Alice: Madness Returns Interview With American McGee

Conducted By Adam Ames

TGP is delighted to bring you an interview with American McGee, creator of Alice: Madness Returns.  You will get his take on the success and failures experienced with Alice, the lack of a PC demo, setting the difficulty for Alice, DRM and much more.

1.  Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Alice: Madness Returns.

My name is American McGee and I’m the CEO and Founder of Spicy Horse Games in Shanghai, China. During the development of A:MR my role was as Sr. Creative Director and studio head. My involvement spanned things like creation of the core narrative, overseeing implementation of the design and working with the various team Leads (art director, animation director, sound director, etc) to drive production. I also spend a significant amount of time keeping the studio and its people running smoothly and happily.

2.  Tell us about your first job with id Software as a tester on Wolfenstein 3D and how that experience prepared you for your subsequent success in the gaming business.

My testing experience with id only lasted a few months – and I was answering tech support calls for DOOM at the same time. It was during that time I taught myself how to use id’s internal development tools and made a space for myself in the Level Design section of the team. Most of my computer/game skills were developed as I was growing up – I was an avid gamer and tinkerer.

3.  Was it always your intention on revisiting Alice after the original release in 2000?

When the original Alice was conceived I knew there was more we could do with it, but EA had other plans for us and the IP. The world, characters and narrative are rich and deep enough to support constant updates and progression.

4.  What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Alice: Madness Returns?

Overall it was a pretty smooth development, so I can’t point to any significant “failures”. Of course there were many things we could have done better, more effectively or more efficiently. Communication is always an issue in-game development – and even more so when working with an international team in China. We’re constantly working to improve how people communicate and work with each other across our teams. Ultimately, it was a pretty successful project – and will go down in history as the first ever AAA console title developed exclusively in China.

5.  In its current form, how close is Alice: Madness Returns to your initial vision?

Depends on which version of my original vision you’re referring to. Going back and looking at my original thoughts on the sequel, I can see how the vision was constantly changing – in relation to the narrative sequence, ideas for game play and areas where we wanted to focus or innovate. Lots of interesting ideas get cut in the course of developing a game. But the ultimate product is one that I’m proud of.

6.  Some developers admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Alice: Madness Returns and if you faced a similar challenge.

We knew going into the development of A:MR that a major issue with the first game was how difficult it was. Many people were simply unable to finish the game. So we developed the “normal” mode in A:MR to be something that a large number of people could play and enjoy. Looking at the %’s of people who have completed the game (we can see this via achievements) it’s clear we did a good job of making a game people CAN complete and enjoy.

7.  Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Alice: Madness Returns would run on the various PC system configurations?

Not really. We targeted the PS3 as our baseline early in development. This helped ensure we’d not encounter problems getting the game to run on that platform – and kept all other platforms at a “reasonable” performance level. Then the guys from Nvidia came in and did a special upgrade version of the game to really show off the power available on the PC with a decent graphics card.

8.  Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Alice: Madness Returns.

Each of the elements you mentioned were crafted by different departments within the development team. Each department has its leads and those leads meet with a small creative group made up of myself, Ben Kerslake (Creative Director), and the project’s producers. We’d usually have a weekly meeting per department to go over everything being produced and suggest guidance. All the development work flowed from initial early planning – based on an overall narrative and design structure.

9.  Tell us about the process of submitting Alice: Madness Returns to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered any resistance in doing so.

Nothing really to talk about there. EA handles all that. As the developer we simply hand the finished game over to EA.

11.  How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

We love it. Spicy’s business model going forward is all about digital distribution and online gaming platforms. A:MR could be described as a “beautiful distraction” for us as a studio. There was no question we wanted to build a killer follow-up to the original game. But at the same time we can see that the bottom is really falling out of the traditional console market (retail, disc based).

12. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being a PC games developer?

These days it’s about the format in which you present the game. Traditional, boxed product sold at retail is really struggling. But in making the transition to online, F2P games we solve a lot of the issues that are killing the traditional business. We no longer have to deal with individual publishers – but can license a given game several times in different territories around the world. We’re also better able to interface directly with the people playing our games.

13.  Please tell us why there is no PC demo for Alice: Madness Returns.

Again, that would be a question for EA. We suggested a PC demo be built into the early development planning. EA, for reasons of their own, said ‘no’.

14.  How important is it to get instant feedback about Alice: Madness Returns from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Not as important as I wish it was. The issue is that we’ve essentially released a static product. Once it’s on the disc and at retail we have no way to create or push updates to the content without EA’s direct consent and involvement. So they have to build a plan for us to follow – and so far none has been given. Going forward, all our games are online and able to be updated dynamically. With that in mind, we’ll be relying quite heavily on feedback from users to help drive changes and improvements to those titles.

15.  How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Alice: Madness Returns professionally?

I’m usually more interested in the blended average response from actual users. Reviewers tend to go into their views on a game with a lot of bias. With Alice I noticed a lot of negative reviews where things like game length were marked as negatives – whereas fans enjoyed and wanted a longer game. I can understand how a reviewer might get annoyed at A:MR for being something they aren’t initially interested in AND being “too long”. On the flip side, you get reviewers who gush over the game – they’ve already brought so much love and passion for the IP that they have a difficult time being objective. Ultimately, I think it comes down to whether or not we as a developer feel happy and proud about what we released – and I can say that we do.

16.  How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

Not in our plans to go to a full-on “pay what you want” scheme any time soon… but we are completely focused on making F2P games which leverage micro-transactions.

17.  What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

I think gamers need to update their thinking. Look at the rest of the world, you’ll see that a game being online to play is a normal requirement. Piracy is a real issue that truly harms small developers. At the same time, the traditional retail model of doesn’t really benefit consumers – and gives pirates a decent excuse for doing their thing. There’s a need for mutually beneficial adjustments on both sides – publishers granting easier, cheaper access to games and gamers accepting certain requirements for getting that content outside the traditional retail channels.

18. Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites.  How do you feel about individuals outside of Spicy Horse Games posting gameplay videos of Alice: Madness Returns?

Doesn’t bother me if people put game play videos online.

19.  How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

Though it’s been successful in many ways, I think it’s a half-step towards where the model is headed. “DLC” is what you get with a product you still had to pay full retail for. Micro-transaction items are what you get when a product is free. Personally, I prefer the latter. And watching my girlfriend play Sims Social – and spending well over $200USD on it – I’d say publishers should prefer it as well.

20.  Tell us about your relationship with Electronic Arts as the publisher for Alice: Madness Returns.

The team will always be thankful to EA for providing the chance to develop a new Alice game. Over the time we worked together EA was always a helpful, engaged and solid partner.

21.  What advice would you give up-and-coming PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Focus on the emerging platforms and monetization models. Look outside the US to understand what the future looks like in terms of game delivery, marketing, monetization and scope. There are a lot of interesting, new models appearing around the world in markets where the console never took hold or technology is just emerging. Those markets tend to provide excellent examples for what the global trends are. Everything is heading online, our PCs are morphing into pocket/tablet devices and monetization is becoming more granular, direct. -End

TGP would like to thank American for his detailed answers.  You can pick up Alice: Madness Returns through Steam and Origin.

7 thoughts on “Alice: Madness Returns Interview With American McGee

    • Expecting “great things” might be a bit much from this sequel, considering that the first one has always been pretty scarred. They’re both good games in their own right, and deserve to be remembered, but perhaps not quite as fondly as people give them credit for. I played through both over last week- review’s going up tomorrow.

    • Give it a go. If you haven’t bought it yet, I’d actually give the rare recommendation that you go for a console version for this one. It comes bundled with Alice 1 (which is a great value and almost necessary for playing the sequel,) plus the whole game just plays better with a gamepad. Then again, our PC version is $10 cheaper, so it really just depends on which version is selling for cheaper right now.

      Just do a bit of research before you go off laying down $30-$60 on it, cuz it’s a “mixed reviews” kind of game.

  1. I found the game to be lacking. It felt rushed to me. Like they started off taking their time putting it together but then decided to just jam what they could in there. I got half way through and lost interest.

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