[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  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.
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.
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.
GamesBeat: What kinds of questions have you gotten that have influenced you so far? You talked about a few of the changes, but what are some other fan-generated questions and responses you’ve seen?
McGee: They tend to focus on things like the name. There was an unusual amount of discussion around the title. There hasn’t been a lot of feedback, to be honest with you, around the game concept or the design that we’re using. It seems like the audience is more focused on the surface elements. They’re concerned about elements of the Kickstarter campaign, like how complex the tier system is, because they’re worried that’s going to somehow distract or confuse people.
But we have had a pretty interesting time working with the audience, even prior to launching the campaign, on things like defining how Dorothy was going to look. We went through an interesting process with the fans to get to a main character design that would represent her in the game. That was something they were very happy to be involved with, and it was fun for us to take direction from the audience to achieve that character’s look.
The hope, after getting this project off the ground, is that going forward we’re going to do a similar kind of involvement of the audience with all sorts of things – the character designs, how we end up refining the combat systems, how the camera presents itself in the world, other things like that.
GamesBeat: How large a game do you see this becoming compared to the effort you put into titles like Alice?
McGee: There’s a pretty significant difference. You have to keep in mind that the direct budget for Alice was around $8 million U.S. I think a lot of people don’t think about the scale of the budgets when they see a Kickstarter campaign like this where we’re asking for $1 million. There’s often a response for the audience like, “Oh my God, that’s a lot of money. There’s no way a game needs to cost that much.” People aren’t thinking about how for a traditional console title now, $8 million is on the low end. You know that budgets can get upwards of $20, $30, $40 million. There’s going to have to be a sort of recognition of that smaller budget in the design and how much content we produce.
But one of the comments we had about Alice is that it was too big, that it was too long, that it dragged on. I agreed with that. We created too much content and not enough gameplay to fill out all the space that was available to play in. That was a problem of too much money being spent on art and not enough time being spent on game design. When we go into something like Oz, that smaller budget doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be less of a game. We can make a game that is visually as interesting as Alice and that in fact plays in a much more engaging and consistent way. It doesn’t suffer from the same problems as Alice did, feeling too big or not tight enough.
GamesBeat: Have you thought about doing anything interesting yourself if the campaign succeeds? It’s a tactic that’s come up before with some developers.
McGee: You know, on the opposite side of that, a lot of times when I go to read comments on the gaming news sites, there’s a lot of animosity towards me. Maybe because people think I make terrible games, or because they don’t appreciate my name being associated with the games. I’m not sure. But one of the things I’ve joked about is running a Kickstarter campaign to get me out of the industry. Just tell all the haters, “Look, I’ll run a Kickstarter to help you help me buy a sailboat. I’ll sail off into the sunset and you’ll never hear from me again.” They can put their money where their mouths are. [laughs] But for this campaign, I haven’t thought of anything quite like that yet.
I did bring one thing up with my community manager. I was saying, if I told people this was my last game, maybe that would give an incentive to all the grumpy guys in the comments. But we haven’t actually decided on that yet.
I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a lot of negativity out there these days around Kickstarter. There also seems to be a growing amount of negativity towards developers in general. For me, there’s a sort of growing frustration at what seems to be a kind of warfare going on between audiences, developers, publishers, and platforms like Kickstarter.
GamesBeat: With Alice, I think you had an all American team, right? With this game, you’ll have an all-Chinese team. Is there a challenge in that?
McGee: There were two Alice games. There was the first game, almost 12 or 13 years ago, that was produced by a team in Texas. You could say they were all American. But the last game, Alice: Madness Returns, was produced all here in Shanghai. I’ve been out of the U.S. now for almost 10 years. Spicy Horse has been here for seven years. In the last seven years, everything I’ve produced has been here in Shanghai with a predominantly Chinese team.
To your question about whether there’s a challenge, I think that game development is difficult no matter where in the world you might try to attempt it. We’re using the same production methodologies and the same technologies and the same kinds of thinking when we approach designing and developing our games that you would use anywhere in the world.
Keep in mind, when you’re there in the U.S. playing games on a PlayStation or an Xbox that was made by Activision or EA or Ubisoft, the content that you’re playing is made in China. They all have 3D animation and other outsourced studios here in China. Many of them are here in Shanghai. You’re already playing Chinese-made games on your Chinese-made Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
That’s another thing a lot of people seem not to get. So much of what you’re playing is connected to China, no matter where you’re playing it, and yet when we talk about being in China, oftentimes people will comment that it’s wrong that I left in the U.S., or that I’m engaged in some sort of evil outsourcing business. They’re not thinking about the reality of the global economy that we live in. The western games industry is very much dependent on content coming from China.
GamesBeat: Do you have anything else to add?
McGee: The main thing is that we’d love to have people come over to check out the Kickstarter campaign. If they want to, they can interact directly with me and with our community – if they have questions with OZombie, or whatever we end up calling it, and what we’re doing in China.