What I Learned About Failing from my 5 Year Indie Game Dev Project

At the start of this year I decided I'd had enough.

I've been writing software and making games since my early teens and for most of my life I've worked on side projects. Some of them made a little money. Others grew a large following. Quite a few failed miserably.

My last project was an open source game development library called MonoGame.Extended. Relative to my previous projects, this project felt very successful. Many hundreds of people starred it on Github. Loads of people joined the Discord chat and it even has it's own tag on Stack Overflow. To this day, people are still using it to make their games.

I always assumed that one day I'd be able to turn it into some side income and maybe eventually replace my full-time job.

But I always felt like something wasn't quite working.

I tried my very best to help indie game developers make their games. In the beginning the project really resonated with people. Lots of contributors joined to add new features and a community formed around it quite quickly. This felt amazing.

However, this little side project took 5 years of my life. It's the longest amount of time I'd ever spent on anything outside my marriage and kids.

And what did I have to show for it? A bit of pocket money and a whole lot of support requests. As the project got bigger, it put more strain on my limited free time. Eventually it broke me.

Compare that to a game I'd previously published that only took 3 weeks to create and made roughly the same amount of monthly revenue.

Then around Christmas I was talking to my dad about his recent retirement. This conversation got me thinking a lot about what I want to do with the next 10 to 20 years of my life. Where do I want to be when I retire?

That's when I decided it was time to do something else.

The Lesson I Learned about Failure

After taking some time to reflect on all of my previous projects I realized that failure comes in many forms and some are better than others.

I don't have a problem with failure. Not every project works out the way you want and that's okay.

For example, some of my previous projects didn't have market fit. When I launched them into the world, nobody really cared. Luckily when this happens early in the project it's not a big deal. Either discard the idea and move on or figure out how to make it work.

Another project I started didn't have founder fit. In other words, I initially got excited about the idea and it looked great on paper but over time I really didn't want to work on it anymore.

But the worst kind of failure I've experienced is failure disguised as success. The mistake I made was not recognizing failure early enough. Surprisingly, this was an easy trap to fall into because when it looks like things are working, it feels like just a little more effort will bring everything together.

Unforutnately, more effort applied in the wrong place makes it worse. When the project was small it was easy to manage and I enjoyed working on it everyday. At the time it seemed like a good idea to keep adding more features and watch as more people started using it. But the downside of adding more features is that it becomes increasingly time intensive to fix bugs, update demos, deal with pull requests and respond to questions.

This wouldn't have been so bad if I wasn't doing it all for free. I knew at some point I needed to start generating income to be able to dedicate more time to the project. So I launched a Patreon page and immediately had a few people support me finanically. This positive feedback fueled my desire to keep going. Only now, I had another job, creating content to reward my patrons.

I never figured out how to make it work and it was suprisingly difficult to let go.

Quitting Was the Best Thing I Ever Did

Eventually I decided to stop working on MonoGame.Extended and handed the project over to someone else.

At first, this was a really hard decision. It felt like I was throwing away thousands of hours of work and letting down the community around it. But really, it was just a bad case of sunk cost fallacy.

The sunk cost fallacy is when people continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort)

I now firmly believe this was the right choice. The project is still alive and being actively worked on by long time contibutors that use it. Having a new set of eyes on the code base has breathed new life into it.

What I got out of it was a wealth of experience, a chance to reflect and really think about what I wanted to do next.

So, What Am I Going To Do Next?

I recently discovered a whole new world of indie hackers creating profitable side projects in their spare time. It's an amazing feeling to find a community of like minded people doing what I've always wanted to do.

I've finally found my people.

Many years ago, before I started spending all my time on MonoGame.Extended I built and launched several products. Sometimes they where games and other times it was an app or tool to solve my own problems.

My goal is to get back to my roots. Only this time I've got more experience under my belt. I've learned a lot about building an audience, finding a market, and launching great products.

There's still a mountain of work ahead but I'm excited to be starting the next phase of my journey.

Succeed or fail I'll be writing about it here. If you'd like to see what happens next I'd love to have you on the mailing list below.