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How to wear different hats

A rainy day discussion on juggling different activities and responsibilities in your life.

It is Friday the 13th, I'm soaking wet after riding a motorcycle in the rain and I'm locked out of my apartment, since my girlfriend has the only pair of keys! Sounds grim? I suppose, but I hate sitting and doing nothing, so I decided to act. I seized the opportunity to catch a breath from my usual routine and write about something I've been meaning to discuss for a while. Namely: wearing different hats.

"Wearing different hats" is a phrase I heard at the university from a lecturer of mine, when he was joyfully informing our class that he holds two teaching posts and also has an administrative job at our department. Today, I find it to be a quite accurate metaphor for describing self-sufficient indie developers - people who wear many hats. One evening they are programmers, only to switch to being an artist a few hours later. By the time the sun dawns, they are knee-deep in design work. And in the meantime, they made some food in the microwave, so I guess they also qualify as cooks. Sort of. You need to be a real one-man band to pull this off.

In my case the metaphor also goes in a slightly different direction. As the founder of Robot Gentleman Studios, I am quite busy working on our game projects, as well as managing the company. So that's my indie hat. At the same time, I work full time as an AI Programmer at CD Projekt Red, developing AI for the next installment of the Witcher series. I guess that's the professional hat. Last, but not least, I'm doing a part-time PhD at the University of Glasgow in Computing Science. That would be my academic hat. It sounds like a lot and unfortunately it is, especially when you also try to get some me time and have a bit of time for friends and family.

When you think about a situation like that, a few questions come to mind:

  1. Why on Earth would you do all of this at once?
  2. How do you even manage that?
  3. Is it worth it?

Why? Is it not better to tackle things one by one? It absolutely is and if you have an option to do that, I strongly recommend that you do. It keeps things simpler and easier to handle. It also leaves enough room for the unexpected. However, you do not always have the luxury of arranging everything as you please. Sometimes you just have to cope with whatever is thrown at you or you simply want to do it this way, to be as productive, as you can. If you are an indie, why would you do both programming and art for your game, especially if your skills are strongly geared towards only one of these? There are a variety of answers, including budgeting, being protective of your creations or enjoying both of these activities. In my case the indie world gives me creative freedom, my work on Witcher 3 is a fantastic learning experience on an interesting AAA project and my academic research gives me a chance to contribute and develop my passion for science. If you truly believe that what you are doing is right for you, there will always be reasons. Good reasons.  

Dealing with logistics of such a life is no easy matter, though. Do I struggle? Yes, a lot. My days are usually completely filled up and any derivation from my main activities results in delays in at least two of them. It takes a lot of patience, strong will and organisation to keep the ball rolling on all fronts. So far I have been able to do that, but I won't lie to you - the cost is quite high. Most indies working on their first or nth game are likely to know this from their own experience. Doing something you are passionate about can easily push you to the edge - physical or even mental.

But are "good" reasons and passion enough to justify that kind of lifestyle? Is it all worth it? As a person in the centre of such mess you can hardly be objective. You have already invested so much of yourself that it is often simply unbearable to think of backing out, even if you realise how unhealthy the whole setup is. As long as you know your limits, you are safe. But it's always better to have someone watching your back and stabbing you with a pointy stick, whenever you go too far and skip sleep for the third day in a row. Think about the rest of your life - surely, you don't want to end up making just this one game and getting fed up with game development, only because the stress ruined you and haters finished the job? Really, don't.

Leaflets with the draft of this article. Also, some extra monster pictures

That's my input. As I mentioned at the beginning, this was not written under your typical writing conditions. Better yet: while I was in the middle of typing this article on my phone, Android went nuts and erased everything I had written so far. And I thought I already lived through my fair share of misfortunes today... but hey, I can wear different hats, so why would something like that stop me? I grabbed a few leaflets that were lying about my staircase, took a pen (carry one at all times) and wrote the text from scratch on their back pages. Neat, huh?

Being an indie at heart makes it possible to express yourself despite the dire circumstances and with whatever means you end up with. So use your super powers and enjoy the rest of the 13th, which also happens to be the 256th day of the year - happy Programmer's Day!

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