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American McGee is one of the veterans of the gaming industry. Having worked at id Software, EA, and now having founded his own company Spicy Horsein Shanghai, he has amassed a portfolio of amazing games. Some of his most well-known titles are “American McGee’s Alice,” “Alice: Madness Returns,” “American McGee’s Grimm,” and “Scrapland.” McGee has worked on multiple platforms and is now working to bring back “Alice” as a film platform and was working on creating a new game based on the Wizard of OZ universe by L. Frank Baum by the working name of OZombie. After the interview took place McGee suspended the Kickstarter for “OZombie” to focus on obtaining the rights to the “Alice” film. A new Kickstarter for the “Alice” film rights should be starting very soon. Since the interview covered a lot more than just “OZombie” we decided to continue publishing it. Thanks very much to American McGee and the people at Spicy Horse that worked to allow us to do this interview.

One of the things, I’ve never read any of Baum’s OZ books, I grew up with the MGM film, I knew there were books but I did not know there were that many of them. Besides the idea that OZ was a dream, what are the other major theme differences between what you’re doing with OZombie and the actual original works?

That is a good question, because if you read about Baum and his feelings about consistency and continuity you’ll discover that he wasn’t very concerned with maintaining continuity. For instance in one book he might have mentioned that death in Oz was a possibility and in the next book he might state it is impossible to die in Oz and in yet another book again come back to the idea that death was possible. There is a lot of inconsistency in the book and that is fine for us as my intention is to create a history of OZ or a moment in OZ that is far beyond the time that you’ve read in the books or seen in the films. One of the biggest differences is that you’ll be running around not with Dorothy but with Dorothy’s great-great-granddaughter. That helps to give you a sense of how much time has passed.

Does OZ remember the original Dorothy or is she consigned to the realm of myth and legend?

I think that I haven’t really gotten to that bridge yet in terms of figuring out if we’re going to answer the question or if that’s even critical to the story. At the moment it’s really about the major characters that I know are going to be involved in this new story. That would be Dorothy as the hero, the Scarecrow as the main enemy and then the allies I know Dorothy is going to align herself with such as the Tin Woodsman and the Lion and so forth. Whether or not we run into the original Dorothy is something I’d rather not say yet.

You said on your Kickstarter page, which I thought was really cool as I am a huge sci-fi fan, that you’re a huge Robert Heinlein fan. Which Heinlein books influenced you the most or you would recommend reading before playing OZombie?

Well I think that is hard to say which one sort of influenced me the most because I read them all when I was in high school and maybe a little earlier than that. I read through just about every single one of the books he wrote. “Stranger in a Strange Land” is one that I’ve probably read more than the others. But you know there are books of his that are less philosophical, less political like the “Stairway to Heaven” which are more scientific. I think that’s Heinlein but it might have been Arthur C. Clark. I’m getting my sci-fi authors mixed up. But definitely for the social and political influence there are things like I said, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” that I can remember to this day that are definitely influencing my thoughts going into the OZombie story.

“Stranger in a Strange Land” is one of my favorites, that and “Farmer in the Sky.” Those are two of my favorite Heinleins myself.

Yeah, and you know there is a book of his called “Number of the Beast” that actually features characters going to the World of OZ. So you know there is a connection there where he has written an extension to the OZ mythos himself.

Interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever read that one.

Yeah number of the beast is one his more controversial books. It’s one that some people say is the worst thing he ever wrote and some people say is the best thing he ever wrote because it is a very self-referential writer’s book. It’s just sort of he’s showing you all the tropes and making obvious the tricks writers use and all of the things you should not do when writing. It is a very interesting read.

I’ll have to pick that up. What other literary or other influences are you using to kind of, or that inspired you in creating OZombie.

Well actually a lot of the themes you’re going to find in here are what you’re would describe as Orwellian. You know, inspired by books like “1984” or “Animal Farm” in that there is definitely a very political slant to them. What we’re seeing the Scarecrow do to this world is very much inspired by events that we’ve seen happen in our history and events that are unfolding around us today of people in power using manipulation and deceit to control populations. And this was actually a topic touched upon by Baum in his books. It was a theme he was exploring though these of course these are books were great for children. There is still that sense of kind of political exploration and commentary contained within them. Orwell would be the other major influence for that kind of content in the game.

“1984” is one of the best books I’ve ever read, also one of the scariest.

Yeah it’s scary but you know what’s really scary about that book, I just recently re-read it. What’s really scary about it is how much its beginning to mirror the world we live in today.

Yeah it was meant as a commentary not as an instruction manual.

Yeah, exactly.

Well as an action adventure game, how linear would you consider OZombie to be? I know there is a class system from the Kickstarter notes but is there a leveling system that would prevent you from getting to certain areas until you complete certain objectives or is the world open to you from the start?

This is certainly not an open world game. This is a linear story though we are going to do branches within the story. But those branches are more in an adventure game format. Once you begin down a branch, once you’ve made a decision, those decisions remain with you and affect whatever is going to happen as you go forward. We are not trying to present an open world. We are trying to present a story with multiple but possible middles and endings.

Ah that’s awesome. I love a game that kind of goes with the player’s play style and moral choices. It kind of gives them their freedom to see what their choices do. There are not a lot of games that do that effectively.

Yeah and I think that in exploring the concepts we’re looking at here, giving the player an ability to involve themselves in those kind of choices. That really is going to help to drive home the point.

You mentioned in the Kickstarter, and I’m a fan of this genre, you mentioned one of the themes is Steampunk. Does that mean the game itself will be taking place in a Victorian era world or is OZ a place out of time with the rest of the world?

Well there is not going to be a persistent theme of Steampunk it’s just that in some areas we’re going to discover that is the primary theme. If you look at the “Alice: Madness Returns” game you see as you move through that game the tone and style of particular areas within Alice’s mind change depending on an overarching influence. There was sort of like an Asian themed level as an example. That the same thing we’re going to apply here. On the Asian note there is a China country in the world of OZ, there is also the Silver Island underneath OZ that has an Asian them to it. As we move between these areas we’re going to see the theme and art style of those areas differs. Some of them it’ll be something that looks closer to Steampunk and that’s really because Oz is a sort of an endpoint of a Bermuda triangle in the sense that technology and people from our world can cross over into that world. And so you can imagine that sort of like the island in Lost, you’re likely to stumble on a wide variety of technology from various eras. The inhabitants of Oz have likely adopted that stuff and made it into usable technology for themselves.

Speaking of an adaption, or figuring things out, you said in one of the updates that death is unknown to the OZites and you touched on that a second ago when you said Baum was inconsistent in whether death affects them or it doesn’t. Did the Scarecrow then find a way to introduce death or is death merely a euphemism for something else?

I can tell you that we’re definitely going to answer that question but it’s sort of critical to one of the opening moments in the game and I’d rather not sort of describe it just yet. I will tell you that we are going to deal with that topic. I just don’t want to give it away too soon. It is one of the more fun things in the Oz stories to play with and we’ll definitely touch on that.

What led to the decision to use Unity3D as the game engine as opposed to an in=house or other licensed engine?

Well we don’t have an in-house engine, not one that would support this complexity of game development. You know as a studio we’ve only used two engines, one of them is Unreal 3 which we used for our first couple of games. Now for the last two and a half years we’ve been using Unity exclusively. It’s just an excellent tool set at a decent price. It’s the two things you care about when you’re a small, independent developer. It makes it where we’re able to generate lots of content very quickly, get that content to a wide variety of platforms with a push of a button and it doesn’t break the bank. It’s sort of everything we need wrapped up into one.

It was mentioned that was going to be turn-based combat and role-play elements as well as action adventure?

We don’t want to get too much into these details because of course we’d like for those definitions to really take shape as we go the preproduction and design phase on the product. But you know when you think of the combat for instance, one of the reasons I mentioned looking at a turn based system is that if you read people’s feedback about the Alice games you’ll see that one of the things that was kind of most commented on as being difficult or not engaging as the rest of the product was the combat. So the idea here would be to find a combat system that’s suitable to a wider range of players and also that is more streamlined. If you can engage with and get out of more quickly so that is where the idea of a turn based combat system comes from. But again, you know we’re not final in making that decision.

Going back to talking about being a smaller developer, you’ve kind of been on both ends of the developing spectrum, from the huge triple-AAA studio to the smaller, independent studio. What have you discovered making the transition from making large triple-AAA to being a smaller independent developer?

Well we as a small indie we’ve also worked on a large Triple-AAA title so there was a point where our studio here got up to around 80 people when we were working on Alice: Madness Returns. These days we’re back down to around 50 where only about 40 of those people are in a core development team. I think that one of the big differences for us these days is that the project size is a lot smaller and the budgets are a lot smaller. There is a lot more happening, more quickly, than in a large console game. Alice took us two years to build the game and took another, prior to that, year and a half to get the deal done so that we could make the game. So you’re looking at sort of spending four years of your life pursuing a project and developing it and releasing it, and having only two weeks for it to monetize. That is about how long a big console title like that lasts in the market before the pirates get a hold of it. Where we are today we are able to turn around new games and launch them in much shorter periods of time. We’ve got a studio where there are fewer people we’re working on two or three projects at the same time instead of everyone on the studio on one big project. So it’s just to me that there is a lot more going on where we’re much more agile and there is a lot more interesting problems to be solve don a daily basis. For me I prefer but at the same time I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t go back to doing a large console game if the right opportunity came along.

What other universes have you considered playing around in or creating new franchise out of? Or is there one in particular you’ve always wanted to do?

You know there are dozens of games concepts sitting in a folder on our network drive that some of them are ideas I’ve come up with, some of them are ideas others in our studio have come up with. We’ve got a pretty wide range of content we’d like to develop but there are a lot of things that go into deciding what we would work on. One of those is audience expectation or demand. There is a sort of gravitation to projects that we know will appeal to the audience that played our previous projects so that often can dictate the fact for instance we might do another children’s fairytale themed game. But if you look at the range of titles we’ve explored we’ve demos for racing games that are set in China, we’ve got first person shooters that are set in outer space, one idea that I’ve been playing with recently is sort of a serial killer simulator. If you can image sort of like Dexter but as a game where you’re offing people but trying not to get caught. There are a lot of ideas that you explore but you know we only get to choose one to jump on.

Being a smaller game developer located in Shanghai, what is it like being a developer in Shanghai and was there much of a culture shock setting up Spicy Horse?

Being a game developer here is I think is pretty much like being a game developer anywhere in the world because you’re using the same skill sets, you require the same professionals to take care of our technology. You’re often using the same engine; a lot of the developers in the world are using Unity these days. Even our production practices we’re using SCRUM or some sort of Agile technique. You’re going to see that wherever you happen to be making games you’re generally following fairly similar patterns. Yeah I mean of course there are cultural differences, it is China right? It’s like the other side of the world for most people’s imagination. Even then the reality is that nowhere in the world is really as far away as you imagine that it is. People in China are still people going about their lives, making their business, and trying to get by. I guess probably the biggest thing is language difference and some cultural expectations that are different. It’s nothing that you can’t overcome by immersing yourself in the cultures.

Speaking of interesting cultures, the gaming culture itself, you’ve come from a long line of gaming. Having worked in some of the largest gaming publishers, what have your previous efforts in the gaming industry taught you that you’re implementing in OZombie or in any of your other projects?

That’s a good question. I think that one thing I’ve learned that I know is to admit how little I know. Things are changing so rapidly in our industry that you know, something you took to be gospel yesterday is going to be gone tomorrow right? That a platform you were beholden to or that sort of was your core business yesterday is going to vanish tomorrow and a new one is going to take its place. The same thing with game genres, the same thing with customer expectation and tastes. So I think the thing that after 20 years I’ve learned is that it really doesn’t pay to hold to your expectations or lessons about the industry because everything is always changing so rapidly.

Speaking of rapid change we’ve seen the rapid rise of Kickstarter for crowd funding different projects especially video games. I know you’ve already done a Kickstarter for, and I know I’m going to butcher the name, Akaneiro: Demon Hunters. What has been the most positive and most negative aspects of attempting to do crowd funding and do you feel it limits or expands your creative options?

Well I’ll answer the second part of the question first by saying it absolutely expands our creative options. I think a lot times when I see people commenting on the fact that we’re using Kickstarter they will ask why a game designer with a known name, and I think they’re assuming that I’m well off, they want to know why it is I’m using this sort of crowd funding platform exclusively geared towards the grungy independent. The thing they’re forgetting or not aware of, there are no other sources of money for development in our industry. They’ll say “Why don’t they go to an investor?” Investors don’t give money to support the production of original ideas/games. Investors put money into businesses that are already generating a revenue because they expect to get a return immediately on that investment. Game publishers are putting money into fewer and fewer projects and putting larger budgets into those projects as we go into this console transition. They’re also not taking a lot of bets on new IPs because that’s incredibly risky and even more expensive to launch new IP. Why do think we’re seeing Grand theft Auto 5 coming out now? So there are really no other sources of financing out there for us. We can’t go to publishers, we can’t go to investors, and I don’t have pockets deep enough at all to be funding a million plus dollars to get a new game made. So yeah, it definitely opens up the possibilities for us.

On the first two questions, what’s the most positive and most negative, certainly the most positive is the interaction that we’re getting with the audience and the support we’re getting with the audience. It’s really wonderful to have several thousand people engaged with your campaign and provide feedback on all aspects of the campaign and the game itself. I love that and I think it’s absolutely wonderful. The most negative is also sort of related in the feedback we get and almost always it’s related to how the press is handling the concept of Kickstarter. It seems that for some reason of late the press has taken it upon themselves to sort of become the defenders of justice on behalf of their audience and so they are very quick to slant an article or present a piece of news as sort of an “us versus them” as a “gamers versus evil publishers” or “gamers versus scammy Kickstarter” or “gamers versus fill in the blank.” I think this is doing a huge disservice to everyone that’s either employed by or taking enjoyment from the industry because there really isn’t an “us versus them” story. Yet this is what is emerging more and more on these various gaming news websites where these journalists are forgetting that the first sort of core pillar of journalism is to “first do no harm” and instead they are seeking out and trying to find a way to make, to put damage into the story.

I think this is detrimental to our industry because it is limiting creativity and stifling innovation. That means that as an industry and as an art form we’re not going to advance. If the media takes it upon themselves to turn independent developers, new forms of monetization, or new ways for developers to finance their games into the bad guy that means you’re only ever going to get more “me too” products, more of the same, instead of people taking risks and trying to innovate. The media seems to be ignoring the fact that risks, that is where innovation comes from. Risk comes with the possibility of failure and instead of pointing a finger at failure and labeling it as someone trying to take advantage of a customer or someone trying to scam or someone not knowing what they’re doing. It would be a lot more healthy if like other industries we embraced the failures, learned from it and improved the industry by virtue of learning from what went wrong. Instead the media in the games industry seems to take a scorched earth approach to this, that any transgression, any mistake and that whomever made that mistake ought to be completely leveled. They oughta never have a chance to work or speak again. Again I think that is completely damaging.

I was reading that you’re trying to get the movie rights for Alice as a separate Kickstarter. Assuming you are able to get the Kickstarter funded for Alice, what are we looking at? Honestly I love the universe, I’d love to see something either animated or otherwise done in an episodic format for Alice.

Well the backstory is that years ago before the first Alice was ever released as a game, some producers from Hollywood came up to Redwood Shores and bought the film rights from EA. I think at that point EA didn’t have a sense of the value, the potential value, of the Alice IP, of the franchise. So they sold off these rights and for the last twelve plus years these guys down in Hollywood have sat on the rights and nothing happened. Just recently they came to me and they said “We’re willing to sell these to you before we take them out to the wider market and so would you be interested?” So we structured a deal where I have a limited amount of time to get my hands on these before they take them to an open market sale. If we do get the rights then what we’re looking at immediately is doing a series of shorter animations based on the Otherlands concept. That is basically Alice traveling into the minds of a variety of characters that were in London at the time that this is all taking place. So you’ve probably seen a list but its everyone from Edison to Van Gogh to you name it. There is just a huge list of very interesting characters there, such as Jules Verne. The basic idea is to use that license to explore those minds with Alice as the vehicle. Beyond that the rights allow us to make a feature film that can be live action or animated. That is something that I’m already talking with interested writers and directors about getting that project going. Again, the first part of this is getting our hands on ownership of these rights.

That is awesome. I really enjoyed the Alice universe. I’ve got the games and just really the style you did for the games, the kind of gothic-noir, the dark gothic, I like that style of universe. Besides the Alice games, what other games have you considered revisiting again? You’ve also got Scrapland, Grimm, and others. Have you considered revisiting any of them anytime soon or is that off the table for more newer projects.

You know I think going forward we’re going to be mainly focused on trying to do things with Oz, do things with current library of IP we have like Akaneiro. I don’t know that we’re going to have a chance to revisit any of those old projects. You know opportunity is a strange thing. I could say that today and then tomorrow a publisher or financier could call up and say “We want to give you money to bring Grimm back to life.” So if that opportunity came along we wouldn’t pass that up.

Now with Grimm you did that in an episodic format using GameTap. Episodic games have, with the exception of some TellTale games, have fallen by the wayside. Do you have any idea why the episodic format didn’t really take off or is it something that, at the time, was due to the technology?

I don’t think it’s a technological issue. I mean, if you look at the Walking Dead, which is the recent most successful of the TellTale games. It’s clear that they’ve spent many years sticking with the idea that episodic storytelling in games, to learn all of the lessons and try to figure out how to make the genre work, and now they’ve presented something that swept all of the game of the year awards and really took everyone by surprise. It’s not because it’s technologically advanced or that it’s using the latest engine for 3D graphics or anything like that. It’s just that they’ve really found a way to present a specific genre of game in a really satisfying, really sticky way. So I think that they’ve sort of proven that the idea of episodic is good one it just took some years of effort and risk and even failure to learn the lessons towards making it the thing that it is today. Again that goes back to this issue of an industry that doesn’t allow failure that doesn’t accept risk or that doesn’t react appropriately.

What have you been wanting to tell an interviewer or anybody that has come up to you and ask questions, what’s the one thing that you’ve been wanting to tell people that hasn’t been asked? That is kind of something you’ve wanted known that just hasn’t been said?

I think on this question of things I’d like people to know, you know recently I’ve really started to grow tired of the negativity that I see leveled at me as an individual designer and people’s sort of perception of who I am based on what I guess they’ve read online or the products I’ve made. More and more I wish people would spend a little time to understand that I’m just a person just like everyone else. I live a very humble life and I’m just trying to make my business go and make games which is the thing that I enjoy doing. I do wish that as an industry this, you know, this online bullying, antagonism, and negativity that people could start to get a grasp of it and try to control it a bit. Again I feel like this is you know, personal attacks on people like myself or attacks on platforms like Kickstarter, or attacks on developers or attacks on different models of publishing that is becoming an incredibly toxic time and place for us as an industry. It really just makes me feel like it’s going to stifle creativity; it’s going to stifle innovation. I think if anything that’s the main thing, I just wish people would just kind of back up and take a kind of more human look at what it is we’re doing as a culture and as a group.

The last question is a bit of a two parter. When are we looking at OZombie being released? I know you have the four finalists for the new name for OZombie as well, when will we know which name has been chosen?

As for a release date it’s going to have to be at least a year after the successful funding of the product so we’re looking at starting production late 2013, we would be delivering a closed beta around late 2014. As far as the name goes, I don’t want to comment on that just yet as I have not had a chance yet to go through and do a proper count of the feedback. We really want to let it be that the final decision is made by the audience and so as soon as we get a sense of what they’re voting for we’ll post that online.

I really do like how agile you’ve been with the project so far and and the fact you’ve been willing to change whatever you’ve needed to to reach out and go with what the fans have wanted. I think you very much for the interview and I really appreciate you taking your time to speak with me.

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