Nathaniel McClure went to school in New York and launched a successful career in Los Angeles. But for the past two years, it’s been metro Detroit that his video game development company has called home.
McClure, 36, left New York after school to pursue work in film and television. Once he got out to Los Angeles, though, he discovered that a childhood love of video games was turning into a new career path.
He began working at Activision Blizzard Inc., a video game publisher in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2001. After leaving in 2007, he formedEpicenter Studios, which he ran until 2010, when he sold it to Floor 84 Studio LLC in North Hollywood, Calif.
Incentives offered by the Michigan Film Officeare what inspired McClure to make the move to Michigan in 2009. He started Farmington Hills-based Scientifically Proven LLC that year.
“Man vs. Wild,” based on the Discovery Channel show, was the first game Scientifically Proven produced.
An application for a $400,000 incentive for the “Man vs. Wild” game was initially denied based on the state’s argument that the studio did not own all of the intellectual property rights to all of the material in the game. Scientifically Proven sued the state and won in Oakland County Circuit Court, but the state has appealed. (Look for a story in Crain’s Detroit Businesslater this month on a proposal in the Michigan Legislature to allow incentives for projects of which all the IP rights are not held by the applicant.)
The studio was recently approved for an incentive of more than $400,000 to produce “Ghost Game.” Scientifically Proven wrote the entire storyline for this game and therefore owns all of the intellectual property rights.
McClure said he tries to take different approach to the stories in his games. Instead of involving killing, games like “Real Heroes: Firefighter,” which he created while at Epicenter, have the gamer saving lives.
The studio is also working on titles for medical, educational and military markets. Its educational titles will help children track their caloric intake and exercise minutes, while the military titles will train pilots to fly virtual drones.
Last year, McClure and his staff ventured into the realm of film and television production. One project, a low-budget horror movie, is in post-production right now, and McClure said viewers may see it within a few months.
“We wanted to do something and not break the bank up here to really test out” the availability of talent in the local area, McClure said. “It was kind of our first foray to figure some stuff out and it turned out really cool.”
McClure shared more of his story in a conversation with Michelle Muñoz.
How did you get the funding to start Scientifically Proven?
It all came from my pocket.
How much did it cost?
A good amount. A good amount. That was a huge part of the incentive. … Typically we are a service industry. We have a product and then we have a royalty percent on that product, depending on how it does. Other than that, our margins are relatively tight. It’s, here is a product for $1 million; $990,000 of that is my cost. So it’s not a lot of profit.
The goal is to make good products that you can get royalties on. So here is an opportunity where I can come up here, develop these products for my clients, publishers or individual investors, and now have this incentive to either offer my investors or my publishing partners, or I can internalize and take after the project is done and use it to develop new IPs, develop new properties, hire more staff, all that good stuff.
When you look at my family moving, and I bought a house, all that stuff on my private side, it was relatively significant. … Significant enough that I’d advise anyone to make a good plan and double check it but not significant enough where it’s like, “Oh my god, no one can do that.” I’m just another jerk just like everybody else. Just put a little knowledge and apply it.
Do you think it’s easier out here in a less crowded environment?
It depends on how you look at it, I guess. Is it easier to run a business that has a proven clientele? Absolutely. Because as long as the money is coming in, the cost of living is cheaper up here for my employees, the cost of doing business is significantly cheaper for myself, so in that aspect absolutely, the real estate is cheaper and more available. You have much more options in that aspect, but also on the flip side of that, the talent pool is much smaller for what we do. And I don’t have direct access to all my clients that I did in Los Angeles. … There is the potential to be easier if you have some sort of installed base of clientele. Otherwise, I think it would be very tough to do what I do out of the gate up here.
What kind of people do you not have here that you need to make these games, and do you see more coming?
Just our core skills. Essentially we have producers, which are the managers, more or less … We have art, which they create all the physical assets that go into the game. … We have our designers who come up with core concepts, core design principles and ideas on how the game is going to work. Then we have our programmers that build the actual architecture that puts it all together.
When I first moved up here, I brought five guys with me that moved from Los Angeles who are now all full-time Michigan residents and have been for the past year and a half. And the rest are all locals. So I wanted to get a couple core guys because when I first moved up here I brought one guy, and we were like, “Ok, we need to find some veterans here. We can’t go all green.”
We stumbled a little bit, we found one and we decided there were a couple of guys in L.A. who really liked the opportunity to come up here. It’s a better quality of life, better schools, potential to raise family … so they came up.
For the rest we went to Michigan State, which we have a great relationship with. We actually sponsored their capstone program for the past two years working with all of their students. (University of Michigan), (Center for Creative Studies), Wayne (State University), you name it. There is an incredible feeder system up here between the major universities.
So is there a growing pool of talent?
Do you think it’s fueled by the Michigan Film Office incentives?
Absolutely. … Just since I’ve been here in the past two years I’ve seen probably five or six startups pop up, some that I’ve had direct interaction with. And it’s in large part due to the incentive. Now that the incentive is finally working for me I can go aggressively out there and look for development funds, opportunities with publishing partners and investors to start bringing money in here to grow even more. Unfortunately due to the lawsuit and that nonsense I’m behind in my original plan up here, but now that’s finally starting to click and go, I feel much better we’ll be able to gain ground quick.
Have you interacted with a lot of people who are thinking about moving away from Michigan and weighing the options?
Pretty much all of my employees. That was in almost every interview. When I originally hired, everybody was (saying), “If you weren’t here, I wouldn’t live here.” Because they want to make games, they want to do what we do and there are very few choices up here. You apply to a couple, and if you don’t get them, you have to go. In February, after Gov. Snyder’s speech (regarding capping of the incentives at $25 million), that became another possible reality really quick because it kind of just tore the floor out of the incentive. All of our backers, all of our publishing partners, all of our out-of-state investors were like, “Well, the incentive is broke; why do we need to go there anymore?” Let’s go to Louisiana or Georgia or North Carolina or something. But, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, it’s finally starting to get back on track.
Why don’t you tell me a little about “Ghost Game”? I know it’s based in Detroit, but where did the idea come from?
We’re huge fans of the ghost-hunting genre. It’s funny, we were just talking at lunch about how many believers and non-believers we have in the paranormal here. It’s pretty even actually. But there are a lot of cool horror games that have existed over time — “Resident Evil” and all these great horror games — but there’s not one that really represents the true ghost-hunting genre like a lot of television shows right now. There have been 20 shows in the last five years on television just about this aspect of it.
It’s approached from an arguably scientific perspective of, “Hey, let’s really try and debunk and figure this out. Do they exist or not exist?” … It’s not traditional in the fact that you are out there hunting in the form of killing or doing something like that. But there are a lot of investigation elements of it and a great murder-mystery that weaves between the whole thing.
It sounds fun to us. We sat down and … the guys are brilliant, they come up with new ideas every day for games to make, and we try to match a great idea with what we think is a commercially viable product. It’s like what’s out there in this space? Alright, that’s not a game in this space, but there’s a huge following in terms of televisions shows. Three out of four people believe in some sort of paranormal in America. And that essentially generates a huge gap in this space — that wow, we can fulfill that need. And then we start coming up with a couple core ideas and a couple core concepts. And there you go, we get to work. Get some money and get to work.
When you first got started in the video game business, what were some of the games you worked on?
When I joined Activision I was particularly skilled in first-person shooters. So I went on “Return to Castle Wolfenstein” and worked on that for a while. And I got on the early evaluation team for “Call of Duty,” the first one, before we ended up buying “Infinity Ward,” the developer. Then I did “Call of Duty 1,” 1 and a half, 2, 3, 4 and a million side mobile projects. … It was pretty much “Call of Duty” for about five years straight, (and) “Wolfenstein,” “True Crime,” “Star Trek.” I have a laundry list of them. What kind of games did you play as a kid? What was your favorite?
Oh, you name it. I was a huge Sega nut. Genesis was hands down my favorite. My first console was the Odyssey 2 and the “Pac-man” clones and all that stuff. But “Ghouls ‘n Ghosts” was one of my favorite ever, “Mario” of course … “Alex Kidd,” “Wonder Boy,” there’s laundry lists.
I was never a Genesis kid. I was all Nintendo.
It’s weird to see the split. There was a definitive split. My buddy, he was a Nintendo guy so he had (Nintendo Entertainment System), (Super Nintendo Entertainment System), all that, which was perfect. … He had all his stuff and I had all my stuff.