This interview with Shawn McGrath was conducted in early 2014. The feature was written for a university assignment and I’m publishing it now for easier access.
One-year-old John (real name changed for privacy) sits in his playpen looking up at his father as he points the spray bottle in his direction.”Pewsh, you’re dead,” Shawn McGrath says and John laughs as the mist lands on his perfectly round face. McGrath heads back to the kitchen where the tea water boils where he continues explaining his trip to Toronto to help develop N++.
McGrath spent the last few days working on N++, the next game from his friend’s studio, Metanet Software Inc. But McGrath only helps with the development of N++ and prefers to work alone on his games. At age 31, McGrath knows he can’t work a normal office job – he tried many times before.
Upstairs in his Mississauga home, power tools lie on the exposed wood floor leading to his office. McGrath, his wife Kuini and son John moved in a few months ago to live closer to Kuini’s parents. In his office, textbooks on graphical rendering pile up on the corner of the desk beside the PlayStation 4 controllers plugged into his development computer. On the furthest desk corner, a Macbook sits on another pile of textbooks. He’s anticipating an email from Sony representatives.
“I have a great relationship with Sony. I love the people there,” McGrath says. His most recent game, Dyad – a tunnel racing game – released in July 2012 for the PlayStation 3. Throughout the development of Dyad, Sony helped in every way they could. If McGrath ever needs specialized help, Sony would easily fly someone to his home.
Although he never exercised the cross country service, he spent months talking to Sony employees who would help at any time of the day. “I really like working with Sony because they actually give a shit,” McGrath says. “I’m one guy and you wouldn’t think a 10 billion dollar company wouldgive a shit about one guy, but they actually do.”
McGrath doesn’t work normal business hours, so Sony’s flexibility fits well with his schedule. While most office employees start the day in the morning, in high school McGrath quickly realized his nocturnal work habits. “I work oddly. I work very late – I don’t work normal hours.” McGrath then adds, “Now I wake up at 3 p.m., which is kind of normal, and just go for walk, drink coffee or read a book untilsix when my wife and kid get home.” When his son John falls asleep, McGrath programs into the morning, or at least until he passes out.
He only began developing Dyad after bouncing around a few jobs. McGrath landed his first programming job in high school in a co-op program with Microsoft. When Microsoft offered him a permanent position, McGrath didn’t bother to graduate. Then at age 21, McGrath started working for this father’s company programming accounting software. Unsatisfied with his office work, he found a job at Capybara Games Inc. porting games to Java phones. When he felt the company heading in an unstable direction, he took his part-time development of Dyad and committed full-time.
With the help of the Canadian government, McGrath left his normal office job to develop Dyad. McGrath received a government grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) which provides grants to video game developers, musicians and artists. After filing a 200 page proposal, McGrath received a grant large enough to pay his own salary in addition to hiring another employee for a full year. Even with the grant, McGrath says he alone funded 90 per cent of Dyad’s development, a process that extends for two more years.
Not everyone supported McGrath’s commitment to Dyad, especially his parents. “My parents thought it was retarded,” McGrath says.”My mom thought it was the worst idea ever. And now she says ‘See, I told you it was a good idea.'” McGrath couldn’t legally reveal how many people purchased Dyad from the PlayStation 3 and Steam releases, but he considers the risk and the investment well worth the return.
PlayStation Plus, a monthly subscription service that provides free games as rentals and offers price discounts, now offers Dyad as a free download. McGrath says PlayStation Plus only helps him. “It already sold a lot on PS3. Then it stopped selling a lot,” he says. “If these people aren’t going to be buying it anyway – if guy sitting there is like ‘I’m never going to buy Dyad,’ I’m not losing a sale by giving him the game.” Aside from the initial sum of money from Sony to offer Dyad as a PlayStation Plus freebie, the wider outreach makes the service worthwhile for developers both large and small.
While McGrath develops N++, he continues to earn money for his future project, which he claims requires at least five to ten people. He can seek a publisher to fund the project, but McGrath prefers to fund development on his own. “I just don’t give a shit about other people’s opinion. At all,” McGrath says. When he wants to do something a certain way, he doesn’t want to explain his changes or fight for his vision.
McGrath grabs his tea from the desk and reclines in his office chair. He rests his feet on the edge of his desk revealing the hole in the centre of his left sock. “It’s a multiplayer platformer that is like DOTA. With Physics. That plays like Quake,” he says as he imagines his new game. But what McGrath needs financially doesn’t matter to him right now. “I’d rather make sure the idea is good first then figure the rest out later.”