The Zombie Project Effect: How to Succeed By Quitting

The Zombie Project Effect: How to Succeed By Quitting

If you ask any developer about their zombie projects, they will instantly know what you mean. And not just in game development either, its a common thing with creators across the planet. Every person that has the ability to create things from the ground up invariably wants to create as many things as they can. It’s almost hard wired in our brains to seek out the fun parts of creation. The discovery, the experimentation, the planning. It’s a blast to sit down and prototype, or just get a bunch of ideas together and create the begining framework of something awesome.

But with game development specifically, “zombie projects” are a different beast, because it is so freaking easy to start a game these days, and yet it is so damn hard to finish one. And finishing is hard enough, but its difficulty gets magnified when you keep on starting.

And  dude…I’m not judging. I’m talking from experience here. And I’m going to share with you how I overcame this very problem.

 

I was the project starter king.

It is so much fun to start. Right? Like who doesn’t like to dive right in to their favorite game engine and just create as you go. I LOVE just trying different things out, or seeing how different things work together. I might start with a mechanic idea, or a story concept and you just go from there. It’s so much fun and it is extremely motivating. Anything can happen, what I’m creating seriously feels like my best work yet.

I’ve started countless projects, ranging from mobile games with a simple mechanic to really complex roguelikes with procedural generation and the whole shebang all on a whim. And those first few days or weeks are exhilarating. I get excited to come how every night and work on it. When I lay down to sleep (only because I HAVE to) I think about it non-stop. I would work out different layouts or programming challenges while I was out and about during the day.

But that’s starting. And you can’t stay in the starting phase forever.

 

Any new project always hit a wall.

No matter what I was creating, whether it was my super simple mobile games, or even my complex games that were compartmentalized, there was always a wall. And sometimes the wall isn’t even a thing either. Like sometimes, it’s just running out of steam or getting to the boring part of the project. But more often than not for me, the wall was very likely to be a new idea.

Whenever I would play a game that inspired me, I would immediately try and replicate my version of it. I thought I had so much to add to each and every genre that I loved, so every time a game came along that I liked, I was on my computer the next day making. And I could always get something up and running. I could work through the night sometimes on nothing but inspiration on what this could be.

But I would always stop.

And worse, stopping wasn’t definitive. It was more like “I’m going to work on this other thing for a while and come back to that later.” And I mean it wasn’t all of my projects. I finished a few things in life here and there, I made some cool shit. But when I say “all” I really mean “all of them that seemed to matter.”

 

I didn’t quit, but my “finish later” folder only got bigger.

I actually did this for years. And I’d be wayyy too ashamed of showing you a screenshot of how many projects I had like this so we’re just going to skip over that. Games are weird because they require so much time, effort, and multiple skillsets to complete. But even weirder, I think there is a deep intrinsic desire in me to create. And when I get to the point where I no longer feel that my creation efforts actually show progress, it is so much easier to start a new one than to continue on.

In fact, during my nonsensical brain fuckery, sometimes it even seems like a good idea to START OVER ON THE SAME GODDAMN PROJECT just so I can get that sense of progress and creation. In fact I’ve done this many times. Things just get too complex and my development doesn’t seem like it going anywhere, so I start the same project over with a different approach or system.

And the weird thing is that I would never say “Ok, I quit this project.” It would always be something I planned to finish later. THAT’S why it became a zombie project…because I never gave it a classification. Had I taken the time to just assign a state, living or dead, to all of my projects, I would not be dealing with the likes of this legion of undead projects clouding my brain.

And one day, I just got so fed up of noticing these horrible, self-defeating patterns over and over again.

 

All my zombie projects wanted were BRAINNNSSS

I didn’t notice this at first, but slowly I realized that I was addicted to distraction. Every time things got hard, and shit got difficult, my brain was trained to jump on to the new shiny object for some comfort. But in my quest for dopamine and approval, I somehow missed the fact that I had left a legion of zombie projects in my wake. And they took up a ton of brain power to manage.

The more projects I had, the more my brain could jump between them. And the more I could do that, the less I had any desire to finish or complete anything. Game development was my escape, or my way of just feeling like I accomplished something…And I guess my brain just found it more effective to get that fix from jumping between new projects over and over versus ever actually completing anything. And I HATED that about myself.

The more zombie projects I built, the farther I got from completing anything. And the more shit I had to keep in my head all the time.

The more I didn’t finish, the more I would learn to not finish. Finishing wasn’t something I did, it was something I systematically avoided. And my subconscious mind picked up on that and it gave me every reason in the world to start over or start a new project. After all, I could always finish it later right?

 

 

So I decided to slay the zombies!

I had to. It was too much. And I know that if I continued on with this pattern I would seriously never go anywhere. Any person that I look up to, or any great entrepreneur or creator I know that made something of their life all had one thing in common: persistence. It’s the single biggest differentiating factor from those that do well and those that do nothing. Because in my mind, creating a thousand half-projects wasn’t as good as a single finished project. And yet every time I tried I failed.

I got DETERMINED to break the cycle…

Like seriously. WTF. Why did this habit even exist. It makes no goddamn sense.  When we were cavemen and my ancestors wanted to hunt for food, did they quit half way? And just start a bunch of half hunts? No. And it’s a little odd but that got me thinking. Maybe that’s WHY I did this. I didn’t need to hunt for food. I had plenty. I had my bills paid, and my stomach full. I didn’t NEED to finish…it wasn’t a matter of survival.

So I needed to make it one.

And as a token of that determination, I  decided to delete my entire W.I.P. folder.

 

Yep. I deleted every single project I ever started.

I mean after I backed it up on an external hard drive of course. I’m not a psychopath here. That shit took me years! I may be crazy but I’m not THAT crazy.

But I didn’t enter the loop for the thousandth time either! I didn’t start over. I didn’t start something new. That would just be playing into the cycle again. I instead picked a single project to complete and finish, and left that as my single project. I vowed to not start something new until I had completed what I was working on.

And, I did know myself well enough at that point that I knew that the hard drive with all of my projects was a constant danger to my completion ability. And so I gave it to a friend and told him to smash it with a hammer if I didn’t finish what I said I would by a certain date. Talk about lighting a fire under your ass here, geez did that motivate me.

 

But honestly, it didn’t get automatically easier after that.

I wish it did. I wish I could tell you that I found some kind of brain hack and that this made me finish a thousand things, make a million dollars, and buy a private island and retire with some Mario Kart and a lifetime supply of Mountain Dew. But shit was still hard yo. It was still a struggle to get things finished. It was hard to power through. I chronical a bit of this feeling in my Passion Does Not Equal Unlimited Motivation article and my Guide To Stay Motivated in Game Development, but I’ve honestly felt that way a thousand times before and a thousand times since.

Any time you do something worth finishing, it’s going to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it…and you would have had it done already. This shit is hard. Its why so few game developers ever finish a game, it’s why so few writers ever finish a book, and it’s why so many artists are starving.

I had to learn to not only expect the difficulty, but tackle it head on. I had to psyche myself out and tell myself that this would be ridiculously hard, but I was harder. Err…you know what I mean.

 

I did eventually finish. And I’ve repeated the process ever since.

After it worked, I did it again. I took another work in progress folder and finished that, with the same threat of the Hammer of Sol reigning down upon my art. And it took a few times before my brain got the message, but it worked.

And the cool thing was, this new persistence ability helped me well beyond game development. It helped me start a company. It helped me modify my car for the drag strip. It helped me create an EEG headset to control computers with my brain. It even helped me create an article like this every single Wednesday for the past few months. It helped a ton!

In fact, in the early days when I was struggling to even make a living, I realized that I was a lot more capable of making money the closer I got to rent being due. All I did really was copy that same principle and force myself into finishing. Because deep down I’m probably a lazy fuck…but I know I’m destined for something greater. And luckily I’ve just found a way to hack myself into getting shit done.

Now I would not recommend this method to everyone, specifically because I don’t think it’s right for everyone. I’m the sort of dude that gets lazy when I’m comfortable, and I turn into a superhero under pressure, so I knew this would work for me. But I am not responsible for any smashed hard drives or broken dreams if you try this.

 

But I learned a few things along the way

If I detailed all the things I learned about myself and all the random tidbits of knowledge in my brain right now from my years of zombie projects, this article would never end. When I look back, it’s not all bad. But I also take pride in the fact that I tend to get things done now. It gives me a sense of pride that I overcame such an obstacle. With that said, I think I can share a few things I learned along the way:

  • Starting new projects was never the issue – it was the not finishing that was the problem.
  • Things like game jams are still awesome – and I still do them because they are awesome. In a game jam you start and finish the project in a short time period (Keyword: FINISH), so they are great ways to get your brain off of your project if you need some mental recovery.
  • Choosing to “quit” a project until other requirements were met worked out great. Requirements like finishing another project was a significantly better choice than leaving all of them as zombies for eternity. Classifying your projects as dead or alive really does go a long way, and I would highly recommend it. Zombie projects suck!
  • Reducing what I considered “Finished” helped too – and before you say that is cheating, hear me out. Whatever you are making, you can always make a smaller version of it and “Finish” that. You don’t have to make the most epic RPG ever, you can start with the basic gameplay, and 10 quests. That’s a finished game. And you can iterate and add to it later! You can add new features, new quests, new enemies, etc. This times a thousand for mobile games – reducing scope is your friend and it is GOOD for your project.

 

So slay your zombies, and pick your main project.

And I know you probably love starting as much as I do…so I’m not saying you have to quit starting. Instead, I’m suggesting that you need to make yourself FINISH before you start. It’s a better way to interact with the world. You get more done, you feel more accomplished, and those final days or hours teach you so much more than starting ever could.

If you’re reading this and you relate to my story, make the decision for yourself to FINISH…and dedicate yourself to it. Again I can’t recommend my method because I am just a little bit crazy, but find something that motivates you and find a way to strap it to your back. You won’t be disappointed.

You can do this! I know you can.

Tim Ruswick

Tim Ruswick is the founder of Game Dev Underground and the author of the Game-Maker's Manifesto.

  • Do you have any “Zombie Projects” hanging around? What’s your method of fighting them?

  • Yeah, I can relate to this! I have a few zombies of my own, but, the passing of time has managed to slay (to a degree) mine. What I mean by that, is, those old projects are now no longer available to work on.

    After changing computer components, failed HDD, deleting things in anger and just poor file management, I don’t have the original files to ‘restart’ the projects. This is both a blessing and a curse; they are gone now and can’t cause a distraction, but, the memory of them lives on. There is still evidence of them online, images, videos, comments from other devs and potential players; all these things just reminding me about the old projects that I never finished……

    sounds like a horror story! haha.

    I seem to have a curse when it comes to game development. I can never get past the 5th level! I design and develop up to level 5, then all motivation is gone and I start looking (subliminally) for the next shiny thing.

    I am currently sat on level 5 of Medieval Steve and I am hoping this is the ‘curse breaker’!

    Wish me luck!

    • Dude its crazy but our brains really do have these “Mental walls” in them…and when something happens a few times your brain recognizes it as a pattern and adopts it as behavior. You HAVE TO notice this stuff, and your HAVE TO intentionally break the cycle, or you will repeat it… Like sit down and make a level 6 just to show your brain whos boss!!

      It’s always easier said than done though, I know. Shits hard man. I wish you all the luck in the world! You got a good thing going with Medieval Steve. I hope to see more of it!