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Q&A: American McGee On  Grimm , Episodic Gaming

Q&A: American McGee On Grimm, Episodic Gaming

June 4, 2007 | By Staff

June 4, 2007 | By Staff
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Game designer American McGee has just officially announced Grimm, a 24 episode fractured fairy-tale action-adventure series to be published on PC by GameTap.

Promising a "sandbox world" in which players will take on missions in episodic fashion starting in 2008, GameTap says the title will feature traditional adventure game exploration and questing, and a fighting mechanic that it says is based on the notion that "words are weapons."

The game is being developed by McGee's American-owned and Shanghai-headquartered studio Spicy Horse, specializing in what it calls "boutique games for the PC and next-gen console markets."

Following the announcement, the Tale Of Tales weblog chatted to McGee about a multitude of issues, many relevant to game developers - we reprint the highlights below, with all parties' permissions:

Next-generation consoles push developers to make games that cost many millions of dollars. But the general criticism is that the money is often not spend on making the games better, but just on keeping up with the norms for graphic polish. How do you feel about the "Hollywoodification" of the games industry?

AM: I think it sucks. For too long game production has been at the mercy of marketing departments and executives modeling their business on "box product distribution" la shaving razors.

Spending huge sums of money on game development - and propagating the myth that this is the only way to make "real" games - has, in my opinion, hindered the advancement of game theory. And it's cut off a huge potential audience who can't ramp into hard-core games.

The success of the Wii gives me hope that this trend can be reversed.

GameTap offers a very interesting digital distribution model for games. Was it a deliberate decision of yours to turn to digital distribution?

I love the GameTap model and the flexibility it offers our development in terms of game format, mechanics, and distribution. Digital distribution is something I've long been a fan of - so when GameTap approached me to work on Grimm I jumped at the chance.

It's funny to me that so many game industry powerhouses were built on downloadable content - but then flocked to box product. Now that boxed product has "boxed in" people's thinking about what constitutes a game, the trend is reversing.

American McGee's Grimm will be released in 24 episodes. That strikes me as especially ambitious! Will the episodes be self contained or will the whole series form one continuous story? How long will the project take? How frequently will the episodes be released?

Episodes are planned to be self-contained and independently downloadable and playable. The idea is to create a TV series feel - small, predictable chunks of entertainment for the masses. Each episode will weigh in around :30 minutes.

We're not talking about delivery schedule specifics yet - but the idea is to get as close to the TV episodic model as possible. I don't think we'll fully understand the potential of episodic gaming until that's done. Our production will take 24 months, but we'll be delivering our first episodes around halfway into production.

So would you consider this an experiment, then?

I think any game format that hasn't been tried could be considered an experiment. And the big failing of our industry (namely the people funding game development) is that not enough is being spent on "experiments".

The Sims is a beautiful example of an experiment gone right. Of course, there are plenty of examples of trying to create something new - and having it go wrong. We just hope that we're combining enough of what we know people like with a fair amount of pure innovation to make this work.

Fairy tales are often about growing up and learning how to live with others. As a result, they deal with sexual maturing and relationships (family, friends, lovers). It is a modern misconception that fairy tales are innocent stories with not much relevance. Do you intend to explore this depth in Grimm? Or does the fairy tale material only provide the setting for good old hack and slash?

Hack and slash is one aspect of our game - by necessity.

Commercial necessity or design necessity?

I say it is "one aspect of" - not a prime focus. And it's there because of the format of our game. We'll present game play in 5 minute chunks. Large-scale, strategic play becomes impossible with the sort of simple goals and simple game mechanics that we're dealing with. If you've played any of the fast-paced Wario games on the Nintendo systems, then you might have a basic idea of what we're doing... although we will give the player a little more breathing room than those ~5 second bits! Some missions will focus on hack and slash, others won't have any at all. We're trying to present a mixed bag of game styles and mechanics - all dependent on the narrative driver for a particular mission.

"Our areas of focus, in order, are: art, narrative, game play."

We're building a casual game which is to be presented in very short format. While I'd love to fully explore all the themes and messages contained in the classic tales, we have to maintain a focused approach to the kind of game we're building. My hope is that a lot of the themes you mention can be hinted at and accessible for those who read between the lines.

Aren't you worried that the people who would read between the lines, might not be attracted to a traditional game mechanic?

Our areas of focus, in order, are: art, narrative, game play. We're surrounding the player in a beautiful and evocative artistically rendered world. Narrative introduces and rewards every mission, in the form of in-game cinematics. Finally, the game play is being built to (hopefully) be accessible and entertaining to a wide audience. Alice was built in a similar fashion, and with the writing being done by the same guy who's lead writer on Grimm [R.J. Berg]- and the result was pleasing to a broad audience. I think it's safe to say Alice was true "hack and slash" whereas Grimm will only feature a little of that dynamic.

Would you say you design games as a means to an end, as a way for presenting beauty and telling a story?

There is something appealing about all three aspects. I don't think we can minimize the importance of good game design - but I also feel that modern games are often too complicated, difficult, and realistic. They go beyond "games" into what should probably be called "simulation".

Given a choice between playing a "war game" (Risk for example) and a "graphic and realistic simulation of combat in Vietnam" - I'd have to say that on most days I'd rather play the "war game". More than a few times when I've finished a long session of Desert Combat or Medal of Honor I walk away feeling like I have mild PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

Why are you in China anyway? A lover? Business opportunities? Curiosity? Political asylum?

Many years ago EA offered me a chance to move to Japan - something that I'd been telling myself I really wanted to do for a long time. But I chickened out, and decided that I couldn't move so far from everyone and everything I knew. Afterwards I realized I'd cheated myself out of an amazing experience. When the chance to move to Hong Kong was presented I jumped on it - almost without thinking. It helped that I'd been traveling to HK a bit, had friends there, and that I had the opportunity to build a unique game there.

That's what got me out here. Once here I realized that there were many reasons to stay. But I think the main reason I love life here is that it's challenging and interesting. When I lived in the US I'd go on "auto pilot" a lot - driving to work, I'd arrive but not remember how I got there - that sort of thing. Here, every day is a new experience. In fact, if you tried "auto pilot" here you'd probably get hit by a bus.

[Thanks to the Tale Of Tales weblog for allowing us to reprint highlights of their interview, which includes many other relevant sections discussing fairy tales, art, and more - it's available in full on their website.]


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