I Love/Hate Side Projects (and so should you)

Side projects—they’re my best friends and worst enemies.

Side projects give me opportunity to experiment, to explore, and to remember why I wanted to write games in the first place. They let me play around with wacky dialog and bizarre art styles without ever giving a second thought to whether these approaches can make money. Better yet, side projects have a way of spawning new ideas. Ideas tend to show up when they know that they have a likelihood of finding a home. So side projects are awesome!

But I also hate them, and here’s why. They divert my limited resources away from my main projects, the ones that may actually have some potential of turning a profit. They tempt me to do what is fun instead of what is necessary. After all, what is more enjoyable? Tracking down bugs and doing the thousands of mundane things necessary to finish a production quality game, or starting a brand new project where there are no rules and you can do whatever you like?

Journey to the Center of the Sun

Screenshot from my upcoming side project, “Journey to the Center of the Sun”.

Several months ago I was feeling pretty discouraged with my game development efforts. I had sunk a fair amount of money and a ton of time into this endeavor, but had little to show for it. After more than a year, I had a grand total of zero finished projects. It’s not that I wasn’t working. I was—a lot! But I wasn’t making games. I was making parts of games, then convincing myself to scrap them and move on to a new idea.

Sure, I had learned a lot. I had become a much better programmer and was getting a pretty decent handle on Unity3D (my engine of choice). I was even doing some 3D modeling and digital painting, which I had to learn totally from scratch, but I just couldn’t finish anything because I kept hopping from one idea to the next. So I decided to “get serious” and swear off side projects altogether.

That lasted for all of 48 hours, when I noticed the #LDMini hashtag popping up on Twitter. I knew what Ludum Dare was, but I was unaware that there were multiple Mini LD’s in between the main events. I knew I should be working on my “real game”—which had me feeling terribly burnt out right about then—but I decided that I needed a change of pace for sanity’s sake.

This particular LD Mini was a “Pick ‘n mix”, where participants could choose from a selection of theme ideas. Due to my overworked, over-stressed condition, “Make the player rage quit”, resonated with me, so I spent the rest of the weekend making an obnoxious little game called “Your Last Nerve”. And the strangest thing happened. I actually finished it!

Not long after, I joined OneGameAMonth.com, committing to creating one small but complete game per month. I was hesitant about doing this. On the one hand, side projects have always been my downfall…or had they? I thought about it, and it wasn’t side projects that were killing me. It was unfinished side projects.

So I made a conscious choice to do more side projects, but to keep them small and actually finish them. Sometime in the next week I will be submitting my sixth consecutive game to OneGameAMonth.com, titled “Journey to the Center of the Sun”. And as for my “real projects”…

Flibitz is now in open beta (I would appreciate if you try it out and leave some feedback). Octotentiary (the game that I was burnt out on when I did my first LDMini) still needs a ton of work, but I’m happy with what I have so far and fully plan on coming back to it immediately after finishing Flibitz.

So was slowing down to do more side projects a good idea? Yes…mostly. I think. Honestly I still question this decision at times. It definitely comes at a cost, but it also comes with benefits.

Being a part of Ludum Dare and OneGameAMonth.com has forced me to become more efficient, and to get better at estimating the time and energy needed to complete a given project. It has also helped me to feel more connected to the larger community of indie game devs, and to take some first steps toward building an online presence.

Game development, after all, is a form of software engineering, and engineering always comes down to making choices about trade-offs. So before jumping into a side project, consider the costs as well as the benefits. Then go for it…

Or don’t.