An interview with: Matty McGrory – module leader, MA Indie Game Development (Online)
14 July 2022
Matty McGrory is a senior gameplay designer, lecturer and module leader on our online master’s degree in Indie Game Development. We chatted to Matty about his rich and varied career path, the importance of creativity in the game design industry and why indie games should be ‘weird and wacky’.
As a game developer and senior lecturer, what first piqued your interest in gaming and game design?
This is showing my age, but I had a Commodore 64 when I was a kid, and it felt like games were always present in my life. I progressed from that console to local arcades, and by the time I got my first PC, the games you could play on them had really evolved. I remember getting the first iteration of Half-Life in 1998, and the beauty of that game was that you could do mods (modifications), so I started out doing them for the Half-Life engine. That was my first foray into game development.
From there I began to think how cool it would be to make video games from scratch and to get paid for it. Despite my careers advisor at school telling me that it wasn't a viable job, I went off and researched places I could go to study it and, along with a close friend of mine who also wanted to go into game development, I discovered Teesside University. I made the move over to the UK from Northern Ireland in 2002 to study their BSc in visualisation.
Can you take us along your career path so far?
I graduated in 2006 and moved back to Ireland to work for a software company called Icon eBusiness. I was employed as a game designer for health and safety video games – a fairly unglamourous version of gaming – but for big clients like Unite Union and Northern Ireland Water.
I then did a PGCE. During my BSc, I ended up tutoring some international students, and discovered how much I enjoyed it. I moved back to the UK in 2008 and started teaching in colleges – including Darlington College, where I taught on their BTEC in creative media and game development. I then got the opportunity to move to Sunderland College to work on their NextGen Skills Academy and helped to set up a brand-new, more industry-focused game development course. After a few years I went full circle by going back to Teesside University to become a lecturer.
During this period, I’d been doing small bits of freelance game design and development, just to keep my foot in the door. Then at the beginning of the first lockdown in 2020, I realised that I really missed making games. So, I started working for Tanglewood Games, a specialist Unreal engine developer based in Hartlepool. We worked for lots of different clients, including Dovetail Games and WayForward, who produce the Shantae series and River City Girls – all these awesome games.
Throughout my time lecturing I’d taught a lot of graduates who went on to work for a company called Radical Forge, and through recommending the best graduates to them I built a strong relationship with that studio team. So, when an opportunity arose to become a senior gameplay developer in their team, I went for it. It was cool because I’d taught about half of the people who worked at the studio at the time, and the whole experience reminded me of why I love making video games.
What makes Falmouth’s online course stand out?
I’ve been part of Falmouth’s Indie Game Development academic team for just over a year now. Working for Tanglewood Games meant I had a lot of experience working remotely with clients, and so I was attracted to teaching on Falmouth online master’s course because that really does suit game development as a discipline. Once you have mastered the technology and ironed out any barriers, it really helps people making games; to be able to work whenever you feel most creative and to work around your other life commitments.
I love working with the students and the other academics on the course. The way the course is set up really is the way game development should be taught. The students are so engaged, and they come from a diverse range of backgrounds, which makes for very interesting work.
Indie game development should be weird and wacky! This course encourages that approach and supports students to take risks.
The fact that the course is delivered asynchronously really does mirror the direction the industry is going in. There’s less clocking in and out, and instead it’s more focused on deliverables. That’s the way game design should be – it shouldn’t be ‘how many hours have you spent on this thing?’, but instead ‘is it well designed, and fun?’. That’s what really matters.
It is also a realistic course. It truly reflects what game designers do, day to day, in the studio. The team have been receptive to me bringing in some of my additional industry experience, too, and we have this great melting pot of people from different backgrounds and disciplines, sharing different skills and fostering creativity. Indie game development should be weird and wacky! This course encourages that approach and supports students to take risks. We’d rather students try something risky and don’t nail it the first time than play it safe.
What do you think makes a great game developer?
It sounds cliché but there is a big difference between playing games and making them. Developing games is hard. The fact that games ever get released is somewhat of a miracle, because they are such complex things put together by lots of different people. You need a certain amount of drive and focus to be part of that.
However, the main thing is to be creative. As a relatively young medium, we can get away with almost anything as game designers. In my opinion, successful games are the ones that push the boundaries and experiment with different ideas. Even if someone is from a non-gaming background, if they’re creative enough and have the ideas and the drive, we can help them to get their game into fruition.
Some of the best people in the industry don’t have that early academic grounding in game design. And cross-pollination of skills is key. Within our team, the best design ideas often come from an artist, or the best art calls from a technical designer. Being open-minded is also important; the most exciting games are those inspired by a broad range of influences, from novels to nature documentaries.
What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing professionals in the industry?
Getting your game in front of the right people is one of the toughest aspects of the industry. You could have the coolest game in the world, but if nobody sees it, it will just sit on the shelf. What we try to do on the course is give students the tools to make a good pitch, so they can confidently approach publishers; to develop their own Steam page so they can launch the game themselves; or to get their game featured in relevant expos and conferences.
We also champion networking. The course involves regular group work and webinars, in which you talk to lots of other students and tutors. Several years down the line, they might be the people working in the studios looking for new developers or new products, so they might think of you.
The industry is still unbelievably small, and you regularly encounter people you may have already studied or worked with in the past, in new guises and situations. So, one of the cool things the course does, as well as giving students the tools and the knowledge to go places, is to provide a network of people that will grow as your career grows. You'll continually cross paths with these people and it will open doors.
For example, for the past few years I have run Animex, a games festival based in the northeast. We always have speakers from different countries attending, and it’s amazing the number of times people tell me they’ve secured a job off the back of a conversation that took place between festival talks.
While I think networking is difficult to teach, the fact that this course is online helps to bridge that gap for people to whom it doesn’t come so naturally. Teams calls, Discord, all these things make it more comfortable to make those vital connections.