CONVERSATION WITH AMERICAN MCGEE
How did you get involved in gaming?
By luck. I've had a
passion for computers and technology going back to when I was a kid and attended
a science and engineering magnet, seemingly on a path towards a career that
involved programming or technology. A family "situation" forced me to drop out
of high school before I had a chance to graduate. That derailed my life for a
while and I ended up working as a car mechanic. While I genuinely enjoyed the
hands-on nature of that work, I also hoped to apply my computer skills towards
more creative endeavours.
Fate intervened and I
moved into the same apartment complex where John Carmack, founder of id
Software, was living. John and I became friends, he offered me a job doing tech
support at id, and the rest is history. Once I had my foot in the door at id I
refused to go home. I spent all my waking hours learning about their tools and
technology - eventually moving into a role building levels for the DOOM and
What are you currently playing?
I've been playing "The
Walking Dead" series by Tell Tale and Naughty Dog's "The Last of Us." Seems I'm
on an apocalypse bender. Prior to that I'd taken a break from games and only
occasionally jumped into Minecraft. Most of my leisure time is spent doing "real
world" activities like tinkering with electronics and robotics (for example, I'm
programming a Raspberry Pi to track my dog and a drive a laser pointer with a
servo gimbal system - to create an automatic dog tracking laser pointer toy).
How has the industry changed since you first started compared to now and the
future of the gaming world?
The sad thing is that
it hasn't really changed at all. If you look at PC or console gaming, we're
still using the same basic interfaces and playing the same basic types of games.
Only within the mobile world (and with touch-screen games) have we seen any
major evolution in terms of game delivery or interface. The Wii probably
represented the single largest leap forward in terms of interface allowing for
new design. My hope is that with improvements to Kinect and upcoming i/o devices
like Oculus (combined with mobile technology) we're going to start seeing some
truly revolutionary advances in the way we design and play games.
How did you become involved with Spicy Horse?
By founding the
company. I'd been living in Hong Kong and visiting Shanghai to help a friend
start an outsource art studio (producing assets for games). Gametap asked me to
develop and original title for them - to help promote their online distribution
system. At the time I was a "free agent" and explained that I'd have to start a
new studio to get the game made - they agreed to fund the effort and so I moved
to Shanghai and started building the company. By the time we'd finished "Grimm"
the studio employed over 35 people - and we parlayed our experience and
capabilities into landing a development agreement with EA to build "Alice:
Madness Returns." We've been in business 7 years now and are still having a
Where did the name come from?
When naming a new
company or game (or anything) you first want to find open "name space." We
compiled a list of possible names, then checked to see if the domain name was
available, how clear the name space was, what sorts of logos might be inspired
by the name, etc. Ultimately, "Spicy Horse" won the contest. It also happens
that my name in Chinese is "lucky horse" and I'm a big fan of spicy food.
When Chinese people
hear the company name ("ma la ma" in Chinese) they think it sounds like a
When I first left the
US almost 10 years ago I moved to Hong Kong. I'd always wanted to live in Asia
and when the chance presented itself I jumped. Once in Hong Kong I started
travelling to the mainland (China) to help a friend start his outsource art
business. While in Shanghai I realized there were no independent game
development studios - only large outposts for the major Western publishers,
outsource art studios or the massive local Chinese publisher/operators.
When the opportunity
presented itself to open a new studio I could have gone anywhere in the world,
but I placed a bet on Shanghai. I figured back then that an independent studio
focusing on original IP development would attract artists and engineers away
from the corporate giants and outsource studios. Turns out that was a good bet -
because we've been able to attract some of the best artists, animators and
developers from around China and the world.
This is a truly unique
city at a monumental time in history. To be in China and see all the changes
taking place within society is amazing. I really had no sense of what I might
experience or accomplish when I first moved here, but in hindsight it was
absolutely the best decision I ever made to take a leap and start a new life
OZombie! How did you come up with the story for
OZombie is an update
to the story and world of L. Frank Baum's Oz series. It takes place some years
after the now-famous visit by Dorothy. Scarecrow, once ruler of the Lands of Oz,
is waging a war to regain control of the kingdom. He's using manipulation and
deceit to drive the countries of Oz into battle against one another. This story
will explore concepts of society, conformity and control. This is where we get
the idea of "zombies," from conformity, as opposed to your traditional
brain-eating zombies. This is a theme that's been linked to zombies since the
first Romero films - and one that I think is even more relevant into today's
It might also be worth
pointing out that we're changing the name to something other than "OZombie."
There's been too much confusion (and even anger) at the idea of "zombies" in the
What are some of the challenges that Spicey
Horse faces with this game?
Since we're making a
type of game (action adventure) that we've made before and using a technology
that we're really comfortable with (Unity3D) the main challenges will be
addressed (and hopefully solved) during the pre-production and design phase. The
idea is to do as much cool stuff as possible without going over budget or
running out of time. Finding a balance where the development is as efficient as
possible is always a challenge. We need balance our own desires (or the desires
of the audience) against the realities of time and budget constraints.
Historically, we've done a pretty good job at this sort of thing - as is
evidenced by the efficiency and reliability of our developments to date.
Once you reach your Kickstarter amount, when could we see the game hitting
Really depends on how
much money we raise (which will impact the development schedule), but we'd aim
for an initial release around 12 months after the end of pre-production. That
could be as early as late 2014.
Why have you taken the route of Kickstarter
opposed to contacting a publisher to support this project?
A lot of people seem
to think that securing funding is as simple as picking up the phone and calling
an investor or publisher. In practice, funding doesn't work like that. Investors
are only going to put money into relatively sure bets - usually into ventures
that are already generating healthy cash flow. Entertainment (like games) is
viewed as speculative (meaning risky) and so it's largely avoided. Game
publishers these days are spending more money, but on fewer projects. They
aren't investing in "small" projects like our Oz game - something that's going
to sell to a limited audience or be delivered on non-console platforms (like PC,
Mac, Linux). If we took Oz to a publisher it would have to be in the form of a
massive, multi-million dollar console pitch... and I'm just not interested in
making those kinds of games these days. There's too much pressure to stick with
Do you believe that Kickstarter is the future of gaming?
It's already proven
itself to as a valuable part of the game development ecosystem. It's doubtful a
platform like Kickstarter could ever support funding for a 10+ million USD
development (plus another 10+ million to market such a title), but who knows.
Crowd funding certainly won't be "the future," as in the end all be all of game
What's a downside to Kickstarter?
There are advantages
and disadvantages to all funding options. With Kickstarter the biggest downside
comes from campaigns that aren't properly planned - resulting in situations
where developers underestimate how much of their funding is going to simply
support the campaign costs.
What are some of things you are really excited
for in OZombie?
The narrative theme of
conformity and how we'll explore this through characters and interactions in the
world gets me excited. I think we still have lots of interesting ways of pushing
emotional and psychological buttons with games - things we've yet to discover or
What are your plans for the Alice film?
If we're able to
secure them, then the first thing we'd do is produce animation shorts - at least
one and as many more as our funding allows. Those shorts would be based on the
Alice: Otherlands concept - where we see Alice travelling into the minds (Otherlands)
of characters in London. Beyond that, we'd explore getting a feature film made -
either live action or animation. To that end, I already have some great
conversations going with well-known writers and directors.
Was securing the rights for Alice difficult?
It took a while to get
the current deal done, but that deal just gives us time to actually buy the
rights - it doesn't secure them beyond that. It's a purchase window. We're going
to need support from Alice fans to actually buy the rights - and we'll be
running a Kickstarter campaign for that purpose.
American Mcgee's Alice was an awesome game, what
are you most looking forward to in the film?
Thanks! Glad you like
it. With the animation projects, I think the Otherlands concept can establish
itself as an awesome outlet for artists and directors - kinda like we saw with
the "Animatrix" shorts. There's so much potential there... so many great minds
to explore during that period in Victorian London. Mark Twain was there, Van
Gogh, Edison, Jules Verne, just to name a few.
If you could pick any actress in the world, who would you cast as Alice?
I still think
Christina Ricci would be awesome as Alice - and that idea seems to make even
more sense these days. But who knows? Everyone has different feelings about how
would best represent Alice. The important thing is that we get our hands on
these rights and push to get something made!
Finally, any last words to your fans?
Just that they come and join us over on Kickstarter.
We really need their support for both the Oz game project and the Alice film
your time American!
Images used with permission