American McGee part one
18th Aug 2006 | 13:38
American McGee is one of gaming's most renowned and influential designers. Having started way back when with id Software on Doom II, Quake and then Quake II, he swiftly moved over to EA in the late nineties creating the acclaimed American McGee's Alice.
After producing the intriguing Scrapland, McGee has continued his ambition to unite the gaming and movie worlds, avowing to be the 'Walt Disney of Gaming, only a little more wicked.' With two film projects in the works in American McGee's Oz and American McGee's Grimm, McGee has recently moved to Hong Kong, which he sees as one of the new production centres in the future of the industry.
With new outing Bad Day LA releasing in just a week or two's time, we caught up with American in the first part of an exclusive interview to hear about his newest PC project, the role of humour in gaming and challenges of creating good comedy and why in-game advertising isn't necessarily an evil thing.
Free of the restrictions of a big studio system, McGee is refreshingly candid on the big issues of the day including Bad Day's political themes, "My goal with the game was to highlight the ridiculous notion of living in constant fear and trading our liberties for "safety" when there is no actual threat... at least not ones that giving up our freedoms for will save us from", also expounding on the current political climate toward games in the US and how even his name has become a barometer for how America is perceived abroad... so without further ado it's over to you American.
How is Bad Day LA doing: do you have a release date for it? And who is going to publish it in the UK and Europe?
Bad Day LA is doing great. We are just putting the finishing touches on it and getting it out the door. There is a release date for it. In the US we're looking at a late August release date and in UK/Europe around the same time. For the UK/Europe, there are a few different publishers, depending on territory. In the UK and Germany, the publisher is Gost and Frogster. In the UK the publisher is Supersonic.
Bad Day boasts a very distinctive visual style, what made you choose that look and does it give the game a very different feel and flavour?
Humour is a big theme in the game, and at the same time we're dealing with some topics that aren't normally considered funny. The art style is designed to look a little like those in-flight safety cards you see on air planes, and also serves to soften the impact of the disasters themes we're dealing with. The goal was not to gross people out with photo-realistic blood and gore, but to highlight the ridiculous nature of living in constant fear of unpredictable disasters.
The art itself was inspired by a Los Angeles art duo called Kozyndan (www.kozyndan.com).
What's been the biggest challenge in developing Bad Day?
Creating good comedy is hard, anyone will tell you that. And combining comedy with decent game play is no small feat. Along with all the usual technical, artistic, and schedule related challenges that are usually associated with game development, we also had to deal with the cultural adaptation of our content to our development environment in Hong Kong and mainland China. All in all, this was probably one of the more challenging development projects I've been involved with, and I think everyone learned a lot of valuable lessons.
How did the idea for the game originally come about - and how close is the game to your original vision?
The original concept was inspired by a wide range of events that I witnessed in the US post-9/11. But I was really inspired into action by a billboard I saw on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, which read "Bio-chemical terror attack - Are you Prepared!?" It was this billboard, brought to us by the Department of Homeland Security, that really pushed me over the edge. It has become so normal to see messages like this all over the US today, that we hardly notice them any more. America is a fear-controlled society.
My goal with the game was to highlight the ridiculous notion of living in constant fear and trading our liberties for "safety" when there is no actual threat... at least not ones that giving up our freedoms for will save us from.
The game came out pretty close to the original vision, but to be honest, I think we could have taken the message even further. When we started development, I felt like there was a line that shouldn't be crossed, and that we shouldn't try to get too political. My fear was, that by the time the game was released, the climate in the US would have shifted, and the material would no longer be relevant. Boy, was I wrong. Things seem even weirder today than they were on the day I conceived the idea.
You now live in Hong Kong. What prompted you to abandon the US, and what are the best and worst aspects of living there?
First off, I didn't "abandon" the US. My frikken name is "American", so unless I go out and change it to "Chinese" it's going to be pretty hard to abandon the US. But, my name has given me an interesting barometer of the world's opinion of our country. It used to be that when I travelled to India, Russia, England, or Spain people would respond to my name with "American? That's a cool name!" These days I get, "American? That's a f***'d up name!" American foreign policy is having a really negative effect on the world's view of the US.
As for living outside the US, I really appreciate the perspective that it gives me. I have a clearer sense for how people see the US, how they view things like democracy and freedom. The biggest thing I've noticed is that, in general, people in the world are pretty damn happy and healthy - despite whatever you might hear on the news in the US. Even in communist China, people are free to enjoy their lives, make money, fall in love, and express themselves.
You have suggested that the future of the games industry lies in China. What makes you think that? Can China (and perhaps Eastern Europe) take over from the US, UK and Japan as the industry's predominant territory?
The only thing missing from the China/India equation is free-thinking, creative talent. Right now, game companies around the world are already planning to spend 40% of their typical development budget on outsourcing to places like China. Offshore teams are becoming the factories that drive the gaming economy. If you look at the way other manufacturing industries have migrated from being dominated by creative/factory bases in the US to overseas, I think you get an idea of what will eventually happen with gaming.
You have stated that you would like to establish a combined games/animated movie studio in China. How close are you to achieving that goal?
The first part of the plan is to build the foundation elements, which you can see in the two companies we have started in Shanghai. One is called Vykarian (www.vykarian.com), this is our "factory". Over the next five years we plan to grow this into a 1000 person company, providing game art outsourcing to clients such as EA, Microsoft, and Sony. The other piece, we just announced, which is a game development studio based in Shanghai. This studio is going to spend the next year establishing an episodic game development and distribution model that we hope will be able to support multiple "shows" being broadcast simultaneously. Eventually these two entities will spin off teams that will merge together and form unified production houses for linear and interactive content.
You are also outspokenly in favour of in-game advertising. Could you explain how this could improve development as a business proposition but without alienating dedicated gamers?
I feel that the current publisher dominated finance and distribution model has done a disservice to innovation in the game industry. Once publishers found "safe" genres, they were loath to experiment - and you can't blame them, a high percentage of new game concepts fail upon launch. Add to that the fact that the current model doesn't support the creation or distribution of smaller, experimental games, and you've got a system that can make a lot of money, but not generate a lot of innovation.
Advertiser funded game content is a means to producing smaller, more innovative games, of getting larger games funded and distributed outside the current publishing model, and for establishing new development models. All of this is good news for gamers, as it means more choice and more freedom.
It's understood that advertising content can be annoying. But we're already soaking in it. Why is content funded by an advertiser and given away for free any more "evil" than content you have to purchase from EA? It's just a different model. We shouldn't be afraid of it. And if you really don't like it, don't play advertiser funded games. Pretty simple.
How important is outsourcing when developing games in the 21st century? How is your Vykarian enterprise progressing?
As I mentioned before, the industry is now absorbing 40% of typical game development budgets. As games grow increasingly complex and content-heavy, I think we can expect that number to grow. Being in China, riding the crest of the game art outsourcing wave, makes it pretty clear this is going to be a huge industry. Vykarian is attracting the best talent and growing rapidly.
That's your lot for now but be sure to tune back in on Monday Part two of our talk with American where among other highlights he'll be discussing the latest on Oz and Grimm, the balance between publishers and developers, episodic gaming, the future of the next gen and why he thinks Wii is the only true next generation console.