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I hack away at side projects all the time. They're a way to indulge this absurd passion I have for creating interactive things, without having to think about my day job. You see, when you make games for a living, you're working under all sorts of constraints and restrictions. You can't choose to do things the way you want to, unless that's also the choice the stakeholders you answer to want to make. No choice is ever just made - every change to a game, every decision on a path forward, is a series of negotiations and compromises.
Helmuth von Moltke's famous quote, translated roughly as "No plan survives contact with the enemy intact" pretty much sums up the problem and the reality. We're not enemies, obviously, but when it comes to getting done the things you want personally, it can feel that way. Ask any frustrated level designer that ended up on a mmo that wasn't nearly as much like WoW as he'd like. Short of a complete mutiny in which you oust the guy calling the shots (something that would get you fired at anywhere but at a ridiculously incompetent studio), what can you do? Nothing. You grit your teeth and you make the compromise because at the end of the day, that's your job when you're a professional game developer.
So that's what side projects are about, for me. They're my chance to do what I want, without having to worry about whether or not the funnel for the game is broad enough, or if we've deviated too far from "genre expectations." They're an indulgence for me. Which, of course, means I seldom get anything constructive done, because there's another reality in making games, one that's true no matter how you make them: You have to work towards a singular vision or your game will be incoherent and unappealing, no matter how exquisite its various components.
So, every time you indulge yourself and do something "off book," you risk diluting the concept of your game until the game eventually has no transcendent structure that emerges when its various parts begin to interact. In a static medium they call it "pastiche", right? When we see it, we start to think that the game wasn't "done" -- that it's rough, with its seams and edges still showing. The pieces don't seem to fit together and even when you can't tell why, you can feel it in a way that impacts your impression of the game as a whole.
It's sort of funny in a way, even on a project where we indulge only ourselves, we have to put ourselves second and the project first. We have a responsibility to make our games "enjoyable", to make games work in some way that brings our users to value the time they spent with us. With side projects, it's really easy to lose sight of that, to leave that promise of valuable time unfulfilled, but for some players - players like me - these side projects are the only way to see the sorts of gameplay we're looking for.
I've derived more entertainment from Dwarf Fortress than any game I've played since Rogue, but could you imagine pitching that game to, say, THQ? I'm not sure that game would have happened, if it hadn't been a hobby project. In a lot of ways, we need people out there doing only the self-indulgent work, because certain game patterns or theoretical play spaces won't come into being, any other way.
Huh. You know, maybe what I'm saying is that we should forgive them the pastiche mindscapes, the rough edges and the self-indulgence.
Think about it. Take minecraft as an example. In a lot of ways, the game makes little to no sense, as a whole (I happen not to give a damn, but I'm not blind to it). It's also exactly the sort of self indulgent game that no big publisher in their right mind would look at, if it hadn't been for the game finding a previously undiscovered audience and becoming a phenomenon.
But, now that all that has happened, the whole industry has changed in a small way. If nothing else, the potential for retro 8bit art, sandbox games and cooperatively created content has now been made obvious to an industry that was largely ignoring it, outside of a few isolated cases. That can only be a good thing and perhaps now more games with these features we find intriguing will begin to appear.
It's possible that it is sometimes better to leave one promised unfulfilled, for another. Perhaps doing so makes fulfilling both promises possible, in the future. Maybe we even ought to do it more often, to make the cycle turn more quickly.
Or, maybe I'm just in a good mood and happy to be hacking away at a side project. It's definitely an odd year for me. This marks the first time in my career where two titles (both MMOs!) I've lead the design on are coming to market, in the same year. That's hard not to be proud of, no matter the circumstances... so maybe I'm in the mood to be a little self indulgent.