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American In China: McGee On Making It Work In Shanghai
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American In China: McGee On Making It Work In Shanghai

January 22, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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.

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Clinton Keith
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Wow. Fantastic article!

Michal Strzelczyk
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Very interesting inteview!

Glenn Storm
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Okay. I have to admit, I began this article once before, got part way through and stopped, thinking, "Where's the cultural difference part? That's clearly the point that should be made." I'm glad to say I gave this another go and found the real point. Not: Western culture bad for process, Eastern culture good for process, but -- assumptions of process without effective communication and relatedness among the team -- bad for process. (Hope that's fair to say, even if just paraphrased in comment)

And yet, I will still quote this for truth:

"And so for [the culturally Western] type of a team, process is looked at like the enemy, right? People see process as a barrier to doing the John Wayne style of making games and owning something and just going off and doing it."

While I personally believe there is a culturally natural fit between lean development practices, tight-knit communication and a clearly broad generalization of the East, the interview manages to avoid that trapping and yet still finish neatly with, "Throw away [the typical Western expectations wrt people and process]." And I couldn't agree more.

If the Western development culture doesn't let go of the Hollywood-esque myth that [cue Don LaFontaine] "In a world of corporate culture that doesn't understand, one reluctant hero stands alone and against all odds to deliver us from evil", we're in big trouble.

Thank you!

phil carlisle
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Hmm, we did a fully destructable environment about 8 years back.

The reason "process" in the west is looked on as bad, is generally because it is imposed on the team rather than endorsed by them. I don't think anyone would disagree that being organised is good, but being TOLD how to organize can be harmful if the method of organisation is just some rigidly imposed structure.

It really just boils down to ego at the end of the day. Too many big ego's and teams tend to do poorly. Too few and teams tend to lack ambition. The right mix and the team can find its feet and learn a way to work. Having someone who is good at exciting the team about process is always useful.

I don't buy into the idea that western devs are all into that John Wayne thing. I think thats a very american way of thinking. That wasn't my experience, but of course I did see it happening. Nothing to do with culture so much as individual personality and insecurity.

Nathan Lee
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Good old American. Still selling himself as well as ever! If only half of what he says weren't outright lies (starting with the "absence of crunch time). He almost had me thinking he was running a charitable NGO when he mentioned he cuts his own salary, too, almost had a tear roll down my cheek! :) American, you talk about big devs abusing peoples' passion for the industry... how does you paying a british 1/4 of what he'd earn at home just because you are "giving him a unique opportunity to work in China as a game developer" not constitute the same kind of abuse? What's in it for them? A "developer's paradise"? Give me a break. Most of your staff doesn't even come from the industry. Unless of course you do pay them more, which is what I believe happens, if my sources are right. Either way, stop lying.

If you're doing so good and have so many people knocking at your door, why are your people constantly, desperately calling everyone in the Shanghai scene?

Stop boasting, McGee, and make something people actually care about (without your name at the front, you egomaniac, you're not Disney), then we'll talk.

And don't blame the failure of Grimm on GameTap, come on. The game had no polish whatsoever (and you still didn't manage to get a steady framerate on such simple geometry using Unreal!). No wonder you were hitting your milestones!

Was this a paid piece, or what?

Glenn Storm
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@phil: I would like to give you the opportunity to clear up two apparent contradictions I saw in your comment. If it "really just boils down to ego at the end of the day", does that not illustrate exactly the kind of dangers brought up by a John Wayne development mindset spoken about in this interview? And "some rigidly imposed structure" appears to me to be a pretty basic definition of organization, is it not? Perhaps there was an aspect of organization that you can further elaborate as a threat to development?

@Nathan: I am completely ignorant of the politics being alluded to in this comment, so I apologize up front. But, aside from quality of product, commercial success and critical acclaim, the subject that emerges from this interview framed around McGee's games made in China appears to be actually one of development practices and closer to development philosophy. In light of this, your comments are pretty far off topic, unless your aim was simply to discredit the subject of the article at its source. And taking a swipe at Gamasutra and staff in the process comes off as a bit tactless. /my $0.02

Yannick Boucher
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Hopefully he's just jabbing at McGee! Personally I don't have any doubt in Christian's writing. Now, that being said, in regards to philosophies and practices of development in China, I wish there'd be more about that on this site, as there's a whole bunch of people out there with perhaps lower profiles but whom I consider much more authoritative on the subject.

Reid Kimball
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Don't forget about Chronicles of Riddick. A fantastic game that Vin Diesel was involved quite a bit with I think.

phil carlisle
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Glenn: My point was that I don't think every game developer in the west is following the american (not McGee) style. Certainly my own experience was far more of a collective effort. I don't think ego has anything to do with organizational structure. But I think ego has a large effect on the perception of process. So an externally imposed process led by an egotist is my idea of hell, but a internally led culture of process definition and iteration led by someone who hasn't got an ego seems to me to be the ideal.

Glenn Storm
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phil: I agree. That clarifies your point for me. Thank you. Well said.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Brian Yu
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I have read quite a few articles with McGee before and every time he would throw out his wisdom left and right, some make sense but very obvious, some doenst and some is like wtf. May be I am old fashion but I think someone should walk the talk and have credit to back up his claims. How many years since he has been associated with a decent game? 10 yrs ago? He is at the same level as John Romero. Just keep talking the talk to sell himself and got nothing to proof...