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Eleven months ago, veteran game developer Matt McDonald died from suicide. His wife, Tammy McDonald, has to pick up the pieces and raise her three sons on her own. Recently, she spoke about it publicly for the first time at the International Game Summit on Mental Health Awareness.
Kelli Dunlap is a psychologist and community manager for gaming mental health nonprofit Take This, and she interviewed Tammy about the experience and its aftermath in an intense session. They alternately talked about what a good man he was and how he went into a cycle of mental health episodes over 17 years that ultimately ended in his death.
Matt was on a hero’s journey. He worked on inspiring games such as EverQuest, Vanguard, and Hero’s Song. But Tammy had the insider’s perspective on why Matt died from suicide and how her husband alternated between a creative visionary and a “broken child.” Her survivor’s story is a powerful one, and it is sadly too familiar to us in the video game industry.
This is a difficult story to read on the subject of suicide. If you feel you cannot read further, please do not. Tammy said she wanted to tell the story to honor Matt’s memory. She left in many harsh details, but she told the tragic story with a lot of poise in the safe space of the TIGS event, where other game industry leaders talked about their struggles with depression and other mental health challenges. If you’re feeling suicidal, you can reach out to this hotline. –Ed.
As a prelude to the talk, Dunlap said, “There’s a really widespread stigma associated with suicide and talking about suicide. And so as a result, many people are afraid to speak about it. However, talking about suicide not only reduces the stigma, but it also makes it easier for people to seek help to rethink their options and connect with others.”
“How we talk about suicide really does matter. We use destigmatizing language like saying ‘die by suicide,’ as opposed to ‘committed suicide,’ which links suicide back to times where it was seen as a sin that spoke to a person’s weakness, which we know is not the case. It is a very powerful story that Tammy has to tell.”
Partners for life
Matt was a larger-than-life character who could light up any room with his personality, Tammy said. He taught himself to be an artist and to work with computers to create 3D animations. A self-starter, he picked up gigs like creating 3D animations for the Video Music Awards. He was working in games at Blue Sky Software when a matchmaker set him up with Tammy about 24 years ago. He was at the top of his game at the time, and Tammy was working in radio. She was also doing promo video work with people such as Oliver North. On their first date, they hit it off well enough, but they developed a relationship over time. Later on, Matt had a game project where he got Tammy to work on cutscenes. It was a success, and they clicked.
They decided to become partners, both in business and in life. They got married and in 1997 started their own business, Vision Scape Interactive, which started as a 3D animation training school and morphed into a work-for-hire game development company. Tammy got pregnant, the first of three boys.
Bootstrapping the business, they started working with well-known game publishers as an outsourcing firm, making the art and other parts of the game that a publisher or developed wanted to farm out to others. Tammy diversified the business, as the training school brought in some revenue, but more important, it produced artists that the company could hire. She added full game development outsourcing and cinematics and animation as multiple legs of the business. They made 3D animated music videos for Creed, and Matt designed Mech Warrior characters for Jordan Weisman’s BattleTech franchise. That put the company on the road to making its own original games. They became first-party developers for both Sony and Microsoft, and they worked on a game with Steven Spielberg for the first Xbox game console.
Their games included Razor Racing, Land Before Time: Great Valley Racing Adventure, SeaBlade, and World Series of Poker. Technically gifted, Matt was the key creator and art director. Tammy handled the business. While he was creative, she was organized. The company grew. From 1998 to 2004, the company expanded to more than 150 people in San Diego and a large team in China. In 2004, the company moved the overseas team to India, where it grew to 300 by 2007.
They worked closely with Sony’s online games division, Sony Online Entertainment, headed by John Smedley and Kelly Flock. Sony Online Entertainment went on to make important games such as EverQuest and Star War: Galaxies. Sony Online Entertainment lives on today as Daybreak, while Smedley would eventually run Amazon Game Studios’ San Diego operation.
“Matt was an amazingly talented and passionate guy,” said Smedley, who was McDonald’s boss at a couple of companies, in an email. “He was a rare person — amazingly talented in his own right, and he had a love for sharing his knowledge. I can’t tell you how many people in the San Diego art community Matt touched. He trained a lot of people here and was always there to give a guiding hand to the next generation, all while still staying at the top of his own game, art-wise. I miss him.”
Among Matt’s early accomplishments was coming up with the Butt Ugly Martians franchise, which was a transmedia project that included animation (with some very difficult partners who were impossible to deal with, Tammy said), toys, and video games. In his spare time, Matt would go to recycling centers and scavenge for materials that he could use on art projects.
“Matt loved a technical challenge more than anyone,” Tammy said. “His favorite work was done with programmers. He just knew how to get what he needed out of them and was always ten steps ahead of the industry with his ideas.”
The 5-year cycle
Tammy remembered that about five years into the marriage, Matt hit some hurdles. He had a mental health episode, brought on by the stress of the growing business as well as his own unresolved issues. He became moody and depressed.
“I noticed this was too much for Matt,” Tammy said. “He had too much on his plate. He was a visionary. He was so creative with everything he did. He was like Superman and could keep going and going and going. It seemed like we were on a five-year bend where his illness showed up. It was the first moment where we just said, ‘Wow, he’s got some issues we need to address.'”
By this time, Tammy and Matt had a couple of young sons, and they were running a business together, working all the time.
“We were a polarity,” Tammy said. “I was running the business. He would run the creative. He would discipline the kids. I would say don’t be too hard.”
Matt was intense, blending the days into nights, working seven days a week and 20 hours a day for seven or eight months at a time, Tammy said.
“I would find him sleeping under his desk,” she said. “He didn’t know when to pull out. I became the manager of his moods and kept trying to get him through. He had a hard time disengaging. He would always tell me he was doing this for me. Not for the business. But for me.”
Tammy said she would try to make sure that they would survive as a couple, beyond the business life. She didn’t want work and the relationship to be intertwined as much as they were.
A tough childhood
This was where Matt’s childhood became important. Tammy said that he had post-traumatic stress disorder from when he was a kid. He had told Tammy that his mother was abusive and beat him. His family was on welfare. And when he was 12, his mother entrusted an infant son to Matt to take care of. His father left home about that time. And Matt had to become more like a father to his younger brother. These layers and layers of issues lingered with him.
“Looking back, I can see the signs,” Tammy said. “I was always pushing him to seek help. He was hospitalized for a brief period. We got him medication. We began focusing on things like exercise, taking care of himself. When we did them, we did them well. We helped him maintain his weight. He was a broken child, kicked under the bed as a toddler. And I saw that toddler when I would look at my husband because I loved him with every ounce of my heart.”
Against these challenges were the joys of family life. The oldest child, Tyler, learned a lot about games as a child of two parents who worked in the industry. He sat on Matt’s lap at the keyboard, taking it all in. All three boys grew up playing games and learning problem-solving.
“If the kids wanted to play, we let them,” Tammy said.
Except for Grand Theft Auto. But luckily, the boys didn’t want to play that. While Matt was an active father, the episodes still came back, perhaps once every five years over the course of 17 years or so, Tammy said.
The challenge was that the illness outlasted some of the solutions. Matt had a good psychiatrist, but he retired after 12 years.
“We stepped up his therapy and stepped up our support,” Tammy said.
The business cycle
Meanwhile, the business went through its ups and downs with the cyclical game industry. From 2004 to 2007, Vision Scape Interactive got into a scrape with a game publisher that ran out of money and defrauded their company. Tammy and Matt sued and won the case, but they were never able to recover the money.
In 2008, the company rebranded as Heavy Water, a name based on deuterium, the active ingredient in an atomic bomb. Heavy Water had a close relationship with Sony, and it became one of the top content developers for the PlayStation Home environment, which was Sony’s attempt to build an online community. Heavy Water had multiple work-for-hire programs going at once, up to 30 projects at a time.
“It was pretty insane, but I loved it,” Tammy said. “I can’t say that Matt loved it, but the projects ranged in scope and size. Matt was just programmed in a way where he felt he had to work around the clock, no matter what he was working on. Even if he took time off to be at home, he would create projects for himself and would work nonstop.”
PlayStation Home failed, and that took a toll on Heavy Water. There were perhaps 70 different projects that the company handled during its lifetime. But they had to scale back dramatically, particularly in India.
While the business issues were tough, Matt’s episodes had more to do with his mental health, Tammy said. He didn’t really like trying to make all of the clients happy, but Tammy had to keep him focused on that.
“Sony chose to kill PlayStation Home, which we foresaw, and that allowed us to transition into Matt making his real-time game creation toolset, the Axis Game Factory,” Tammy said. “He loved making tools for people. Matt was a teacher more than anything. Over the years, he brought thousands into the industry and gave countless people opportunities to work in games.”
In 2013, I talked with Tammy and Matt as they were starting a Kickstarter project to create Axis Game Factory. It was a world-building toolset that Matt created to enable people with little game development experience to create their own 3D games. It preceded the do-it-yourself trend that became huge with game platforms like Roblox, Minecraft, and Buildbox. That Kickstarter didn’t hit its goal, and so Heavy Water had to make do with what it could on the tools. Tammy and Matt bootstrapped once again, as they had always done.
Smedley spun out his online game business from Sony in 2015 and left that July after a nasty spat with some hackers. In early 2016, Smedley and Matt talked about the suicide of one of their friends. They eventually chatted about Smedley’s new game, and Matt got excited about it. Smedley asked him to help make the title.
Matt became part of the team at PixelImage Games, which was building a Unity-based fantasy online game dubbed Hero’s Song. Tammy continued to operate Axis Game Factory Pro. But the Kickstarter campaign for Smedley’s startup failed, and after a few years, Smedley had to shut it down. When Smedley went to Amazon with a bunch of the same team, Matt joined him.
Finding more help
Matt did a good job of masking his problems at work. He often did things for others. But as a creative individual, he didn’t like the effect that his medications had. They kept his depression in check, but he also felt like they could dull his creativity. More than one person said this at the TIGS event.
His mood swings continued.
When he was upset, Matt could be very intimidating. He was a big guy.
“John Smedley could speak to that, and he was sympathetic,” Tammy said. “He gave Matt a soft spot to land.”
It was good for Matt to have a boss like Smedley who was open about having depression. Smedley spoke openly about his struggles with it, and he would step in when appropriate to offer help to his employees when he knew they were hurting. That helped Matt, and he stayed at Amazon for two years. But Matt wasn’t a good fit for Amazon, and he left that position in February 2019.
As for Matt’s state of mind, there was a pattern to it, but Tammy said there was always a different trigger. That was hard for Tammy, who had to take care of him.
“I always wanted him to believe he could get past his illness. I was always his biggest cheerleader,” she said. “I still am. I love him intensely. He is an amazing human being. He did so much for me and my kids. I turned to him when I was frustrated. He would think for days on how he could be a better man. He would talk to people for hours about it. In these moments, I thought we were going through more and would get through it.”
Matt went through multiple episodes. His pharmacist mentioned that he was taking twice the recommended amount of one antidepressant, and Matt tried to quit cold turkey, even though it was just one of a cocktail of medications he was taking. Tammy believes that triggered an episode where he had to be hospitalized. Tammy called for help to get him hospitalized, and Matt wound up getting arrested. The police took him away, and his sons saw that happen. It was deeply embarrassing for Matt. But Tammy said that she was built to stay with him, and the family never looked at Matt as an embarrassment.
“Each time, he felt like he failed himself and our family like there was a scorecard keeping track of his failures,” Tammy said. “He would often say, ‘I could do a million things correctly, but I can’t make my mistakes go away. I will always be my mistakes.'”
But he tried to be better. On his phone, he had three daily reminders: “You are a leader. Act like one. You are invincible. You are unconditional love.”
Tammy felt like the mix of a dozen medications had something to do with the final outcome. She disagreed with the new psychiatrist about adding a couple of new drugs he prescribed and a diagnosis of a bipolar condition. And she believed the drug cocktail led to his first suicide attempt in June 2019. Matt hid that attempt, when he tried to overdose on pills. But his suicidal ideations kept coming back.
After Matt left the job at Amazon, Tammy thought the time off would be good for him.
“I just wanted Matt to regroup and heal. Unfortunately, I had no idea of the depths of his [suicidal] ideation,” she said.
Tammy begged the psychiatrist to take him off one of the drugs. She arranged for weekly visits with doctors and the psychiatrist.
Finally, on November 9, 2019, Matt took his life.
“To me, it was so sad,” Tammy said. “That man loved me more than anything. He would kill for me. He did. Sadly, he thought our lives would be better off without him.”
While Matt’s illness lasted a long time, Tammy was never sure if suicide was an inevitable outcome.
“There were times that I believe he would eventually end his life,” she said. “I guess you could say that I always had a sinking feeling in my gut that he might do it someday, but hoped he wouldn’t. It really did shock me when it happened. I knew he was struggling that week and had been checking in on him quite frequently. We had some great memories that week as well. That Wednesday, he and I were listening to music out in the Jacuzzi and were literally dancing in the Jacuzzi together. It’s just so strange how someone can allow one moment of depression to take over.”
After Matt’s death, Tammy let the doctors and psychiatrist know she wasn’t happy with them, and she said caregivers should always have their radar up when it comes to accountability and advocacy.
“I just knew how hurt he was and it broke my heart. At the time of his death, he had never had as much help in his life from doctors and therapists,” she said. “I am convinced the two new meds created suicidal ideation that just rang in his mind daily. He was convinced that life without him would be better for me and the boys, but I can assure you it isn’t. I would give everything I have to have him back.”
Tammy continues to operate the Axis Game Factory Pro tools and released a number of updates for it. She also supported game publishers and developers with a distributed development team, including the upcoming Oddworld: Soulstorm. New projects are coming on. And she would like to see Matt’s plans to make Axis Game Factory Pro easier to use, in a product named YuMaKiT, a real-time game development tool for the masses.
Tammy’s sons are now 22, 20, and 15. Tammy said they are amazing and she loves them dearly. If she had a cry for help, it was about them. Matt’s side of the family was never very close, and they didn’t attend the funeral. Tammy had no expectations that they would, but she said it still hurt. It hasn’t helped that a lot of friends can’t visit, because of the pandemic.
“What I have the hardest time with is there are three boys,” she said. “They have been through the worst thing that could ever happen. They are hurting. They need men in their life. Shared experiences. That’s where I need to manage my own expectations. I’m not even a year into this, and I am an open book.”
Tammy said that she and the boys are going through group grief counseling. She was struck when her oldest son said, “We don’t want to talk about what happened to Dad. We want to learn how to function as a family. We want to learn how to be brothers. How to be whole, and move on. We need to come together and learn how to function.”
Tammy said, “We are four people. We are broken. We are all mourning. We are hurting. We all need to be close. We need to learn to reconnect.”
Dunlap thanked Tammy for sharing and ended the conversation at TIGS on a soft note. Dunlap said she was glad to be able to see the whole person, a real human being.
Tammy remembered a lot of good times. Matt was a gearhead. He loved getting into cars and driving with the windows down, blasting songs like Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. They went on vacations where they rode all-terrain vehicles for hours, stopped and drank beers, and talked with the locals for hours. They also played a lot of paintball.
“His personality was ginormous,” she said. “You could feel the energy in the room. He was the kindest, most loving person. He would do anything for anybody. A woman said she hadn’t spoken to her father in 30 years. Matt gave her the money to travel. He would give everything to everybody.
“That is the man I loved.”
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