Failing Faster: Reflecting on Making a Game a Week

At the beginning of March, I began an adventure in making a game a week with a cohort of fellow scholars and designers (Mark Danger Chen, Melissa Peterson, Dennis Ramirez, and Greg Koeser) looking to increase their creative practice and experiment. It’s now two months later, and I’ve mostly been faithful to the pledge (sans one week of end-of-term madness, my only full failure). The approach is not unlike the philosophy of book sprints or Wikipedia edit-a-thons in that it is all about results while working under time constraints, which for us academics can be a compelling way to break free of deadline fatigue.

This means I’ve created eight minigames, many of which comment on academia and thus reflect the old creative writing teacher’s trite saying “write what you know.” None are destined for app stores or commercial success (no Flappy Birds here, I’m afraid), the exercise has given me a number of ideas and samples for talking to students and illustrating concepts of procedural rhetoric, and several of the games are starting to build towards something larger. The experience is also immediately useful for my approach to course pedagogy: courses in my field often build towards big projects and labor-intensive development spanning weeks or months of work, but this way of creating illustrates the gains from using another method.

Inspiring designer Darius Kazemi recently posted his thoughts on the benefits of doing 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.”

Darius Kazemi goes on to point out that his success rate for projects is more potentially rewarding now that they are small: he won’t end up spending a year on something that doesn’t catch on. His impressive collection of “Stuff Made in 2013” is a reminder that this way of creating can work for way more than making games.

For me, one great takeaway of this method is this advantage of failing faster. I’ve got plenty of ambitious projects in my archive that didn’t work out, and will ultimately never reach an audience because they aren’t worth the time to complete on the scale at which they were envisioned. Working small means taking things from my idea pad out for a test spin instead of letting them wait for a day when I have more time to invest in them.

I’m planning to keep up this approach to small projects  for the rest of 2014, and see how it works out. As I move forward, I’ll definitely be thinking beyond games and experimenting with other digital short forms.

Have you tried working through jams, sprints, or other time-constrained methods? Share your strategies and experiences in the comments!

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