July 21, 2021

We're just over half way through 2021 so I thought I'd post an update about the projects I'm working on right now.

tl;dr: music apps, a new game, and a micro-SaaS app.

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A few months back I was feeling frustrated. I had a bunch of projects on the boil and I kept switching between them. I'd switch to whatever was most exciting at any particular moment. I felt like I wasn't making any progress. Context switching is the mind killer.

For a while I tried the 3-month-focus technique from this blog post. I couldn't sustain it. I'm too easily distracted by shiny new projects. I enjoy the thrill of chasing new ideas. Most of them don't pan out but some turn up genuinely interesting results, so I'd like to keep that optionality in my life.

I think I've finally found a balance. Shiny Object Syndrome versus getting things shipped. This strategy has been working well for me this year. What I've done is break down my projects into different areas of interest and then allocate one day to each area. I came up with these major areas of interest:

  • Music tech
  • Game development
  • Open source
  • Decentralization
  • Indie hacking (bootstrapping online businesses).

I assign one day each week where I only work on the one area at the exclusion of the others. I do the most impactful (or interesting) task in each area on the assigned day.

There is overlap between these fields. I am selling my music apps online at the moment so "Music Tech" is also part of "Indie hacking". One of my music apps is open source. Any work I do on decentralized technologies is part of "open source" too, etc.

Here was my side-project schedule for most of this year:

  • Monday = music tech coding.
  • Wednesday = indie hacking.
  • Thursday = open source & decentralization research.
  • Friday = game development.

Here is what my schedule looks like now:

  • Monday = music tech coding.
  • Wednesday = game development.
  • Thursday = indie hacking.
  • Friday = game development.

At the moment there are two days of game dev because I am crunching to finish Smallest Quest. I should be done in a month. Then I can give Friday back to open source software maintainance.

There's also client work of course. I work exclusively on client work on Tuesday. On the other days I do client work too, but I also give time to my side projects.

This schedule gives me enough variety to hold my interest and at the same time I feel like I am progressing each area. Here are the actual projects I am focusing on in each bucket right now.

Monday: PO LoopSync & Melody Generator

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I just shipped a big update to my pocket operator Android music making app. I've been working on this app for months. Last year I shipped an SLC and recently I've been pushing updates with new features.

Now that I have shipped that, I will switch to working on Melody Generator. People have been asking for features, and one specific feature I want myself is audio export. The biggest thing to do here is ship native apps. Melody Generator gets around 300 visitors per day. I am hopeful that some of those 300 visitors will convert to paying customers when I release native apps.

I also need to ship iOS ports of both of these apps. I'm working on getting the tech set up to do that.

8 bit music maker

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I've been tinkering this fun little music app called 8 bit music maker. It's a tiny tool for making 8 bit chiptune music. I'm not actually work on this on Mondays - I squeeze dev in between other projects. I've been having a lot of fun building this and it is just about at MVP. If you want to follow development of this app I am posting short updates on YouTube.

Wednesday & Friday: Smallest Quest

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Last year I released a sci-fi Roguelike called Asterogue. This year I'm building Smallest Quest. It's a new roguelike with the aim of being friendly enough for kids to play. My kids are pretty into turn based games which is what inspired me to make this. I came up with an asset pipeline that lets me hand-draw everything in the game and this has been fruitful and very also very satisfying work. It is nice to be able to just doodle out whatever asset I need in the game. I'm aiming to have this ready by the end of August.

If you want to follow progress on this project I post updates on a Twitter thread here. This is part of a new game development experiment I'm running with 3 friends. More on that later.

Thursday: TweetFeast

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My small success with selling apps and getting search engine channels working has convinced me to build another subscription software service. I've built two SaaS products already and both of them flopped. One was more successful than the other, gaining two customers, but neither took off in any meaningful way. There were a couple of things I didn't understand before:

  • Pick a real market with existing demand.
  • Figure out how to reach people in that market.

I think I have answers to those points with my new project. TweetFeast helps you download Twitter data without code or API keys which is a pain point for people who need to do analysis on Twitter data. There are products that do this already but not very well. Lots of people are searching for Twitter sentiment analysis solutions, so I am going to use that as a wedge into the market. TweetFeast provides sentiment analysis of tweets out of the box.

If you want to follow progress on this micro-SaaS project I have a Twitter thread where I post updates about it.

I'm using ClojureScript

Not all of my projects are built with ClojureScript but that's the direction I am moving in. Running ClojureScript "full stack" in the browser and on the backend in Node has been delightful, thanks to shadow-cljs. About half of my projects are now fully ClojureScript.

So that's everything I'm working on at the moment. I would love to hear from you if you have any comments or feedback.

Thanks for reading!

June 7, 2021

Recently I hit a milestone. My procedural melody generator became the number one result for the Google search "melody generator". Even better, I beat out Google's own product "Chrome Music Lab".

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Ever since I set my sights upon the "melody generator" keywords I knew it would be an epic struggle. I knew that Google themselves held the top position. I knew that I would have to pull out all stops and hack at my best to attain the prize.

Well I did it. Google has 135,000 employees and I vanquished them all. I beat them at their own game. I climbed the greasy mountain of Google engineers and stood upon their faces with my heels in their eye sockets and my toes filling their nostrils and I thrust my flag aloft and howled victory into the wind. Search result perfection.

I know this won't last. Their internal systems will figure out why their product isn't number one and get it back up there. They'll stick a team on it with laser eyes peering machine-like from behind Google glassholes as they methodically dismantle my indie challenge.

They'll change the copy, or the product, or the algorithm. Like a scene from a Miyazaki movie I'll be swallowed up by the writhing mass of engineers and my software will be snuffed out like an unwanted kitten. This too shall pass.

I am at peace with this. All wins in life are but a momentary flash of brightness that quickly fades. Yes they will take away the ranking, but they can never take away the glorious memory. It's our story to tell to our grandchildren by the light of the scanlines. The noble tale of that one time a lone music tech hacker reached the top of Google and out-googled Google themselves. Perfection is possible my friends, it is simply transient.

PS To those friends of mine who work at Google, I hope it's clear this piece is tongue-in-cheek. Sorry about stepping on your face.

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May 9, 2021

The word "meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. A meme is an idea that replicates itself from mind-to-mind, just as a gene replicates itself through organisms. The word "meme" is itself a meme, and it is spreading from my mind to your mind through the medium of this post.

We are in the midst of a pandemic caused by a real virus, and simultaneously, we are in the midst of a meme pandemic. Never before in history has it been possible for ideas to spread as quickly through populations as they do now. Just like DNA, some memes spread faster and wider than others. Some memes are fit.

Meme fitness is not the same thing as quality of thought. As I write this sentence it seems almost too obvious to write down. Stupid ideas can be just as fit as good ideas.

The central thesis of Twitter seems to be that good ideas bubble up. That fit memes are good ideas. Are they? Do good ideas bubble up, and are the ideas that bubble up any good?

Sometimes the stupidest ideas bubble up.

A few weeks ago I was the lucky host to two memes that infected my mind and reproduced to create a new meme. Naturally, like the good little meme vector I am, I tweeted the new meme. Here it is.

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Amazing right? This meme is somebody else's joke graph with a Mandalorian quote slapped on it. It took me 10 seconds to make. One million people saw this work of genius and ten thousand of them "liked" it.

This is absurd.

I've cut back my time on Twitter. Social media is the faustian bargain. It says, "play the game and earn attention. All you have to lose in return is control of your own mind".

Social media are the Trojans at the gates of your mind. Their wooden horse is magnificent. It glistens with all of the fittest memes. I let those Trojans into the fortress of my mind, and it was a mistake.

The way that Twitter controls your mind is with the numbers. Metrics are an addictive drug. Twitter is literally an incremental game. Click button. "Bring value". Number goes up.

I knew it was bad when I woke up at 3am thinking about what to Tweet. The only reason to be awake at 3am is if my kid needs a hug or my friend needs another drink. I knew it was bad when I found tweet-thoughts invading my mind on my morning run. My morning run is sacred. It's the only time I have experienced anything close to a stroke of genius. Instead of that I was twarting unstopple mental flatulence. Horrendous mind-farts. What a waste.

Twitter is useful. It is a tool, like a pencil, or an axe. It would be stupid to let a pencil control your mind, and it does not make sense to get angry at an axe. You should use your tools, and not be used by them.

Twitter does not use me any more. I use Twitter. I use it logged out. I use it intentionally, and on the schedule I set, and for the duration I choose. I do not accept the cookie from Twitter. I browse a smart person's timeline once a month as if it were a blog. I post occasional updates about what I am building. I use it to spread the word about the software I am writing and then I log out before it ensnares my mind. I've turned off all of the numbers with Calm Twitter by Yusuke Saitoh. I could not give a rat's ass how many likes I get. It's amazing.

Today on my morning run I saw the perfect arc of a leaf gliding down to rest on the pond. The surface rippled outwards. I smelled petrichor.

This is the way.

March 24, 2021

In 2020 I made $693 USD from side projects. I contributed to several open source projects and made about a thousand commits on GitHub. I shipped a commercial game, a SaaS product, an IDE, two music apps, a handful of open source utilities, and a couple of websites. I love building stuff!

What I learned:

  • Find demand before building something.
  • Single-pay products are easier than SaaS.
  • Build in public to boost the launch.
  • Ongoing updates help people find the thing.
  • Build websites to help people to find the thing.
  • Being open source does not hurt sales.

The side project income mostly came from:

The SaaS products I worked on failed to generate more than a few cheeseburgers. 🍔 Good thing I love cheeseburgers. If you're doing a first time project and you want some quick wins then probably don't start with SaaS.

Most games follow a typical pattern. They earn all the money in a big burst at the start and then the income falls off to zero. I've heard this from talks by other indie game developers as well. There is a novelty factor in games. This was true for my game too.

I mainly got the word out on Asterogue by building the game in public. What that means is I posted in multiple game dev forums about progress as I was making the game. It was a big effort and the launch went alright as a result (as opposed to most projects which launch to crickets). My fastest sales were from Asterogue but they've fallen to zero now.

The two music apps have done better. I've had 3 months of steady sales from them. They're making a combined revenue of about $80 USD per month.

Beat Maker 3-month revenue

Beat Maker 3 month revenue AUD

PO LoopSync 3-month revenue

PO LoopSync 3 month revenue AUD

I tried something new with PO LoopSync. I found demand before building. I studied a forum where enthusiasts of pocket operator devices hang out and I took notes. The notes revealed patterns in what they find important. Once I figured out what they want I made some mockups and asked them if it was what they wanted. When they said yes I built it.

This worked well and sales were good right from the start. Building stuff that people already want is more fun for everyone.

I've been building in public on different projects for a while now. It basically means I tweet about what I am making. Also, this very blog! When I launch something, people such as yourself can find out about it easily and tell others. That helps a lot to get the word out. Thank you for that!

I actually don't like building in public very much. It's uncomfortable. I especially don't like social media. So I've set up a system that allows me to interact with social media in an efficient and minimal way, but still be present. Maybe I'll post about that some time.

My problem up until now has been the bang-then-crash of launches. Initial interest and sales that then trail off. I've found two good ways to fix that this year. I guess you'd call these activities "marketing".

The first one is to post maintainance updates. Every time I update an existing project I try to post something about it. This probably seems obvious to a lot of people but it wasn't obvious to me. Each time I post an update I notice a small spike in interest and/or sales.

For example there was a gamejam for roguelike games this month. Leading up to the jam I made weekly updates to Roguelike Browser Boilerplate. I posted about them on the roguelike sub-reddit forum in their "saturday sharing" section. A bunch of new sales came in! Posting updates works.

The second thing I have tried is building useful websites that link to my apps. Marketing people call this SEO. I call it "building a useful website that links to my app". Not as catchy I guess. My friend Tobias showed me how effective SEO can be. There is also a good article about SEO by jdnoc that I learned from. Some people use SEO in a deceptive way but for me it's about giving my work the best chance to be found by people who are looking for it.

The first site I built is all about pocket operators. I used the research I did earlier to make a page about the most useful stuff. This got me on the front page of search for the phrase "pocket operator apps". Lo and behold one of my apps is a pocket operator app! So people find the page and then they can find my apps too. Here's a graph of the search volume on that site:

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Another site I built is a free web app for generating random melodies. It's a procedural melody maker that generates midi melodies you can download. There's a link from the free web app to my other apps.

The name for this is apparently "side project marketing". So my side projects are being marketed by my side-side projects. The free web app shows up on the front page of search for a group of terms around "ai midi melody generator". One of the apps it links to is a random beat generator so the audience is very similar. Here's the graph of search volume for the melody generator:

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So I think these two sites are a fairly steady channel where people find my apps. They're searching for "pocket operator apps" and "melody generator" and they find those sites and then they also sometimes click through and buy my apps.

There is one other way people are finding the apps. I have a free app on the Play store. It's an app for building music apps. So people who are already interested in music apps and development can find that, and then some of them also find my other apps.

The final thing I will note is that being open source has not hurt sales. Beat Maker is open source and I haven't open sourced PO LoopSync yet. So it's an imperfect A/B test but it's still useful. There isn't really much difference in the sales. There is basically only upside to being open source for somebody at my scale. People like it, and it builds trust, and it fits my ethics.

Anyway, I hope this is useful to somebody. I'll continue to post updates about my dev adventures and things I have discovered.

Jan. 30, 2021

I've been working on a free hand-doodled roguelike graphics tileset called Doodle Rogue. It's an alternative to the standard console and pixel roguelike graphics tilesets out there.

I'm relatively new to drawing. It's taken a couple of years of drawing badly to get to the point where I am comfortable enough for a tileset. This post is to show you some betas of the tileset I'm working on, and also the art that has inspired this work.

Doodle Rogue work-in-progress sketches

Here are the tileset beta sketches.

Doodle Rogue scenery sketches

Doodle Rogue scenery sketches

Doodle Rogue item sketches

Doodle Rogue item sketches

Doodle Rogue character sketches

Doodle Rogue Characters sketches

Doodle Rogue mockup sketch

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There is a ton of work still to do on these. I need to redraw them as vectors and clean them up, and finsh drawing the remainder of the tiles.

Research & references

I used Pinterest to explore different reference styles for the tileset. Here are some of the artists I am using for inspiration and referencing. There are actually a lot more references than this but these are some anchor points that have stood out.

You can find my game-draw reference pinterest feed here if you care to follow along.

Dom 2d

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Dom2d has been a big inspiration for my drawing in general. I love the balance he strikes between quick-draw simplicity whilst still looking good.

Slowquest (Bodie H)

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I love the gritty detail in Bodie's drawings of items and dungeons. Studying his work has taught me a lot about texturing with lines.

Timecowboy

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Timecowboy is a web comic artist.

Varguy

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Varguy has the rare skill of the ligne claire artists, combining seemingly simple shapes and lines into images that really come to life.

Mike Yamada

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I found Mike Yamada's work when reading The Noisy Garage to my kids. I love his animal characters.

Moebius

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That's everything for today. I hope you've enjoyed these images.

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