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American McGee's Shift From AAA To Social A 'Struggle'
American McGee's Shift From AAA To Social A 'Struggle' Exclusive
December 27, 2011 | By Tom Curtis

Even though Amercian McGee's Spicy Horse just wrapped up development on Alice: Madness Returns for EA, don't expect to see another big-budget game from the Shanghai-based studio. The team has since changed focus to make good on its plans to explore alternative business models, starting with a new Facebook title dubbed BigHead Bash.

The game is Spicy Horse's first foray onto social networks, and has players take control of virtual figurines to duke it out in a side-scrolling online deathmatch. Collecting figures will play a huge role in the game, allowing players to earn bonuses for filling out their collection with sets of both original and licensed toys. Taking the theme one step further, Spicy Horse even has plans to sell physical figures tied to the game via a specialized 3D printing service.

With its licenses and merchandising hooks in place, it might appear that the toy-based brawler was tailor made for microtranscations and the free-to-play model. In a recent interview with Gamasutra, however, American McGee explained that all of these systems fell into place only recently, and Spicy Horse didn't even think about monetization until BigHead Bash was well underway.

"The truth is, being a 'traditional' game company, we just started with a gameplay demo built by a two-man prototype team, and left the business model thinking until a much later date," he said.

While the strategy seemed sound at the time, McGee said it left the team unprepared to answer one critical question: how would the game make any money?

"Part-way into production I started pressuring the team to find a theme and make sure that theme linked into a 'monetization narrative.' To me, the idea that we set the game inside a store made a lot of sense -- and it was the 'toy store' theme that I pressed for that reason," he says.

According to McGee, transitioning from traditional, retail game development has proven a bit of a challenge for Spicy Horse, as the long-engrained principle of focusing on gameplay over business doesn't quite work for smaller, free-to-play projects -- there needs to be some fundamental overlap between the two.

"In terms of the business model, it's been a struggle [to shift our development focus], that's for sure. Over five years of development history we've established a mentality of, 'make it fun and let someone else figure out how to sell it.' As new developments were being started at the beginning of 2011, little or no development effort was going into monetization. We've since cured that -- or so we hope -- but there are many new lessons still to be learned!"

Even after encountering these transitional hiccups, McGee says Spicy Horse is done making big-budget games like Alice: Madness Returns. The studio's original vision was to explore emerging sectors in game development, and McGee assures us he will make good on that promise.

"It's not likely we'll go back to big-budget AAA development. Ultimately, it's not why we're in China. We started the studio here in order to be close to the fastest growing online market in the world and tap into an incredible amount of technical and artistic talent. While the studio has proven itself more than capable of producing beautiful AAA console games, there's no long-term business for us there. We feel online is where it's at," McGee said.

Prior to working on Alice: Madness Returns, Spicy Horse produced Grimm, an episodic series for the PC gaming service GameTap. The studio has also released a number of smaller iOS projects, including Crooked House, DexIQ, and Akaneiro.

BigHead Bash is currently in open beta, and Spicy Horse plans to officially launch the game in February 2012.

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Manuel Mestre-Valdes
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Sad news. If one of the most important creators of this industrie says that "there's no long-term business for us in producing AAA console games", alarm bells ring.

It makes you think, are we headed to a world with only yearly franchises for AAA (your FIFAs, COD, BF and the like) and with Facebook and mobile games for the rest?

Hope I'm wrong.

Marcelo Careaga
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AAA is a treacherous territory for small studios, and has been for a long time. Fortunately, there is much more in the game arena than AAA: indie, mobile, social... those are not fads or empty spaces, and there is still much to be made there.

A loss for AAA development is not a loss for gaming. A win for social is also not a loss for gaming, no matter how much some like to see it that way.

Hakim Boukellif
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And then there's of course the non-AAA console/PC game. I get the feeling that people have been forgetting about this lately, but AAA is just a budget class. It's very much possible to make a game that doesn't need to sell millions to be considered "successful", yet doesn't come with the limitations of indie game development (resource-wise) nor has to rely on a dubious business model that requires full integration of marketing and game design, but can be sold as a regular retail product and still strike a profit.

Jane Castle
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No need to hope you are most definitely wrong.... ;)

Manuel Mestre-Valdes
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It is true that there is a wide range of titles that can fit in between AAA and the smaller titles. Also, as Marcelo says, we may see something different flourish in this area when more and more interesting creators develop in them. Tim Schafer with Double Fine is another example of studio who shifted from big project to several smaller downloadable games throughout the year.

What I still see as sad news is this interview where American McGee admits they can't think anymore in just make the game 'fun', but also have to think in 'monetization narrative'. I know it's a business, and it needs to make money, but this is too explicit.