It's been 10 years since American McGee showed us his twisted interpretation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland tale, and now, finally, we're getting a sequel. Alice: Madness Returns was announced during the summer at an EA showcase event via a spooky and frankly disturbing video.
That confirmed one thing: none of the original charm has been lost. Our heroine Alice has spent 10 years confined to an asylum for the mentally disturbed. That's because her parents were torched in what she believes was a murderous arson attack. So, she's off to find out what happened, with or without the consent of the people in white coats. And she's taking her butcher's knife with her.
We tracked down American McGee, who is based in Shanghai, to find out more.
Eurogamer: How do you manage to get your name on the front of game boxes? Other developers don't seem to be able to.
American McGee: The people at EA, back when I was an employee there, thought they needed to be able to protect the IP for the first Alice game. They went through a number of different ideas for games that didn't include my name in the title, things like Alice in Nightmare Land, stuff like that. They were trying to find a clear space that they could trademark and protect.
Then, after much searching, they came back and said, "Look, American McGee's Alice is imminently protectable now and recognisable as something original. Do you mind if we call it that?"
I agreed to it somewhat reluctantly the first time around. I got a fair amount of push-back from the team that was building the game. They felt like, "Hey, this is all of us in this together."
I explained to them what was going on and why this was to be, and then, after a while, EA came back and said, "Oh hey, we don't have to put your name on the box after all, we can just get away with plain Alice."
I went and told the team that and they were quite happy. I felt relieved. And then after a few weeks, the EA people came back and said, "Oh, we're really sorry but we have to put your name on the box after all." That happened fairly last minute. We finished the game up and they shipped it out and there it was.
I guess it's a long way of saying I didn't have a lot of say in it. It certainly wasn't an idea of mine. But once it had happened, subsequent publishing partners who came along thought they might ride on the value that had been created by the success of the first Alice game. So it got reused quite a few times. It remains to be seen whether it will be attached to this new Alice; I don't think it's a foregone conclusion.
Eurogamer: Why has it taken so long for us to get a sequel? The old EA was often criticised of exactly the opposite.
American McGee: When we did the first Alice game it was actually the first M-rated game EA had ever done. There was some trepidation about the release of the title and the effect it would have on people's perception of the EA brand.
It took them a really long time to come back around to see that after 10 years not only had it not damaged people's idea of EA as a brand, but it had in fact continued to sell and was in hindsight a really good, really solid selling game. Over a million-and-a-half units sold, which is just a single PC SKU, which they were quite surprised by. They saw that there was potential for a success in there.
But another part of it was that I had gone off into the world and wound up in China and built a studio out here. There was a moment where I realised that the studio was capable of revisiting the IP in a way that I thought would honour the quality and the experience of the first game, so that's when we reached out to EA. By that time they were ready for it, we were ready for it, and it just so happened that 10 years had gone by.
Eurogamer: What's your reaction been to the Alice: Madness Returns reaction?
American McGee: It's great. It surprised a lot of people at EA just how big the response was. We, being the creators of it, always expected that our fans were a little bit rabid and always waiting in expectation of something new.
We've been able to see over the last 10 years how interest in the IP hasn't really gone down - if anything it has increased and people would put a higher value on the game. I won't say I'm too terribly surprised, because we saw the same thing first time around, but it has definitely surprised a lot of people.
Eurogamer: Were there any misconceptions about the announcement that you'd like to clear up?
American McGee: I've read a few comments from people who are concerned about the general horror level of the content. We want to make sure that people understand that for the sake of a trailer to grab people's attention, it's always worthwhile and reasonable to really shock and throw as much of that in there as possible in as short a time as possible.
The final product is going to be like the first game: very diverse. There's a huge range of content from the whimsical to the extremely dark.
And in terms of the gameplay: a mixture of things that feel somewhat like a survival-horror game in some sections, but then also relying very heavily on puzzle, on platforming, on action and of course a heavy amount of storytelling and adventure as well. The teaser we put out hit a single note, but it's important to make it clear that the final product will be extremely diverse.
Eurogamer: How does Madness Returns compare to the original Alice game?
American McGee: We've had the opportunity to listen to the fans for the last 10 years to get a pretty good understanding of what it is they liked and disliked about the first game. This is a narrative sequel to the first game, and that means that the story does pick up where the previous story left off.
The gameplay is very closely modelled to the gameplay you found in the first game, except that this time around of course we've gone in there and cleared up places where we heard people expressing frustration about the variable difficulty or elements of the platforming that weren't that much fun. Or elements of the combat that didn't have enough strategy in them.
This time around you're going to get much of the same in terms of really brilliant art, really deep story with lots of twists. We're going to present a similar mix of gameplay elements but with a lot of improvements.
Eurogamer: Will Alice: Madness Returns be a single-player experience?
American McGee: Yeah. It's a single-player action adventure platforming game, third-person perspective, very heavily story driven. Again, it's very similar to the first game in most respects. Where its differing is a completely new story, whole new adventure and significant update to the mechanics inside the game.
Eurogamer: What did you think about Tim Burton's recent adaptation of Alice in Wonderland?
American McGee: I didn't like it, but clearly a billion-and-a-half-dollars worth of people did, so it probably doesn't make sense to speak out too strongly against it. I did feel that it had a lot of really nice ingredients, I just wasn't a big fan of the way they were blended together.
The main problem I had with it was it didn't feel like enough of Alice's story. Our approach has always been to emphasise Alice as the main character, whereas in the film it felt like you had five or six competing main characters and Alice's story was really diminished as a result.
Eurogamer: Does that film affect your project in any way?
American McGee: No, you know, we started work on our Alice before that film was even announced, so it was interesting to see it come and go. More than anything it reaffirmed our belief that this is a huge IP that's globally recognised and appeals to a really massive audience.
If anything, its helped us convince others that the game we're making doesn't have to be super horror or super scary in order to appeal. It can be true to itself and it's going to capture a pretty big audience.
Eurogamer: Alice: Madness Returns will be your first PS3 and 360 project. Didn't you once slag those consoles off?
American McGee: As technology platforms, our studio is pleased to have them there as a way to get into people's living rooms. The article that you refer to was one in which I saw what was happening in the market place and just thought that Nintendo had done it right by stepping out of the battle over processor power and features that all the consoles have always had, and instead bringing something new to the battle.
And of course they clearly won as a result of that. That dedication to innovation is something that's lacking not just from the console manufacturers but from game development driven by big publishing entities in general. They tend to be fairly risk averse.
It would be nice if we saw a few more bets taken, although I'm saying that as someone who's making a sequel to a game that was made 10 years ago. It's a nice wish, but it's not always the reality we get.
Eurogamer: How big is the team at Spicy Horse? Have you had any trouble adapting to PS3?
American McGee: We are 75 people internally and we use outsourcing for another 45 people to produce 3D art content for the game. This is the studio's second big project [the other being Grimm], so the team has enough experience under their belt to be able to attract the big projects.
We did that by virtue of really good production processes that we have in place for the team. The support we've received from Sony and Microsoft has been great. It's not that difficult for us to get hardware here, and it's not that difficult at all for us to get hardware expertise here.
China has in no way been a barrier, and being on console has in no way created any sense of concern for the team.
Eurogamer: What is the state of the Alice: Madness Returns project? It sounds like you've been working on it for a while.
American McGee: It's in a good state. We've been having a great time making it. So far we've hit every one of our milestones and all measures of quality. Working with EA people has been really spectacular: they come out here to visit us and give input on the project quite frequently. We really like having them as partners. We can't complain. For the studio, it's the best opportunity in being able to make a big game that we've ever had.
Eurogamer: What's your development cycle on the game?
American McGee: You know, I can't talk about the specifics of the timings of the development. I can only say that the amount of time we've spent with it, we'll be done sometime in 2011.
Eurogamer: What's your opinion of Move and Kinect - will Alice work with them?
American McGee: It's awesome technology but we started the project a bit late for us to take advantage of designing around it. I do hope that both systems find success. That sort of advancement in peripheral input technology like that is really important.
Eurogamer: You once said you wanted to be the next Walt Disney, only "a bit more wicked". Have you achieved that yet?
American McGee: The Grimm project we did was a version of it. We created a fairly expansive fairytale world and touched on many of the fairytales from the Grimms collection, which is of course where Disney pulled a lot of their tales from. In the broader sense there's probably still some way to go.
Also, I'll say that when I made that comment some years ago, my thoughts about where that might go were quite different from where they are today. Being a little bit older, I don't know if I'm so much inclined towards being the next Disney. I'd be happy to build a virtual theme park of some scale and then call it even at that.
Alice: Madness Returns is in development for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 and will be released next year.