American McGee: The Man, The Brand

Kevin VanOrd talks to famed developer American McGee about twisted fairy tales, good ideas gone bad, and the high price of working for a corporate monolith.

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There aren’t many cases in which a game designer’s name appears in a game’s title--and when it does, there’s a certain celebrity attached to the name. Sid Meier created classics with Civilization and Alpha Centauri, and so his name doesn’t just indicate a man: it also indicates a trusted brand.

American McGee is another game designer whose name has appeared in game titles, initially with 2000’s macabre American McGee’s Alice, though that project was hardly his first: he had a hand in games like Doom II and Quake before joining Electronic Arts, where Alice’s development began. Since then, McGee has lent his talents to a number of projects, including the upcoming action role-playing game Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, which was recently selected to be sold on Steam via the Greenlight approval process. I recently spoke with McGee, who currently works in Shanghai, China, where he leads the team at Spicy Horse as CEO. And the first thing I wanted to know was how the American McGee brand was born.

“It’s certainly less intentional than most people seem to think,” he says. “Still, it makes me laugh when I read people saying I’ve not earned my way into this elite club--or that because of the stinkers I’ve been associated with should have this ‘right’ revoked. Initially, the decision was driven by marketing and legal at EA. They were simply looking for a way to protect (make unique) the title for the original Alice game. Odd to think a ‘big evil’ publisher would have any interest in promoting an individual developer, but desire to protect one’s IP apparently outweighs inadvertently assigning name-brand recognition to a guy who, by most accounts, hadn’t earned it. So there we were.”

But trouble began once American left EA after the corporation fired American’s creative partner, R. J. Berg. Berg, a 15-year EA veteran, was instrumental in the story and writing of Alice. Yet even post-EA, the idea of “American McGee” as a brand name stuck, and McGee was approached by various publishers, asking if he would be associated with a game based on the perceived value of his name in addition to his talents as a developer.

“To this day it’s remained a sometimes useful, often distracting [issue] for me,” he says. “It’s not all bad though… while it appears to serve as a ‘warning label’ to some gamers (useful huh?) it’s also helped attract a loyal core group of fans--and still helps to open doors with publishers and other potential business partners.”

"The biggest lesson was not to expect EA to care about our fate once the final milestone was delivered."

As it turns out, McGee has had an occasionally tumultuous relationship with EA. Ultimately, McGee and his team at Spicy Horse were able to create Alice’s sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, which was published by his old employer. The financing for the game came from a bank, however--not from EA directly. Yet even then, EA tried to flex some muscle, according to McGee. “The milestones and schedule established when we signed the development agreement were untouchable; for example, EA couldn’t demand we produce an unscheduled, unpaid-for demo for E3 (though they did try).”

This ideal relationship couldn’t last forever, however. Says McGee, “That wonderful state of being lasted until the last 6 months of development, at which point EA bought out the loan and then went straight to the bag of ‘unreasonable things publishers do to developers.’ It wasn’t all that bad though--we had the fortune to work with a couple of really level-headed and reasonable producers.” Of course, by this point, McGee had realistic expectations of EA based on his previous experience, and, as he says, “things EA did to Rogue Entertainment after the first Alice was completed.” And what was his biggest lesson from those early days? “The biggest lesson was not to expect EA to care about our fate once the final milestone was delivered.”

McGee still remains wary of EA. When the subject turned to American McGee’s Oz, his first post-Alice project, I wanted to know when the idea for a twisted game set in L. Frank Baum’s universe was initially conceived. His response? “[Laughs] For legal reasons I’d better say, ‘Oh, the Oz idea didn’t hit me until long after I’d left EA!’ They can be pretty cranky when it comes to ideas being generated under their roof but ultimately developed elsewhere. In fact, they made me sign an agreement never to make a game based on Hansel & Gretel when I left. Odd, because I don’t recall ever suggesting to anyone that we do such a thing!”

Oz was the work of the studio McGee founded after he left EA, Carbon6, in conjunction with developer Ronin Games. Atari was set to publish Oz and had partially funded its creation, but in 2003, it canceled the deal, leaving the game without a publisher. McGee shopped the game to various publishers, but it was ultimately canceled, much to the chagrin of Alice fans excited to explore another crooked version of a beloved fantasy world.

Those fans weren’t the only ones saddened by the news. Says McGee, “That project being killed was really heartbreaking. The entire event filled me with so much disappointment and rage towards publishers. [It] being canceled not only ended the project, but closed the doors on a long-standing and highly respected developer, Ronin Games. It happened at a point when we had a beautiful, playable version of the game running--enough to make a stab at getting the game picked up elsewhere. But by the point it was killed, the project had already burned through a million dollars or more (that was a lot back then) and no other publisher wanted to pick up the tab in order to acquire the rights.”

The American McGee brand was hardly dead in the water, however. While vacationing in Hong Kong, McGee had met with Trevor Chan, creator of the strategy gem Capitalism, and founder of Enlight Software. Enlight was set to publish the open-world robot action game Scrapland, which was in development at Spanish studio Mercury Steam. Even more exciting, Chan wanted McGee to conceive a game for Enlight’s Hong Kong studio.

And so American McGee lent his name and expertise to Scrapland, though by the time he got involved, the game was almost complete. “My development involvement focused largely on tuning and clean-up,” says McGee. “Then the focus shifted to promotion (hence the ‘American McGee Presents’) titling. I was seriously impressed by what [Mercury Steam founder Enric Alvarez] and his team were able to accomplish. Working with them was a joy and to this day I dream of someday returning to Spain (which I love) and finding a way to work with them again. First I have to conquer China!”

Scrapland fared well, at least among critics. The project produced by Enlight’s Hong Kong group? Not so much. That game was Bad Day L.A., and, in the word of American McGee himself, “Development […] went badly from the start.”

Enlight’s Hong Kong team was used to making 2D isometric games, but had recently developed a 3D engine for use in their game Wars and Warriors: Joan of Arc. McGee’s original ideas took the developer’s strengths into account--but Chan wanted a full-fledged 3D action game. When it was clear that development was going poorly, McGee left Los Angeles for Hong Kong, hoping to make Bad Day L.A. less of a disaster than it already was. The game ultimately released to a barrage of negativity, and McGee has no qualms about revealing why that is.

“It’s such an awful game,” he says, “and people get so much pleasure out of pointing at it and screaming that I’m an awful person because of it, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say about it to make things… better? I do wish people would keep in mind that no one intentionally gets up in the morning and says, ‘Hey, today I think I’ll go take a big shit and then roll around in it!’ Things happen, stuff goes wrong. Some of it, like the humor, was bad (by most accounts; but I still get the random weirdo telling me they love it), and purely my fault. Other bits, like the tech, were bad and obviously not my fault. But my name’s on the box, so clearly I’m a bad person and should be banned from ever making games again! Who knew the gamers were so intolerant of failure!?”

But he adds, “Incidentally, I was happy with the final product for both games. Though, I never viewed them in the same league or categories. My expectations for them were as far apart as the teams that made them. Scrapland was a work of passion, filled with great ideas and meaningful narrative. Bad Day L.A. was like hobos fighting in a lumber mill; so bad it was (at times) good, but mostly just something you wanted to turn off before someone got caught in a rip saw. Mainly, I was just happy development on BDLA finally ended--if there’s something worse than the game, there’s the way it got made, but that’s a whole other story.”

Eventually, McGee made his way to Shanghai, and in 2007, he formed Spicy Horse, one of the city’s few independent studios. He was, in part, inspired to create a studio there because there were so few choices for local developers. His goal: to attract great talent by providing a high quality of life for employees. McGee strives to avoid overtime and crunch, keeping Spicy Horse employees from having to work insanely long hours. And he says that, for the most part, he’s succeeded in that.

"No one intentionally gets up in the morning and says, hey, today I think I’ll go take a big shit and then roll around in it!"

That sounds like quite an accomplishment, given the rarity of independent studios in Shanghai. Says McGee, “If you were a Chinese developer you’d basically have two choices--work for a big Chinese operator or work for a big outsourcer (which is the same as saying, ‘work for a big Western publisher.’) I find it amusing when Western gamers give me grief for making games in China. They’re blissfully ignorant of the fact that almost all of the console game art content they consume from publishers like EA, Activision, Ubi, etc. comes from China. Yep, give me a tough time, then go back to playing your console FPS filled with Chinese-made art.”

But what about the games? Spicy Horse partnered with the online game service GameTap to create American McGee’s Grimm, a series of fairy-tale-inspired game chapters. In addition, the development house brought several games to iOS, though the studio’s most visible project was, of course, Alice: Madness Returns. It’s hard not to notice a trend; the “twisted fairy tale” theme is at the center of many of his works. And so I had to ask McGee: does he have a natural interest in skewing the enchanted worlds of our childhoods?

“Well, since I get no positive credit for Bad Day L.A., people tend to ignore how radically different that was from a fairy tale. Our studio also produced a side-on shooter called BigHead BASH last year, which I was pretty heavily involved with (still am). I’ve got a folder filled with non-fairy tale game concepts which may or may not see the light of day. It just seems I get the most traction out of fairy tales--mostly because that’s what the existing audience gets excited about. Doesn’t bother me, I like the people who like those games and am happy to continue producing content for them.”

And that brings us to the present day, and to Spicy Horse’s newest creation, Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, an isometric Diablo-style RPG currently in open beta, and soon to be available via Steam. The game can be played both in a browser window as well as within its own client, thanks to the flexibility of the Unity engine it’s based on. Akaneiro’s setting may not seem to have much in common with McGee’s previous projects at first glance, but similar themes bubble beneath the attractive watercolor visuals.

McGee explains: “Akaneiro was inspired by a non-fiction book called The Lost Wolves of Japan, which details the destruction of wolves in Japan around 100 years ago. Western cattlemen came in and wiped out wolves and a lot of additional flora and fauna to make way for large-scale cattle ranches. The ‘man-versus-nature, man destroys nature’ contained in this tale is heart-wrenching, especially when put in context of Japanese culture at that time. Most people were vegetarian and lived in harmony with nature--wolves were revered and even worshiped. I felt that bringing a ‘Red’ [as in, Little Red Riding Hood--ed.] character into this setting, casting her as a bad-ass destroyer of wolves, then exploring some of the deeper man in harmony with nature themes would be cool. Hence Akaneiro was born.”

McGee credits Spicy Horse Creative Director Ben Kerslake for the game’s level of detail and beauty. It helped that Kerslake lent the project his own understanding of fairy tales and Japanese folklore. In fact, for a man whose name appears in a number of game titles, McGee is quick to give credit to others. About Alice: Madness Returns, he says: “What could I say to Ken Wong to improve his already mind-blowingly fantastic art? At times it was all I could do to get the hell out of the way of the design or production team when they had an awesome idea for a new section of game or new twist on an enemy. I get that other designers go about this differently, being involved in every aspect of development and dictating every decision. For me, it’s more interesting to create a fertile environment, seed it with an idea and gently guide towards what may come.”

What comes next for McGee and Spicy Horse is anyone’s guess. It’s easy to imagine more dark fantasy tales, and hey--why not? His version of Alice managed to confront her demons in her most recent appearance, and it seems he’s managed to do plenty of demon-conquering of his own. And all things considered, McGee seems pretty happy to escape the bittersweet rigors of life at EA, and bring a different kind of approach to an industry badly in need of one.

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Written By

GameSpot senior editor Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play Rock Band because he always gets stuck pla

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Discussion

48 comments
luniac
luniac

man am i glad to have chosen to learn unity3d 3 years ago.... back when it's future was in question...

yboucher
yboucher

When will the games media stop giving SO much airtime to someone who has been failing SO consistently ?? 

Vividnightmare
Vividnightmare

Great article, I've been a fan of McGee since the original Alice since back in the day. I've played just about all of McGees games and am a huge fan of both his ideas and his art. Really bummed about Oz. Hope it makes it one day, maybe McGee should talk with Valve...

kukumav
kukumav

A:MR is a work of art. The story, the music, the visuals...It's a haunting experience, unique and sincere - highly recommended. His name is kinda funny but well trusted in my book. We need challenging designers like him.

lpool8
lpool8

I see him more of an artist then a game designer (which is good because it is art) and the world he creates are amazing... although defo the consequence of eating certain mushrooms

Huantalahnmi
Huantalahnmi

This guy is completely overrated. His only good game was the first Alice. Since that nothing good has come from his hands. I'm not buying that "it's all EA's fault" *hit.

SavoyPrime
SavoyPrime

I hope this is a new series that is starting here on GS. I would like to see this continue. As for American McGee...dude comes off bitter as hell. But I guess if I had been through what he has been through dealing with the industry, I would be too.

NeoIostars
NeoIostars

IMO, Alice: Madness Returns as a game, was disappointing. But as an experience, it's still one of the most mesmerizing games I played in recent years. Retcons on the first game's story notwithstanding, A:MR had great characters, captivating script, powerful voice acting, and an intense, mature story. Too bad the gameplay was such a slog and it lost many of its potentials due to rushing (which was EA's fault, apparently).

megatronx2
megatronx2

even thought  American McGee's games are unbalanced, i think he's a visionair. 

firedrakes
firedrakes

one a person stand up for his mistake or screw up. (dev wise) i respect that more then anything

Rickystickyman
Rickystickyman

The more I read this article the more I'm loving American McGee. He seems intelligent and the fact that he seems to ultimately trying to help the industry is encouraging. I mean how many game developers specifically try to make work and schedules as convenient and creative as possible while also being laid back? That is awesome!

Gladestone1
Gladestone1

Its refreshing when a guy like this bashes ea instead of just the fans lol..Hes telling the truth about that company an what they do..Ea is a horrible company all around..Specially this online only crap phaze there going through..Hope some one wakes up an sees the public does not want this in there games..

cryemocry
cryemocry

IDSOFTWARE NEEDS YOU MCGEE GAMES BEEN SUCKING SINCE U LEFT.

ablerider
ablerider

l'm here just to say l love this guy and alice madness returns

HPFreak623
HPFreak623

I wish they'd go back to AM's Oz. Just picturing what they could do with that world makes me giddy. :(

tgwolf
tgwolf

We NEED MORE GAMES like the AM's Alice! LESS on the heroine, MORE on the trippy and twisted! Too bad no man dares go where Through the Looking-Glass dared go but once, always that they leave a usable material legacy such as for games... 

tempertress
tempertress moderator staff

Akaneiro didn't appeal to me on the outset but after seeing the 'American McGee' name on it I can't help but change my mind.

offalWaiter
offalWaiter

Great article!  Even more excited to start playing Alice: Madness Returns today.

drgribb
drgribb

lol I *literally* must be the only person in the world who didn't hate Bad Day LA... for the price I paid (about $10 on amazon) I thought it was pretty fun.  Definitely not the "best" game, but I enjoyed it enough and laughed at some of the jokes.  Not a game I would've paid more than $20 for, but certainly not a game I regretted playing either.

I just don't get why it gets so much hate? lol

Assemblent
Assemblent

You're a way better article writer than a reviewer. I give that to you Mr. Kevin VanOrd. Great read.

Dexyu
Dexyu

Akaneiro: Demon Hunters is Good looking for a free to play i would play it IF there was some kind of block or doge button cause boss just tares u up and u cant do nothing

zellar
zellar

How does the game company make money on a free to play game such as Akaneiro?

poopinpat
poopinpat

Not sure if it was mentioned in the article but you can check out Akaneiro by spicy horse at www.angry-red.com ! It's due for release within the week I believe but the open beta version is available for play now :D

jeffrobin
jeffrobin

Interesting read. Its not often you get some honest insight into the games industry, most of the time its just marketing twaddle . Thanks for the article Kevin ,  liked Alice 2 alot despite its aiming/locking issues. Hope American and his studio continue to have successes.

USAPATRIOT21
USAPATRIOT21

I played the Alice games and thought the style and tone were really cool. The gameplay was pretty vanilla though. Needs more substance to match the style.

cornbredx
cornbredx

I have bought every game American Mcgee has made, and still have them. Except the one he published under gametap because you cant get that anywhere else and by the time I could afford to get it was bought by the shady company that runs it now. I do not recommend ever giving them money.

Obviously, I was excited for Bad Day LA and really disappointed that it was pretty awful. I partially blamed McGee for that, I mean it is his brand. He does hold at least some blame. I'm not crazy, though. I still hold his ideas in high regard and enjoy what he does. Madness returns was a fun return and I liked what they did with that game. 

Oh, and Scrapland was cool, but it had a really weird sync issue with the sound, so it always went out of sync. I don't know if they ever fixed that as at the time I had it on XBOX so no patches. I never played the PC version. As a game I remember it being a ton of fun, though.

I will probably always check out his games as long as I can somehow get a hold of them without giving money to shady companies. 

Seriously, I hated what Gametap became. It was awful.

Victorious_Fize
Victorious_Fize

Someone is actually called American. lol

How patriotic can one get?

Ladiesman17
Ladiesman17

The problem with American McGee's is that he emphasized too much toward art style rather than storyline or gameplay,

and seriously the game become stale after 15 minutes

mhaed
mhaed

American McGee is a fascinating man who makes fascinating games. Good read. I wish Spicy Horse all the best as they continue to make games I enjoy.

clsid
clsid

@yboucher You know he runs one of the biggest independent game software companies in China? That's hardly a failure. The media is doing a great job of promoting independent game developers instead of big corporations.

clsid
clsid

@Huantalahnmi Go read the book Masters of Doom and educate yourself a bit more about American McGee.

clsid
clsid

@SavoyPrime The problem is that the industry are a bunch of suits that have conflicts with the game developers. Just watch what happened to beloved studios like Bullfrog. If you ask Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier, or even Tom Clancy for that matter, there is a reason why you go create your own studio afterwards. People don't like getting screwed up.

clsid
clsid

@zellar probably they are going to sell you upgrades and stuff, it's the way the freemium model works.

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@Victorious_Fize You can thank his eccentric parents for that. That is his given name!

Igal-Ze
Igal-Ze

@clsid He has a very valid point, Doom and Quake were ages ago.
Alice was a cool idea buy IMO not the rare gem people remember it to be... 
Other games ranged from "pretty good" to "not good at all" (i.e. Bad Day L.A.) and overall he created more hype than truly memorable games. 

He is not the Jhon Lenon of video games, there are other people who contributed so much more to the industry. 

He's a self-promotion genius, I give him that. He turned himself into a brand and created a semi-legend around him, but them you try to look at the bottom line - the games are just not that good.

Huantalahnmi
Huantalahnmi

@clsid @Huantalahnmi 

I don't think they sell it in my country (neither have time to read the book. Why don't you share some information regarding American McGee's merits instead? ;)

Assemblent
Assemblent

@mboettcher I'd say thank you but I wasn't really trying to insult him. : ). He's really a great writer. I just don't like his reviews because they are inconsistent and a bit biased, in my humble and personal opinion.

Huantalahnmi
Huantalahnmi

@clsid @Huantalahnmi Don't lose your temper, pal. It's easy to criticize with the "do the same as he's done" stuff, but that doesn't go anywhere. I'm no game developer, I do other things for living (and I'm pretty sure that I'm better at my stuff than American McGee is at MY stuff).

What gives me the right to criticize is that I am a customer. And as a customer I think that each one of American McGee's games that I've tried (the ones in which he worked as director/designer/producer) where not worth the money they cost, except the first Alice, which for me was a little bit overrated (just a little).

What I really don't understand is why you take this as something personal. I'm not bitching, I'm just talking about my personal impressions here.

Huantalahnmi
Huantalahnmi

@clsid @Huantalahnmi I don't think the level design of Doom II was exactly the best thing of the game, actually. Mostly everything that was good in Doom II came from the first Doom. Anyway, how many good (real good) games came out with American McGee's name on the title, please?