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American McGee & RJ Berg On The Continuation Of Alice

Spicy Horse's two creative principles who brought Alice to dark life a decade ago on the PC talk about its forthcoming sequel, about the development scene in Shanghai where they're based, and more.

Nearly ten years after the release of American McGee's Alice, the PC action adventure sequel to Lewis Carroll's classic children's novels, Electronic Arts has announced that original project leader McGee and executive producer R.J. Berg are working on a multiplatform followup, Alice: Madness Returns.

Developed by Shanghai-based Spicy Horse Games, which also released the episodic game series American McGee's Grimm, Alice: Madness Returns is the latest in a string of games from numerous publishers attempting to capitalize on the cult popularity of aging PC-exclusive classics. Unlike many of those titles, however, Madness Returns is helmed by the series' original creators who want to build on their own work rather than reboot a franchise.

With the recent release of the Tim Burton-directed film Alice in Wonderland, public attention on the public domain property is high. Gamasutra sat down with McGee and Berg to discuss the expectations for the series and the character, returning to a game after a decade away, and making games in Shanghai.

How long have you been working on this? Did you pitch it to EA, or vice versa?

RJ Berg: We've been working on it for the better part of three years. EA came to us in Shanghai and suggested that this product American and I had worked on ten years ago was due for a redo. [laughs]

We had made the first game only on the PC, but their interest was that the game could come out on console and PC, and that just intrigued us because it's something that American and I have wanted to do from the outset. We begin making different proposals and taking care of different logistical things, and we've been working on the game itself for about 18 months.

I know you two have been working together for quite a long time. How did you start? Have you been working together ever since?

American McGee: I had been at EA for several months at Maxis, when they were working on The Sims. The Sims team finally ejected me because I kept suggesting ways to kill the Sims in horrible ways, so I came over to Redwood Shores.

I was, shortly thereafter, introduced to RJ, and we were told to get to work on an original IP. We finished the Alice project, and then for a while we went out separate ways, then came back together again when I got to Shanghai to start up this studio there called Spicy Horse.

The last three years have been a very, very focused effort working together on new projects.

Have you done anything else at Spicy Horse besides American McGee's Grimm and now Alice 2?

AM: We started the studio on Grimm, and that ran for two years. It was a really, really fun time for both of us, and for of course the team we build out there.

Alice: Madness Returns has been the primary focus of everyone in the studio since then. We've gone from, at the end of Grimm, 35 people to now 75 people. [Bringing on] another 40 people is a really big undertaking.

We do also have a small R&D team that plays around with Kinect stuff on 360, and they're doing some iPad and iPhone stuff as well.

Is this a fairly direct sequel? These days, we're awash in reboots and reimaginings and all these phrases.

RJB: It's a little bit of both. It is a direct narrative sequel. It picks up where the last game left off, but it in no way requires that someone had played Alice 1 in order to get what's happening in Alice 2.

The connection is strong enough that, if you understood what had happened in Alice, by the time you get to the end of this one, it will color in more what took place there. It sheds new light on the events that took place.

It's the same character. Now her life has changed from living in London, having left the asylum, and facing a new threat, but she's using the same tool of Wonderland to confront that and overcome it.

I remember that, as someone who was almost exclusively a PC gamer at the time Alice came out, the notion of that kind of hybrid action/adventure/platformer thing was pretty unusual for the PC.

AM: Right.

Do you see this new game occupying a similar gameplay space?

RJB: I think it probably is a hybrid, although we don't think about it quite that way. We thought about Alice as entertainment. It wasn't to try and carve out any new space as a game or anything like that. It's just that the elements that we thought we could carry off well -- great art, solid story, great music, challenging puzzling, exploring, platforming at a certain level that wasn't Nintendo-esque but was influenced by Nintendo -- became our sense of how to most convincingly, persuasively, and entertainingly tell that story we had.

She's a wonderful character, this heroic character, this sad character. And to bring her face-to-face with what bothered her, put her in her secure place -- Wonderland -- and to present that fantasy world in a certain way, it required these elements.

Those elements will be reprised in Alice: Madness Returns. That's the way we think that story is best told, with that combination of elements.


The Lewis Carroll works are public domain at this point.

RJB: Right.

But, like some other public domain works, this one has been heavily, heavily capitalized by Disney. Recently, they did their latest movie, which I'm sure you get asked about all the time.

What's it like telling a story about a premise that everybody has read or heard of, but that other companies have also done very specific treatments of?

AM: I think we were really lucky the first time around in being sensitive to the core study and main character. It rewarded us by coming out in the first game as a very clear branch of something that felt very natural to a lot of people who played it.

A lot of people we respected, other creative people, would come and tell us that they thought this was the most natural adaptation and extension of the story that they'd ever seen. I think that really was an extension of how we approached it, in not trying to force things too much.

It seems odd to say that, because of the dark nature of the story and where it's told, but a lot of those elements were already there. We just picked them out and amplified them.

I think when we see other people who are doing adaptation, be it the Burton movie or be it a play that someone's putting on, those can all live and be in there own way. I don't think it really intrudes upon what we've done. Of course, RJ and I, we've joked... [laughs] We never got our royalty checks from some of the stuff we saw in the film.

But this Alice that we did has taken on a life of its own. You see it in, for example, the tattoos fans have gotten -- people take hold of this not just as a game but as a version of Alice in Wonderland that's as vibrant as any that's ever existed. We feel very lucky that we've managed to uncover this direction, and we're going to continue to be true to it.

On the note of that growing cult awareness, there's an interesting phenomenon over the last few years where publishers are really mining these cult hit PC games and blowing them up into huge multiplatform events -- Fallout, X-Com, Deus Ex, and so on.They benefit from the mythologizing that happens.

RJB: Yup. Sure.

How conscious are you of the benefit, or potential weight, of that?

RJB: Well, we would not deny that we are sensitive to fans who followed us along and have continually supported this effort. On the other hand, I don't think that we are in any way intimidated by other versions of Alice.

The trend to dig back to Deus Ex or something like that, I think is akin to cycles of music or anything else, where all of a sudden there's a bunch of '80s stuff hanging around. There's a certain amount of that no matter what, with memories of fondness.

The fact of the matter is that Alice: Madness Returns will be in every way better than the first Alice because we're better at what we do. The technology allows us to display things a little better. We're smarter about where we spend our money. But really, it's the richness of the property that keeps giving us so much of a step up. To bring it over to consoles is just a wonderful opportunity that EA Partners has allowed.

I suppose there's also a big difference between you and those other games I mentioned, in that you two are the actual original creators of the game in question.

RJB: [laughs]

AM: And we've kind of kept our ear to the ground with respect to the audience. We've listened to them for the last ten years, in the same way that they responded to the story, the characters, the settings, and the gameplay.

We're very sensitive to how the game was received, and that's allowed us to bring with us a lot of thoughts about how to speak to that audience and how to do what it seems they'd like to see done with it.


You mentioned the improvements in technology, and perhaps your improvement as developers. What has changed that you believe will allow you to make a better game?

RJB: Well, I think that first and foremost, it's being able to identify an audience on the console that has not only a tolerance but a hunger for deep story games. We understand that that audience is attracted to the same things we once thought were just important on the PC. It's made us better about decisions with respect to art and how we display certain circumstances, how we storytell with exposition in ways that we previously might have thought were too opaque or too subtle.

In fact, our audience is plenty sophisticated. They've been brought up by a bunch of really terrific titles that make us really confident that the way we've told this story is not only cleaner but is more visually entertaining, attractive, and imaginative, and will trigger in the audience a kind of collaborative response.

But it's about Alice. I think often, players end up trying to figure out what the designer was doing rather than what the character is doing. That is not a problem in this incarnation of Alice, and I mark that as the most important thing. The player will feel that they're playing that character rather than playing the designer's mind.

Do you do a lot of playtesting to try to really hone that result?

AM: We have internal playtesting, and we're building up a big internal and external playtesting group [here at EA headquarters] to take feedback from them as well. We've been doing playtesting since there was something to play, but "official" playtesting kicks off soon.

RJB: And this is a wonderful for collaboration with EA Partners. It's something that we just couldn't get enough fresh eyes on, whereas the EAP organization is able to roll through testing resources. It's an important piece of what they can offer our development process.

Is it a challenge working with a publisher halfway around the world?

AM: It's been something we've tackled with technology. I'd say that, you know, they come out to visit a lot, and that's really helpful. They send a lot of feedback, and they're sensitive to the thing we're trying to build. They pay a lot of attention to it.

We send them builds every week. I don't think that the distance has in any way hindered their ability to help or our ability to listen to them. It’s the new world. The globe is this small.

RJB: When it's 4 o'clock in the afternoon at Redwood Shores, it's 7 o'clock the next day in Shanghai.

So you've got maybe an hour or two to really get your video conferencing in.

RJB: Yeah. [laughs]

Is this game American McGee's Alice: Madness Returns, or is it just Alice: Madness Returns?

AM: We don't know.

RJB: So far, it's Alice: Madness Returns definitely. Whether American's name or Spicy Horse or anything else is attached to it will be EAP's decision.

How did that become such a consistent prefix to your game titles?

RJB: That wasn't American's choice at all. In the first game, which I was also the executive producer of, that decision was made on the basis of American's reputation with the Quake technology.

The Quake technology is what powered the first game. It was thought by other heads that his name had enough cachet to improve its chances in the market, that Alice in itself would communicate something Disney-esque, and that we'd have to work too hard. Somehow, this Quake connection would be a quick read. That's the way that went down. That was not American's choice. That was not my choice.

And then it just stuck?

RJB: It did.

AM: At some point, the next party says, "Oh, someone's invested some resources in this. This is a marketable thing." There's no denying that it has an ability to catch eyeballs. I can't say it's certain that it's always catching the right ones or in the right way.

What's it like developing games in Shanghai? It seems like a lot of the studios there are very outsourcing-focused, but you guys are making full games.

AM: We came into that market at the right time because, like you said, there was a lot of outsourcing that was going on there, but very little by way of original development.

When I first came up, it was actually to help a group start an outsourcing studio, but I quickly recognized that this bubble was about to burst. People had spent enough time building the assets and achieving the level of quality necessary to do triple-A game production.

An opportunity came to start a studio, and I don't think that the decision would have been as obvious a few years earlier, but at that moment, you could see the crest of the wave. You knew to jump on, and sure enough, we felt tremendously lucky just in the way that the local talent has risen to this challenge, and also in our ability to attract creative individuals from all over the world.

People really want to come out and see this, because there's nothing like Shanghai right now at this time in history. It's on fire. It's been really fun.

RJB: It's like offering a group of copy editors a chance to be writers, where you have lots and lots of talent but no real latitude. You offer people who have been doing one thing with all their talent an opportunity to do another kind of thing, and you respect what they're doing. It's been an amazing experience.

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