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Unnatural Disasters: Designer American McGee On Creative Outsourcing

Bad Day L.A. designer and game development outsourcing champion American McGee discusses name recognition, the current state of development cost, and the future of his franchises, including Alice and Oz.

Beginning his career at id Software as a level designer for Doom II and Quake, American McGee moved to electronic arts in 1998 where he made his mark on the game world with Alice, his gothic adaptation of the classic fairy tale. Currently based out of China, American is heavily involved in Vykarian, a company which seeks to provide outsourced art and production elements to game companies. His latest designed title, American McGee Presents: Bad Day L.A., ships this month.

American took some time to speak with Gamasutra about his latest projects, the ups and downs of living and working abroad, the necessity of outsourcing game development, and the future of his franchises.

GS: Do you feel your unique name makes it easier to brand games? Do you thank your parents for that?

AM: Certainly it helps in branding the games. With today's game market, building proper awareness is as important as building a good game. The concept of pre-sold awareness is why game publishers are so attracted to film licenses and sequels. For what it's worth, my name seems to be useful in attracting a certain audience. Same thing happens with creators in the film, television, and music industries.


American McGee

When I was a kid I used to be really embarrassed about my name. I would ask my mother to call me by my middle name, James, when out in public. The only problem was that I never responded to it. These days I am very thankful to my mom for not only my name but for giving me such an interesting upbringing in general.

GS: What do you think "American McGee Presents:" in front of a game title means in the minds of gamers?

AM: That depends on the gamer. I've seen positive and negative responses. For the "fans," I think they have come to expect something a little different from the mainstream. That's my hope anyway. For the detractors, I get the sense they feel I haven't earned the name-above-the-title right. In either case, it does seem that it brings some awareness, and all PR, good or bad, is a good thing.

GS: Do you feel that making the shift from "darker" games to present Bad Day L.A. will be well-received by the game's audience? In that vein, do you feel that you've been "typecast" as a game developer?

AM: Always tough to tell how an audience will respond. The audience attracted to BDLA is different from the one that was drawn to Alice. And, even different from the people who enjoyed Scrapland. But the fans of those titles are still out there. They may not be as interested in something like BDLA, but they seem to understand that it represents a similar attempt at trying something new. If anything, I probably typecast myself, because when all is said and done I really love dark fairy tales.


GS: We understand you're working on a new project. Are there any particularly titillating details you're able to share about it?

AM: I can say we're going back into the fairy tale world, but this isn't going to be another "dark," Alice-like game. We're going to bring a lot of humor to this new world. I can say that it's based on the world of Grimm's fairy tales and that the game will be developed and released as episodic content. We've been having a lot of fun in the pre-production on this title. It has a lot of unique ideas in it.

GS: How important do you feel artistic concept is to designing a game? Do you think good art could save a bad game?

AM: I think a great game could live with no textures on the world and characters. I think a beautiful, bad game is still a bad game. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't honor the theme of a world with an appropriate art style. Art style is important to setting the game’s mood and immersing the player in the experience.

GS: When sitting down to work on a new project, which elements do you consider first?

AM: I usually start with a core character concept that allows for some obvious gameplay ideas. Story is really important to me, but gameplay is critical. Next comes the artwork, the world, music, sound, and other elements. All of these things feed off one another. There is no art without story, no game play without art.


American McGee Presents: Bad Day L.A.

GS: Tell me a little about the Vykarian project. The word "outsourcing" tends to leave a bad taste in many people's mouths. What are some of the pros and cons of outsourcing a game's art?

AM: I feel sorry for those people since chances are that 95% of the material content in their lives was "outsourced" to places like China. In the future, 40% or more of a game's budget will be spent on outsourcing. This is the reality created when the art asset demand in next-gen games goes up by 300%-400%. The industry simply cannot meet the demand for content using domestic talent alone.

The industry is facing a content production emergency. This isn't about lower prices. It's about high-quality content built reliably by scalable teams. The upside for a publisher is that they don't have to recruit, train, and retain several hundred people internally. Publisher layoff waves linked to projects shipping are not healthy for the industry. Outsourcing to dedicated art teams solves a problem like that and many more. The potential downsides include things like reliability, security, communication, and quality. These are issues that we take very seriously and why we've been selective in forming our management team.


GS: How are your movie projects coming? Again, any details you're willing to share?

AM: Last I heard, the Alice movie was moving forward and on-track to begin production in January, 2007. With Oz, I've just turned in the first draft of the screenplay and we're waiting for feedback. We're also in the process of developing Bad Day L.A. as a feature.

GS: Are you a game player as well as a designer? What, if anything, is currently holding your attention in the way of games?

AM: The truth is that I don't play a lot of games. Only if a friend tells me about a truly innovative game will I take the time to check it out. Recently I've been pretty hooked on Half-Life Episode 1. I love the gravity gun.


Promotional art from American McGee's Alice

GS: How do you feel the game industry as a whole could improve itself in the area of design? Are there any current examples of a company "doing the right thing?" Any instances of someone going about it all wrong?

AM: I think the industry has been somewhat limited by a publishing model that seeks to minimize risk, making innovation a rare commodity. There's nothing wrong with that thinking from the perspective of making money, but something should be done to allow for Hollywood-style concept development and rapid prototyping inside the game industry. How many innovative new game ideas have never seen the light of day because they didn't fit neatly into some genre definition? Nintendo strikes me as a company interested in innovation for the sake of increasing gamer enjoyment.

The concept of wrong depends on your perspective. Even me-too and licensed-based games require a huge amount of creativity and innovation.

GS: Was the decision to base yourself out of China made from a business or a personal standpoint? How has it impacted each of those areas of your life?

It was a bit of both. From a business perspective, there are few places in the world that can compare to the opportunities present in China. Personally, I love the adventure and the constant challenge of new and unknown things. Life just seems more interesting here.

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