2016 Year In Review
12 months, countless side projects
I think it was my New Year’s Resolution but I wanted this year to be the year that I released things. And while 2016 was a bad year in almost every other regard, I did manage to make a lot of work. So much that I had actually forgotten about a few of these. So partially for posterity and partially to make myself feel a little better, I’m going to list all the projects I released this year, a little bit about why I did them, and then do some thinking about what happened to them after I released them.
Also at the end I’m gonna talk about what I didn’t do, because I think that’s equally important.
I participated in Global Game Jam 2016 spending a few days in a room at Parsons with a few friends. I had this thought that most word games I’ve played, even the good ones, have this problem where obscure words (be they long or dense with rare letters) are almost always better to play than common ones. So I tried to make a game where you explicitly had to come up with words that had common letters in them. The idea is that you had this hand of letter tiles and when you used one, like an S for example, all the S’s on the board would clear. So you’re incentivized to think of as many words as you can that use as many S’s.
I prototyped the gameplay in about two days not knowing whether or not it would actually work mechanically. It kind of didn’t, but it was still fun to play around with and look at. I didn’t complete it fully in the two days but I only had a few bits of work left that I picked up again later in the year (spoilers!).
February I launched my blog for deep thoughts about super niche topics, theiceberg.cool! The Iceberg was an idea that I had been brewing in my head for years, so it was really amazing to see it come to fruition. It went ahead pretty strongly in its first week and a lot of people were super jazzed about it, but it didn’t really blow up outside my own circle. I continued posting to it because I had built up this long backlog of stuff, but eventually I lost a bit of steam with it and the posts became more sporadic. I still have so much content to post but it’s a personal flaw of mine that it’s hard to keep them up week after week. I also have much bigger plans for expansion and original content, but more on that later.
The Iceberg is a blog showcasing people thinking in depth about things you didn't know anyone thought deeply about.https://t.co/Opf0PXMOCD— The Iceberg (@icebergdotcool) February 22, 2016
In March I fooled around with Tone.js a bunch, because it had been a while since I made a music + technology project and also a while since I had interacted with the Web Audio API. I built this little blues scale toy and this theremin-esque thing.
I really wanted to make a UI for the blues scale toy; I even wanted to test out livestreaming the development of it but never got around to it, mostly because I didn’t have any strong ideas.
April was a lot of noodling around, but I did start work on the visuals of what would later become Ramsophone, although at this point it didn’t have the musical component figured out. I also had a special Iceberg event where I posted every day about video game related topics and changed the color and theme of the site and everything. I really want to do more of these (I have them planned out already!) in 2017.
In May I finished work on my global game jam game and added a tutorial, which honestly is the part that I think is the best. It might even be better than the game itself. If you want to play it, it’s here.
Here's a little preview of something pic.twitter.com/BlAuT3xgpu— Robert Vinluan (@RobertVinluan) May 16, 2016
June / July
Mainly in July, but started in June, I launched Everything Dev Log, a very meta YouTube series that documented my work on all the side projects I had going on. I even made a theme song for it.
It lasted 5 episodes, mainly because progress on all my projects slowed down and the time it took to record and edit a video (in which I said basically nothing) surpassed the amount of time I was spending actually making progress. But I absolutely want to pick this back up again in 2017 and figure out a good workflow for it.
In August I added the musical component to Ramsophone (an arpegiator playing different chords) and launched it, and then it went really far. It was probably the most successful of my launches this year. The tweet did pretty well, it was on top of Product Hunt, and it got a post on kottke.org. It got written about in Wired (and then translated into Japanese). This is the first thing I made that actually got any kind of press, so that was a fun feeling.
I feel like because it was a successful launch, I should talk about the work I actually did to launch it, because it is work and it’s not entirely luck (although it feels a lot like it is). I posted it to Hacker News, Designer News, and Product Hunt and got people to upvote it early. Crucially though I forgot to mention in these posts the most important thing about it, which is that you have to refresh. So it probably could have gone further if I did that. I also stuck around the comment sections of these sites, engaging with people who were asking questions or giving feedback. I posted it in a bunch of private forums too (read: slack channels), to friends who I knew would be interested. I made custom images and had meta tags for social sharing. I spent a long time coming up with a tagline that would describe it and also tell people how to use it, and then I made sure that was visible when I posted about it. The day before it launched I also messaged a few people privately to test it out so I could get a handle on what they understood and what they didn’t.
Honestly it probably deserves a full post-mortem, but I don’t think I have that in me.
One random weekend in September I found myself at home with nothing to do, so I decided to cook up a bot idea I had in my head for a long time, a bot that generated pictures of birds sitting on wires. It ended up taking almost no time at all and then doing phenomenally well, which I attribute to the idea being immediately understandable, a bit clever, and also that it actually came out looking really great. This was a fun and unexpected thing that blew up even though I spent next to no time on it, and I still show it to people as something I’m most proud of making this year.
In October I participated in #inktober, a global event in which artists produce a different ink drawing every day for a month. Like with a lot of other things I started strong and then trailed off by the end, and although I did produce a lot of drawings I did it sporadically and unsubstantially. The point though was to practice, and it had been so long since I had drawn anything, so I consider that a success.
Partially because of despair about our country and partially because work got very busy, I didn’t do any work on any side projects in November.
But I do want to mention that the reason work got busy is because we were working on releasing NYT Crosswords for Android, which a) I poured my heart and soul into and b) I’ve wanted to exist since way before I started working at the Times, so I’m mentioning that here. It’s something I did release, after all (although I absolutely didn’t do it alone 😉).
UM HI WE KIND OF LAUNCHED AN APP https://t.co/DPUCrdOfMN— Robert Vinluan (@RobertVinluan) November 17, 2016
I’m still a little bit in disbelief that it happened, but I made a Christmas album! I’ve been wanting to do this for so long and I’m really glad I actually did it this year, even though it’s not perfect. It came together remarkably fast and overall I’m really proud of it, but I would love to spend 2017 taking music making more seriously. This was a fun little foray into arranging and producing and releasing (still ongoing!), but I could have spent so much more time on it and there’s so much more that I didn’t get in that I would love to do for next year.
What I didn’t do
I’ve said this to multiple people, but for every side project I end up doing, there are about 12 that I’m not doing. Here are a few of the major ones:
Ever since I became obsessed with it last fall, I’ve been working on a Hamilton data visualization that charts the musical’s recurring musical motifs. I gathered a lot of data and wrote a bunch of d3 code, but I still have a lot of writing to do (I consider it a data journalism project) as well as more data sanitizing and formatting and I don’t even really know how it’s going to present itself. This was supposed to be my huge project at the end of the year but it kind of ran away from me. Other great visualizations of Hamilton have since come out, so I’m excited to work on it some more in 2017.
I haven’t made a What Year Is It? Bestof in two years, although I did rewrite the app to better log what it tweets, so the Best of 2017 should be a lot easier now.
I have such grand plans for original content on The Iceberg that I never got to implement, but in 2017 look out for interviews, book reviews, and a podcast probably! (I recorded an episode already but want to build up some more)
I didn’t blog at all basically, even though I said I would blog a lot more.
I didn’t release a game in 2016, even though I started working on…5. Some of those games turned out to be too large in scope, others I failed to anything interesting in, others I was working on with another person and then we both sort of fizzled out. (Some are just not done yet!) This is the saddest item on my ‘what I didn’t do’ list because I really want to make more games. For 2017 I think the lesson I’m taking away is that I need to learn to find small interesting ideas, descope, and then follow through.
Plans for next year:
Keep it up, I guess.