Famous for his work with id Software and on EA-published cult classic Alice, American McGee set up shop in Shanghai, China, in 2007 with his new studio, Spicy Horse. Though the company's first game, Grimm, for the GameTap digital service didn't make a big splash, McGee maintains that developing the game was instrumental in setting up a tightly-run and efficient organization in China, one which has helped him reexamine the very process of developing games.
In fact, McGee suggests that most of what developers know about working in China is wrong. He suggests that process can lead to a crunch-free environment and great quality games -- his team is currently working on a sequel to Alice for EA, for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.
Says McGee, "EA has talked about trying to figure out how it is we're doing what we're doing, because clearly they're looking at what we're doing and they're seeing us hit all the milestones and come in ahead of time, and come in high quality, and everything that they could ask for from a development team. [But] I don't know if you could export it."
Here, McGee talks about his short-lived career as an EA hatchet man, the way moving to China has opened his eyes, and some of the points raised in his GDC China presentation, which called for Westerners sent to Shanghai to stop living apart from their Chinese coworkers and get stuck in to the culture to really find success and satisfaction.
You have primarily Western leads right now?
American McGee: Leads-wise it's a mix. Like our tech lead, animation lead, they're both Chinese. The sound department guy is Malaysian. It depends. The lead level designers, some of those guys are Chinese. But then we do have our art director and creative director are both Westerners; they're both Australian actually. And there's no kind of hard and fast rule there.
I was talking to the CCP guys earlier, who are doing that game Dust 514 here. And we started talking about whether you can get to the meeting point, creatively, between Western developers and Eastern developers.
AM: Well, I have yet to figure out how to get to the meeting point between myself and the other Western guys. So I don't even know; the cultural thing doesn't even enter into it. I mean, we get into enough sort of fights; myself and an Australian guy or myself and a British guy. I don't think that the culture thing... not that part of it. I mean, an Australian guy can get into as much of an argument with this as can a Chinese guy about the creative stuff, right?
Yeah. It's interesting to see what things that people in this market, who've grown up with the games here and have a different background, can bring creatively. Have you been seeing that from the Chinese people you've been working with?
AM: Well, yeah. But they're brought up on Western media. I mean, that's one of the ironies of the Chinese gamer -- he's actually playing Western games to a huge degree, but no one's profiting from it.
I mean, when you go into a pirate game store, it's not like the shelves are full up with Chinese boxed product PC games, or Xbox, or PS2. They're playing Western games and they're playing a lot of Western games but it's just that they're not paying anybody.
Nobody back in the West has seen the money from them. I mean, most of the guys in our office, they're playing Western games. They're playing World of Warcraft if they're online. They're playing Call of Duty and Ghostbusters and whatever else. Batman. They're very, very much into those.
So asking them to bring something different, I think it's an issue of cultural expertise, right? They may be better able to bring a snapshot of a game set in China than, say a guy who was raised in Australia might bring one set in Australia. But since we're all consuming the same movies, games, music, for the most part, I think that they would just bring the same kind of cool stuff. A good creative guy's a good creative guy; it doesn't really matter where he's from.
American McGee's Grimm
You discussed the idea of small innovations. Rather than push forward with large things, it's better to do small innovations. What taught you that lesson, or where did that come from as a philosophy?
AM: Well, you understand, it's more about the taking the less risky innovation. It doesn't necessarily mean that we're always doing small ones but when we do a big one, it's one that we're very comfortable with, right? So, we may innovate a lot in terms of an art style but then that's because we're really comfortable with making that new art style.
Whereas we wouldn't take our current [Unreal Engine 3] technology and really build a new engine and try to suddenly start innovating that. I mean, that's what people would call it -- trying to change that to be something that's going to make a big, massive open world game, right?
Which people have done.
AM: They do, but then their heads explode. I mean, you see the teams that do that, they're not a happy lot. And so really the small innovation thing is more about being wise in where we take those risks. It's not to say we don't innovate, or that we only do small things, but it's just being very wise about how we operate.