AXIS GAME FACTORY: MEET MATT MCDONALD, THE MAN THAT NEVER STOPPED BELIEVING IN HIMSELF
For all of us enjoying Axis Game Factory (AGF) assets and developers in general, it is important to understand how hard it is to come up with a high quality product like this. It does not come down to simply having a brilliant idea. No! You gotta be experienced and walk the path just like Matt McDonald did. A path that goes from Jurassic Park 1 and Joe Montana Football to being involved in projects with Steven Spielberg and Lucas Arts. Here is the story behind the rise, fall and rebirth of a man who never stopped believing in his dream, not even when he needed $500,000 per month just to keep his video game company running. Welcome to AGF world.
Unt3Dmag: First of all, tell me more about you, Matt. What were you used to do before the creation of Axis Game Factory?
Matt McDonald: This is my 26th year making games. I worked for Sega for 6 years. Jurassic Park 1 was my first game on Genesis. I also worked on Jurassic Park 2, Vectorman 1 and Vectorman 2, World Series Baseball, Joe Montana Football, My Little Mermaid, Ren and Stimpy, and Alladin.
So there are a lot of fantastic experiences in your life as a game maker. I played some of these titles when I was teenager, like Jurassic Park and Alladin…
I co-created the first FPS shooter that had a story line and it was nominated for a “Codies” award: Assassin 2015. id Software wasn’t even nominated for their version of Doom that year…
I co-created and art directed the first 3D animated cartoon series on Nickelodian. It was called But-Ugly Martians. After Assassin 2015, Dreamworks Interactive asked us to make a Goosebumps game with the same engine and that game became Game of the Year by Parents Magazine. So that was the third game I was able to work with Steven Spielberg on. After that I started my own company and we worked with Sony 989 Studios on Twisted Metal 3 and Twisted Metal 4, Jet Moto 3 and later we worked with Verant (now Sony Online Entertainment) on the first EverQuest. And later we were contracted to work on another 3 more EverQuest projects.
I co-created the first FPS shooter that had a story line and was nominated for a “Codies” award: Assassin 2015.
Twisted Metal!!! That was a true masterpiece! [laughs]
Yeah. I’m still great friends with the original engineer for that engine, Jim Buck.
How did you end up working with Steven Spielberg?
Well, we were asked by Microsoft to work on a launch title for the original Xbox console [back in 2001]. The game was supposed to be based on the movie Artificial Intelligence. That was originally a Stanley Kubrick Film, but Stanley asked Steven to complete the movie for him before he passed away.
That was surely a loss for all Sci-Fi fans.
No doubt. A.I. was optioned by Microsoft [and] four games [would have been] made from that movie. All were supposed to be lead titles for the Xbox. When we went to meet with Steven to show him our progress on the games he was already in production for Minority Report. And was 4 hours late for the meeting! Since my wife, Tammy, and I live near LA we stayed to wait for Steven to be able to meet with us. He felt bad for being late and invited us over to see the set of Minority Report.
That’s a wonderful way of apologizing [laughs].
There he introduced us to Tom Cruise, and the Director of Photography for Minority Report, Janusz Kamiński. I freaked out like a school girl meeting Tom Cruise. Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest people I have ever met. He also introduced us to Robert Zemeckis. He happened to also be on the set. Steven, Tammy, and I hung out while they set up the shots for the next several hours and we talked his ear off asking him about how movies come together.
This A.I. games project was abandoned?
Unfortunately the A.I. movie was not [that] well received commercially. As soon as I saw the movie for the first time I called Tammy and told her that I doubted that Microsoft would want to complete the A.I. project as the content that our game was based on was cut from the film. Two weeks later Microsoft killed all the games that were based on that movie.
Then after all this you created Heavy Water, right?
Well, back then the company was called Visionscape. At one time we had six console games in development, but not all were released. We had over 100 employees. We went from 12 to over 100 in maybe three years. Having a large company was not at all what I expected. I was into being creative. [But] I became a baby sitter.
You were growing too fast…
My objective was no longer making games. It was to find $500.000 dollars a month to keep the company running. We never had any investors or financial help with maintaining cash flow, so it only took one or two publishers not paying on time before we run out of money. Publishers don’t like to pay their developers. So needless to say, we were only able to keep that company going for six years in total. After losing Visionscape, I was personally in debt for over a half million dollars in bank loans for the company.
Gosh! You were completely broke!
We received a call [and learned] that Sony needed close to an hour and a half of movies for the Neopets games they were making. So Tammy set me up with a 300 man team in India and I directed them from my house. Then within one year I paid all the banks off and had another million in the bank after completing the Neopets games and a few more game “movie” projects that we picked up during that year. Then Eletronic Arts asked us to work on PlayStation Home for their sports games. We completed that project and then Sony asked us to make more PlayStation Home content.
Tammy and I started Heavy Water as a PlayStation Home developer. We worked on many PlayStation Home content offerings, from Battlefield to Tron to Star Wars. The Star Wars content was completed but never released. They were idiots there… Over the term of the six month contract we had three producers and two Presidents for Lucas Arts, all wanting different things for the project. I eventually got paid and then I told them I was done working with them.
I gotta say your history is amazing! It is really nice being able to know all of these great stories!!!
[laughs] Thanks. I don’t really think about it too much. It’s weird to be telling this all to you. Seems to be more interesting then I remember, even for me!
Going back to Heavy Water…
As Heavy Water, we made over 900 assets to be sold into the PlayStation Home market. That work eventually dried up and as a Hail Mary I tried to get a Kickstarter off the ground to get AGF funded to keep my team’s jobs. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, so I kept only one programmer from that team of close to 30 developers, moved my office to a shed in my backyard and personally funded Axis Game Factory.
After losing Visionscape, I was personally in debt for over a half million dollars…
So that’s the earliest beginning of AGF, right?
We first released AGF on the Unity Asset Store about eight months later. In a very short time I was told by my wife that she had found links to our software that she didn’t understand. She had done a search on Google for “Axis Game Factory” and many of the links were to software pirating sites. I did a bit more searching myself and could see from the number of downloads from the pirate sites there were well over 400,000 pirated downloads of the application from users that took what we had on the Unity asset store and then posted it to pirating portals.
What did you do?
I went to the Unity forums to find some of the users that I thought might be behind this, and within one day I was kicked off the Unity forums twice by forum managers for just asking about why other users were posting my software to these sites. What I found unbelievable is that the users on the Unity forum were all of the opinion that they did nothing wrong. Many of them thought they did me a favor by giving my released product away. I found the mass opinion of the Unity users to be totally ignorant. I can’t understand why you would steal other developers’ softwares to make games that you want to sell. What is the difference of stealing from me and my family and others stealing from them? I felt like this was a personal theft against me and my family because this was my only income at the time and I took a year off of all paid work to make AGF, not to mention I paid another person’s salary for the passed year.
I can’t believe this was happening.
Needless to say the Unity forum managers added insult to injury by kicking me off of the forums. People reading this may say: “Why didn’t you have copy protection in AGF?”. Well, copy protection isn’t something you just throw into a product. I had no more money or time to put into such things. Not to mention it wasn’t something I knew anything about, having done nothing but console games and in-house tools and engines previous to that. So Tammy got AGF onto Steam Greenlight and within six days it was accepted for release. In the past year we have sold over 150,000 AGF and AGF DLCs on Steam. I still have a very small team of myself, Tammy and a new programmer, Alex.
So other developers almost broke you again, it is fair to say.
Well, I can tell you that it really had a significant effect on my head in how I looked at the users on the Unity Forum. I’m over it now. I got back up and kept working. I have a long way to go and I think as long as users will keep buying AGF I will.
She had done a search on Google for “Axis Game Factory” and many of the links were to software pirating sites, keep adding to it. I am happy to finally make what I want and to have the users being able to personally talk to me about how AGF has changed their lives. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
After migrating to Steam, were you able to solve the problem of piracy?
Oh, yeah. Steam has all of that buttoned up. And they are far more responsible and professional about how they treat their developers, having been treated poorly by publishers themselves before they became the mega corporation that they are now.
So the take away is publishers don’t care about anything other than themselves and their money. No matter what they tell developers, they are lying. Developers don’t need publishers, they need a good idea, [plus] dedication, talent, and an unwavering desire to not give up when they fail. So when they do fail, and ALL OF THEM DO AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER, they get up and try again and be happy as hell when they get something right.
Let’s talk more deeply about AGF. I already created some scenes with it and imported them to Unity, and I can say the results are really impressive. Tell me how you had the idea of creating a tool like AGF.
When I bought my first Amiga 2000 with Video Toaster and Lightwave 3D I knew that was a turning point in my life. What I want to do with AGF is provide that same type of thing to users all over the world. I never went to any school for what
I do. There were not any schools that taught this when I started. There was no internet either. All I knew was I wanted to create “something” for a career. Game development lets me do that everyday and I love it. Everyone that wants to create for a career should make that happen for themselves like I have. I had the idea when I was back at Sega actually. The development process and tools were sooooooooo bad… Ever since then I have wanted to make a tool that was as fun to use as games were to play. I haven’t achieved that yet, but with every update and release and the great support of our users I am getting closer.
The way you imagined the usability is fantastic. Creating the whole environment is very intuitive, I must say. How did you decide on the design of the interface?
I based most of the architecture of the software design around the original Lightwave that I learned when I started out and then added User Interface as I needed. I try and stay with the UI design that I use on many software applications. You’ll see parts of Maya, and Adobe Photoshop and Premiere in there as well, as I use those applications almost daily. My objective was to make it easy to learn, but deep enough so that users were always learning more. [Easy to learn] but hard to master. This I learned at Sega. You want users to be challenged but not frustrated.
Yeah, now that you mentioned all that software, I can see the inspiration from it.
I also wanted users to learn the pipeline of actual game development, not some one off game creation tool that had no connection to the actual tools used in the industry. I have a long way to go to get all the things into AGF that I originally set out to be part of the product.
For Unity users, is there a way to use your environments on mobile platforms?
The original architecture is set up to allow for that. I eventually want to make players for all devices, not unlike the DLC we have now. So [that you] design a game level on your PC and play it on your Ipad, Tablet or even Xbox. Again, there a lot of things still needed to be done. But the core system is set up for that sort of thing. My primary focus now is to have a fully user generated game system for users to build, play and share their creations on PC, Mac and Linux OS.
AGF Pro Basic + Premium, available in Steam
Speaking more technically, how do you import data from AGF – is it a stand alone tool – for Unity? Does everything become a native asset inside it?
Well, all the data starts in Unity, as AGF is made with Unity.
So the process of getting the data back into Unity is just about reverting the data back to the Unity format. I don’t use any proprietary terrain or other code set, it’s all Unity made code. The AGF scene importer takes what you had in AGF and then builds that in Unity.
You created a set of downloadable content for AGF like Zombie FPS, Fantasy Side-Scroller, Drone Kombat FPS and Battlemat. By using AGF, do you think anyone can make their own game?
Not a complete game with missions, objectives and a story line like I eventually want to make. But users can make a multi-level game that they can share with other AGF users or anyone. With the AGF Game Packager they can pack and zip their games and share the game they made with anyone. The packaged games don’t need to be compiled in Unity in any way and can be used without having AGF at all. If users want to mod or add to the game [what] they get from an AGF user all they have to get is AGFPRO “basic” to expand the game as they like.
What are your plans for the near future with AGF?
My primary focus now is to have a fully user generated game system for users to build, play and share their creations on PC, Mac and Linux OS. That’s about it. Mission, Objective and Story line modules for AGF. I am also working on a character creator and a Voxel editor to add to AGF.
Voxel is that tool to carve holes, build caverns and so on, right?
Yeah. I want to add Voxel to be a terrain type to be used in AGF, in addition to what I have now with height map based terrain.
I hope to put my dirty hands on it as soon as possible! Thank you for your time!
Thanks for the opportunity!