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.