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American McGee's Spicy Horse Gets $3M Funding, Signs PopCap Deal

American McGee's Spicy Horse Gets $3M Funding, Signs PopCap Deal

May 13, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

Today, the Shanghai-based studio Spicy Horse, which has completed work on Alice 2 for EA, is announcing that it has secured $3 million in investment from Singapore and Shanghai-based Vickers Venture Partners.

The company, from this point forward, will focus on developing 3D social, online games for a global audience. Spicy Horse is working on its first post-Alice 2 project alongside PopCap's Shanghai studio -- a 3D online version of one of the casual titan's games, to be launched initially in the Asia/Pacific region.

"The sense is that while a lot of social games have built their empires on 2D, there will be a moment where the genre has to shift into 3D, and we want to start that process now," McGee told Gamasutra via phone from his Shanghai HQ.

Spicy Horse's direction is "definitely going to be about free-to-play online multiplayer games," which McGee is "much more excited about" than packaged console titles, he said. Spicy Horse wants to "prove that experience can translate to 3D, and maintain that casual audience -- so we want to be there as that wave starts to come up."

Said McGee, "The reason I originally came to China is that I wanted to get into that new model -- I wanted to get away from console game production and retail, disc-based sales." In other words, Alice 2 was a "beautiful distraction" from the company's true focus, in his words. While he expects the title to be a success, the studio is pursuing "new style development, new style monetization" here on out.

While it took the team two years to create Alice 2, he expects Spicy Horse to develop a "game every six months or so" from this point forward -- or five games, at a minimum, over the next two years.

This funding "allows us to execute on a two-year plan to bring multiple titles to market," said McGee, and that's "ignoring that we might even make a profit off of Alice" or the titles the company launches during that period.

The team -- which has seen a "significant restructuring" from a peak of 75 members to closer to 55 in the wake of the organizational shifts necessary for this style of production -- will return to the "very fluid and dynamic" and "very efficient" methods it pursued when developing episodic title Grimm for the GameTap service, in McGee's words.

"It has not been terribly painful; it's been a good transformation, and it feels like a much more efficient organization," McGee said. He expects the studio to "do a lot more stuff, and maintain a much healthier work culture with fewer people."

While he can't disclose details of the PopCap game, he said it's "a perfect example of the kind of games we're going to be working on." It's free-to-play, it will launch initially in Asia, it's multiplayer, and it's microtransaction-driven. "It's got all of those hooks in there," McGee said.

The studio will pursue PC multiplayer online, mobile device -- primarily tablets -- and social network games. Beyond the PopCap deal, McGee is speaking to many of the "established players" in the free-to-play market, including those who market client-based games. "With some [games] we want to go straight to Facebook and publish straight to Facebook," said McGee. Spicy Horse has "one unified platform technology" which will drive its titles.

With the investment and the tech and experience it builds up over the next two years, said McGee, "We can be viewed by those existing operators as a potentially smart acquisition -- because we've illustrated we can make that transition."

In a statement to Gamasutra, Joe Grillo, managing director of investment banking at Wedbush Morgan, who helped Spicy Horse with the deal said, "It was a pleasure to work with Spicy Horse. The company has extensive experience and a truly unique culture. The new partnership with Vickers will allow Spicy Horse to bring even more groundbreaking product to market."

"Spicy Horse is well-positioned to become a major player in this new wave of 3D online casual games that will be the next big thing for gaming," said Jeff Chi, managing director at Vickers Venture Partners. "Spicy Horse has an experienced management team with world class 3D game development capabilities and a vision that sets the company on the frontier of online gaming both in China and globally."

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