American McGee Presents American McGee's Grimm Interview

By Chris Faylor, Jun 11, 2007 10:00pm PDT
Late last month, developer American McGee and GameTap revealed American McGee's latest project, American McGee's Grimm, which will be distributed episodically through GameTap's subscription service beginning early next year. In development at the American McGee-founded Shanghai-based Spicy Horse studio, American McGee's Grimm harkens back to American McGee's earlier work on American McGee's Alice--modern retellings of classic fairy tales with a dark twist.

Following the announcement, I caught up with American McGee to get his perspective on a number of subjects, from the appeal of twisted fairy tales and episodic gaming to the Wii and Sid Meier.

Shack: Thanks for taking the time out of your hectic schedule for us, American.

American McGee: Thanks Chris Faylor! American McGee is happy to participate in American McGee's interview. Interviews give American McGee a chance to talk about American McGee's projects, American McGee's ideas, and American McGee's American McGee. American McGee.

Shack: What's your role in the development of American McGee's Grimm? How does that compare to the extent of your involvement in American McGee's Alice, American McGee Presents Scrapland, and American McGee Presents Bad Day LA?

American McGee: Comparing previous projects to the current one--probably the biggest difference is that Grimm is being produced inside of my own development studio, Spicy Horse. As with Alice and Bad Day LA, the initial concept for Grimm is my own--whereas Scrapland was dreamt up and produced by Enric Alvarez and his team at Mercury Steam.

Beyond that, Alice is probably the project that most closely resembles our production on Grimm. We're using a high-end, off-the-shelf 3D engine--something I wish we'd done with BDLA--and even have the original writer/executive producer from Alice, R.J. Berg, working in that same role for Spicy Horse.

As for my personal role in all of this, I've taken a very hands-on approach to everything from building the Spicy Horse team to designing the game. Ultimately, I try to surround myself with highly creative people, give them some initial guidance, and then get out of the way while they do what they're best at.

Oh, and we're trying to include at least 40% more American McGee in American McGee's Grimm. But for those who are tired of all the American McGee there is a No American McGee Mode--currently this replaces all the American McGee with John Romero, which may or may not be a good thing.

Shack: So you've got R.J. Berg reprising his role from Alice, any plans to bring anyone else back? Could Alice composer Chris Vrenna return to score Grimm? His work on American McGee's Alice is easily one of my favorite video game soundtracks; it's just so haunting and spooky that it fits perfectly with the game.

American McGee: R.J. is once again handling writing--something he did an amazing job on with Alice. He's also helping to guide production in his role as executive producer. R.J.'s positive influence on Alice was huge--it's really wonderful to be working with him again on this project.

I'd love to work with Chris again, but we're making a point to pull all music, SFX, and VO production in-house. Our sound engineer, Jason Tai, hails from Malaysia--and brings with him a wonderful range of light and dark musical styles--something which will play a big part in the tone and feel of Grimm. Having sound production in-house is an important part of our episodic production model.

Shack: Scrapland and Bad Day LA both had rather distinctive art styles and stories. What's brought you back to the dark twisted fairy tale setting?

American McGee: Ever since Alice I've been intrigued by the possibilities of retelling fairy tales via video games. But it wasn't until I was approached by GameTap that the opportunity and venue seemed right. Combining episodic production and delivery with classic fairy tale narratives seems like a very natural thing to do.

Shack: Can you elaborate on Grimm's combat system? The initial announcement mentioned that it was based off the concept of words as weapons.

American McGee: In keeping with the literary theme of our source material, all aspects of the game--including the weapons system--derive from the building blocks of fairy tales and the books containing them. The Words as Weapons concept is elegantly simple--our main character can pluck action verbs like "BURN" from the game environment, carry them around, and hurl them at enemies and obstacles. Word weapon effects are full of variety yet are visually self-evident, an aspect which I think makes the concept ideal for episodic games.

Turn the page for more on episodic gaming, the fate of American McGee's Oz, American McGee's thoughts on the Wii, and what would happen if American McGee and Sid Meier ever crossed paths.

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Shack: 24 episodes is a large undertaking, especially relative to other developers focusing on episodic content. The first season of Telltale's Sam & Max only consisted of six episodes, which were then released across seven months. Valve opted for only three Half-Life 2 episodes, and it's looking like the second episode will be following the first by about a year and a half. What made you go for such a large number, right off the bat?

American McGee: Our goal is to build a "true" episodic game --meaning it mirrors the duration, packaging, and delivery schedule of traditional episodic content (a television series for instance)--and does so in a consistent fashion. I think audience knowledge of duration of play and delivery schedule is important because it allows people to fit playing a game into their hectic lives.

Each of our 24 episodes is being designed so an average player can complete it in thirty minutes. Again, I think this is important because it gives our audience an expectation of the amount of time they'll have to invest in each episode. I think video games have had a hard time competing with traditional media because it's more difficult to find a "time slot" for game playing. We're raised on television, so we tend to think in 30 minute and 1 hour time slots. Delivering games that fit into these slots might open them up to wider audiences--something we're seeing happen with casual games in general.

Ultimately, this is all uncharted territory. We, like the Telltale guys before us, are flying by the seat of our pants. But I think that's a good thing--something game development is often lacking these days. True innovation can only come from making interesting choices and taking risks. We'll see where these choices take us; hopefully somewhere fun.

Shack: What's the scope of each episode? Will each episode be a self-contained game like Telltale's work with Sam & Max, or will the new episodes expand the game world with new areas and quests?

American McGee: Episodes are completely self-contained. We considered this the Lost vs. South Park problem. With a show like Lost it's impossible to talk about an upcoming or previous episode with someone who isn't also into the show. With South Park you don't have to watch every episode to understand what's going on--and episodes stand on their own: there's the World of Warcraft episode, Osama bin Laden episode, etc. These are able to attract occasional viewers just on their unique premises.

Because we're drawing from classic fairy tales I think we'll end up with a "spiky" audience curve. Some people will be especially interested in our take on Red Riding Hood, and we want to make sure those people can play just that episode and still understand what's going on and have a good time.

Shack: Will you be distributing episodes of American McGee's Grimm through anything other than GameTap? Perhaps an online Spicy Horse store?

American McGee: Not that we can comment on at this time.

Shack: What are your thoughts on the Nintendo Wii? Have you considered developing games for it?

American McGee: American McGee plays with American McGee's Wii all the time! And yes. If I had to chose only two platforms to develop for right now, I'd say Wii & PC.

Shack: Is there any chance of Grimm appearing on consoles after those 24 episodes are complete?

American McGee: Also, nothing that we can comment on at this time.

Shack: Alice had that nice set of action figures and the soundtrack, and I know that a Bad Day LA movie, animated show and graphic novel were discussed at one time. Is there any Grimm-related merchandising on the way?

American McGee: I'm always interested in leveraging our properties across as many mediums as possible. Sometimes it works out--like with Alice--other times, not. I think Grimm is ideally suited for film, toy, and print versions. We'll announce this sort of thing in the future.

Shack: What happened to American McGee's Oz?

American McGee: Atari/Infogrammes happened. They financed initial production, ran into money trouble, then dropped a bunch of their developers. Oz got the ax and we were never able to revive the project. The film version is still in development.

Shack: Let's say you collaborate on a game with Sid Meier. Whose name would come first in the title and what kind of game would it be?

American McGee: What sort of game it is would depend on whose name came first...an American McGee's Sid Meier's Game would likely be a turn-based strategy game where the player was required to build an empire of Hot Topic stores on a lake of lava. Sid Meier's American McGee's Game would be a 3D shooter where the player killed enemies like Genghis Khan and Alexander by laying railroad track on their heads.

The first episodes of the Spicy Horse-developed American McGee's Grimm will begin appearing on GameTap in the spring of 2008.

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