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Spotlight on Heartsy Studios

Friday, October 21, 2016

Stephen MacDonald, CEO of Heartsy Studios 

In the world of game design, Vancouver’s loss has been Nova Scotia’s gain.

Meet Stephen MacDonald, CEO of Heartsy Studios, which makes video games for children and families. Before moving to Guysborough and starting Heartsy, Stephen was an executive producer at Relic Entertainment in Vancouver. And before that, he was head of production for the Canadian branch of Walt Disney studios in Kelowna, BC, running Club Penguin, an MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game for young children.

Although Relic offered him excellent opportunities, the game Stephen was working on was based on war, and he didn’t feel it was a good fit for him and his family. Instead, he wanted to create high-quality games for kids and parents. “We want to be the Pixar of games,” he says. “Pixar makes movies that everyone can enjoy – they’re targeted at kids, but you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy the film. That’s what Heartsy is all about. It’s going to be targeting that audience, with that kind of appeal.”

Making a positive impact
What brought Stephen and his wife, Carrie, to Nova Scotia? “I took a look at my life in Vancouver,” he says. “We had been married for 10 years, and we have two small children. My wife and I are both from Nova Scotia. I wasn’t happy at work, she wasn’t happy living in Vancouver any longer, so we decided that now was the time to come here, start my own company and make a positive impact on the world through games.”

Making the world a better place is important to Stephen. “That’s one of the big pillars of my life,” he says. “I should leave a positive impact on the world, and this is the way I get to do it: video games, something I love creating.”

He has played computer games since childhood and likes their interactivity and being able to play them many times with different outcomes. “I love sharing that experience with my kids,” he says, “and I like playing games that families can play together without having to worry about over-the-top violence and adult themes.”

The prototype of the first Heartsy Studios game has been created, and Stephen plans to announce it soon. “It’s a really fun kid’s product for the PC – that’s the first platform it will come out for – and we’re excited about it,” he says.

He’ll soon be looking to hire staff and open a studio in the Halifax area. He hopes to attract talent locally and from farther away. “A team of people working together is part of the secret sauce of what makes things amazing,” he says. “I don’t think you can make amazing things without amazing people.”

Nova Scotia Business Inc. helped Stephen to make solid business connections as he was getting started. “They’ve done a lot of work to help me connect to the local video game community, as well as to set up my business,” he says. “They’re constantly reaching out to me to see if I need anything else, any other connections such as lawyers or accountants.”

The Nova Scotia difference
Stephen chose Nova Scotia because he wants to live in a place that’s in tune with his own values. “I’m trying to make family-friendly, kind-hearted products,” he says. “I’m originally from Cape Breton, and I was there recently, doing the Cabot Trail as a ‘welcome back’ with my family. It’s amazing how kind-hearted and friendly people in this province can be. I’d like to be around that and to reflect that in the products we release.”

In Guysborough, where his wife is from, Stephen went to the pharmacy the other day, and four people stopped and talked to him. “There are people leaning in car windows having conversations – things that just don’t happen in a big city,” he says.

“Right now my life is pretty crazy,” he adds. “I’m living out in the woods in Guysborough, prototyping a game that I know will hit millions of people. And it’s so funny to look out my window and see forest and beautiful scenery. I am minutes away from big beaches, lovely walks, and the outdoors. Everything is reasonably accessible, and it feels peaceful.”

Gaming hotspots such as Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Vancouver are incredibly expensive places to live, he points out. “It’s one of the reasons I left. In Nova Scotia, I can have a better work-life balance. I don’t have a giant commute going to and from work. Housing is a lot more reasonable. There aren’t so many outside stresses. One of the big reasons I came back, and one of the reasons I’ll use in recruiting, is that being here removes a lot of those other worries and lets you get down to business and focus on making something amazing.”

What would Stephen like other people in his industry to know about Nova Scotia? “I’d like people to think about what they want, not only for their careers but for their family,” he says. “What kind of life do you want to live as you’re making these awesome video games? Come to Nova Scotia. We’re doing some pretty amazing things here.”

Find out why companies like Heartsy are choosing Nova Scotia for growth.