The following is adapted from a talk I gave at UpUpDownDown on February 9, 2014. It’s a bunch of thoughts I had around building small projects: how I came to make small projects, tips on how to keep your projects small, and what some of the benefits are around making small projects. The talk was delivered to an audience of people who have side projects that they value.
In 2009 I released two creative projects: a dungeon crawler game, and a sequencer/synthesizer (a collaboration with Josh Brandt), both built for the Meggy Jr RGB. These projects were the culmination of about 200 hours of research and work and bug fixing and collaboration.
They got press on a few niche technology blogs, and I was thrilled with the coverage. I estimate that maybe 10,000 people saw either one of these projects.
In 2013 I released 73 projects. My best estimate is I spent about 350 hours total on these projects. Between all of these projects I think I reached 500k to 1M people, and I received coverage from all sorts of major news outlets.
So I want to talk a little bit about how I got from one place to the other, and then I have some tips for how to make lots of small projects.
How I got here
I was in the the videogame development community for about 10 years. (I still am involved in that community but “game developer” is not tied to my identity as strongly as it used to be.) I was surrounded by people making videogames all the time, expressing themselves and doing interesting things with the medium. Because this community was the only community I took part in, I was heavily influenced by the debates that raged within it about the proper way to make real art, or real games, or whatever.
I was particularly affected by two competing ideas around game making: Game Jams and Finish Your Game.
Game jams came from this thing called the Indie Game Jam, founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett in 2002. The idea of a game jam has changed over time but was rooted in the concept of musicians getting together to “jam” and have fun exploring musical ideas with each other, without the added constraint of having to work towards a commercial recording. The game jam was the same idea: developers hanging out together to mess around with experimental game ideas, collaborating together or working around a common theme.
Game jams are short in duration and the output is usually something pretty rough.
Finish Your Game
The same Chris Hecker who co-founded the Indie Game Jam gave a talk in 2010 called “Please Finish Your Game” about the value of exploring the design space thoroughly. (In my opinion, thoroughly exploring a design space often, but not always, results in spending a whole lot of time on a game.) He points to Braid as an example of a “finished” game, where the time control mechanic was explored thoroughly and the resultant experience was cohesive and comprehensive. Hecker sets the Finish Your Game ethos explicitly against the idea of game jams:
“We need more depth and understanding. We don’t need more wacky ideas and shallow games shipped on time. Of course, I think wacky ideas are great, but I don’t think there’s a shortage of them in the game industry right now, while there is a shortage of games that explore ideas deeply.”
(I feel like I pick on Chris a lot. I’ve done it before, and perhaps unfairly, in my essay Fuck Videogames, but the reason I keep bringing him up is that he’s been an incredibly formative influence on me. I was an intern at the 2005 Indie Game Jam, and I basically spent my twenties attending his talks, reading his articles, and thinking about his work.)
But when Chris says Finish Your Game, he says that because he cares about advancing the state of the art. He wants people to make artistic projects with integrity, that are complete, whole works, that explore an idea to its fullest potential.
I don’t care about advancing the state of the art. I care about being a creative person who lives a good life and does projects that make me happy.
So, Finish Your Game is not for me. I’m a Game Jam type guy at heart, which is why I’m so into small projects today.
Very small projects
In 2010 I started doing “plane jams” — making short, silly games in the course of 3-6 hours, depending on how long the flight was. That was pretty successful. I made way more games than ever before (something like 6 or 7 that year). Nobody liked them, and the games were kind of crappy, but I got to finish something instead of staring at a design document wondering where to start.
A small number of people really liked what I was doing, and they even commented that I was building up a kind of common vernacular across my games. That was encouraging to me! I still got hung up though. I took Finish Your Game to heart and I spent another two years trying to turn one of those games into a “real” game, wasting a ton of mental effort I could have focused elsewhere.
But one of the main advantages of making lots of videogames was that I came to realize that I didn’t particularly care a whole lot about making videogames! (I have a totally different talk about that whole process called Fuck Videogames.)
In 2012 I realized that it’s better to create things for me than for some imagined audience. I decided to create things solely because I want them to exist. And I started making things in 1 to 5 hour bursts. And I’m at a place now where I create one or two small things each week and it’s really satisfying.
Things to keep in mind when making small projects
Here’s some stuff I try to keep in mind at all times when being creative.
Write down every idea you have
I have a very long Google Doc called “Project Ideas”. Every time I get an idea for a project (the idea can be as vague as, “this Twitter search gives funny results, build something with it”), I pull out my phone and jot it down in the document.
It’s important to have this document somewhere you can update it all the time: either on your phone or in a portable notebook.
I make sure to attempt every project idea that can be done in two hours or less. Whenever I’m bored I look at this document and see if there’s something I haven’t tried yet, and I take a stab at it.
You are creating an ecosystem of projects
It does not matter how or frivolous a project seems: everything you do adds to your body of work.
I can’t stress this enough: you are not just creating a bunch of small things. You are creating an ecosystem of projects.
I got an idea one night to “harvest subtweets” (a subtweet is when somebody obliquely mentions someone else on Twitter without tagging them). I spent 3 hours on the couch working on the harvester, which you can see here. And I finished it and I had no idea why I’d made it and it wasn’t even funny or useful or anything.
Weeks later, I was trying to write some code that would generate a 50,000 word novel, and I needed dialogue. I realized that I could make the novel about teenagers, and have it use the subtweets as dialogue, or at least as inner monologue. The novel turned out pretty well.
Know when to stop
Creating can be a lot like gambling. If you’re playing roulette and you’re $100 ahead, JUST WALK AWAY, OMG. Don’t try to “ride your streak”. Streaks don’t exist. The appearance of a streak is a trick that your brain plays on you, like looking at the night sky and seeing patterns.
It’s the same thing with creativity. When I start building something, I often want it to do things A, B, C, and D. But if I’ve worked on it for a little while and it does A and B, and it’s pretty good, I immediately stop doing any creative work on it, and I switch into “ship it” mode. At this point I try to get it as fast as possible to a state where I can post it online, even though it only does half of what I set out to do.
What this means is I can create my thing, it’s pretty okay, and I’m done. I can move on.
I’m not saying “don’t finish your work.” I’m saying “radically alter your idea of what “finished” means.”
My most popular project, Random Shopper, was the first 10% of a much larger project. I built out that 10% as a proof of concept and said, “Hey, this is great. I’m done.”
Listen to your materials
I almost never fix minor bugs in my projects, even if I catch them while I’m working on the project.
My friend and fellow creator Evelyn Eastmond once told me about an idea from the fine art world: you should listen to the materials you’re working with. When you’re creating something, it’s a dialogue between you and the thing you’re creating. If you feel a lot of resistance, if it’s harder than it should be: change what you’re doing. Don’t steamroll the poor thing. Work around it. Let the bug exist, and change your project to embrace it.
Variations on a theme
If you make lots of small projects, you can approach the same idea from many, many different angles. This can be really interesting. As my friend Michael Brough said to me, “you get a deeper understanding of [the theme] and maybe it makes an interesting pattern for other people to watch as well.”
Don’t panic when you’re unproductive
You can’t be prolific all the time! Some weeks I make nothing. Other weeks I make 3 things. But by keeping projects short, and writing down all my ideas, if I’m bored I can look at the list and go, “Hey, that would be fun to try.” And then I try it for an hour or two. Maybe I finish it. Maybe I do 10% of it and that becomes the finished product.
Again, Michael Brough: “Sometimes I try to make myself grind away at something because I feel like I ‘should’ get it done and almost always that means I’m way less productive than when I’m feeling motivated/inspired.”
Avoid boring work
One word of caution: you should be excited enough about the boring work to push through it and not hate yourself at the end. The point of making cool shit is not to hate yourself. If you find yourself feeling like crap, STOP. DO SOMETHING ELSE. You can always come back to your project later.
The benefits of many small projects
Making lots of small projects means you stay constantly excited. You literally cannot be bored with work if you stop working on it the moment become bored. And if you can’t sustain excitement for an hour or two, then you probably should consider doing something else entirely.
Having lots of projects means you can watch your aesthetic develop over time very quickly. If I made 1 large project a year, it would take me 3 years until I had 3 data points I could look at and extrapolate some kind of forward motion. With 72 projects in a year, I have a ton of reference points. I can look back on what I’ve built and say, “Oh yeah, it’s pretty clear that over the summer I was really interested in joke generation, and then I moved away from that, but retained some elements into the winter.” It helps you better theorize about your own work and get a handle on what you’re doing.
Having lots of projects means you can have something to pull out for pretty much any occasion. When I’m talking to someone about art or code, there’s usually a relevant example that I can pull from my own work in conversation without being a total dick about it. If there’s an art show where they want submissions about a particular topic, I’ve probably done something related to it.
Working on small projects means that if a project is a failure, it’s not a big deal! It only took you a single evening! Plus, you can pull out things from your failures and potentially reuse them in future projects, like I did with the subtweet thing.
The last thing is maybe the most important piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about making projects, and I got it from my wife Courtney Stanton. YOU CANNOT CONTROL WHAT PEOPLE LIKE ABOUT WHAT YOU MAKE. You make stuff, and you’re going to like certain things, but you can’t predict what other people will like. So even if you make something and you think it sucks, put it out there. Maybe people will hate it, maybe they’ll ignore it, or maybe they’ll like it. But just put it out there.
When I made Random Shopper, I was really proud of the work that went into it and I thought it was a cool project. When I made literally everything else I thought the exact same thing. Now I accept that I am incapable of gauging the interest of the public. Instead, I make lots of stuff.
Out of my 72 projects last year, I’d say 10 of them were successful in some substantial way. That’s 1 out of 7 projects. At that rate, if I made one project a year, it would take me SEVEN YEARS to make something that caught on with the public. By focusing on small projects, I can experience 10 major successes a year. This makes me happy, and being happy is the whole reason I make stuff in the first place.
Special thanks to Courtney Stanton and Michael Brough for talking about this at length with me, and to Aaron Cohen for inviting me to give this talk at UpUpDownDown.