Despite being fine but hardly groundbreaking games in the third-person action/adventure/platformer genre, the two Alice titles (American McGee’s Alice and Alice: Madness Returns) have a legion of fans, myself included, due to their dark and wildly imaginative story, world, art and design. Now veteran game designer American McGee and the team at Spicy Horse are heading to the land of Oz for the spiritual follow-up to Alice, and they’re going via the land of Kickstarter to do it. We chatted with American about the project, and didn’t get an answer about what’s in that mysterious box...
Strategy Informer: Hi there! Starting off, could you introduce yourself please, your role on OZombie and the games people might know you from?
American McGee: My name is American McGee and I'm one of the founders of Spicy Horse Games in Shanghai. Over the past 20 years I've been involved with a variety of game developments including DOOM, Quake, both Alice titles and Akaneiro: Demon Hunters. Through the years my role has shifted consistently, so that I've contributed to everything from tech support, level design, sound design, game design and project management. These days I mainly focus on running our studio, but still find time to work on high-level design and story elements for some of our games.
On OZombie I've taken the lead on defining the narrative and core design elements. If we get the project funded then I'll help guide the project through development while continuing to drive the main story and design. This is very similar to the way in which I contributed to Alice: Madness Returns. It's important to keep in mind that when it comes to game development on a medium-to-large scale, it takes a team to make everything happen. Ultimately, my most valuable role in all of this is in building and maintaining a team within an environment that promotes creativity and high quality of life.
Strategy Informer: So, tell us about OZombie and why we should be excited about it!
American McGee: OZombie is an update to the story and world of L. Frank Baum's Oz series. It takes place some years after the now-famous visit by Dorothy. Scarecrow, once ruler of the Lands of Oz, is waging a war to regain control of the kingdom. He's using manipulation and deceit to drive the countries of Oz into battle against one another. This story will explore concepts of society, conformity and control. This is where we get the idea of "zombies," from conformity, as opposed to your traditional brain-eating zombies. This is a theme that's been linked to zombies since the first Romero films - and one that I think is even more relevant into today's world.
Strategy Informer: Will the game play similar to Alice: Madness Returns?
American McGee: There will be some similarities, such as the camera perspective being 3rd-person. Beyond that, I'm hoping to streamline the combat system by removing the 3rd-person camera lock-on mechanic and replacing it with something like turn-based combat. We'll still have plenty of exploration and adventure wrapped in a meaningful narrative. In this sense I think we're keeping many of the things people love about the Alice series and streamlining or removing many of the aspects that caused the most frustration.
Strategy Informer: Why Scarecrow of all people as the villain? Why not one of the Witches or the Nome King, or even the "Wizard of Oz" himself?
American McGee: In the original Oz books Scarecrow has a compelling backstory that can lead him to a powerful motivation for wanting to regain control of Oz and ensure that his rule is never again questioned. He was once called the "wisest man in Oz" and even made king. His rule was ended in a coup and he was banished to a life of exile. I think this makes him an excellent “bad guy”, because he has a justifiable reason for wanting to regain control of what was once rightfully his. And he's going to employ techniques in attaining power that we've seen play out in human history going back as far as our actions have been recorded. As such, I think the story of Oz can provide a powerful allegory for the state of our modern world - and give us a perspective on the place individuals and groups have in challenging power.
Strategy Informer: In the Alice games you've taken ideas from the books (like the 'Drink Me/Eat Me' shrinking/growing idea) and turned them into full gameplay mechanics - any plans for the same with Oz? Teleporting Ruby Slippers perhaps?
American McGee: There are dozens of ideas like this contained within the Oz books and we'll be adapting as many of them as possible. Oz is a world of fantastic magic and wonderful machines - giving us opportunity to supply Dorothy and her allies with a really interesting array of abilities and weapons.
Strategy Informer: Can Dorothy use that magic at all? She couldn't before, but if Oz is breaking down...
American McGee: It really depends on where we go with the story. Scarecrow is trying to strip magic from the world of Oz, so that in many of the places Dorothy visits magic will no longer function. That means she'll have to rely on mechanical solutions to defeating her enemies in combat. Whether or not she might discover ways to unlock magic abilities... we'll have to wait until we're further into the design before knowing for sure.
Strategy Informer: You mentioned it previously, but can you give more details of how that combat might work in the game?
American McGee: Yes, we want to get away from the lock-on combat system of Alice and instead are aiming for a more streamlined turn-based, tactical style. Dorothy would be able to engage with multiple enemies in an arena-like combat area. She'd also be able to bring allies into these battles. Again, a lot of this will be better defined as we work through the early stages of design.
Strategy Informer: Can you describe to us some of the locations Dorothy will visit in the game?
American McGee: Dorothy will begin her adventure in the Rose Kingdom, on the Eastern (or Western, depending on how you interpret the books) shore of Oz. From there she'll work her way across Oz, visiting many Countries on her quest to defeat Scarecrow and his army. I expect in the early chapters of the game we'll see her exploring the Dominions of the Nome King, Country of the Gargoyles, Kingdom of Dreams and Rinkitink Country. At some point she's going to have to cross the Deadly Desert in order to visit the inner Countries of Oz and press an attack on Scarecrow's headquarters in the Emerald City.
Strategy Informer: What appeals to you about Wizard of Oz?
American McGee: There are social and political themes relevant to our modern world that I'm excited to explore. The lands and people of Oz provide a rich backdrop of diversity and culture through which those themes can come to life.
Strategy Informer: Of course you were attached to an Oz game before, simply titled American McGee's Oz. Why did that fall through?
American McGee: That project was funded by Atari and developed by Ronin Games. We had about 12 months of production on it before Atari pulled the plug. They were suffering "financial difficulty" and killed a number of other games at the same time they killed Oz. After they killed the project we tried to revive it with a number of other publishers, but none of them were interested in paying Atari the money required to acquire the rights.
Strategy Informer: Of course unlike Alice Oz has had a number of famous "darker" versions, such as the freaky Return To Oz movie and the Sci Fi Channel's recent Tin Man series. How are you planning on distinguishing OZombie from those?
American McGee: First off, you can see we've gone with a very recognizable and distinct name. This is a critical first step in making it clear that this Oz is far removed from all the others, including "American McGee's Oz." Beyond that, we're applying unique twists to the art style, story and mechanics.
Strategy Informer: The art of your "dark fairytales" is some of the most striking things about the games. How do you get your artists to produce such twisted images?
American McGee: We've created a unique work environment here at Spicy Horse. One of the reasons I started an independent game development studio in Shanghai was that there was no such thing before we did it. That meant that local artists had no real choice about where to work or the types of projects to be involved with. I figured if we opened an indie studio with a focus on original IP and interesting art that we'd be able to attract a lot of those artists who were looking for something different. 7+ years later and we've got one of the best art departments in the country.
Strategy Informer: Why Kickstarter? Did you speak to any publishers about OZombie?
American McGee: Who would we speak to? Very few publishers are making bets on original IP these days, even with the new console cycle. Where we do see them developing original IP it's with their own internal studios. Investors don't back game developments. And we don't have enough resources on our own to undertake something like this. That's why we turn to Kickstarter - because it's just about the only way to get original content funded these days.
Strategy Informer: It's rather unusual that your "Stretch Goals" are based on numbers of backers rather than money. What made you decide to do it this way?
American McGee: The success of campaigns is more about generating awareness than about squeezing more dollars out of fewer backers. We're hoping to have as many people aware and involved as possible, since that's what makes these campaigns successful.
Strategy Informer: Of course one of the most notable elements of the campaign video is the mysterious "Box", which you will open when you hit 6000 backers. Obviously you can't tell us what's inside yet, but can you say how it connects to the Kickstarter campaign and OZombie?
American McGee: Can't say much about it at this point. We have hinted that it has more to do with Alice than it does with OZombie.
Strategy Informer: The name "OZombie" has attracted a bit of attention. Can you explain your thinking behind the title?
American McGee: Our version of "zombies" has very little to do with the traditional, brain-eating zombies you see in movies and games. It's more about the idea of conformity and awareness. This is a theme you see linked to in the early zombie films by George Romero and one that makes sense in the context of Oz. The original Oz books by L Frank Baum also explored the dynamics of power and manipulation.
Strategy Informer: Why OZombie and not another Alice? Rights issues?
American McGee: The Alice game rights are 100% owned and controlled by EA. We started talking with them about doing another Alice game some months ago - and everyone was working towards getting a deal done in time for the Kickstarter campaign. At the same time, being realistic about how long it can take to do these sorts of deals, I started work on a back-up campaign with OZombie. Our talks with EA continue to this day and I feel confident we'll get something worked out before too long.
Strategy Informer: I thought it’d be something like that. Regarding cost though, that Kickstarter goal of $950,000 seems rather cheap for this kind of game. How are you able to keep costs down?
American McGee: That amount is less than what we'll need to develop the full game, but enough to get us started and deliver some initial chapters. We'll need to throw some of our own funding at it, work to secure outside funding (perhaps via publishing deals) and find other creative ways to bridge the gap. This is the kind of thing we do constantly as an independent studio, so I'm confident we can use whatever funding we secure to make an excellent product and expand on whatever gets built first.
Strategy Informer: What engine will you be using for the game?
American McGee: Unity3D. This is an engine we've used for several of our recent projects. The team is quite comfortable with it and we've been able to achieve some great visuals and game play using it.
Strategy Informer: Assuming the Kickstarter goes well (I hope so!) when are you looking to release OZombie?
American McGee: The campaign ends in August. I expect we'd start actual development towards the end of the year, after a period of design and planning. How much content we deliver initially will depend on how much funding we raise, but I'd want to aim for release of initial content around 12 months from when development starts in full. After that we plan to continue updating and adding content. You can look at our recent games like Akaneiro to see this sort of plan in action and being executed.
Strategy Informer: Excellent, thanks for your time and best of luck with the Kickstarter!
A twisted Wizard of Oz third-person action/adventure with turn-based combat from the makers of Alice: Madness Returns? I can’t think of many games that I want more. Thanks to American McGee for taking the time to talk with us. If you want to follow the Kickstarter campaign for OZombie and maybe even pledge a dollar or two click in this direction. Frankly it’ll be worth pitching in to just get another fantastic art book from these guys, and another Chris Vrenna soundtrack too…