Interview with American McGee

American McGee is the man behind the game ‘American McGee’s Alice” and its follow-up “Alice: Madness Returns”. American currently runs his own game development company, Spicy Horse, which is based in Shanghai, China. Movie Mikes had a chance to pick American’s brain about the new games as well as other projects he is currently working on.

Click here to read our review of “Alice: Madness Returns”
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Mike Gencarell: So why the 11 year wait between “American McGee’s Alice” and “Alice: Madness Returns”?
American McGee: There wasn’t really anything magic of the time between the new game and the last game.  The truth is that it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, which was also the case when we made the first game.  But this time around…I had left EA after the first game and lived in Los Angeles for a while.  Then I moved to Hong Kong, then to Shanghai.  I had to move to Shanghai and start a studio here before I thought we had the development capabilities to tackle doing a sequel.  So I called up EA and let them know what I had in mind.  They thought it sounded good so we got it started.  It really just came down to “right place, right time.”

MG: What inspired you to take the wacky world of “Alice” and turn it into a very dark psychotic world?
AM: Basically EA asked me to come up with the game concept.  I spent the years prior to working at EA working at id software, where we did all the “Dune” and “Quake” games.  I was actually tired of the whole “space marine/big brown worlds and guns” games and I had a feeling that I wanted to come up with something that would really push both the technology and the story telling.  I was driving in my car one day and this song by the Crystal Method came on.  It was called “Trip Like I Do.”  The song opens up with a guy doing sort of a monologue talking about a world of wonder.  And those words hit my brain and I started thinking “wonder….wonder….wonderland.”  I thought we could do something really fantastic with “Alice in Wonderland.”  So when I got back to my office I sat down and started thinking about the characters and Alice’s world and how it could be adapted to appeal to gamers but also maintain the appeal that the books have to such a wide audience around the world.  So out of that was born this world and this story and this take on it which a lot of people seem to think feels like a good direction.

MG: Tell us about the development for the CGI cut-scenes in the new game?
AM: We still kept it kind of old school.  We use a lot of storytelling in the environment.  It’s a lot of passive stuff so that we don’t take the player out of the game playing experience.  Then we also have the cut-scenes in game, like a lot of games do, where we’re using the characters in the world to tell some of the story.  The only thing we have that is sort of pre-rendered are the 2 ½ D motion graphic cinematics.  We just recently released one of those, which is the opening to the game.  It’s a two and a half minute long animation showing the opening of the game.  We actually ended up doing over 30 minutes of animated content like that.  It’s really cool because it suits the game really well.  It tells the story really well.  It really fits into her world.

MG: If you had to choose one thing, what did you enjoy most about doing the new game?
AM: I’d say that it’s the overall sense of pride the studio has in having delivered the game because it’s actually quite historic to see a full blown cross-console/cross-platformplay Triple A western game concept get developed from start to finish in China.  For gaming China has historically been a place that’s mainly used for outsourcing.  Even when you have companies like EA and other big studios here a lot of the creative direction…a lot of the development…is actually being done off shore, outside of China.  They’re giving a lot of the core production work to the team here.  This is the first time that, from start to finish, we built a game of this size and this caliber in China.  The whole team is quite proud of that.

MG: What was the biggest challenge in bringing “American McGee’s Alice” to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network?
AM: There were a lot of little obstacles and hurdles for the tech team to get over.  That was almost purely a tech job.  Basically on our side we had two guys, Jake and Milo, doing all the coding.  We also had a company on the west coast of the U.S.  It’s kind of ironic.  We’re in China and we outsourced the work for some of the technology to a company in California.  They did have to jump over some hurdles to get the game to fit to memory and for the interface  to come up to the standards that are required by the platforms.  But so much time has passed.  The power that is now available on the consoles is definitely up to the task of playing the game.  And it looks great.  If you play the old game now, on a console and a big screen, it’s absolute gorgeous.  The original “Alice” was envisioned as a console title early on.  There was meant to be a console version – a PS 2 version – when we finished the PC version.  It actually comes over very nicely.  At its core the soul of the game is really a console  platformed action game. It came over quite nicely.

MG: The music composed by Chris Vrenna in the first game was fantastic.  Tell us about the score for “Madness Returns”?
AM: Chris came out early on and actually consulted with our composers and sound designers here in Shanghai.  He ended up contributing one track but the bulk of the music was done by Jason Tai.  We also had a guy named Marshall Crutcher in San Francisco that did a lot of the more classical pieces that were traditionalist instruments like cello and violin.  So if you listen to the main theme of the song that was something that Marshall contributed.  But the bulk of the audio done in China was done under Jason’s direction.  Jason is Malaysian but went to school in England so he brought with him a really wide range of ability and an exposure to music from around the world.  So when you play the game and you move through the world you get a really good sense of that.  There’s a lot of diversity…a lot of variety in the music.

MG: Was it different making a multi-platform game vs. just a PC game?
AM: I’d like to say that there was something really different about it but the truth is that so many people on the team, myself included, had prior experience in console development and the technology these days allowed us to create a game that is automatically cross-platform right out of the box.  It really makes it pretty straight forward as long as you put your planning together the right way early on.  Something as a studio that we really pride ourselves on is being really good at the planning for these long term projects.  And as a result we’ve actually developed a pretty sane development process and schedule.

MG: There have been talks since 2004 about a film adaptation of”Alice.”  Now that it is back in the spotlight, do you think those ideas will be revisited?
AM: It’s largely out of my hands.  There’s a film producer in Hollywood that is in control of the rights.  That’s the destiny of the project.  But I know that he’s trying many ways to get it set up and made.  I decided a long time ago not to hold my breath when it comes to the ways and moves of Hollywood.  Sometimes things can happen ridiculously fast and sometimes it can take decades for stuff to get made.  I think we’ll all just have to wait and see if maybe the new game has an impact on getting the film to move forward.

MG: Why was the game production on “American McGee’s Oz” canceled and do you ever plan to revisit that project?
AM: It was really sad.  When I left EA we had all of this momentum because of the success of “Alice.”  I figured I’d done “Alice in Wonderland” so I decided to tackle “The Wizard of Oz.”  So we came up with some story lines and some art and started building the concept.  We had toys made, had a book deal in place, got the game deal set up…had the film rights sold.  Everything was moving along and feeling really great.  Then one year into production on the game the publisher ran into pretty significant financial troubles.  And they killed, across the board, all of the their games except for one.  They were just finishing up the MMO for “The Matrix.”  They had run out of money and they cut out work on all games except for the one they thought would make them some money back.  So we were a victim of their financial woes.  And once the game fell a lot of the other stuff also started to fall by the wayside.  When the film guys saw that the game wasn’t going to get made they cooled on the film idea.  And so forth and so on.

MG: Is that something you can now proceed on with your own studio, Spicy Horse?
AM: Right now that project is so messy in terms of the rights.  The game rights are owned by Atari still.  The film rights are sitting at Disney with Jerry Bruckheimer.  Somebody has the toy rights, somebody has the book rights.  I think today to get the momentum back and get the project moving again would just be so much work and trouble.  I think, in fact, should we decide to ever revisit “Oz” we would just start from scratch.  Because it is a public domain story we could come up with a whole new take on it and just relaunch completely from scratch.  We may do that someday but for now we have a lot of other stuff that we’re working on that’s keeping us occupied.

MG: What’s next from Spicy Horse?
AM: We just announced some news.  Actually, “Alice,” for us, was a bit of a distraction from our core business strategy, which has a lot to do with why I came to China in the first place.  And that was to be in the on-line game space.  Our first project was strictly on-line, an episodic project called “Grim.”  We just announced that we’ve secured financing that we’re going to use to self-fund a lot of original IP.  And we also just signed a deal with a company in which we’re going to take one of their existing IPs  and transform it into a 3-D free-to-play game.  So from this point forward all of our focus is going to be on making on-line multi-player free-to-play games.  These will be in 3-D.  A lot of your Facebook games are in 2-D and we want to help transition the market to 3-D.  So that’s where a lot of our energy will be going as we move forward.

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