Interview with games industry veteran American McGee: ‘developers are being stifled by the systems in which they work’

Highly regarded developer in the games industry speaks about how the current generation needs real change, and poses the question - is the creativity of developers behind many of the latest releases being stifled by constraints of the industry, including limitations of hardware, monetization methods, distribution channels, interface (controls, screens) and more?

American McGee

American McGee is a veteran in the videogame industry, having worked with ‘id Software’ and ‘EA’ on many well regarded titles including Quake and Doom. He now works mainly with his own Shanghai based studio: Spicy Horse, acting as founder and creative director, recently releasing Alice: Madness Returns. We put questions to American about how the industry is now, his past and current experiences, as well as his developing style – his responses are below in their entirety.

You’ve been involved in the production of many high-profile games, but what would you say was your biggest failure or disappointment?  

Certainly in terms of critical reviews and sales it would be “Bad Day LA“. It was also a failure for me in how the production and business aspects of it were handled. I screwed up a lot. A lot was screwed up around me. But then, disasters are great learning tools – and so BDLA was also the most informative development I’ve ever been involved with. If you asked me if I’d do it again – I would. In that light I think it all balances out.

Bad Day LA

Bad Day L.A.

How did you break into the video games industry, and to anyone hoping to get a career like your own, what would you recommend?

I’m in the process of writing a Kindle book on this very subject. It’s a question that comes up so often, in interviews, when I meet people in person or from people contacting me directly. There are a few great books out there, but people seem to want something more juicy, human. So I’m writing up a collection of stories about the wide variety of people we’ve hired here at Spicy Horse. All of them came into the game industry without any prior industry experience, so their stories should be very informative for people wanting to do the same.

With so much previous experience, would you say that your work with ‘id’ and ‘EA’ taught you how to successfuly ‘work’ a company, and influenced you to launch Spicy Horse?

Everything we experience provides an opportunity to learn – it’s a question of being open to it and admitting that we have something to learn. With id and EA I took away some lessons, but probably not as many as I should have – certainly not as many as I could have. One big problem was that I thought I knew it all. Hopping from success to success will do that to you. It wasn’t until the failure of BDLA that my eyes were really opened to all the things I needed to master before I could hope to be truly successful as an independent developer. Spicy Horse is built on those lessons and has succeeded thus far – but I’m still keeping my eyes open. If being in China (where Spicy Horse is based) reveals anything it’s that there’s something new to learn each and every day. Spicy Horse

It seems as though Spicy Horse have recently been focusing mainly on developing mobile games. I think that mobile gaming is a great disservice to the industry, but what do you think? And what were your prerogatives to do so: money, experimentation, ease of development?

Mobile gaming is a great “disservice”? Why? Just not sure if that was a typo or ?? In any case, we’re not exclusively focused on mobile gaming. Our big projects are actually 3D, online, free-to-play games. We’re using the Unity engine to create small, fast, fun multiplayer games which will be released to PC (social networks), consoles, Steam and anywhere else we can find a home for them. The F2P model has proven itself in most territories around the world, with China being the biggest example of an entire industry built from it.

[Editor's note: I think mobile gaming is a great disservice to the industry. In my opinion, it cheapens the industry and gaming as a whole. At times, you even hear people calling themselves a 'gamer' just because they occasionally enjoy playing Angry Birds whilst sat on the toilet. I think: how can 99 pence mobile games be put into the same category as blockbuster titles like, say Gears of War 3? It seems as though big developers who are now turning to the mobile industry are doing so for the money. They want quick money, with a game which takes little time to create, over creating a quality title which they could be proud of.
It's a shame to see big companies doing so, I only see it as wasted resources, and an insult to true gamers.]

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UPDATE: McGee responded to my view on the mobile industry, so here is his counter-response in its entirety :

Wow. That’s an… interesting way to look at it. By your logic, anyone who doesn’t conform to your way of doing/consuming something is doing it wrong and therefore doing a “disservice”. It’s also interesting that you’re taking the side of “industry”, when your idea would destroy a huge and ever-growing segment of the industry (and the jobs, revenue, hardware/software advancements, manufacturing, etc, etc) that go along with it. Well sir, if you haven’t figured it out already, I don’t agree with you one bit.

So, to answer your question… Actually, you could just read the basic idea in the response I gave you which started, “The platform and model need a change.” Change is inevitable. The longer it takes someone to realize it or see that a particular change is for the better, the more certain you can be they are on the wrong side of the age/generation/technology/meme gap.

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With Ken Wong as your artistic director you two obviously need to collaborate a lot. Would you say Wong does a good job of bringing your ideas to life, or is it sometimes difficult to get what you actually want across? 

Ken is no longer with Spicy Horse, having decided to chase his dreams around the world once we finished work on A:MR. In any case, Ken and I had a great working relationship. Like any group of creative people, we sometimes had our differences. But over the years I learned how to manage our interactions to avoid problems (most of the time!) and he grew a tremendous amount. I count myself tremendously lucky to have had the chance to work with him all those years and am certain he’s going to do amazing things in the future.

Ken Wong's Art

Ken Wong's Snail Fight Art

Do you see yourself exploring more markets in the future, maybe with a new company?

A new company isn’t needed in order to explore more markets. Our location in China positions us to enter the market here and across Asia, which happens to be the most rapidly expanding (and lucrative) game market in the world. The games we’re building are designed to be enjoyed by audiences around the world and distributed purely online, so we’re pretty happy where we’re at.

Some of your games, specifically Alice, seem to have a very wicked / twisted theme to them. Do you enjoy manipulating classic stories, and viewing them from another, more violent angle?

It isn’t necessarily about violence. When we were building the latest Alice EA asked us to make it more violent, but we pushed back. The goal is to tell a dramatic and moving story – and violence is commonly involved. But in order for the story to appeal in a deep and meaningful way, a contrast has to be established and maintained. There’s no drama without a murder. But there’s no story without caring about and empathizing with those involved.

Card Guard

American's re-imagining of the classic 'Card Guard'

Alice: Madness Returns seems to be a great title overlooked by gamers, similar to Remedy’s Alan Wake. How do you think the game was received by both the critics and the community?

Glad to hear you liked it. There does seem to be a huge disparity between the critical and the customer reviews. Some amount of that should be chalked up to fans skewing the scores. But it’s clear there’s something else going on as well. One thing I noticed was that reviewers panned the game for being ‘too long’ and ‘too repetitive’. Those two issues are interconnected – if you’re a fan, it didn’t feel too long. But if you’re being paid to write a review and want to get through something quickly… it changes things. Frankly, I think the game is too long too, so I get it. And I don’t blame reviewers for feeling that way, but I think reviewers do a disservice by not being able to see through that issue to the underlying quality and variety being presented.

[Editor's note: As a reviewer myself, I didn't think Alice had underlying quality, its high quality was mostly presented upfront. I also found the game a little to long, and most likely that would've affected my review of the game. Being pressured by deadlines and time constraints only emphasize that problem more, but should developers really gear their games towards getting good review scores, or focus on true quality?]

You have a passion for films as well as games too, and having sold the rights to an Alice film, how would you like to see one of your creations on the big screen?

I would like it very much.

What would you say is your favourite creation to date? A specific character, game, physical creation etc.

The studio and people here in Shanghai are two things that I’m immensely proud of. It’s been an insanely wild ride over the past 5 years – always defying expectations, narrowly avoiding pitfalls (and death) while building something truly unique. It makes me happy to see everything unfolding through the business – creativity being channelled, games being released, people getting married, buying houses, having kids. It’s very much like a big family here.

Spicy Horse Team

The Spicy Horse team

We’re seeing more companies turning to the mobile market, and those that aren’t are just churning out more of the same generic, uninspired games. Do you think that this gaming generation has ‘outstayed its welcome’, needing a revolution of some sort in the near future?

The platform and model need a change. Developers are constrained by the borders of the systems in which they work – the hardware, monetization methods, distribution channels, interface (controls, screens) and more. The console market has been distilling game designs and mechanics in tune with those constraints and the feedback loop of market expectations (essentially shaping the customer base and expectations) for decades – and so change is difficult and generally resisted. New platforms are like fresh Petri dishes in which all new models can emerge. Revolutions are a good thing and they are always happening – it’s the timescales that vary. It’s still unclear how near the Western console market is to a revolutionary moment (or collapse of the tradition model), but I imagine the current pressures (emerging platforms, declining sales, piracy, 2nd hand sales) are accelerating its arrival.

What games are you currently playing, and what games are you looking forward to this year?

Minecraft. Haven’t touched anything else in a while – mainly because everything looks so “samey”.


[Editor's Note: So, American is writing a Kindle book to tell his and others' stories on how they got into the videogame industry, coming from such an experienced individual, a great idea, and it'll definitely help anyone hoping for a career in the industry. He became overconfident with his repeated involvement in successful titles, but interestingly enough, the release and 'failure' of 'Bad Day LA' really opened his eyes, inspiring him to create his own, now successful company; Spicy Horse. Spicy Horse are now focusing mainly on developing 3D, free-to-play games, quite different to their past developments, but could this ruin the success they've built up? The team doing so are one of American's greatest 'creations', very inspiring and thoughtful indeed. But, he thinks, like myself and many, that this console generation needs to be changed, with the WiiU on the horizon though, could it be coming soon?]

McGee’s most recent game: Alice: Madness Returns released on June 16th and is available from the following retailers: 

Amazon: 360 (£24.50) PS3 (£25) PC (£14.50)

Play: 360 (£25) PS3 (£25) PC (£15)

Zavvi: 360 (£24) PS3 (£24) PC (£14)

ShopTo: 360 (£23) PS3 (£26) PC (£15)