Siege Spots – OZombie: Interview with American McGee

Posted on Jul 02 2013

Siege Spots American McGee

American McGee and Spicy Horse are at it again with another re-imagining of a childhood story. This time they’re taking on The Wizard of Oz with the Kickstarter for their new game, OZombie.

Let me tell you a quick story about young me, maybe about the age of 12…

Hey, this is an opinion article first and Kickstarter coverage second, so put down the pitchforks.

Anyway, I loved video games and had no internet, so, naturally, I would watch as much G4 as possible. One of the shows that aired late at night was Cinematech, which showed trailers and gameplay of games ranging from popular to obscure. It was on that show that, late at night, young me had his first experience with the works of American McGee. It was a trailer for the original Alice.

I had nightmares for a week.

American McGee Cat
Can you blame me?

Move ahead to 2011. I had pre-ordered and bought Alice: Madness Returns at launch. There was a scene near the beginning where a group of people with Jabberwock heads crowded around and attacked Alice.

No nightmares this time, but I definitely slept with the lights on for a while.

Alice Jabberwock

Thank God I didn’t stop playing, though, since Alice: Madness Returns was an absolute joy to play. The subtleties of Spicy Horse’s creation were enjoyable from beginning to end. You can imagine my excitement when I saw the OZombie Kickstarter.

OZombie is the story of a new Oz that has never been seen before. The Scarecrow has seized control of the world of Oz and is trying to force conformity and despair upon its citizens.

Emerald City
No nightmares yet, so we’re off to a good start.

If you watched the MGM Wizard of Oz movie, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the depth of content presented in OZombie. American and Spicy Horse have gone to great lengths to dig deep into parts of Wizard of Oz lore that the classic movie never touched. In the movie, we only saw Munchkin Country and the Emerald City, but Oz is actually a sprawling land, that, perhaps most importantly, is not a dream. In this canon, the Land of Oz is a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, completely free from the context of Western culture.

The world isn’t the only thing different about Oz in this adaptation. The star of this game is Dorothy’s great-great-grandaughter, and is radically different than any other Dorothy you may have experienced before. Throughout the story, this new Dorothy is drawn into a rebellion movement against the tyranny of the Scarecrow– and against the apathy of Ozites who don’t see the use in fighting back.

Dorothy

Despite drawing from deep within Oz lore, OZombie promises to be a unique experience of Oz, not conforming to any previous land of Oz in any medium. The Oz of OZombie is a steampunk utopia corrupted by the design and will of the Scarecrow.

I got the chance to interview American McGee regarding the OZombie Kickstarter, and he answered some itching questions I had about this project. If you thought I was excited to back this Kickstarter, you can imagine how I reacted to getting this opportunity. It was somewhere between “kid in a candy store” and “kid who owns a candy store.”

OZombie is a darker take on L. Frank Baum’s Oz universe. Darker takes on classic tales seem to be a bit of a specialty for Spicy Horse. What is appealing from a creative standpoint about using these dark, reimagined universes for Spicy Horse’s games?
Truth is, we live in a pretty dark world. There’s constant war, starvation, disease and pervasive corruption by governments and corporations. We’re surrounded by these things though we try our best to pretend that they don’t exist or don’t impact our daily lives. These darker stories are an expression of the collective frustration and concern that I think we all feel about the state of the world in which we live. When we cannot make real changes to the world around us, we escape into worlds of fantasy where we can experience vicarious triumph. We find this in the struggles of heroes and heroines who are able to affect change in ways that we cannot.
Spicy Horse’s games have always had a hint of horror that gamers have absolutely loved. The Alice series focused more on the psychological aspects, going hand-in-hand with the themes behind the original Alice in Wonderland stories. What aspects of Oz are you hoping to bring out from the Oz universe in OZombie?

The themes we’re dealing with in OZombie have more to do with basic human rights, freedom of expression and the horror brought upon societies by leaders who use manipulation and deception to instill fear in people. These are horrors played out upon the masses, the kinds of horrors that lead to inquisitions, holocausts and genocides. These are as awful and soul crushing as the individual horrors visited upon Alice and her psyche. They are also themes that were explored by Baum in the original books – though if you read and knew these books as a child you might have missed the subtext.

Also keep in mind that it’s not all about darkness and horror. There can be no journey without contrast – no vindication without something to fight for. In our story, as in the books, Oz is a beautiful land. It’s worth fighting for. And so we’ll also want to present the art, nature and magic of this land – to give players a positive goal towards which to fight.

ToTo

This isn’t Spicy Horse’s first go at a Kickstarter campaign. Akaneiro: Demon Hunters was successfully funded just in time. What lessons did you learn from the Akaneiro Kickstarter, and what made you decide to bring OZombie to Kickstarter?

We had a great time working on the Akaneiro Kickstarter and learned tons of interesting lessons. Definitely my favorite part of the experience was the engagement we built and have since maintained with our backers. It’s great being able to communicate directly with the people who are most interested in and committed to the project.

Beyond that, we learned that planning is critical not only to the success of the campaign but also to our sanity while running the campaign. The Akaneiro Kickstarter was a bit rushed in its conception and execution – which meant myself and our Community Manager (Kelly) were running around like headless chickens for portions of the campaign. This time around we knew to spend significant time getting all the pieces in place before launch. Because we weren’t sure until almost a week before the launch whether it would be OZombie or Alice: Otherlands this meant we did a ton of prep knowing that 50% of it might never see the light of day – but we still enjoyed the process.

Bringing OZombie to Kickstarter – or more to the point, doing another Kickstarter campaign – was something we were thinking about before the Akaneiro campaign was even finished. Doing the Akaneiro campaign at the *end* of development (using the platform to launch that game) meant a shorter cycle between the end of one campaign and the start of the next. This has benefitted us mostly in that we still have the lessons from the first campaign fresh in our minds.

Judging by the promotional art, this game is going to be incredibly dark. Perhaps even the darkest game Spicy Horse has ever put out. Can we expect OZombie to be more twisted than previous games such as Alice?
As I said before, we want to present a range of light and dark. The early concept work has been pretty dark, but that doesn’t mean we won’t find pockets of light and beauty within the world of OZombie. I feel pretty strongly that contrast is critical in making a game world feel like a real place. It’s also important to give players a clear sense of what it is they are fighting for.

Witch

I can see what you mean about contrast being important in Spicy Horse’s games, Alice especially (After all, it’s hard to tell a story of madness without hints of sanity). A big part of contrast in your team’s games is shifting color palettes to set a mood. Is selecting distinct color palettes for different areas in games a conscious decision, and how important do you think it is to setting a mood?
Very important to us. On A:MR our Art Director (Ken Wong) created a color chart during pre-production that lined up with every scene in the game – making it so we could see how color schemes related to certain sections of action or narrative. The transitions between color schemes were also planned so that shifting from one dominate color to the next would result in the next scene being even more vibrant (as your eyes tried to handle the contrast). All of this work goes towards reinforcing the overall mode being set by the combination of textures, lighting and sound.
The Kickstarter page says that multiplayer won’t be available for play until you’ve beaten the game. A lot of games these days have a major focus on multiplayer, and many gamers will play games strictly for their multiplayer. What led to the decision to require players to experience the single player first?
We’re doing this to make it clear that the primary focus for OZombie is the single-player narrative experience. Because we’re also developing a lot of exclusively multi-player online games, being very clear about this distinction is critical – to avoid confusion with potential backers. We learned from the Akaneiro campaign that many Kickstarter backers tend to prefer single-player games and that they aren’t all that crazy about F2P games. That, combined with the fact that I’m really interested in telling another big story in a single player game, led to us wanting to make this aspect of the project very clear.
Spicy Horse seems to be a big fan of the Unity Engine. Many game projects looking for funding on Kickstarter have moved to this engine lately. What is appealing about the Unity engine, both from developer and player standpoints?

Since 2011 we’ve developed 4 new games using Unity3D. We’re big fans of the tech and have managed to push technical and visual boundaries on Linux, Mac, PC and mobile devices. We hope with projects like OZombie we can continue exploring all the possibilities the engine has to offer.

It’s an appealing technology because it’s cross-platform/device capable right out of the box. It’s also an art/designer friendly tool, enabling our team to quickly express ideas in the game world without heavy reliance on tech guys to bring those ideas to life.

Spicy Horse

Is there anything else you would like to tell prospective Kickstarter backers? Perhaps a favorite reward teir, something they may have missed in the Kickstarter description, or a stretch goal you’re particularly excited for?
I’m very excited about “The Box.” We’ve been teasing this box since before the campaign began. Contained within is a very special secret related to either OZombie or Alice… we’re not saying just yet. The Box will be opened when the campaign hits 6000 backers. A few days in and we’re at around 1500 backers, so I suspect we’ll see the box opened around the end of this week. Since the opening is linked to the number of backers (as opposed to a funding level), we’re asking that our fans simply get as many people into the campaign as possible (even at the lower pledge levels). That’ll trigger the opening sooner! :)
You mentioned that you chose Kickstarter so you could get feedback from people who are most interested in this project. Are backers going to have major influence on OZombie’s development, and, if so, how can they make their opinions heard?

The amount of influence will vary from decision to decision, but if you’re looking for “major” influence at this point, look no further than the character design for Dorothy. It’s the result of several days of back and forth with our community on Facebook – where we presented them with concept artwork, listened to their feedback, made adjustments and moved the design in a direction more to their liking. The result is something unique and that they now know they “own.” It’s a very satisfying process for everyone involved. We’ll continue with that sort of interaction via Facebook, our forums and other community channels. We try to make it as easy as possible for people to share their ideas with us.

Beyond that, your readers are welcome to join us on Kickstarter to discuss any questions or concerns they might have about the project. Myself and our Community Manager are handling communications, questions and requests on a 24-hour basis while the campaign is live. This is a great time to get your feedback into the mix!

If you’re as excited as I am for OZombie, be sure to back them on Kickstarter. Also feel free to back them if you’re not as excited as I am, since I can imagine that would be pretty difficult. They’ve got a hefty goal to meet, so every little bit helps. And besides, I just have to know what’s inside that box.

box
I’m going to stare at this box until it’s open. Hurry before my eyes dry out.

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Comments
  • nerdwerld July 2, 2013 at 4:36 PM

    Interesting little article. I like how they actually care about feedback.

  • Kanashimi July 2, 2013 at 9:08 PM

    Pretty excited for this the more I hear, and I’m kinda happy it’s not Alice. I love Alice so much, I have for years, but it’s nice to see something else that is kinda dark.

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