American McGee Grimm and The Alice Movie

american-mcgee

American Sly

Recently I got the chance to speak with American McGee, who not only helped create the classics Doom, Doom 2, Quake, and Quake 2 as well as the macabre Alice and the pending Grimm. I want to thank America for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Wendy for making it happen. The game is due to ship on July 31st on Gametap.com

GVK: What is the background and setting for the Grimm and how is it similar and different from Alice?

AM: The backgrounds and settings in Grimm vary from episode to episode. Each new episode is based on a different fairy tale – presented by the main character “Grimm”. In every episode he presents a puppet theater of the current-day “light” version of the tale. He then invites you to help him return the tale to a form closer to the original – darker, meaner, and more informative. When finished he presents the “fixed” version in another puppet theater.

Throughout our 24 episodes we visit well known tales from The Brothers Grimm, but also from interesting places like Chinese and Greek mythology. Each new episode contains tons of unique new assets, a complete presentation of a fairy tale along with beautiful music, high quality VO, and other bits of fun content.

In comparison to Alice – there really is no comparison other than the fact that both games use are based on fairy tale stories.

GVK: What can you tell us about the A.I. in the game and how it different from other games in the genre?

AM: There are no “other games in the genre”. Grimm defines a unique genre… maybe call it a “transformation game”. I’ve heard the designer of Katamari Damacy describe the core design philosophy of that game as “rolling”. Along those lines I’d describe the core design of Grimm as “transforming”.

For the game’s NPCs and AI – there are characters interacting with you in the world, but they only serve two purposes: communicate the story and try to stop Grimm from turning their world dark. Wherever you go your actions impact the world they live in, and they try to resists by literally “cleaning” the darkness you are spreading.

GVK: What are the advantages and disadvantages in releasing a game in episodic format?

AM: So far we’re uncertain about the advantages of releasing in an episodic format. Grimm will represent the first “true” episodic game – in the sense that new episodes come out, like television series, once per week in a pre-defined time slot. My feeling is that the size of our episodes (designed to be played in :30 minutes) and the regular release schedule will attract and retain an audience in a new (and hopefully better) way. It’s a grand experiment – we’ll only know the outcome once episodes start being released on July 31st.

That being said, we have found tremendous value in episodic development. Unlike traditional development where everyone is working to put 12+ hours into a fully functioning “whole” state and ship that inside single box, episodic development forced us to break things into more manageable chunks. That means that there’s little room for things to go wrong or schedules to slip without immediately seeing it. The development process is much easier to steer. The analogy I think of is piloting dozens of individual speed boats as opposed to a massive super tanker.

GVK: The scope of the game sounds amazing. What are some of the biggest obstacles you see in creating the game and what are your biggest goals for the game?

AM: We’ve already overcome all our major obstacles! But there were some pretty big ones. In the past 1.5 years we’ve grown a new studio from 2 people to over 55. We built a new studio in Shanghai, China – something that presents major challenges in itself, trust me! We’ve established a unique and compelling new game play concept, main character, and art style. And we’ve managed to build a highly efficient development model that has resulted in a very smooth production: no missed milestones, no budget overruns, and no loss in quality or fun. Oh, and best of all… we’ve never had a single crunch mode.

Our biggest goals? We really wanted to build something different. Not just the game, but the studio and its culture as well. I think that with all the goals we set for ourselves we’ve succeed. That success owes a lot to the opportunity that GameTap gave us, the talented people who joined the team from around the world, and our dedication to “doing it right”. We got really serious about process, best practices, and quality – and it has paid off in a big way.

GVK: What are some of the Fairy Tales that will be featured?

AM: The Brothers Grimm published more than 200 tales in all, so the first eight episodes will feature some tales most people are familiar with, Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood, but we will also have some lesser known tales like The Girl Without Hands and A Boy Learns What Fear Is.

July 31 A Boy Learns What Fear Is
August 7 Little Red Riding Hood
August 14 The Fisherman and His Wife
August 21 Puss In Boots
August 28 The Girl Without Hands
September 4 Godfather Death
September 11 The Devil and His Three Golden Hairs
September 18 Beauty and the Beast

GVK: What graphic engine is the game using, and what does it allow you to do that is new to the genre?


AM: We built the game with Epic’s UE3 engine. I think that officially makes Grimm a “next gen casual” game. Working with the UE3 toolset was a real pleasure. We initially tested a number of engine solutions, but found that UE3 had the best core tools, renderer, support, documentation, and talent base. It allowed us to prototype quickly and focus on core mechanics – something critically important when trying to nail an innovative art style and game mechanic.

A lot of what we did “new” with the engine actually involved simplifying things that are considered normal in next-gen games these days. For instance, our art style called for a story-book flatness and chunkyness to the characters and objects in the game. That meant that high-tech lip synching and facial animation (something UE3 does out of the box) would be out of place… so we had to effectively “dumb down” the facial animation system to achieve something closer to a South Park style of facial animation. Tim Sweeny (the lead engineer on UE3) probably wouldn’t be impressed.

GVK: What can you tell gamers about the control system in the game?

AM: Because we wanted to make sure that even the most casual gamer could enjoy Grimm we designed the controls to be super simple: everything on a two-button mouse. You can also combine mouse with keyboard or use a gamepad. Either way, the controls boil down to run, jump, and a “buttstomp” attack. As you run around you level up by converting more and more things from light to dark. The higher your level, the bigger the things you can convert, the faster you run, and the higher you can jump. Sounds overly simple, but once you start playing it is highly addictive.

GVK: What can you tell readers about the score of the game as I would think that the right music and sounds are essential to set the mood for the game.

AM: The score and sound effects were all created in-house by our composer/sound engineer Jason Tai. He brought a wide mix of styles and influences to the process of composing Grimm’s music. It suits perfectly the wide range of narratives, characters, and locations you see in the episodes. He also handled creating all of the game’s sound effects in-house. And we recorded some pick-up VO at our in-house sound studio.

The game’s main character Grimm is voiced by veteran VO actor Roger Jackson. Roger has previously lent his talents to cartoons like Power Puff Girls, movies like Scream, and video games like Sam & Max. He also did several voices for my own Alice game. Not only does Roger do Grimm’s voice, but because Grimm is presenting puppet theaters – Roger does Grimm doing the voices of all the fairy tale characters! Quite a feat – and he does an amazing job of it.

GVK: How do you balance action, story, and puzzle solving in a game like this and is there a temptation to prioritize one over the other?

AM: We did prioritize! Our focus was narrative, art, gameplay – in that order. Some people read that to mean that gameplay was the least important aspect, but that’s not how we looked at it. Our sense is that story and characters are what give life to the world, art is what draws you in, and gameplay of course is what holds you. We arranged our priorities in that fashion and the result is something we think is really compelling.

GVK: What can you tell the readers about the Alice movie and its production?

AM: I just did a detailed interview with Scott Faye, the film’s producer. I posted it over on my blog here.

In the interview he answers questions about the film and its status.

Also be sure to check out all the cool Grimm content you can find on my blog and on the GameTap site: www.gametap.com/grimm

GVK: It has been said that Grimm will be available for X-Box live. Looking down the road do you see the PC as the preferred platform for your games or is the time of the console being the dominant platform approaching?

AM: I still feel very strongly that PC as a platform is excellent for innovative, smaller scale concepts like Grimm. And with a publisher like GameTap to help developers get their creative ideas built and to the market – it’s even more viable than ever. I’ll maintain my passion for PCs as long as there’s an audience, and the last time I checked, the PC gamer audience is bigger than all the console players put together. In all, not a bad place to be.

Gareth Von Kallenbach is a syndicated movie & game critic, writer, author and frequent radio guest. His work has appeared in over 60 publications worldwide and he is the creator of entertainment site "Skewed and Reviewed".