Sometimes, I feel like I am suddenly waking up and a 9 years old version of me goes “Where the hell am I?”.
To get the feeling, imagine that you had been swimming for a long while, focusing on nothing but your breath. Then you stop and look around, water up to your chin. You realize that you cannot see the shore anymore. You are far from everyone and the water is deep. So, so deep.
I think that living abroad, in a foreign culture, often feels this way. It also means that you have to build a new definition of home. I believe most people build it around the relationships they forge: the loves and the friendships.
I surely did.
Here is the last chapter of my adventure with CDProjekt RED, a defining love story that never felt quite right.
[ A quick note for news-hungry people.
In this post, I am talking about something that can be summarized as “I designed a feature that writers didn’t like, so I redesigned it to accommodate everyone”. I saw one or two articles pop on news website stating things like “Cyberpunk’s story is gonna be way bigger and more central to the game than in the Witcher 3! Confirmed by ex-dev testimonial!”. Please, don’t. Things are being designed and changed from the beginning to the end of a project. It’s not just common, it’s part of the creative process. Please also keep in mind that what I am talking about in this post is almost two years old. So chill, no crunchy exclusives for you down here.]
The one element that is getting in the way of my Senior promotion is that I am apparently too stubborn. For the months prior to my review, I decide to say yes to absolutely everything.
What I find out is that it saves a lot of energy and that people are much more open to new ideas if you first say yes to theirs.
On top of that, of course, I handle my duty at best. But this is something I would do even if there was no promotion on sight.
When the day of my review comes, I get called to a room with the Director and an HR. The review starts very well as the first words are “Congratulation, you have been promoted to Senior”.
Everything goes well until the Director tells me that he still had some feedback saying that I was sometimes stubborn. I am shocked as I have literally agreed with every single person who came to me for the last 3 months. I do believe that this feedback came from people who I didn’t interact much during the past few months and who based their opinion on what they knew of me. After all, how much can a person change in 3 months?
The moment the director says this, my no-opposition security belt breaks and I ask for more explanation. The meeting lasts almost an hour, with only the first 2 minutes being positive. When I come out of it, I don’t know if I am promoted or fired.
It actually took me a few weeks to feel like my work was worth anything. HR came to me after the meeting to explain that it’s not how it was supposed to happen. They had tons of positive things to say, but unexpectedly got stuck on the stubbornness, the only negative point in the list.
All in all, everything is in order and they are more than satisfied with my work.
The AI team grows with two more designers that become dedicated to the subjects of A.I and Systems that I was in charge of designing.
One day, a meeting pops up on my calendar. As I stand up to go, I notice that the other designers of the team are not moving. I remind them that we have a meeting. Apparently, they don’t.
This is how I learned that I had become the team coordinator for A.I and systems in the game.
Once this new status is clarified, I decide to call up a meeting with what is apparently my team now.
I am straight up with them: I don’t want to be a coordinator. This is just a Lead without a Lead salary and only half the decision power. I asked them if any of them is opposed to the idea of me being their Lead. They are cool with the idea, everything is alright.
The next stop then is the Director who promised me a Lead position.
When I finally get to talk to him, he explains to me that everything will come in time and to not worry. If I can prove myself as a coordinator, there is no reason I won’t get a proper lead position.
Okay, let’s do this.
I love being a coordinator. Not the title exactly, but being in charge of a team and having the opportunity to implement my vision in game. The Director was right about one thing: if I had become straight up a Lead, I would have probably never known if people listened to me because they believed in me or just because I was Lead.
I love it, and it is about to get just a tad better.
One day, the director comes to me. There is a design that he had been working on at a high level, but Adam Badowski, the Head of the studio, is not satisfied with it. He wants it to have more flesh.
As you will later see, this will turn out to be the biggest opportunity of my career… and I flat out refuse.
No way I am going to spend time doing that! The design is basically already done, I just need to fix some technicalities and do a prototype to prove that it works. I am not a programmer!
The Director just knows how to push my buttons and is used to me throwing fits. He and the Lead sit me down to talk me into it. Apparently, Adam himself said “It’s an important mechanic and we need much more from it. Give it to Ryan”. I was sitting arm crossed, sure about my position, categorically saying no to the task… and one corner of my mouth smiled.
The Director caught it immediately. It was done. I would take care of the task.
I spend a full week on the design. I make sure to keep the main ideas the Director had envisioned and redo about everything else. People seem to get excited about it and I finish just in time to present to Adam by week’s end.
At this point, I grew quite attached to it but my job here is just to provide something that a dedicated team would take over, under the supervision of the Director.
Well, at least that’s what I thought…
Adam gets really excited about the idea. That’s great, but the real surprise is not there. At the end of the meeting, the Director throws a completely unexpected:
“I am happy that you like it, Adam. Don’t you think Ryan should be the Lead of the team implementing this feature?”
Wait, what? Who?
And Adam answers, simply, “Yes, obviously”
And just like that, on top of my duties as Coordinator, were added those of Lead for a team that would grow to 17 people.
The team I inherit of contains almost all the positions you can find in the studio. Designers, 3D artists, Cinematic Animators, Gameplay Animators, Writers, and Coders. The job is thrilling.
The most challenging part: the Writers hate the design. I obviously can’t talk about the specificities, as the game hasn’t come out yet, but Writers straight up hate it.
The most striking example is a meeting where all the Leads and Directors, including Adam, are gathered. In here, the Lead writer openly expresses his issues with the concept, echoing the opinion of his team. I keep it straight and manage to defend the idea with the promise that I won’t disappoint them.
And I don’t. I rewrite the design almost entirely and come up with a better version that satisfy everyone, including the Writers. Before that, I had nightmares involving them. For real.
Having to handle so many people, from so many different areas of development (some I never even touched) has me drinking a full cup of anxiety every morning before going to work. I love it, but god is it hard.
I have never been so excited to go to work, all the while my stress level goes off the chart. I now cumulate the duties of:
My salary? 2100 euros before taxes. 100 euros more than when I was a Junior.
I talk with HR and the Director about it. They cannot give me a raise. After all, I had been promoted to Senior just a few months ago. Apparently, however, they are doing an overhaul of the whole company salaries and I should get some news in the next 6 months.
Almost a year ago, I took the decision to stay instead of going somewhere I could be living the life. And here I was, a year later, having to wait 6 more months to know if I would get more than a Junior. I am pissed.
In my head, it’s 4 years and 6 months of waiting. 4 years of being paid under what my participation was worth and fighting for raises. What even guarantees that the news after 6 months won’t be that I need to wait another 6 months for a raise?
At this point in my life, money is not an issue anymore. My salary is more than enough to live comfortably in Warsaw. There are still many things I can’t afford, but I can’t complain, as long as I stay in Poland.
But these rules.
These rules that I set for myself, for my own good. Remember when I said they would push me to quit?
No matter how much I like the job, I am not being paid fairly for my contribution. If I can’t stand for myself now, how can I ever expect the situation to improve? Is it how I want my whole career to look like? Being paid half my worth, feeling like I owe everything to the company I work for and that they don’t owe me anything?
I would get my raise or leave.
Leave but to go where? There’s no other studio that does projects I am that excited about, or that would give me the kind of crazy responsibilities I have here. I had been struggling with this question for about a month when the best gift CDProjekt could give me arrived: The Witcher 3 bonus money.
Bonus money in the game industry is a payment that you get when you complete a project. The amount is usually based on the success of the game and the number of sales (among other things).
Each employee who worked on The Witcher 3 (and was still in the company at this time, around September 2016) receives a mail announcing how much they can expect to get. The amount is based on the level of seniority they had during the production of the game until may 2015. I open my mail and discover that I am entitled to 24,000 euros (after taxes).
This is the opportunity I was waiting for.
I don’t actually need to go work for anyone.
I can run my own business full time now.
My thought process goes like this:
In about a month, I have an annual review. I have been pretty vocal about my issue with my salary so I expect the subject to be raised.
I had been straight with HR beforehand and asked for 3000 euros. Actually, I didn’t simply ask for a raise for myself, but for the entire design team; explaining that the level of technical skills required here is way higher than average and that it is impossible that we get paid below said average.
At the end of my annual review, if I get the money I asked for, I stay. If not, I leave.
As weeks go by, the idea of running my own business grows more and more within me. As crazy as it sounds, I end up hoping that I won’t get the raise.
In the meantime, the Leadership thing goes so perfectly well. I hear compliments on my work that I had never heard before. Working on a key feature of the game, I am at the top of my career.
Then, the annual review happens.
Best review I ever had. Apparently, I have a bright future in the company.
The subject of the salary comes, once everything else has been said.
Unfortunately, they cannot give me any raise.
I am at peace.
I remember everybody being shocked in the meeting room. I have nothing to add? I *always* have something to add!
But No, not this time.
I can’t admit it to myself at the time, but this is what I wanted to hear. I leave the meeting room without much more than a “thank you”, a smile on the lips.
I stay silent about my intentions for a few more weeks, until I sign an official paper stating that I would receive the bonus money on my account.
I remember how the meeting with the HR who hand the paper over to me went:
“So, now that I signed this paper… what would happen if I was to get fired? Would I still get the money?”
“Yes. of course”
“Okay okay. And what if I was to quit today? Would I still get it?’
“Well, yes… you would.”
I left the room, knowing that it was time to go and quit my dream job. Information travels faster than me, though. Before I reached my desk, the Director already knew my plan, as he heard it from a suspecting HR.
In my head everything was clear. I was actually happy, excited. As the Director wasn’t in his office, I had time to talk about my decision with my fellow designers.
What a unique experience, to quit your job.
I am completely confident in my decision, until the moment where it’s finally time to go talk to my own Lead and Director.
As I am walking to their office, I remember reality suddenly catching up with me.
What the hell am I doing?
There is so much blood rushing to the upper part of my body that it feels like it is wrapped up in a blanket. My heart beats like it’s actually punching my chest.
Are you really going to leave a job at CDProjekt RED? You won’t have another chance like that!
Well, I will run out of time before I run out of fear. My heart may be punching, but I am in automatic mode, the emergency mode for stressful situations.
I cross the door.
“Can we talk?”
Only the Lead is there, he doesn’t know.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
I left CDProjekt on the best possible terms. I wholeheartedly recommend the company.
Only 6 months after I left, more or less everybody got a salary bump. I don’t know the actual numbers, but I think I would now be earning the 3000 euros that I asked for.
The management also greatly improved, and I heard most of the problems I went through have been fixed or mitigated.
In the next post, I will start talking about my life as an entrepreneur who knows nothing about entrepreneurship.
How my first application, supposed to be a 2 months project, took me a year plus half of my savings only to end up in the depths of oblivion (by my own decision).
We’ll see what happens when you start working without unavoidable deadlines, as well as without doing any prior research.