For the last eight years American McGee, the man behind the twisted fairytale franchise Alice, lived in China. After spending a number of years in Los Angeles, McGee split almost the whole of the last decade between Hong Kong and Shanghai, developing his studio, Spicy Horse, and taking fledgling steps into Asia's free-to-play culture.
"I followed a girl there," he says.
"I followed a girl to Hong Kong, and then once I was there I really fell in love with the place. Now, our studio is actually the largest Western game development studio in China. Obviously, there are a lot of studios over there but we're the biggest independent one. I prefer China to Los Angeles. I'm very comfortable there, it's not a bad place. And it's a very interesting time to be there, they're in the middle of an absolute financial, industrial, cultural, artistic boom and in the last 10 years has seen such an amazing growth. A lot of people don't realise they have the single biggest online gaming culture in the world."
McGee is currently showing off three games that the studio has spent its time working on, all of which experiment with the free-to-play model that overtook Asia and now for the last few years has infiltrated the West. His first, BigHead BASH, a real-time multiplayer death match title available on Kongregate.
"We talked to a lot of different platforms like Zynga, and we quickly realized there was so much demand for this kind of mid-core free-to-play content that it made sense to try to go and self-publish first. And then we could decide later whether or not it would make sense to sign up with a publisher."
BigHead is set inside of a virtual toystore in which people buy toys and fight them against each other. Spicy Horse already has a number of licensing deals including from EA to utilise content from Alice and from website Destructoid for use of the site's robot mascot, he says. "We turn it all into toys and sell them inside the game virtually."
"One of the things we're going to do is let players, when they get to a certain rank, own the toy store and be positioned as the shopkeeper in the interface. The idea is really to create a replacement for the real-world toy store. If we go out to a property owner and then they want to do toys but they don't want to do them in the real world, or they've already got them in the real world and they want to try virtual ones, they actually share the revenue that we generate on each toy sold with the licensed stores," says McGee.
The studio plans to create physical toys as well. The team will offer a button, he says, which will allow users to "print" the toy in a factory in Texas who do 3D real-time on-demand printing. And where we publish in China there will be trading cards where people can go into retail and buy them.
"Toy making over there is a lot easier than it is here because everything is already being made there," he says. "That means we can provide a system where you go in a real store and buy a toy and then you can take that back home and there will be a code on the back where you can access that toy digitally in the game to fight with."
His second game, Crazy Fairies is a multiplayer online free-to-play title based on Worms. A turn-based title, the studio developed the game in 3D as opposed to the side-on gameplay of Worms. The game can be played on multiple devices, which was a crucial point for Spicy Horse: to create a game that could be played on an iPhone against someone on a Mac against someone on a tablet, and so on. This is the philosophy for all their games.
"I've been doing games now for almost 20 years, it will be 20 years in September. I started in the PC gaming world and then did console games. I left the US not only because of a girl but because I had this strong impression that the industry was going to ship quite radically. The whole world was already playing online games, but the US was really one of the last remaining places in the world where the industry is so focused on retail box product sales. I got out to China mainly to get away from this industry that I've been in for so long. But then the sad part was that the Western culture kind of followed and they continued to ask us to do the same kind of work we had been doing before.
"The last project we did for EA was Alice: Madness Returns, but I knew when I first moved to China that it was time to shift away. It wasn't until the end of that Alice project that we had investors come in and gave us the resources to start building all these games. This year we're going to produce three free-to-play online games, maybe four."
It's a generational issue in the West, McGee explains. The US in particular is resistant to both Facebook and free-to-play titles, and respond with animosity to even mobile games. He gets the sense that what the industry is waiting for is "for all the old gamers to die," he laughs.
McGee is also in the process of developing a new twisted fairytale, this time based on the Red Riding Hood narrative in a title called Akaniero. The title will be a light RPG for Facebook and social networks that embraces multiplayer gameplay and Japanese culture. Spicy Horse has taken Red Riding Hood into a historical Japan setting. Japan once had indigenous wolves, he explains, but they were all wiped out. The game begins at the period when they were all being killed, the result being a mission-based Diablo-like.
"If you've seen one dungeon crawler you've seen them all but we're really proud of the art style which is very true to the Japanese style and we've had a number of Japanese publishers come to us and ask if they can bring this over to console in Japan. But one of the things that is interesting with this is that we allow you to go online and play with each other at the same time, not a lot of browser-based games allow you to do that. There's not a lot of opportunities where you can be on a tablet and then play against someone on a PC or go through a dungeon together. There's definitely technological innovation."
McGee admits he's not a big believer in the future of consoles, stating he sees the console titles moving further toward iPhones, iPod, tablets, which themselves will become increasingly more powerful.
"At some point there's going to be a question of why you would ever tie something to your living room. But I don't think that will necessarily stop the development of really high end AAA games. I'm not a big fan of Vita though, I think that phones really just do a better job. because they've already got the marketplace built in, they're so ubiquitous and they make it a lot easier for developers to access the development tools. Anyone can make a game for your phone. you want to go and make a game for a proprietary system like Sony or Microsoft they make it very hard so I think a piece of what should be the future is to make it possible for people to make a game on any platform they want to. I think that the guys who are in the console manufacturing business specifically, they're going to start to have a lot of problems with that. Because phones are so damn easy to get a hold of."
Even so he hasn't given up on the Alice franchise, however it's unlikely he'll see his plans manifest into a product any time soon.
"I don't own the IP, EA owns the IP. I don't have a lot of faith in the ability for them to decide on anything smart to do," he laughs. "I don't know, I don't think it'll happen soon. But if they allowed it to be something that was in this genre of free-to-play or published online or connected. But when I talk to EA these days they seem very, kind of, scattered about taking an IP and bringing it to the online free-to-play or multiplayer state.
"We have ideas and I have a whole story written up on Alice 3, and how to turn that into episodic online. It's called Alice in Otherland and basically it would allow Alice to go into the minds of all these characters she encounters and it opens up the possibility where you could play as Alice and you can enter into a players mind change the landscape and then basically psychologically adjust the character in doing so. Imagine an MMO where the missions aren't locations but they're people.
"But then you go and you pitch that to EA they just kind of shrug. That's the thing, a lot of the Western publishers won't lead in terms of innovation. They wait for someone to prove the model and then they jump on it. I think it's just going to be a matter of time before some of the game companies like Riot that are proving the online space, they come up, they show everybody how it's done, and then EA will follow on."