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PAX East 2011: Scott Macmillan On The Life And Death Of His Indie Studio
PAX East 2011: Scott Macmillan On The Life And Death Of His Indie Studio
March 11, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

March 11, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
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    15 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie



At a PAX East lecture today, self-described founder and ender of Macguffin Games, Scott Macmillan, discussed the successes and failures of his company, what he learned from them, and the overall point of starting a company in the first place.

Macmillan started off his career in the industry at Blue Fang Games, working in QA production, before finally leaving to start his own company. He spent three years on Macguffin Games before finally closing it down and joining Viximo, a Boston area social games startup.

Macmillan started Macguffin Games because, unsurprisingly, he wanted to make games. His dream project was All Heroes Die, a strategy RPG that had players controlling a family of heroes and following a plot through generations. He started teaching himself to code and working on the game in his own time while looking for ways to fund the rest.

The first problem Macmillan ran into was motivation. In the early stages at Macguffin, he found it very difficult to make himself work from home. He helped turned the situation around by getting an office space at Beta House in Boston, which let him work in focused environment. “I didn’t put pants on for a month, which are helpful for getting into a work frame of mind,” he said.

Macmillan also got help from Graham Sternberg, who became the art director for Macguffin Games, and Sternberg’s sister took on coding duties, which allowed Macmillan to focus on producing and creating.

But these changes weren't enough. It became increasingly clear the scope of the game was going to require years and years, even with the added help. Macmillan he didn't realize at first how little time he really had. Without any external pressures, his team turned to making commitments to get into indie festivals and showcases as a way to make sure they were moving forward.

“Make the game that you want to make, and really think about if you can get it done in half the time you think you have,” he suggested.

Marketing was also a big issue, something that he felt indies in particular have problems with. “Marketers are smart,” he said “and they have a skill that, as an indie, you need.” He urged indies to go and find someone who could market their game if they felt unable to do it themselves.

When All Heroes Die became untenable, and as MacGuffin Games began to run out of money, Macmillan turned to friends and family for funding to make a product that was more commercially viable. He hoped to tap into Facebook with Mustache Mercenaries, a game that had players controlling famous American historical figures like Harriet Tubman and pitting them against each other with steampunk robots.

In switching to Facebook, he hoped to find an audience there looking for something indie. “We were completely wrong,” he said, as the game's press blitz was met with “deafening silence.” He suggested other developers should not only seek to better understand their market, but also make sure the audience they hoped for actually existed.

The first and most important thing Macmillan learned from his experience was how to fail. “When you start a business, you are going to eat sleep and breathe failure,” he said. Mistakes were a given for someone learning the business, and for him, the way to make it work was simply make the best call he could, and then move on.

On a personal note, Macmillan offered a practical tip for project leads: learn how to code. “If you are starting a small indie project and you are not the coder, that person will probably leave,” he said. For a job that requires so much work, it helps to make sure the person doing it won’t leave.

Indie developers exist somewhere between pure art and pure business, theorized McMillian, but companies exist primarily to make money. He posed the same question to the audience that he had asked of himself: if you’re a pure artist, why are you starting company to make money off of it?

“Making a game and setting up a company are two different things,” said McMillian. He encouraged new indies to make the games of their dreams, but to think twice before turning that into business. For now, he will make the game of his dreams on his own time, he said.


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Comments


Scott Macmillan
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Just for the record, it was that not having to put on pants in working from home for months is what was bad - getting office space was helpful in making me put on my game face (and clothes) and face the world. :)

Kimberly Unger
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I dunno, Scott :D I was rather enjoying the idea of you walking into the Beta House space without pants :)



In all seriousness though, you've hit the nail on the head with the realities of being indie. Running an indie studio is vastly different than putting together your own indie game. If you're not careful you find yourself spending all your time on the "business" portion, and the game never gets finished :P

kP09 HI19
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I believe it would be a reciprocal...



m/

Scott Macmillan
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One of the big upshots I wanted to leave people with was, starting a business isn't necessarily what people -really- want when they start a studio. They may really just want to make games, but think a studio is what you need to do that. But starting a business involves huge amounts of stuff that has nothing to do with your creative project.



Once you do make that jump into a business, I agree that it's definitely a balancing act of sorting out the entangled priorities and nailing the really important stuff first.

Manuel Najera
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Kudos to Scott for opening up about this. Personally, I feel that we do not hear enough about people who try, and fail, to reach indie success. For every Minecraft and Braid, I'm sure there are countless other projects that have failed as spectacularly as those have succeeded. The stories of those "failures" provide valuable insights, as Scott's story here does.



Of course, you only ever really "fail" when you don't try in the first place. Here's hoping that Scott finds success in the future.

Tim Carter
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Studios are merely a means to make games. The games are the end, not the studios.



Again, games are projects. The notion that we should be really focused on making studios is so wrong-headed it's sad. The games are the end; the studios are the means. We should be setting up a temporary vehicle (a company) to make a single game franchise, then make it, then wrap it once it's done to minimize your burn. Otherwise, you are just burning yourself out trying to support a studio.



In a project-based paradigm, you *can* make the game of your dreams with a lot of money. You just attach the outsourcing entities required to produce the game, make it, then wrap it all once it's done (which may be some time after launch to do various maintenance tasks), licence the marketing rights to a marketing company such as a publisher, and then take time off and rest.

Jerry Pritchard
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I did this same thing in 2005, ran my studio for a year and a half and was actually making progress until the 2nd party game we were building was canceled by the publisher, leaving us with a funding gap. We failed because we were too ambitious and expanded too rapidly. HUGELY important lessons were learned not only for game development, but how to manage "work" life and "home" life as well. I knew from day one I could not work at "home" and that was the first thing I did was find office space elsewhere.

Anna Lorentzson
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As a indie i feel that my experience as a game developer is a lot the same as Scott´s. Sometimes it´s very nice to hear that you are not alone.

Ichiro Lambe
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Having been on two panels with Scott this weekend, I can confidently say that he doesn't bother wearing pants when he can avoid it.

Mathieu Rouleau
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The problem with media is that nothing sells a story like a big failure. So unless you fail catastrophically, as you did, nobody really cares.



By the way, if you can't motivate yourself to work from home, you shouldn't even consider starting your own studio. Keep working for someone else.



@Jerry: Project cancellation is the eternal doom of developers. That's why we publish our games ourselves through our website. Obviously we don't have instant cash influx from a publisher advance, but that keeps us well grounded in reality and forces us to actually focus on the product rather than the publisher.

Scott Macmillan
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"By the way, if you can't motivate yourself to work from home, you shouldn't even consider starting your own studio. Keep working for someone else."



I'd completely disagree with this. Not being able to work productively from home (in my case, after months and months of doing so, it was taking its toll) is simply an issue to be overcome. I did it by getting out of the house. IMO it's like any other issue with starting a business - deal with it somehow, and move on.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"That's why we publish our games ourselves through our website. Obviously we don't have instant cash influx from a publisher advance, but that keeps us well grounded in reality and forces us to actually focus on the product rather than the publisher."



I really like this approach, and the attitude it entails.

Jacob Johnson
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I see this happen all the time sadly. Starting a studio with a project that needs more than two people to make it happen is a mistake that many Indies make. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn't in the end. Start smaller, and then when you start, scale the game back a bit more. I disagree with the statement "Make the game you want to make". Sometimes you have to make the game that is necessary to enable you to make the game that you want to make.

Scott Macmillan
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It's a good point. A good friend of mine is doing that right now.



For me, I had to do the game I wanted, rather than a game that was smarter for being in business, simply because I knew I wasn't disciplined enough to chase something that I wasn't passionate about.



Over the course of doing all this, I became much, much more focused and efficient with my time, and better disciplined about doing things I wasn't enthusiastic (a character flaw, for sure). If I were doing things again going full-time, I'd think hard about doing exactly what you're advocating.

Jacob Johnson
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You definitely have gained a lot of wisdom from your experiences. While I do not want to end up failing, I do wish for the wisdom you have gained from your experiences. Thank you for sharing. And good luck with your next endeavor.


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