An Interview with American McGee

By Jeremy M. Zoss in Features
Friday, May 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm
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You very rarely hear stories as downright amazing as American McGee's.  From humble beginnings as a high school drop-out, a chance meeting with new neighbor John Carmack changed his life forever.  Starting with a customer support job at software developer id, to eventually Shanghai, China where he founded Spicy Horse Games, American McGee has created some incredibly memorable moments in video games.  I had the pleasure of talking with him last week about all things gaming, his two upcoming releases Akaneiro and Big Head Bash, used games and much more.  

Jason Helton: Looking back when you started in the game industry, did you have any aspirations to do what you are doing now?  Did this level of success even seem possible at that time?

American McGee: It's sort of weird.   Yes and no.  So I was, at that time a high school dropout.  Well I still am a high school dropout, but I had just, within some years, dropped out of high school due to some extenuating circumstances within my family, things that were out of my control.  And so I kind of had the sense that the future was looking a little bleak, yet I had also spent most of my childhood growing up tinkering with mechanical things and playing with computers and being very attracted to games at that period in time.  Also, when I was working on cars, I was going to these tech meetups and building computers and also programming systems for the shop that I was working in, so there was still a lot of connection with the gaming world.  I remember going and buying a shareware copy of Wolfenstein and being very inspired by that.  And the weird part of it was buying Wolfenstein, playing Wolfenstein, and then within some months of being introduced to the stuff that the id guys were working on, actually meeting them and becoming friends with them, so I did have ideas that I wanted to be doing things like that, but at the time,  life seemed so far away from any possibility that I couldn't see how it was going to happen and yet, almost magically there was this chance encounter with John Carmack, and history kind of went forward from there.  

JH: Your games, particularly the Alice series and Grimm, both are typically childhood tales that seem to take a dark turn once they get into your hands.  In previous interviews you said that your childhood was the inspiration for these.  Was there anything specific that twisted your views of these childhood stories into something more dark and intense?

AM: I think if there's anything specific, probably  it's not going to be stuff I'm going to get into in a public interview, but it's true that there are a lot of things that happened when I was in my childhood that influenced the way that  I looked at fairy tales, the way that I interpreted stories.  There's this study that was done that talked about how people form their so called personal narrative style and that they do that when they're younger.  It happens before they're 18, that the events and circumstances of your childhood form the personal narrative style that you then carry with you, even when you're just writing a PowerPoint presentation, or whatever sort of creative writing output you might be engaged in.  And that style is largely founded on the way the world is sort of looked at as a child, and mine resulted in the products that you see today.  

JH: At the time Alice was released, violence in video games was making headlines, and in researching your work, I found out that Alice was the first title released by EA to receive an M rating from the ESRB.  At the time, what was your reaction to that rating?  Were you surprised to receive an M at the time or was that something you were shooting for from the start of the project?

AM: There was nothing surprising about it.  The reality was, with a couple of very minor changes, it could have had a T, and if you were to go and take something like Alice and get it rerated today, there's no question that it would get a T today, it might even get LESS than a T today for the level of violence that's  in it.  There's no blood and gore, there's nothing explicitly violent about it.  I think it got an M because of the cover art, because the art had this girl with a knife with blood on it on the cover, and at that time the industry was so sensitive to the sight of blood, that that was an immediate M.  If you were to take it the other way around, if you were to take a Call of Duty back in time to present to the ESRB in the year 2000, they would shit themselves.  They would see this as just graphic violence porn, and they would ban it, so this is something that over time we've become less and less sensitive to.  And I think that if anything was shocking about getting an M then it was that it was pretty clear that it was not as violent as other things that were in the pipeline or that were being made at the time, and that it was more of a marketing stunt than anything else.  It wasn't a title that necessarily needed to be an M, but it made it more marketable if it was.  These days we see publishers pushing to get an M on a title because they want the audience to believe that it's a more sophisticated, more adult game.  

JH: That being said, do you thing that because game companies are pushing for those more adult ratings, that it is taking away from the art?

AM:  I don't think that the rating, the M necessarially has anything to do with the art of a game.  Even going back to Call of Duty, there's a tremendous amount of art on a technical level that goes into the creation of that product, whether it's the music, or the textures, or the animations, or the writing of the dialog.  All of these things are art in and of themselves, but it's not a game that the creators actually put out there and say "Hey, this is my so called work of art."  That's not their goal, that's not their audience and so that's not the way they are presenting it.  You can compare that though with plenty of games in the market where the goal of the creators IS to present something that's artistic and viewed as art, but again it's just a position that the creators might take one way or the other.   

JH: Recently, there has been quite a lot of controversy regarding Mass Effect 3 with the public outcry over the ending, and Bioware going back and adding on to it to satiate some of the fans.  Do you thing that a door has been opened for the editing of content by developers?

AM: That's a great question.  You see the opposite thing happening in the film world right with Lucas, he continues to play with his films and edit the Star Wars series and the reaction from the hard core fans is absolute horror that he goes back and messes around with something.  In the game space, this is something that for a large part of the rest of the world, for China and other places where online gaming is the norm, it's the expectation, it's part of the model, the demand.  For gamers in the US, they've grown up on games that are based on disc, that once it's released, save for a patch here and there for technical reason, it doesn't really change.  Personally, I think that games, the beauty of the thing they are turning into IS the ability for the content creators and also the users to go in there and make this a properly interactive experience, to make it so that content is changing and the experience is being updated.  That in a sense makes it much more like real life, makes the virtual experience much closer to reality.   Whereas what we were experiencing before was kind of like a meal: You ate it, when you were finished eating it, it was done and you moved on.  Now we're getting to content that's an experience: you actually can enjoy it, and come back and enjoy it again and have a different perspective on it and have different content in there. 

JH: Do you think that gaming at this point is getting to the level where it is respected like film?  

AM: I think it's already done.  The question of whether or not it's getting the respect that film gets is one of perspective.  The sense that film has respect doesn't apply to every film that's made.  You can go a look at an Adam Sandler film and you're not going to tell me that it garners the same respect or degree of appreciation that say The Artist which was the big Oscar winner last year did, and the same thing happens in games.  We've got games that come out that are notable and are artistically impressive, and we've got ones that come out that are just silly and fun.  The difference I think is just the industry sort of self promoting and creating a sense that one is greater and more artistic than the other.  We're going to get to a point, not far from now, where the games industry becomes much more sophisticated in the way that they self promote and present games as art and games as pieces of entertainment that's equal to or greater to films.  

JH: How does it feel, when faced with negative feedback from an audience that can be as vocal and unforgiving as the gaming community?  With your level of involvement in your products, is it something that you take personally or have you learned to for the most part ignore the haters?

AM: Well I think when it's justified and meaningful criticism, you want to read that and you want to act on it as well as you're able, if it's an instance where you're actually able to change the content and appease the fans and that makes sense, of course that's an option.  If it's something where you release something and people aren't happy with it and you can't do anything about it, then maybe you move on but you take a lesson from that.  But at the same time, at least for myself, you learn not to be overly sensitive to feedback and criticism, because the internet happens to be a forum where you get a minority who are extremely vocal, and often times can be very negative, and at the same time sort of parodying each other's negativity, and saying things about products that they've only heard of, that they've actually never had any engagement with, they've never played.  And yet they've seen the mass of this minority online is criticizing in a certain way, so they'll just repeat what they've seen and heard.  You have to be very careful of that, that in fact the fans, the people who are satisfied; they're often not as vocal in going online and saying "Hey this was something that was really awesome".  So you've got to take it in measure, you can't be overly sensitive to it, but at the same time when you're able to see that there is  something valid in there, and you can react to it then you do.  

JH: You have some pretty cool stuff on the way; tell us a little about Big Head Bash.

AM: Well it's, in the simplest terms, a virtual toy store, where people can go and buy virtual toys, collect them, trade them, outfit them with various weapons, and then of course fight them in real-time deathmatch battles, and the battles themselves take place in settings that are inspired by the toy brands and the toy settings themselves.  It's basically our attempt to improve on the concept of the real world toy store and the idea of collecting and trading toys, but of course adding a little bit of multiplayer action into the mix.

JH: From what I understand, Big Head Bash is going to be a browser and tablet based game?

AM: Actually the games we have on the pipeline, all of them are being built on the same back end platform which is client-server based, and allows for the game to be played on any device that will run the Unity engine, or also in a web browser so long as you can install the Unity plug-in.  That means that you can play the game in the office in a web browser, then you can be on the bus and play it on a tablet, then you can go home and play it on your laptop or your computer at home.  Basically they are play anywhere, anytime type of games and your user profile is shared across all of the platforms that you might play it on. 

JH: Now from what I understand, Big Head Bash is going to be a Free-To-Play game, with purchasable in game content.  What is the transition like, going from products sold in your typical brick and mortar store, to a model dependent on in-game purchases?  

AM: Well, it's not something I think I can answer easily.  This has sort of been a year long process for us, that's affected everything from the way we hire, to the way that we manage the production process, to the way that we design, to the way that we're marketing and pushing the content out, doing deals with various platforms and operators around the world.  It's been a pretty radical change, that save for the basic creative process and art pipeline, I'd say that it's impacted almost everything that we do and how we do it.  It's taken a lot of learning.  It's taken a lot of change for us to get here.  Basically it's been a little bit of taking what we knew from the past and trying to apply it to where it made sense, but also paying attention to the market and seeing what other people are doing, and at the same time trying to get out in front of what we see as some of the trends and innovate in the space a little bit.  It's hard for us right now to say too much about how successful all this might be for us, because we haven't really released anything yet.  Next week is going to be the first release of our first online free to play game, Big Head Bash, and we're going to have to wait and see how that turns out to know whether or not what we've been doing has actually worked out or not.  

JH: As risky as this might be, you sound pretty comfortable with the risk involved.

AM: Well risk is always involved.  This studio that we have here in Shanghai was an extremely risky thing.  Just by looking at the landscape in which we're operating, you'll see that there are no other full scale western game developers out here, it's just not something that people go and do, start a game studio like this in China.  Everything comes with some degree of risk, and that's just kind of a part of everyday, of what we're doing.  

JH: You also have another interesting title on the way, what can you tell us about Akaneiro?

AM: It's a light RPG, similar to Diablo but based on Red Riding Hood, of course set in Japan of about a hundred years ago.  It just takes the ARPG genre and pushes it in to the social online space, so that you can play it on Facebook or any kind of social gaming platform, but it's got all of the multiplayer and social hooks built into it.  

JH: Now, where does the concept of a Japanese Red Riding Hood come from?  Was it something that existed previously, or was it something you created?

AM: Actually I had read a book called "The Lost Wolves of Japan" that basically details the history of the indigenous wolves of Japan, and how they were basically wiped out by Western cattlemen, who had moved into the northern part of Japan and they brought the concept of beef to the Japanese people, who prior to that had been completely vegetarian. There was basically this battle that took place between the wolves and the cattlemen, and the wolves lost.  This book inspired this thinking about bringing the European Red Riding Hood that everyone knows into that story, and having her be a character that's involved with some part of that narrative, but then also of course bringing her own piece of the story with it, just kind of combining together the real world historical narrative with the elements of the Red Riding Hood story that we thought would be appropriate for a game.  

JH: When will we get a chance to start playing Akaneiro?

AM: Akaneiro is going to release later this year we haven't set a date for it yet.  Big Head Bash is coming out in closed beta on Kongregate next (Week of April 30th) week, and then we've got another game called Crazy Fairies which is coming out around June, and then Akaneiro will be some months after that.

JH: A few years ago there were talks about a film adaptation of Alice.  Is there any chance that your vision of Alice might yet be adapted into a film?

AM: I can't really comment on it, I can say only that it's still a possibility, and it's still being worked on, but beyond that I can't really comment on it.   

JH: I've also heard of your involvement in a new film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, is that project in a similar status?

AM: Well, I had worked with the people at Disney and Bruckheimer films, and written a film for them based on The Wizard of Oz game and story that I came up with.  As I understand it, they have an Oz film in production now, but I don't think there's much connection with the work that I did with them other then it's a similar based story.  We'll have to wait till the film comes out to see how close it is to the stuff that I wrote for them.

Alice Cover.jpg

JH: Movie projects aside, have we seen the last of Alice, at least in a video game format?

AM: It's a good question...I don't know.  It's up to EA, they're the owners of the IP and whether or not she continues her adventures or not, that's completely decided by them, as the publisher.  It's not even a situation where if I wanted to go and do something with it, or buy the rights from them.  They wouldn't allow that.  They only want to see something done with it if they do it, if they green light it.  If the fans are interested in seeing more Alice, they'd need to talk to EA about that.  

JH: Speaking of EA, a rumor about EA came out last week that a South Korean company Nexon, makers of many online Free-to-play games was making a move to purchase them, or at least a controlling share of them.  Do you think it could happen?

AM: I had not heard that, but considering how many losses they've taken, and how many bad quarters they've had now, yea, they do seem to be in a  position where one of the bigger, stronger Asian game publishers could make a move like that.  I think that's one of the funny things about the American game industry as it is right now with the traditional, or I should say old school publishers like EA.  A lot of people don't realize that though they look and appear to be the largest publishers in the world, in fact a company like Tencent which is actually the biggest Chinese publisher has a market value that's somewhere around ten times greater than that of EA, and so it wouldn't surprise me if one of these companies, whether they be in Korea or China comes out and starts to make some moves towards acquiring western publishers.  That's the next big territory for them.  It's not been a situation where the western publishers have been successful moving into Asia, so it's only natural that at some point the opposite is going to happen, where the Asian publishers start to move into the west.  

JH: With all of the trouble the larger publishers are having these days, and the indie studios putting out some truly stunning works, are we seeing a shift into an era of the Indie studios so to speak, where "Big Business" is no longer a necessity?

AM: Well the shift, these happen in cycles.  If you've watched the industry over the last 20 years, you'll see that with a change in distribution platforms, there's always a changing of the guard in the terms of the publishers, and the publishing landscape.  It's usually based upon who's able to move to that new platform more aggressively, and who makes the right bets on which platform is going to be the next big platform.  The EAs of the world exist because they went from being the independent startups to making the right bets on the right platforms back in the shift towards the console era.  Where maybe other publishers were betting heavily on PC or MAC games, or they bet on the wrong consoles, you name it.  You see the Zyngas of the world now are basically coming out of nowhere, so it appears, because they chose the right platform, and suddenly they're accounting for 15 or 20% of Facebook's overall revenue for a year.  EA didn't move into that space fast enough or aggressively enough.  Actually, they tried to move into the online space 10 years ago, too quickly and too aggressively.  They blew 200, 300 million dollars back then.  And so, it could be the independents, it could be the startups, whatever.  But whoever it is, it's all about those publishers or those startups who are able to recognize the shift in the platforms.  You know, a company in Korea, a big publisher there that's purchasing western publishers now, that's because they moved into the online space 10 years ago, and they built an empire in a space that EA thus far has not been as successful as other companies in getting into.  You've got the guys who defined the model now going in and scooping p the guys who defined the previous model.  

JH: There's been a lot of talk from publishers, developers, even the console manufacturers about the used game market, and what it is doing to their business.  Do you have any thoughts on the sale of used games?

AM: Yea, I think it's bullshit.  You make a product, you've got two weeks to sell it.  It forces developers to put online components into games that ought to be single player only, if that's what they're trying to build is a single player game.  It's all kind of a function of what was already a broken model in general.  Again, I'm here in China because when I was in the US 10 years ago, I could see that this was coming, that the retail boxed product disc based model was on its way out, and that it was only going to head towards greater and greater extremes in terms of what developers and publishers had to put in the box in order to get customers to pay 60 or 70 dollars for something that was only going to last them a certain number of hours.  The model needs to change and used is just a portion of the problem.  It's also an indicator of the dissatisfaction that customers have with the current model.  So I think what we're seeing are the death throes of the old model and the online and digital download space is going to come in and that going to radically change it, and then the concept of used is going to go away. But it's not going to be because the next consoles don't allow used, it's because there's not going to be a concept of a disc and being able to trade that back for some used return credit.  

JH: Is there anything you want to plug and tell our readers about?

AM: The main thing is the Big Head Bash closed beta which started the of April 30th on Kongregate, and if people head over and sign up on either our website, which is or they go over to Kongregate and sign up, they can join in on either the closed beta which starts next week, or they can get into the open beta which starts about a month from today.  That's going to be the launch platform for Big Head Bash, so that will be where we're getting our first free to play game out there and then if people want to get in early and check out what we're doing, that's the best place to do it.

JH: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

AM: Absolutely!

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