[Q&A] ScrewAttack sits down with American McGee to talk about Little Red Riding Hood and Spicy Horses
When Duke Nukem Forever finally hit store shelves, I was anticipating picking up another title on the same day. That title happened to be American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns. I remembered playing the original title, simply called “Alice,” which kind of creeped me out back then, but I look back on it fondly now.
An opportunity to interview the man himself, who came up with the game idea, was given to me by Sean, and I had only one second thought about it: “Am I really ready to have my first big interview?” I answered to myself with great confidence, while creating some sort of unnecessary nervousness as well.
This isn’t about me, though. This is about McGee and what he’s got in store for his studio’s current title Akaneiro: Demon Hunters.His studio, Spicy Horse, has been hard at work trying to get the necessary Kickstarter funds needed to make the game, and they did it with a little over $4,000 to spare with a goal of $200k.
I called McGee at 1 a.m., which was 3 p.m. for him in Shanghai, to talk about the game. We also dabbled a little bit about Alice, the studio, and why he chose Shanghai as his current location.
Tanner Larson: Your company is currently based in China. Your studio, Spicy Horse, is hard at work on a few upcoming titles. Would you care to describe what it’s like around the office leading up to Akaneiro’s release on Steam?
American McGee: Sure! Well, I think you have to kind of go back in history a little bit to compare where we’ve been to understand where we are. At the start of 2011, we began working on mobile and web free-to-play online games, which was a really distinct shift away from what we were doing previously. The project right before that was the Alice: Madness Returns game, which is a big AAA console title.
What’s different these days is that we work on an online game, we release it, and we immediately start getting feedback. Actually, with something like Akaneiro, we were getting feedback throughout the closed beta, and open beta period as well. It creates a much happier feeling around the office in general because there’s all of this interaction and engagement with people who are playing the games, and I think it makes the team feel more satisfied about their work because they get an immediate feeling of accomplishment and, even when we do a good job, they get an immediate sense of praise and satisfaction coming directly from the people who are playing the games.
TL: With this being a free-to-play MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) that’s browser-based, like you said, I’m assuming your stance on free-to-play is the way to go for the future in the industry?
AM: No, no. I would never make a sort of “black-and-white” general statement like that. I think those types of things are very dangerous. In fact, to say something like that would kind of ignore the tendencies of evolution and survival of the fittest.
I think what we’re going to see is there are going to be a lot of models [of business] that come out. They may be viewed as competing models, but in fact, they’re no more competing than say, you know, the butterflies over here and the moss growing over there in nature. Everything has its place inside of an ecosystem. I think that mobile, 99-cent games have a place alongside free-to-play web games have a place alongside a PlayStation 4 massive, disc-based, $200 million budget game as well.
I think it’s really up to the consumer to decide when, and where, they want to purchase or access what kind of content. We’ve gone this route simply because we’ve done the other stuff and we wanted to try this mainly because we’re in China and this is the way that it’s done out here. It’s all free-to-play, and there’s a lot of people who have found that to be a successful model and also one that tends to foster some freedom and creativity, and that’s been the biggest attraction for us.
TL: For someone who may not have heard about Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, can you give us a little bit of info about the game?
AM: Sure. It’s a pretty traditional RPG in its bones and we looked at games in the genre going back to, you know, the classic Diablo and all the way forward to the things like Torchlight for inspiration in those core mechanics.
The game itself, the story, is set in Japan about 100 years ago and it sort of fuses a fairy tale feeling somewhat inspired by [Little] Red Riding Hood with historical fact of the decimation of indigenous wolves in Japan and sort of tries to present this allegory on balance between man and nature through the violence, the demons, and the hack-and-slash of an RPG. We’ve made it so people can play this in their web browsers on PC and Mac, they can download a client which they can play on PC and Mac, and we’re also bringing it to tablets and Linux so people will be able to want to play on their Android device, Android tablet or Apple tablet.
It’s all in the cloud and on the web, which means that if you were playing on an Android device at work, you could go home and play on a web browser. We’re also adding things like co-op multiplayer and PvP (player versus player) multiplayer, so eventually there will be the possibility that you are playing on a Mac web browser, I’m on a PC client, our friends are on an iOS tablet and we’re all playing inside the same dungeon in co-op beating the quest together.
TL: The art style is very distinct, it’s clearly Japanese inspired, but what made you decide that that was the right decision for Akaneiro?
AM: Well, it’s not, I mean it’s Japanese inspired, but it is Japanese traditional art, so that’s where it’s come from. That’s also the same place that, say, a title like Okami got their art style from. Our artists went back and looked at art from the period and this research, this investigation, into that art style and how to render it – it actually started when we were working on the Alice project on Alice: Madness Returns.
That gave our team an understanding of how to render in that style. Then, when we started working on Akaneiro, obviously we were already in the Japanese narrative theme so we married that with the team’s understanding of how to achieve the visual look. The two of them came together quite nicely because of the history of the team had of working in that style.
TL: I believe, you mentioned in the past that you want to be “the next Walt Disney, only darker” when talking about Alice. Is that correct to say?
AM: Yeah, I think I remember making that statement, and it’s certainly followed me since it was made. I’m not even sure when, or where, that was said. I think that one thing that I would say I share with Disney, which is not a lot obviously [laughs], would be, I think, the fascination I have with fairy tales.
TL: You mentioned your company Spicy Horse. What is the difference between Spicy Horse and Spicy Pony? Are they the same company and are they founded by you?
AM: Yeah, absolutely. Spicy Pony was simply the name that we put on top of anything that we were publishing to mobile. So it was just meant to communicate that these were smaller, maybe cuter apps, and not full-blown console or PC game developments.
TL: Why Shanghai for the studio location? Is there any reasoning behind that, or is that too personal to say?
AM: Oh, no. There’s absolutely a whole, giant story. I think someday I’m going to have to write a whole book about it because it’s like life, a lot of it just being in the right place at the right time and not so much of it being as planned out as I think people might expect to hear, or maybe they want to hear.
A lot of times when I read articles online and people comment about the fact that I’m in China, they assign a lot more intention to it and a lot more meaning to it than I ever had attached to it when I was making these moves and bouncing around the world. The truth is that I’ve had a fascination with Asia, starting from the first time I went to Japan back, I think I must have been in my early 20s, and I had a thought back then to maybe move to Japan someday. I actually had, and passed up, an opportunity to do that and regretted it for a very long time.
So, when someone offered me the opportunity to start visiting and then to come and work in Hong Kong, I jumped on it. That was actually when the Bad L.A. game got made. It was a situation where I knew that the game was not going to be a good one, by most normal standards. But at the same time I really wanted to embrace the opportunity to move to a new place in the world. At that time it wasn’t really about China or Asia, it was just I thought it would be great to get out and see the world.
So, once in Hong Kong, then, of course, life has a way of opening doors near to where you’re located. I started to spend more time in mainland China, specifically in Shanghai, and that eventually led to being able to put some pieces together. The guys from Gametap called up and said, “Can you make a game for us?” I told them I didn’t have a studio and they said, “That’s not a problem, go make one.” So, at that point, the smartest, and nearest place that I could see to build a studio was in here Shanghai.
It came about that this is where it got built. It wasn’t like I was sitting in the U.S. one day and said, “Damn it, I’m gonna move to China and start a studio,” you know? There’s a lot more detail to this, obviously, but that’s probably short enough version of it.
TL: So Gametap called you and said, “Make a game for us.” You said, “Well, I don’t have a studio,” and they said, “That doesn’t matter. Make one!” What was the immediate thought there where you were just put upon this challenge?
AM: Well, you know, it’s hard not to feel in a moment like that that it’s an awesome opportunity. I get emails from people all of the time and they’ll say to me, “How do I get into the industry? How do I make a game?” I feel kind of bad that I’ve had opportunities handed to me, I think sometimes that go way beyond the norm and that I even cannot explain, relative to kind of who I am or what I’ve done or what I may be capable of doing.
I guess that’s a really long way of saying I feel incredibly lucky at times. So, to have these guys call up and say, "Hey, we’re willing to pay you a bunch of money to make a game and we’re going to trust you to go and build a studio anywhere you say you want to build it.” I mean, that just doesn’t happen.
TL: So, your company, does it have any principles that it’s founded upon? Is there a main drive and motivation?
AM: Absolutely! That is one of the things that I wish more people did know about, and that is the studio was built upon my having seen how not to do it in other places in the world. Not just in China, but also in the U.S. where I feel like a lot of times the value of the people working in the studios is put second or even third or fourth, compared to being able to produce lots of content for as cheap as possible.
When you say stuff like that, people often think, “Well, that’s just China.” But the reality is I saw conditions where people were working insane hours for not a lot of really good reason and not in very happy conditions, homes being destroyed, and people being very unhealthy and very unhappy going on all the time in the U.S. Ironically, it wasn’t until I got to China that I realized that there was enough of a blank slate here for me to build something without having people sort of refuse to allow for it to happen.
China, because there is, or was, no independent game development scene here, and no other independent game development studio, offered me an opportunity to say, “I can just build this from the ground up with a 40-hour work week, with an emphasis on quality of life, and with an emphasis on humane production practices that allow us to produce stuff according to a sensible schedule based on what we know we can actually do inside the time we’re giving ourselves to do it.” That was radical to be able to come here and do that. I think it’s worked out really well. It’s one of the reasons why, I think we’re still here six-plus years after we started.
Another thing that’s really telling is that China, when I first came here, I’ve had so many people say, “You can not start a game development studio here and have it be functional, efficient, and reliable,” because there’s this issue of turnover that typically outsource companies or the other companies in the game space here. They expect to lose something like 50% of their staff every year to people who leave for whatever reason and never come back.
I was told, “You’re not going to be able to build a development studio here because you can’t rely on your people to be there consistently and get projects done.” That was another situation where this focus on quality of life means that we’ve actually had zero turnover. It’s incredible. People come to visit, that know China, and they can’t believe we’ve got people who’ve been working here for six years. They’ve been here since the day we started the company.
I think that’s a testament to the way in which quality of life has been an emphasis and a focus for the business first and foremost. Everything else, in my opinion, comes out of that. Comes out of happy people who have a chance to spend time with their family and be exposed to the world outside.
TL: Do you have any unannounced projects that you’re willing to say might be coming up soon? Anything in the works?
AM: Yeah. We just started work on a CCG (collectible card game), and that’s going to be for tablets, web and everything else that’s also connected online with multiplayer and co-op. I just posted a picture on it on my Facebook, one [image] yesterday (Thursday) and one today (Friday) if you want to go check that out.
At this point, we’re not saying a lot about it except that it’s set in Hell and that it’s a CCG.
TL: Not too long ago you made a comment and, bear with me here, it may have been taken out of context saying EA “tricks” people, which you later clarified and apologized for.
TL: Are you still on good terms with EA? Would you be willing to work with them again?
AM: Yeah, well, I am on good terms with them and of course I would be willing to work with them. Whether or not they feel like they’re on good terms or want to with me is a different question after I come out and say stuff like that.
Yeah, it was an unfortunate choice of words. Still, underneath this, there can be a healthy conversation and maybe a disagreement about the way in which products are developed and are portrayed to the customers. I think I chose poorly when it came to how I expressed that idea because there’s actually a lot more nuance to it than the word “trick” allows.
A big thanks to American McGee for allowing us the opportunity to conduct this interview. If you're interested in more information about Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, check out Sam's review or try it yourself. You can also find more games from American McGee on his new free-to-play gaming portal, Spicy World.