American McGee's Spicy Horse to focus on free-to-play games after Alice: Madness Returns

More than ten years after overseeing Alice with now-defunct developer Rogue Entertainment, American McGee is wrapping up a sequel with his Shanghai-based company, Spicy Horse. "This will be the first ever console triple-A game that's been developed from beginning to end in China, for the Western market," McGee told Joystiq during an EA event last Tuesday. "There's been a lot of stuff that's been outsourced, or various pieces of it have been made there, but in terms of production process we had to invent a lot of what we were doing to get this game made there."

Spicy Horse was restructured to handle development of Alice: Madness Returns, and will restructure again once it launches the action game in June. "Well, we don't see that the future for us is in triple-A console games," McGee said. "We actually are trying to make games that are online, free-to-play, 3D advanced casual games, so as we finish this we're going to transition the company back to where we were intending to be when we finished Grimm."

Spicy Horse was on track to follow up Grimm -- its fantasy-themed episodic series for games portal Gametap -- with more casual fare, but was temporarily derailed by an irresistible offer from EA instead. "So, we restructured for two years, we built the game, we did a great job, we're gonna ship it on time, on schedule, we never had a crunch and it's been really awesome. But now, it's back to what our belief is in terms of where things are going, so it's going to be all about free-to-play, 3D games for Asia."

McGee claims that half of the development team has already completed work on Alice: Madness Returns, with ten to fifteen people doing "last-minute cleanup" -- of a project that has gone almost suspiciously (in this industry) according to plan. "I mean, we never had a freakout moment, we never had a crunch, we never had to work on a weekend and, in fact, we were always running ahead of milestones, so we would even give extra days off when the sky was blue, or something like that," he said. "So, it was a really pleasant development experience."

Since Spicy Horse is set on transforming its production process once again, it's currently unsure about what would happen if EA asked for another Alice sequel. "That's a question to ask them. But it might take them another ten years to figure it out," McGee joked.%Gallery-118730% [Full interview]

Joystiq: I want to talk about the depiction of madness in games.

American McGee: Okay.

It has a tendency to be very shallow. Someone will have a flash of insanity and then they're completely normal for the rest of the game, except during certain story points. How do you feel about that, and how does Alice treat the subject?

Madness has been at the core of the franchise because, in the first game, we found her in the asylum, actually fighting to repair a lot of the emotional damage that came out of the death of her family, and using Wonderland as that tool. And I think that the depiction of madness that we presented in that game was more actually of a character, sort of immersed in it, but also fighting, and fighting quite successfully against it. We didn't damage her as a character -- a lot of times I'll hear the word "psychotic" that gets used in relation to what we might be doing, and I'm not a big fan of it because I don't think she's psychotic. I don't think she's lost control. She may be very much on edge, but there's something in her, there's a strength and also a respect that is really important.

In the second game, she's using Wonderland once again to go into her psyche, and again she's threatened with madness, but this time around it's much more about the loss of her mind. It's not going crazy in a psychotic manner. Again, her mind is coming apart, and she's doing everything she can to keep it together. If you play through the game, you'll actually see that it's presented in a very non-linear fashion, and I just mean that in terms of it's a linear story, but there are a lot of disjointed moments where she's in London, then she's in Wonderland. When you come back to London, the timeline doesn't follow, and this is all a function of her losing it. And it's pretty central to the story, as you start to get to the bottom of what exactly is happening, why she's coming apart like this, you also discover what's responsible for this and how that links into this greater story of the death of her family.

I imagine those two realms will start bleeding into each other.

Exactly. We almost end up in a thing we kind of refer to as Londerland. Early in the game, London is very distinct and very clear, but then as you move through the game, you start to see that the two bleed together. Towards the end of the game -- actually one of the key themes, in the first game she became a master of herself, and she in some ways mastered Wonderland, but this time she's actually got to master Wonderland and London. So, at the end of this story, if you look at the hero's journey concept of storytelling, there's a sort of alchemical aspect to blending together her power over Wonderland, over London and over herself.

You've got this very vivid world, Wonderland, which is obviously completely unrealistic. What about the London part? Are you approaching that with any sense of realism?

Oh, absolutely. We did a lot of research on London in the time. One of the things that we've done, even though it's a very surreal game, is we've actually kept a lot of attention on realism. So, even the things you see in Wonderland can -- we made a rule that they should be things that would have been inspired by her having been exposed to something in that real world of London. For instance, we have an oriental domain within Wonderland, but that's supported by the idea that in the news and in the streets in London that she moves through, she's actually exposed to oriental artifacts.

When it comes to London, we took a map of the real London in that period 1875, and we laid that on top of what we were doing in terms of presentation and we've actually tried to be quite, I would say, loosely accurate to the districts and the landmarks and things like that around her.

You've said that you're a big fan of Walt Disney. Is there any influence from that passion in Alice?

Well, the Walt Disney, my like of what they did, it had to do with the production method. It had to do with taking their art, cartoons of the time, and moving it up these levels, and introducing a level of storytelling and introducing technology, color and sound that no one had done before. So, when I've talked about that desire to sort emulate some of that ... first, it's about fairy tales. This is a person who built an empire on top of fairy tales. And secondly it's about the process.

Certainly, for this game, we've had to adapt new process that no one's ever done before. This will be the first ever console triple-A game that's been developed from beginning to end in China, for the Western market. There's been a lot of stuff that's been outsourced, or various pieces of it have been made there, but in terms of production process we had to invent a lot of what we were doing to get this game made there. So, there's definitely pieces of the trials that they went through to get what they wanted, and as a result we've also had to do some new things.


When you say you had to invent certain processes, what specifically did you have to do?

Production process in China is different than it is in the US, and a Western development studio in general. And so we've have to recognize the cultural differences and tune how we're making the game to fit in with those cultural differences. I mean, these are extremely sophisticated developers. They're very smart and they're very good at what they do, but when it comes to project planning or process and how we meet, how we talk about what we're doing, we tend to be very sensitive to the global variations of how things work there.

And you've been living in China for several years.

Yeah, I've been out in China for six and a half years now.

How has living there changed your perspective on the creative process of developing games?

Well, it's changed my perspective on every facet of life. To me, in the midst of a billion and a half people, while they themselves are undergoing an unbelievable revolution in terms of technology, culture, politics, finance, it has really opened my eyes to the diversity in the world, and made me feel like a real citizen of the world. And then, when it comes to making games there, it's just been a tremendous pleasure. Like I said, these are very talented people we're working with, people who have been making games for fifteen plus years. But a lot of the time the talent was relegated to a sort of outsourced model and what we tried to do when we built our studio was bring everyone into that creative process and bring everyone into ownership of the project and what we've seen is that there's just a tremendous passion for making good product and telling a good story.

Are fairy tales, especially Alice's story, as recognizable and cherished in China?

It's one of the best known stories in the world. Alice, Red Riding Hood, these stories have a life in all cultures in the world and a lot of history in them as well, so it's something, I think is a common misconception of people in China, is that they don't have a lot of exposure to Western content. The reality is they're absorbing Western content at a rate that is eclipsing every other country in the world. I mean, coffee and wine and automobiles and fashion and music and film and games, just at a phenomenal rate. They're westernizing over the last ten years in a way that is just an amazing and complete transformation of that culture and those people, especially the young people.

You previously worked on Grimm, an episodic game. Do you still find that model appealing?

Yeah, we loved the Grimm production. I wish that it had been presented on a platform where it was better able to make money. It came out as a free-to-play game, a free download on Gametap. It was number one on their platform, but that didn't translate to financial success. But in making that game, we established a lot of very unique production processes. We had three small teams running simultaneously, rotating through different phrases of production on a given episode. And then every couple of weeks we would ship three new episodes all at once. That team built twelve and a half hours of content for a very small budget in a very short amount of time and really, I think, broke new grounds in terms of production. And I think a lot of our success came from the fact that many -- all of the developers -- in our organization were very blue sky mentality. They don't come with a lot of preconceived notions about how or why you should make games a certain way. We said to them, here's our plan, this is this crazy way in which we're going to go about developing this, and they embraced it. That acceptance and willingness to take that risk and not question it, not bring preconceived notions about why that wouldn't work, to the table, that led to us being always on time and shipping a lot of great content and worked out really well.

With those notions and that completely different approach in mind, what's the most dramatic difference between making the game today and making Alice ten years ago?

You know, when we made the first Alice game it was with an external developer. I was with EA and this company called Rogue Entertainment, and they themselves were phenomenal developers. As they built this game, they worked their way into being what I would consider be one of the best platform action game developers in the world at that time, and it was a totally different experience for me because I was outside the organization. I would visit them, and towards the end of the project I camped out in their office and helped them finish the game, but that was their company, and in many ways there was a lot of the game that was their interpretation of what we were trying to do. This time, of course, this is my company, a team that I'm working with directly and being there very single day. So the level of involvement for me is much higher, and I've got to say the satisfaction of having made this is much higher as well.


Given that it's the first high-profile console game from China and your studio, how much do you have riding on this as a studio?

Well, we don't see that the future for us is in triple-A console games. We actually are trying to make games that are online, free-to-play, 3D advanced casual games, so as we finish this we're going to transition the company back to where we were intending to be when we finished Grimm. Grimm was an online episodic game. Our aspiration was to do more online games as we went forward, but when we spoke with EA and this opportunity came up, we couldn't pass it up. So, we restructured for two years, we built the game, we did a great job, we're gonna ship it on time, on schedule, we never had a crunch and it's been really awesome. But now, it's back to what our belief is in terms of where things are going, so it's going to be all about free-to-play, 3D games for Asia.

Never had a crunch?

Never had a crunch.

How did you manage to avoid that?

Planned really well. There is some crunch going on here at the end, but it's not team-wide. This is a couple of people, specific departments, that are having to crunch a little bit. Half the team has just completely come off, and then there's ten, fifteen people who are having to do some last-minute cleanup and push the product out the door. But for two years, we did great. I mean, we never had a freakout moment, we never had a crunch, we never had to work on a weekend and, in fact, we were always running ahead of milestones, so we would even give extra days off when the sky was blue, or something like that. So, it was a really pleasant development experience.

So if Alice: Madness Returns is a hit and EA asks for a sequel, what happens then?

That's a question to ask them. But it might take them another ten years to figure it out. [laughs]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.