Shanghai, China. It’s the center of an economic boom, a happy intersection between talent, technological know-how, and affordability. Financial analysts have been predicting the ‘bubble burst’ for years, but for the many U.S. ex-patriots who now call Shanghai ‘home,’ reports of the decline are overrated.
“A lot of Wall Street guys want to short China, and talk about the engine sputtering,” says American McGee, the CEO and founder of Spicy Horse, an independent game developer that makes its home in Shanghai. “The first step of living in China was the hardest – to give up my life, to make that commitment to come out here and live here.”
To any video game geek who grew up in the mid-90’s, American McGee is vital – you might not know the man, but you definitely know his games. Blessed with success in his early 20’s, McGee got his start at id Software, programming for Doom and Doom II.
McGee is in his eighth year abroad, and he left the states for a number of reasons. Some are political – he’s one of the few Americans who made good on his promise to leave America if Bush got re-elected – and some are business-related. McGee now finds himself in a country that is the ‘biggest’ in gaming – biggest in terms of player volume, and biggest in terms of revenue.
“One of the things about coming to China and being successful,” McGee says, “is leaving your expectations at the border. It’s been an incredible challenge, and it’s always been better than my expectations have been. I like the challenge and reward that come from running my own business – in a normal, corporate job, I think I would go a little crazy.”
To any video game geek who grew up in the mid-90’s, American McGee is vital – you might not know the man, but you definitely know his games.Blessed with success in his early 20’s, McGee got his start at idSoftware, coding level design and sound for Doom and Doom II. It was in 1996, however, that the young McGee had his first, major success. He led the design of levels and scenarios for Quake, and nerdy teenagers spent hours modding his work on this groundbreaking, 1st person shooter. McGee followed this success with Quake II in 1997, and its multiplayer became even more critically acclaimed than that of its predecessor.
McGee joined with E.A. in 2000, and, as a creative visionary for the company, created American Mcgee’s Alice. A twisted reimagining of the Carroll original, the game was an explosion of dark creativity. The Cheshire Cat was an emaciated, mangy beast, and the Mad Hatter was a steampunk nightmare, held together by creaking gears and shifting parts – the surreal, detailed graphics were groundbreaking when they were released, and today, they still hold up.
It was after this success, however, that McGee left E.A. – “I’d sort of had my fill of them, and they had their fill of me,” he says with a wry laugh – and founded Spicy Horse in 2007, staking out his own path. McGee had setbacks prior to this – a roundly panned satire called Bad Day L.A.was released in 2006 and mercifully forgotten, and long simmering plans to create an Oz game fell through. In 2010, however, Spicy Horse released Alice: Madness Returns, a sequel to the teenaged Alice’s fight against mental insanity. It boasted the same visual treats as those of its predecessor, and for the many gaming fans, who never forgot McGee’s early success, it felt like a ‘welcome home’ party.
McGee balks at deconstructing Alice, owing its success, in part, to its mystery, and also to being at the right place at the right time with the right story – a confluence of happy accidents that made it resonate so deeply. He’s similarly humble about the progressive strides of the Alice character itself – a rare, non-sexualized female protagonist that many female gamers gravitated towards.
“We approached the story from a perspective of her, first and foremost, as a human being,” McGee says. “We didn’t mix it up with overtly female issues or questions, nor did we worry about the male aspects of the game either.”
Instead, McGee has something subtler in mind. “If you play through the series, there is an underlying theme of psychological and sexual abuse,” McGee says. “We wanted Alice to be a vehicle for commentary, from psychological abuse, to sexual abuse, to the over-sexualizing of females. I don’t see that as a distinctly male or female story.”
Spicy Horse sits on Suzhou Creek, which runs right through the center of Shanghai, and separates one of the poorer districts from one of the richest. Befitting its do-it-yourself ethos, Spicy Horse sits on the ‘wrong’ side of the creek in the Zhabei district – it’s not in a shiny, modern building, next to the other tech start-ups that call Shanghai their home, but rather, it’s in an ancient, historical building that is over a hundred years old. Spicy Horse employs a small staff of fifty professionals, and only four are ex-pats, including McGee – the rest are Chinese natives.
“We’re kind of isolated,” McGee muses. “We chose our office environment for the kind of creative feeling it has when you’re inside – we’re not for looking for an important address. We put our emphasis on the quality of the work environment and the quality of life for our employees.”
The team is currently working on a major title – an RTS, multiplayer game called The Gate, and recently launched PlayTheGate.com. Other than that, the team likes to keep their projects close to the vest, only tipping their hand late in development. Isolation suits McGee, and distractions are something he takes conscientious efforts to avoid. He has social media outlets, but of these, he only uses his Facebook account occasionally.
“I don’t think social media outlets help creatively,” McGee says. “I find those things to be an incredible distraction from getting work done. Unless we’re being really active in trying to promote something, I try to avoid those channels. I mostly consider them tools; they don’t help us reach a new audience, but they help us talk to those people who expressed interest in the projects that we’re working on.”
“I do enjoy social media for interacting with the audience and getting general feedback, but I also have a love/hate relationship with it. I really don’t like going online and seeing comments of various people saying that ‘I should die,’ or that ‘I should never be allowed to make a game again.’ I don’t think anybody enjoys reading that kind of stuff.”
It’s a strange intersection – a tech geek who eschews social media, the video game developer who seldom plays video games (McGee admits to one console game per year – the most recent game was Skyrim), For McGee, however, it helps him to maintain a well-balanced life – work is work, and play is play.
“The only thing I tend to play regularly is Minecraft,” McGee says, “and I do that to relax. I often come away from playing a game feeling depressed – I prefer to be cooking, playing cello, or learning a language. I have a lot of diverse hobbies, and I’d rather be doing any of those things than burying my head into a game.”
McGee first involved himself with Kickstarter as a patron, supporting various projects before promoting his own. He gravitated towards hardware projects that, to him, signified innovation, and would be too radical for a major company to stick its neck out for. One of his favorite Kickstarter projects was Oculus Rift, the 3-D gaming headset that has raised millions of dollars.
“I’m a really big fan of alternative input and output devices for games,” McGee says. “A lot of our design efforts are limited, because we continue to use a mouse and a keyboard. These are devices that are thirty to forty years old – they’re about as old as computers and 2-D monitors are.”
“A concept like Oculus Rift is something that an investor would never get behind, because it requires building an audience from scratch for a product that does not yet exist. It’s hard to see that stuff from established companies.”
McGee had his first Kickstarter success this summer. He successfully funded a series of animated short films entitled Alice: Otherlands– a continuation and conclusion to his beloved franchise. Although the project began as a proposal for a third game, a movie producer offered McGee the opportunity to do something with the film rights. The money raised on Kickstarter will deliver the promised animated short films, but will also be used to develop the script and find a director for the full-length feature, live action film, which McGee hopes will begin production next year. As for the game, it’s ultimately up to E.A. Games, which holds the rights to Alice. McGee is excited for the future, though he is aware of the increased responsibility that comes from accepting public money.
“I suspect that a developer, myself included, might feel more accountable to a bunch of fans and the investment that they’ve made,” McGee says. “When a corporation gives you the money, all of your trials and tribulations are hidden within that organization. They have things in place to buffer failure, and understand that sometimes things go wrong. The worst thing that might happen is you lose your job, or get a demotion, or make some executive unhappy."
“If you screw up in the public arena and with the public’s money, I think the long term repercussions could be much more damaging, and the public may be less willing to forgive. Crowd funding is a more dangerous way to take money, and I think it does demand a higher level of accountability and responsibility.”
“I don’t think crowd funding is a trend, nor do I think it’s the wave of the future. It’s another tool that’s now available to us. It’s not going to take over how things get funded, nor is it just going to fade away.”
For more information on American McGee’s current and future projects, and for free multi-player, mobile games, visit spicyhorse.com.