of the studio, then move to the right to the Directors, Leads, Seniors, Specialists and finally Juniors on the right end. He points at a little square close the left edge and says “I would like you to take this position”.
Lead AI Design. A whole team of designers, just for me. Oh yes.
I do the calculation, a promotion means a 20% raise, the maximum possible. I will get one for moving to Senior, and another 20% on top of that for a Lead position. Ok.
I thought about it later, and even with the two promotions, I would have ended up at 2200 euros… which is half the offer I had.
But I still have another 3 months without any salary improvement, and the promotion is not 100% guaranteed. So as a sign of good will, the Director tells me that they decided to throw in a 6% raise, effective immediately.
We are at the start of 2016 and here I am, at a fork in my career. The Lead thing is not meant to happen before another year.
- Do I stay in this company for one more year, with a salary way below what any other company would pay me, and trust that they really have plans for me?
- Or do I leave now, stop living like a student and save so that I can build my dream company and a better future for myself?
I would pick the first option, stay and get almost all that was promised to me.
All but one crucial thing, that would justify my decision to leave. The one thing that is tied to all my history with CDProjekt RED: money.
- Raising up
- Standing up for something, or just making excuses? Why I left
- Freedom to fail
- Saying I quit
This series is taken directly from my blog My startup fails, where I share my experience as someone who left his dream job in the game industry to become an entrepreneur.