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!”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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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