While working on my latest project (you can see my pre-alpha footage here) I took a few hours to contemplate how side-projects have impacted my career. Every semester I teach graduate classes on game engine architecture and other game development related subjects. While my triple-A background and casual experience definitely helped fuel my library of material, the vast majority of the elements I teach come from the learnings required by a side project. I will get into more details in a second.
Everything in balance
I have always been a big believer in maintaining the delicate balance between work and life. Side projects take time. They take time you could very well spend with your significant other, your dogs, or simply unwinding from a tough work week. Everything has to happen within a finely crafted and intelligently balanced system.
If you blow yourself out on a side project, you're going to suffer somewhere. I schedule out my side project, letting my fiancee know when I will be locked away in my office – usually early, early in the morning and within a specific timeframe over weekends.
Why side projects
Propel your career forward – you need to finish and ship projects. Side projects allow you to expand your collection of finished works. This is especially important for triple-A devs, as finished titles can be few and far between.
Build everything – the smaller the team, the more work you get to do. Most of what I have learned about the nitty gritty of engine development started with side proejcts (granted, I also write engine technology for a living; but, there is definitely a vibrant exchange happening from my side projects to work)
Work on “other” games – if you're working on a solitaire game at work, building something more core centric might fulfill a deep desire that allows you to get through building that solitaire game. Like-wise, having a less serious project (say a brick-breaker clone) allows you to have something that you can take less seriously.
Wear other hats – playing artist, sound designer, or game designer without having your career on the line is extremely helpful for communicating in your day-to-day. Who knows, you might gain a completely knew perspective on your co-workers.
The employer perspective
As a director of technology, I want my engineers working on side projects. There obviously are the above reasons; but, there are others that I haven't stated that employers should think hard about:
Potential products – you never know what an employee will build that you can help the world experience
New sources of technology – I might be a rarity, but I have open sourced tools or technology I have used on personal projects and then actually started using them at my day job, this has saved vital time on projects (and felt really great!)
Do you have a side project you're working on while kicking butt as a game developer full time? What have you found to be the most challenging aspects? The most rewarding?
A.A. Grapsas is Director of Technology at Sojo Studios, a social games start up in the heart of Manhattan. Previously, Andrew worked on a variety of casual games as well as multiple triple-A first person shooters. You can read more at aagrapsas.com or follow Andrew on twitter here.