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[Updated] American McGee stretches on Kickstarter to bring back another kind of Oz (interview)

Above: Spicy Horse Games aims to remake Oz.

Image Credit: Spicy Horse Games

[Update: American McGee pulled the plug on this Kickstarter]

American McGee has dreamed about making a game based on a reinterpretation of the Wizard of Oz for a long time. At Spicy Horse Games in Shanghai, he is hoping to get that chance.

McGee launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $950,000 for the Oz action-adventure game. But it’s off to a rough start, with $138,000 raised so far. Based on fan feedback, he plans to change the name of the game from OZombie to something else, mainly to avoid the confusion that the title will be a zombie shooter. McGee wants to create a title that involves Dorothy’s great-great-grandaughter returning to Oz and going to war against the Scarecrow, who is trying to brainwash everyone. She teams up with the Tin Man and the Lion to battle Scarecrow’s mindless army. If McGee gets to make this game, he hopes that he will create the version of Dorothy that everyone will always remember, much like the Alice in Wonderland who holds a bloody knife in her hand.

The title is not unlike the original titles he created for Electronic Arts: American McGee’s Alice and Alice: Madness Returns. Those titles established McGee as “reinterpreter” who makes darker versions of the fairy tales that we grew up with. This one will have characters and environments that are out of this world but are signature American McGee.  If the new game gets funded, McGee will launch it on the PC and make it a cross-platform title. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with McGee.

GamesBeat: How far along are you?

American McGee: The Kickstarter has been ongoing now for a little more than [18] days. We’ve done a couple of other projects that are in development or that have launched and we’re supporting them, but the Kickstarter is certainly the thing we’re focusing on the most these days.

GamesBeat: Tell us more about this one.

American McGee

Above: American McGee

Image Credit: Spicy Horse Games

McGee: This is based on the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, which is something that I tried to do right after the first Alice game. I’d hoped to build a game based on Oz. That was picked up by Atari and subsequently killed. The rights were tied up. It wasn’t until recently that I finally had so many people e-mailing me and asking me to go back to Oz that I decided to reinvent the story and do something sufficiently distant from what we did with the Atari project that we could make sure it was original.

This is Dorothy’s great-great-granddaughter returning to Oz and going to war against the Scarecrow, who’s working to take over control of Oz and brainwash all the inhabitants. It’s going to be similar to the Alice games in that it’s a third-person action-adventure title, but we’re going to take some lessons from the feedback we’ve heard. People have said certain things were frustrating about Alice. There are certain things we know they really loved.

For instance, when it came to combat in the Alice games, people seemed to have a lot of problems with the third-person lock-on mechanic. We’re going to streamline the combat system so that hopefully it will be more accessible and more enjoyable to a wider audience. At the core it’s all about adventure and exploration, beautiful art, a great story, with a degree of puzzling and combat on top of that.

GamesBeat: Is this one of those properties that’s in the public domain, so that you don’t have to worry about who owns the rights?

McGee: Yeah, exactly. The books themselves are 100 years old. We don’t have to worry about rights, so long as we make sure that ours is very clearly an original creation based on the books. That’s one of the reasons I went with the OZombie name, to try to get as much distance from some of the other properties that are out there. That’s caused some confusion from people who are coming to look at the project. They think that this is actually a game about zombies, in the Walking Dead sense, when in fact we’re using the word “zombie” to mean something more related to conformity and mindless, thoughtless action. That’s another one of the elements that we’re trying to use to separate this from the other adaptations that are out there.

This theme of conformity and questioning how people in authority use manipulation and deception to control people is something that was contained within the original books. If anything, we’re going back and getting closer to the narrative tone and themes that you found in those books when Baum wrote them.

Oz reimagined

Above: Oz reimagined

Image Credit: Spicy Horse Games

GamesBeat: This is a large Kickstarter, at $950,000. How did you figure that was what you needed?

McGee: This is about how much it cost for us to make some of our recent titles. We based the estimate on recent experience. Akaneiro was one of the games we launched earlier this year, and that gave us a sense of how big a team and how much time would be required to get to a certain amount of content and depth of features. That’s where the number came from. As with Akaneiro, though it would have cost around $1 million for the initial launch, we’ve continued to develop that title and put content into it post-launch. We’ll be doing the same with OZombie, maintaining a development team and continuing to put content in the game, even after that initial launch.

GamesBeat: How did that one do? How large an audience did it draw?

McGee: It had a pretty large audience early on. The size of the audience has gone up and down since, depending on where the game is — if we’ve launched on a new platform, for instance. Once we switched it over to Steam, it’s gained a more meaningful and active audience. Prior to that, on the two platforms that we launched on – Kongregate and our own platform – we just didn’t attract that many users. It wasn’t until we got to Steam that we started to pull in a meaningful number of users.

GamesBeat: Does that mean you’ll target Steam from the start on this one?

McGee: Yeah, absolutely. We’d love to be on Steam out the gate with this. The question is, can we? These days it’s all about going to Greenlight to ask the audience. But we’d love to have the game on Steam.

GamesBeat: The target is still pretty far away, based on where you guys are. Have you picked up any feedback from consumers about where they’d like this to go?

McGee: The campaign is going to need to attract a lot more attention and support if we’re going to make the target, definitely. We just announced three things we’re going to do to try to make people better aware of the title and clear up some confusion. The first thing is that we’re going to change the name, because again, this OZombie name seems to be causing a lot of confusion. People think we’re trying to create a traditional brain-eating zombie game. We’re going to come up with a name that doesn’t cause that kind of confusion.

The second thing we’re going to do is–A week back, we announced that we were going to attempt to purchase the Alice film rights. We attached that to this campaign, because the thinking was that Alice fans would then come over and back OZombie by way of being aware of the campaign and out of their interest in helping us get the film rights. Again, that seems to have caused more confusion than any good, so we’re going to remove that from the campaign.

The last thing we’re going to do is make another pitch video that focuses on the game concept, the design, and the story. The current video — I don’t know if you’ve seen it – is more fun than informational. A lot of people have asked that we present a more straightforward pitch in video form.

GamesBeat: How long have you been thinking about this project, the Oz project?

McGee: Well, I attempted this over 10 years ago. The fans have repeatedly come back and asked that we tackle this material. It’s something I think about on an almost constant basis. Whenever we announce a new project or whenever we talk about something in the press, if you read the comments or the notes being sent to us, half of these people are saying, “Please go back to Oz.” So I’ve thought about it since we tried to get it going with Atari.

GamesBeat: It seems like a good year for Oz, because of the anniversary and the movie. A new generation is becoming familiar with the concept.

McGee: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like Alice. It’s what they call a four-quadrant property, meaning that it touches young and old, male and female. All kinds of people like the books and the stories. The property itself is one of the most globally recognized – mainly because of the books and the MGM film.

GamesBeat: What sort of team are you putting on this? How many people does it require, and how long does it take to make it?

McGee: If you look at the core development team, it’s around 40 people. Like I said, we’re taking our experience in terms of building the title from what we did with Akaneiro. That game had a core team of around five people, but expanded to 15 or 20 people depending on what phase of production it was in. If you take an average of, say, 12 people over the course of a year, that’s what we’re looking at for the initial launch. We’d then support ongoing feature and content development. You can look at the projects we’ve released in the last two years and see how there was an initial launch, and then continual updates to those games. That’s what we’re going to do with Oz.

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