Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Wearing Multiple Hats

In this article, indie developer Judy Tyrer discusses the pros and cons of filling multiple roles in game development.

I prefer the term FOUNDER to CEO because founder implies “she who does everything she can’t hire someone else to do.” In the case of 3 Turn Productions, FOUNDER covers CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer and HR. That means I have to make sure we have sufficient funding while simultaneously ensuring we are using the correct technology while designing and coding the entire game and keeping my artist and community manager happy. Yes, I am crazy.

The Upside

I like talking to myself and now I have an excuse. In fact, I can even argue with myself and sometimes do. The most recent argument with myself was when the CEO got upset with the Creative Director over feature cuts. One of the features the Creative Director wanted to cut was revenue generating. They had a long argument over every other feature that could possibly go besides one that was revenue generating. The Creative Director won. She had the support of the programmer who explained that the front end could get in on schedule, it was only hooking up the backend with the payment system that we’d be postponing. And since that is work that doesn’t excite the programmer in the least, well they ganged up on the poor CEO.

But the biggest upside is the frequency with which I do not have communication issues with myself. The time saved by having all the roles thoroughly familiar with all the other roles is huge. We don’t need formal documentation. We don’t need formal process. We can just get the work done. I would estimate this is a 40% productivity gain, especially in the areas where the systems are highly complex.

I imagine that artist/designers must make very different kinds of games than programmer/designers so I can’t speak for them. But as a programmer/designer, the gameplay and the code design are tightly coupled. I believe this allows me to build systems for my game others wouldn’t think of because those systems are half gameplay and half architecture. I have the advantage of seeing the action from when the user pushes a button all the way into where the data is saved in the database and retrieved. It’s a bigger picture view that I think lends itself to riskier innovations.

The Downside

It is not possible to do five jobs well at the same time. Something is going to suffer and the challenge is choosing what that is going to be.

Had I been CEO full time, the business plan would be complete and I’d have had at least a dozen meetings with investors by now. But had I done that, the game wouldn’t have progressed as far as it has. Then again, if I’d gotten the funding I could have hired someone to do the programming, maybe even two people, and the game would have progressed even further. Of course, that assumes I would have succeeded in getting investors with all those meetings. If I hadn’t gotten the investors after all that work then we’d have no game.

Wearing too many hats means that something is always getting insufficient attention. Priority setting has taken on a much more crucial role than ever before. Wasted time going down wrong paths is infinitely more painful than when there isn’t the constant pressure of 3 jobs not being done well. The rather interesting side effect of this is that I do more experimentation of other approaches to solving problems than I have in the past, primarily because I don’t have the time to go down a rat hole so I want to make sure I’m picking the optimum choice to start.

The other challenge with wearing too many hats is getting a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day from a job well done. Instead of a job well done, it’s 3 jobs half done and 2 undone. I find that the only solution is to take off all but one hat for certain periods. This is usually 2 weeks before we release, but this time it was a full month (it was a lot of code). Just accepting that I’m not going to make progress in an area of the business this week is difficult, but I have found it essential.

So I am CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer, and HR Director of my company. But mostly, I’m the Lead Programmer.

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.


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