American McGee Talks Alice: Madness Returns

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If you know the DOOM or Quake series, you know American McGee. Eleven years after American McGee’s Alice was unleashed on PCs and Macs across the world, McGee’s company, Spicy Horse, and EA have teamed up once again (with Unreal Engine 3 this time) for the long awaited sequel, Alice: Madness Returns.

Also set eleven years later, Alice finds herself questioning her repressed memories of her parents’ death and wondering if it really WAS an accident. As time goes on, frequent and severe hallucinations force her to return to Wonderland; but it’s not the same place she remembered.

Meet American McGee – Tester, Level Designer, Sound Designer, Tools Programmer, Co-Producer, Co-Writer, Producer, Creative Director, Developer, Founder/Owner … coolest motherfucker on the planet.

American McGee Talks Alice: Madness Returns

CrixLee: Is it harder to build a game around well-known source material as opposed to starting a game’s storyline from scratch, so to speak?

American McGee: The “Alice” narrative that we’ve created for the games is meant to be a natural extension of the original books. In that sense, the books help guide many of the decisions we make while developing the game and its story. It’s not “harder” to build our story/game in this way, but it does require an awareness of what’s appropriate or sensible – even when the source material is something as nonsense as the “Wonderland” books.

CL: Will players be able to summon the Cheshire Cat in Alice: MR to aid them in battle (like in the early stages of the first Alice game)?

AM: As in the first game, the Cheshire cat is available to guide Alice on her journey (at the press of a button). But I’ve always viewed him as a passive observer with a slightly hostile approach to “helping” Alice. To join Alice in battle wouldn’t fit his character – he’s too aloof for that. But you can be assured he’ll be ready with sarcastic “support” whenever it’s needed.

CL: How important is fan feedback?

AM: We’ve had 10 years to listen to fan feedback on the original Alice, and it’s been extremely helpful. We know not only about those things that people truly loved in the first game, but also those things they loved no-so-much. Using that feedback we’ve been able to adjust the presentation so that this is the most ideal Alice game possible. The feedback has also helped the team to keep in mind just how important the IP is to many of the fans – and that’s driven them to make the game the best it can be.

CL: With the recent and rather dubious history of games being made into live-action films and not living up to expectations; thus leaving game-to-film adaptations like Alice, Gears of War and Halo in development limbo, would you still like to see Alice made and if so … who would you trust to direct your vision? If you had your say in casting, who would you pursue to play Alice?

AM: Given the history of bad adaptations, it’s hard to say whether or not I’d like to see a film adaptation of the game. There’s a truly powerful character and story contained within the game – and only if I knew those things would be honored would I want to see it on the big screen. If I could choose a director I’d say someone like Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Unknown) or Mikael Hafstrom (1408, The Rite), since both have solid experience with psychological terror films. As for casting Alice, hard to say, though I really like Astrid Berges-Frisbey in the recent “POTC” movie; thought she could manage the look of Alice.

CL: Who are your horror influences?

AM: Clive Barker, Stephen King are two of my favorite horror writers, classic but solid. Outside of that, I consume just about every horror film I can get my hands on – and am influenced by it all to some extent. Though I can watch a lot of blood and guts, I really prefer a good psychological horror (The Shining) or action horror (Aliens).

American McGee Talks Alice: Madness Returns

CL: Who are your gaming heroes?

AM: Along with most people, I’d put Miyamoto at the top of the list. Will Wright is also up there. Along with Jason Rohrer. All game creators who push the boundaries and/or help to define genres.

CL: What’s a current videogame trend (i.e., zombies, racing games, FPS) you’d like to see just go away or take a LONG sabbatical?

AM: It’s not the games but the platforms, control and monetization schemes that I’d like to see go away. One of the most influential forces on gaming in China (which is huge, purely online) is the fact that the Chinese government long ago banned console games. That led to a market in which online gaming and micro-transaction based games rule. In Western game markets we seeing a huge response to online/social and mobile games as well as motion control games. The more we continue to innovate with these things the more advances we should see in genre types, storytelling in games and design in general.

CL: What games (other than your own) are you playing/looking forward to playing in the future?

AM: Currently playing Portal 2 and loving it – absolutely awesome game. Since I usually only play 1~2 games per year, I’ll probably have to limit myself to Infamous 2 later this year.

CL: Starting with Wolfenstein 3D back in 1994, you’ve been at this for 17 years; have put your hands in MANY beloved titles (including DOOM and Quake) and have your own company. From a business standpoint, what’s your secret to maintaining a “quality of life” in an industry that often sees studios blow up with a couple amazing titles one year only to go out of business the next? What advice would you have for people out there who want to do what you’re doing?

AM: Quality of life starts with creating a sane development environment and setting realistic development expectations. So far we’ve done that by carefully managing our schedules and resources – making sure we have enough people to comfortably do all the tasks required to get a game out the door. At the same time, we work hard to foster a family-like environment in the studio, which is something really important for a studio where so many people have come from all over the world to work here.

As for stability and avoiding going out of business… that’s less about quality of life in the studio and more about “sales”. Our studio was having a pretty tough time at the start of the year, trying to find new footing in a market where things are shifting rapidly to online, mobile and social (and away from lots of big console studios) – ironic too, since the studio was originally started to develop online games! But we survived, grabbed hold of investment funding with a VC group called Vickers Ventures (in Shanghai) and locked a development deal with PopCap to turn one of their existing IPs into an online free to play game.

Only advice I can offer is ‘stay flexible’. It’s really difficult to know good from bad (though not right from wrong). I’ve been through things that only seemed “bad” until a few days/years later when I realized that without those events I’d not be in some great place/deal/etc.

CL: Anything you’d like to say to your fans?

AM: Check out Alice: Madness Returns when it comes out on June 14 in the US – and then go buy Shadows of the Damned when you’re done with Alice. Both are really fun, really “different” horror games – there aren’t many like them these days. If you support our crazy games then we might have a chance to make more crazy stuff in the future 😉

Told y’all he was cool.

Alice: Madness Returns will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on June 14, 2001 (US) and June 16, 2011 (EU).

American McGee Talks Alice: Madness Returns

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