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Exclusive Interview: American McGee has seen the future of gaming, and it begins in China


Seven years ago, American McGee saw the future of the game industry.  

The future he saw was in China, so he packed up and moved to Shanghai to found Spicy Horse Games. McGee, the CEO of his company which most recently developed Alice: Madness Returns for Electronic Arts, was at the Game Developers Conference (GDC 2012) to show off three new games and discuss what he sees as the future of gaming, and why China is becoming the center of the gaming world.

The developer is one of many creatives to make the leap to mobile gaming. In this exclusive interview McGee talks about his latest games, what free-to-play titles mean to the industry, and  why the future of gaming begins in China.

You’ve been in Shanghai now for a while. Can you talk about how you’ve seen things evolve over there?

It’s seven years that I’ve been there. It’s been an incredible journey just to be witness to this revolution across every single facet of society there, whether it be finance, sexuality, gaming, entertainment, or whatever. It’s like a whole world that’s opening up not only internally for itself as a society, but also to the rest of the world. It’s been really amazing to witness.

When it comes to games, can you talk about how you have progressed from developing hardcore PC titles to games that are for the mainstream?

The funny things is, when I went to China, one of the big things was that I wanted to be closer to what was, and is, the largest free-to-play online market in the world. I thought by virtue of being in the neighborhood, it would be a lot easier for my development team to also get involved in that business. What we had though, for the last five years, was a great struggle of trying to separate ourselves from Western development and this idea that we are Western developers. It’s only been in the last year via investment funding and a group of partners who are very much believers in online and free-to-play, that we’ve been able to finally be able to break away. It also happens to coincide with the Western market, in general, now starting to make a serious move towards social online.

What games are you showing here at GDC?

We have had three games in development for the last 12 months. In this year, 2012, we’re going to release three games back-to-back. The first one is called BigHead Bash, which is an online multiplayer shooter game, but it’s presented in a 2 ½-D gameplay style. The next one is called Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, which is based on Red Riding Hood, but set in Japan. It’s a light Diablo-style dungeon-crawler, but designed for social networks and tablets. The last one that’s going to come out later this year is called Crazy Fairies, and that’s basically a replication of Worms, but in 3D. It’s turn-based and multiplayer, and it’s also being built for basically any mobile, social, online device.

How has your development evolved from games for console or for PC to these newer platforms?

The toolset is what, I think, has been the biggest boon for us as a cross-platform developer. We’re working with Unity 3D, which means that at the press of a button, we can be on any mobile device. We can be a web game in a browser, or we can be a client download game. The team has really taken advantage of this advancement in technology in the engine that we’re using. As a development organization, we’ve always had a very blended philosophy so that we can have three different projects going on at the same time, with people bouncing between each of these three projects, sometimes multiple times per day. All of this is going back to when we were doing the Grimm series, which was a first of a kind episodic PC game.

Having been part of this whole evolution we’re seeing, if you look at the game industry, where do you see things going five years from now?

One of the reasons that I went out to China was because I could see, and I think a lot of people could see, that that was where the future was already happening. The largest game publishers in the world are, in fact, the Chinese publishers despite what Activision and EA might want to have you believe otherwise. What you can see out there is that it is all about online, micro-transaction, free-to-play, and completely connected games. Also, it’s becoming more and more about mobile devices, cell phones, and tablets.

What advantages do you have being based in Shanghai?

The reason that we’re out there is because it’s so close to the future, it’s a completely different mindset when it comes to the player mentality. I think that that’s probably the biggest challenge that the Western game development and publishing group has, is to really bring the players around to this new idea of connected free-to-play online games.

How large is your studio, Spicy Horse, today?

These days we’re around 50 people inside the studio, and that’s splitting between all the standard animation, 3D, and sound departments, and then everybody working together on these three times. Everybody is blending back and forth between the various projects at any given moment, but as our games come out and hopefully find success, then we’ll continue to grow those teams, keep them attached to those projects, and then also use outsourcing to provide the content to keep the games, themselves, fresh.

What has your fascination has been over the years with fairy tales?

I think one thing is that it’s globally and universally known. When you do a Red Riding Hood tale, it doesn’t matter whether you’re presenting that in China, Japan, the US, or Germany. People know the story. I think one of the advantages that we found is that you have built-in marketing, awareness, and understanding of the character and story types. That helps us to shorten up the period of time we have to spend getting somebody into the idea of the game, and it allows us to get into the gameplay and the meat of the thing much faster.

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