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Exclusive Interview With American McGee On The Alice Series

When listing game designers that have their unique spin put into their products, a few names pop to mind, such as Suda 51, David Cage, and of course American McGee. Famous for American McGee's Alice and its sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, McGee's twisted version of Wonderland has taken gamers on some of the most disturbing rides of their lives. Despite the many interpretations of Lewis Carroll's initial novel, McGee's remains the most inspired, twisting Wonderland into a world that resides somewhere within Alice's head, corrupted by her insanity after a tragedy that leaves her without a family.

american mcgee

When listing game designers that have their unique spin put into their products, a few names pop to mind, such as Suda 51, David Cage, and of course American McGee. Famous for American McGee’s Alice and its sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, McGee’s twisted version of Wonderland has taken gamers on some of the most disturbing rides of their lives. Despite the many interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s initial novel, McGee’s remains the most inspired, twisting Wonderland into a world that resides somewhere within Alice’s head, corrupted by her insanity after a tragedy that leaves her without a family.

Recently, McGee and his development company, Spicy Horse, have begun to branch out into using Kickstarter to fund their future projects. Although OZombie, an adventure contained within a warped version of Oz, failed to reach its goal, a new campaign seeking to produce short films based on the Alice series has been gaining steam thanks to fan and professional support.

In our interview, we discuss with McGee the perks of using Kickstarter, plans for the Alice series and much more.

Check it out below!

We Got This Covered: You’ve recently started using Kickstarter for direct funding from fans for new projects. How do you like this model of funding? Do you believe it is beneficial for studios to go directly to the fans?

American McGee: A lot of gamers and the game media don’t seem to understand how insanely critical a platform like Kickstarter is to the health of our industry. There are literally no other sources of funding out there for original game ideas. Game publishers aren’t funding anything except massive budget next-gen console titles. They certainly aren’t looking at lower-budget indie concepts with unusual game designs. Publisher money is “safe” money, meaning they only place bets they know they can win. Fine if all you’re interested in is another rehash of the same tired mechanics.

Investors don’t put money into game concepts. That’s not what investment money is targeted towards. When investors do come in, which is rare, it’s to “throw gas on the fire” – meaning you’ve got an idea or business that’s already established its ability to make money. That’s not the case with a game concept or proposal – the kind of thing you’d take to Kickstarter.

So yeah, I think it’s beneficial to game studios to go directly to fans. I also think it’s beneficial to fans to support independent development of unique game concepts. It’s a “win, win.”

WGTC: It’s a shame your OZombie Kickstarter was shut down before completion because the project looked incredibly interesting. Do you think it will resurface in the relatively near future?

McGee: Hard to say. My personal inclination is to let it rest in peace. Others in our studio and our supporters think we should try to revive it. The question for me is – hasn’t the market already spoken? The concept had a chance and failed. Sure, I can see a lot of external factors for why that happened – and quite a few flaws in our approach as well. Thing is, what sort of reaction is this undead zombie of a Kickstarter going to get upon its return from the grave? Public perception is everything when it comes to Kickstarter campaigns, and I just don’t think this idea is going to reincarnate itself in a new, acceptable form.

WGTC: Your newest project is a film continuation of your Alice series. Should you receive all the funding you need, where do you plan on going with the series? Will there be more films or even another game on the horizon?

McGee: The campaign will allow us to secure the rights to the Alice property for animation and film. EA still controls the game rights. If we own these rights we keep them from falling into the wrong hands. We’d also be able to produce animated content and push towards the development of a feature film.

A number of respected animators, directors, musicians and writers have already signed on to support our efforts. Just in the past few days we announced the additional of Chris Vrenna for music and Tsui Hark for overall support of the animation and feature development. The possibilities here are quite limitless – I can see the Otherlands concept blossoming out into a series of stunning animations. And I think the time is right for us to see Alice make her debut on the big screen.

WGTC: What problems have you faced in trying to gain the film rights for Alice?

McGee: None? We worked out the rights deal pretty quickly and smoothly. Now we’re just working to raise the funding needed to secure the rights and deliver some animations.

WGTC: Your Alice series is known for its surreal environments and generally insane design, going perfectly hand-in-hand with Alice’s loss of sanity. How do these designs come to be? Is it through a collaboration with your team or is it all from your mind?

McGee: Game development on the scale of something like Alice is always done through collaboration. Everyone on our team has an ability to contribute in terms of design, story and art. That’s one of the things I really love about the Otherlands concept – that it allows such a broad range of expression. Every new mind we enter provides another unique chance for some artist, writer or director to express a distinct vision. For my part, I’m happy to sit back and watch the magic.

WGTC: There have been many interpretations of the Alice in Wonderland tale, but yours is by far the most twisted. Have there been any aspects of Wonderland you’ve wanted to explore but haven’t had the chance to yet?

McGee: The great thing about Wonderland is that as long as we’re exploring it we’re likely to discover something new. I’ve never felt like it’s a story that I have to “make up” on my own. It seems to speak to everyone who works on it – it inspires creativity.

WGTC: Spicy Horse tried something a bit different earlier this year by releasing Akaneiro: Demon Hunters as a free-to-play browser game. How different was that process from that of developing a title for home consoles?

McGee: It was more similar than different. Just the scale, schedule and budget were radically different. Something like Alice: Madness Returns approaches 10 million USD in direct development budget, whereas Akaneiro was below 1 million USD. With A:MR we had a team of nearly 80 people at Spicy Horse being assisted by another 65 external 3D/animation developers. Akaneiro employed an average of 15 people from start to finish.

Still, despite the massive difference in scale, we use the same development processes. That’s why even though the budgets are different, the process is almost the same.

WGTC: Many of your projects are twisted retellings of classic fairy tales, from the Alice series to Grimm and Akaneiro. What attracts you to this framework?

McGee: Fairy tales that impacted me as a child don’t mean as much to me today as other fairy tales I can now appreciate on a different level as an adult. The “Alice” books didn’t really attract my attention as a child, for example, but of course they really caught my attention as I grew. The deeper subtext in the Oz books also escaped my notice until I was older – so that those books weren’t as engaging for me when I was little. My main interest as a child was with books that featured obvious male heroes on exciting quests for treasure and glory. As I grew older those stories lost their appeal.

Over the years I have spent some time to research fairy tales in general – and to examine different tales from around the world. What becomes obvious is that we’re all linked together by the tales. It’s one of the clear signs we can find of our mutual and shared past as human beings. Some tales, like Red Riding Hood, exist in all languages, all cultures and all histories – going back to a time before written record. These are tales we shared around a campfire ten thousand years ago, before we had countries and borders. What we shared then was a primal fear and respect of nature.

WGTC: Are there any tales you wish you could put your own spin on that you haven’t yet?

McGee: I don’t have a list of “tales to adapt,” no. In fact, when I think about making a new game I never start with a fairy tale story. My other original concepts tend to be things like “Serial Killer Simulator” or “Race Crazy Vehicles in China.” Ideas taken from the world around me or inspired by something I’ve read, seen, watched. My main reason for going back to fairy tales tends to be economic. With “Grimm” I was specifically asked by the publisher to “do a dark fairy tale.” Akaneiro is barely a Red Riding Hood tale – it’s really more about the plight of wolves in Japan and was inspired by a non-fiction book called “The Lost Wolves of Japan.”

WGTC: What projects should we look forward to seeing from Spicy Horse in the future?

McGee: We’ll be releasing a new game before the end of the year called “The Gate.” This is a CCG set in hell and playable via web or mobile. Can’t say much more about it at this time. Look for more info to be released around September. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. The studio is mainly focused on continued improvements to Akaneiro and development of the new game. We haven’t thought much beyond those two for this year.

That concludes our interview, but I’d like to thank American for taking the time to talk. Be sure to support Spicy Horse’s Kickstarter for Alice: Otherlands if you are a fan of the series. Also, check out Akaneiro: Demon Hunters on OSX, Windows or Linux, and look out for it to hit iOS and Android tablets in the future.

About the author

Christian Law

An avid gamer, moviegoer and music lover, he can be found giving his opinion on entertainment to anybody who will listen, and especially to those who won't. Otherwise, he's busy writing film and music reviews over at the Speakeasy Online Magazine.