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Alice: Madness Returns Interview with American McGee
Post by Dan @ 10:37pm 09/04/11 | Comments
AusGamers catches up again with American McGee, famed veteran of id Software from the Doom and Quake era and now operating an independent game development studio out of Shanghai with the long-awaited sequel to Alice now nearing completion.

AusGamers: First up, can you tell us about how you ended up working in China of all places, and what are some of the similarities and differences of working in the games industry in that country?

American McGee: Sure, So the path to getting there was kind of complicated. One part of it was that Bush had won the second election and I wanted to get out of the U.S. [laughs] and another part was that I’d made some friends in Hong Kong and was going out to Hong Kong Polytechnic to give some lectures at the University on game design and production.

So I had formed a bit of a network and was eventually invited to go out there and work on a game production. The game turned out quite terrible but it also gave me a chance to be there in the region for some time and to learn a lot of lessons about development in Asia and China specifically. I then went up to Shanghai and was helping some friends start an outsourcing company doing 3D art assets for games and at that same moment, I had a call asking me to build this Grimm product [American McGee’s Grimm (2008)].

I told them that there wasn’t a studio for it and they said “don’t worry about it, go build one”. So at that moment, Shanghai was just the most obvious place to go and start a studio.

In terms of the differences; advantages, disadvantages and so forth, well it’s just a really incredible time to be in China. Over the last five years, I’ve witnessed the whole city transform in Shanghai in many, many ways. From the architecture and the finance to education, arts and everything is all undergoing a tremendous amount of change. It’s a very optimistic place to be actually and it’s interesting because everybody has a sense of upward-mobility these days and that creates a sort of blue-sky mentality that you can do anything; that you can chase your dreams.

So that attitude actually flows into the studio and it means that we have a very positive studio culture. We have a very high emphasis on quality of life at the studio and I think a lot of people would be very surprised at just how comfortable an existence we’ve built for ourselves and the people on our team out there. -- it’s a really good place to be.

AG: Yeah, right on. Well I guess that answers a fair bit of my next question actually and further to what we were chatting about when I walked in, but I was under the impression that gaming culture is quite introverted in China, in that they seem to play primarily Chinese developed games that don’t make it to the west and vice-versa. So I was wondering if it was tough to find local talent that wanted to work on games that are geared to a Western audience.

American: Well that is, I think, a little bit of a misconception. Because you’ll find that Western games are in fact, widely available in China, but that’s all via the pirate markets. So Chinese people have a pretty significant exposure to Western content -- the TV shows, movies, music and games. It’s just that no-one has quite yet figured out how to sell those things into China in a way that makes them money.

Of course the online publishers in China have figured that out quite a long time ago, which is by building free-to-play MMO games that they monetise online, thereby defeating the piracy and secondhand sale kind of problems. But I’d say that Chinese exposure to Western culture and Western content... and that would even be cars and furniture; there’s giant Ikeas there, there’s cars being sold by the bucket-load -- one hundred percent increases in sales year on year -- a lot of those being European cars -- they love Audis and Volkswagens; Porsches and Mercedes.

At the same time, they’re manufacturing the clothes that most of us are wearing and the toothbrushes that we’re using. So to think that they can be immersed in the manufacturing of all things that we consume on a daily basis and also buying the things from outside -- they have a lot of cultural awareness of the outside world.

AG: Yeah, terrific answer. Also along those lines, you mentioned that there’s several Australians working at Spicy Horse Games. Do you have a large international contingent or is it mostly Chinese locals?

American: I’d say a fair number, but not large. When we were at our peak, we had around seventy employees total in the studio and of those, I’d say about fifteen were expats. A handful of Americans, three Australians, a couple of French guys; Brits, Belgians; a Nepalese guy, a Filipino guy. People from many different places around the world were there working in the studio.

Even our Chinese employees. They might all look like they’ve come from the same place to us, but in fact, there’s a massive nation there where only a small handful of them have come from Shanghai. Which means that even the majority of our Chinese people have come from some far-flung place in China, where in their home town they speak a different language and so they too are essentially ex-pats in a way, within the studio.

And I think that actually helps to form an even stronger culture, because we’re all looking for a family, we’re all looking for a home and so what ends up happening is that the studio dynamic develops into one with a lot of camaraderie and a lot of support amongst the team, for each other.

AG; Now on to the game itself, Alice: Madness Returns. The third-person action genre has evolved a whole lot since the first Alice game was released with games like God of War and Uncharted really raising that bar up. Are there any of the more technical elements of Madness Returns where you’ve been particularly ambitious in chasing that bar?

American: You know, for us it’s not a technical game. In fact, it’s a very story-driven, very artistic game so we wanted to be careful not to chase after ways in which the industry has evolved some of the presentation and mechanics when we feel that our audience is into this product for some more of the classic gameplay that was presented in the first title and of course, for a desire to see a continuation of the story, the beautiful presentation and the art.

So we didn’t want to be too clever, is a good way of putting it. At the same time, we also had the benefit of ten years of listening to the audience talk about what they liked or maybe didn’t like so much in the first game and also the ability to have seen where other teams might have solved those problems. We of course went into something like say, the combat system -- which in the first game was criticised for being quite one-dimensional -- and we improved that quite a bit.

We included an upgrade-path and a variety of very interesting weapons -- which actually line-up to the weaknesses of the enemies which you’re fighting. Then we created a whole array; a giant number of NPC enemies, which have puzzle-like defenses that the player has to really figure out before they’re going to be able to fight them effectively.

So there’s a lot more depth added in a lot of these areas, but at the same time, the five pillars of what made the original game so much fun -- the combat, the puzzles, the exploration, the storytelling and the art -- these things are all still in there and hopefully improved in a big way.

AG: The original Alice was built on id Software’s Quake 3 engine, and you’ve gone with Unreal 3 for Madness Returns. Was that always the case, or was the newer id Tech engine on the cards there at all?

American: Well we went on to Unreal 3 from Grimm. When we started working on Grimm, there wasn’t another rev of id technology due that we were very interested in. They were kind of mid-engine at that point. We were kind of interested in the Valve technology (Source Engine) at the time, but there happened to be an earthquake that severed the Internet connection between China and the rest of the world. And the way that Valve’s engine works is that you have to be able to connect into the Steam servers for you to even launch the editor.

So while we started initial development of Grimm using Valve tech, within a few weeks, after this earthquake, we had to abandon it. And because Epic has such a phenomenal presence in China, a lot of people there know how to use the tools, because a lot of teams have used it -- especially in outsource capacities -- and Epic has an office there in China which provides direct support in Chinese, it just made the most sense.

I was telling the Valve guys downstairs, that we didn’t end up as a Valve studio “because an Earthquake broke the Internet” [laughs] it’s very strange.

AG: Back on gameplay. At the end of the demo you’re showing here [at the London Showcase], there’s a bit of a teaser-reel with glimpses of a few other game-types at the end. There’s one where it looks like you’re rolling a severed doll-head around Marble Madness-style and there’s a 2D platformer in there somewhere too.

Are they just small one off mini-games or are there frequent occurrences of those?

American: Yep. Well there’s a lot of small mini-games in the game. One of the things we wanted to do was break up the movement through the world and the combat and the exploration and such with presentation of some very unique, very surreal gameplay modes. So as you go through each domain, you’ll find what is considered a sort of domain-specific ability.

Like ”off with their head”, where you’re rolling the baby doll’s head around or where Alice eats cake and grows to be giant, or the 2D section with side-scrolling stuff which is kind of an homage to Mario Bros. So yeah, there’s a lot of sort of unique, alternate gameplay content in there like that.

AG: Awesome, and how long do you roughly estimate that the story campaign will take the average person to play through?

American: When we first had people going through -- even trying to go through really quickly -- it takes about fifteen hours. So it’s actually quite a big game. The original request from EA was that we build a game that was about eight hours, but we built so much content [laughs].

But it’s great because it’s a big, beautiful game. There is like one hundred and fifty NPC characters all animated and ready to fight you and all of these domains that you’re travelling through; a tremendous amount of unique art assets which in-fact if you played through a section for an hour or two and move on to the next, all that stuff is ejected -- so you’re never looking at the same thing twice.

It’s not like “there’s that crate again” or “there’s that building again”, I mean everything changes hour to hour quite significantly. I think that’s one of the things that people are really going to appreciate about the product, because you’re always going to be looking to see what’s around the next corner.

AG: When the game is so heavily dependent on the imagery and the storytelling, it’s essential to be keeping things fresh like that.

American: Yep.

AG: The last time we spoke to you there wasn’t any firm plans, but has there been any movement on EA making the original Alice more available to today’s gamers?

American: I’m still not allowed to say anything on that one yet, sorry.

AG: Finally, you guys have a bit of a track-record of creating games based on public-domain licenses. Are there any others that you have been toying with?

American: We did release some stuff on iOS. There’s a book based on Red Riding Hood; that’s Akaniero; that’s out there now. We’re also looking at ways to turn that into an online free-to-play game.

Actually, when we finish up Alice, all of the studio now is shifting over to building free-to-play online games and we just recently secured investment that we’re putting towards building new and original IP. Some of those will be twisted fairy-tales. We also just signed up a really cool development deal on a piece of IP that already exists -- a very, very popular casual 2D game, that we’re now bringing into the 3D space. This is really the direction that we’ll be going in the future.

AG: Ok, so do you think that’s a permanent shift for you guys?

American: For us it is yeah. In fact I mean, it’s the reason that we went to China to begin with -- to get into the online space and have exposure to online gaming. Alice has been a beautiful distraction, but now that we’re almost free of that, we’re going to go back into what was the original idea for being there, which is all about free to play 3D, advanced-casual games with micro-transaction components and multiplayer.

AG: Ok terrific, thanks so much for your time today.

American Thanks, it was good to talk to you again.

Latest Comments
Posted 09:41am 10/4/11
Nice interview. Shame they're moving to free2play micro-transactions. I cannot stand those games.
Posted 09:51am 10/4/11
I think free2play games have there place in the world, if they made one targeted at a western audience that was decent id consider investing time into it.
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