man am i glad to have chosen to learn unity3d 3 years ago.... back when it's future was in question...
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.
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.”
man am i glad to have chosen to learn unity3d 3 years ago.... back when it's future was in question...
When will the games media stop giving SO much airtime to someone who has been failing SO consistently ??
@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.
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...
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.
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
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.
@Huantalahnmi Go read the book Masters of Doom and educate yourself a bit more about American McGee.
@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.
@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.
Romero and Carmack were having issues and McGee along with Sandy Petersen, but especially McGee, were the guys who created most of the Doom II levels with all the atmosphere and suspense. I'm sorry, having worked in two major hit games in a way where you are largely responsible for what happens makes it a great game designer in my book.
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.
@SavoyPrime He comes off as a realist to me. I think I would be the same way.
@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.
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).
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!
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..
I wish they'd go back to AM's Oz. Just picturing what they could do with that world makes me giddy. :(
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...
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.
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
You're a way better article writer than a reviewer. I give that to you Mr. Kevin VanOrd. Great read.
@Assemblent And you are highly skilled at backhanded compliments.
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 probably they are going to sell you upgrades and stuff, it's the way the freemium model works.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Hey also on Reddit taking Q&A.
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.