Interview with American McGee Part 1

To celebrate the release of Toy Glider and to spice up the blog a bit I thought I start a series of interviews with other developers from the game dev community. Who’s better to start than somebody who has been making games for a long time without any signs of slowing down. Enter American McGee.

T: Beta testing Akaneiro, regularly adding content to Big Head Bash as well as Crazy Fairies and now  planning your Kickstarter Campaign. You’re keeping yourself busy. How do you manage all these projects at the same time?

A: Over the years the studio has developed an internal culture that expects and rewards multi-disciplined people who are comfortable wearing lots of hats and jumping between a variety of tasks and projects. At times it can feel a little disorienting to keep track of everything that’s going on – but no one has ever complained of boredom from repetition. For everyone in the studio the balancing act requires decent organizational and prioritization skills. We all try our best to maintain basic tracking sheets with an understanding of priority based on feedback from the studio at large. We hold a weekly meeting where we assign resources for the next week – and from that basic resource planning flows the detailed planning that makes each department hum along for another week.

T: Over the years, I’ve noticed that you have a very refined daily routine. Could you share a bit how you developed it and how has it evolved over the course of your career?

A: As with many things, it was the child of necessity. Moving to China while still working with Western publishers meant needing to be up early enough to engage with them on conference calls. This was especially true (and initially painful) with Gametap, who were based in Atlanta, Georgia. Over time I became more and more accustomed to starting work super early and going home at some reasonable hour like 6PM. Most of the development I witnessed in the US involved long hours and late nights, which meant people had no life outside of work. I found that with an early start and relatively early return home I could actually do things like cook dinner, get some exercise and spend time with my loved ones. Though the early morning calls are fewer these days, I still maintain the ‘farmer schedule’ because I think it’s a healthier one – and the people working in the studio seem to agree.

T: In the last few years indie game development has exploded. New ways of funding combined with easier access to market allows smaller companies to bootstrap and fund themselves creating a lot more games that vary in quality and size. How do you think this affects the industry as a whole. 

A: More content from a wider range of creative voices is always a good thing. It’s a sign of an ecosystem in which developers and consumers have a choice. When distribution (and development by proximity) is controlled by a select few, everyone suffers; except of course the monopolists. We should expect to see more variety in game types, art styles and distribution/monetization models as a result of more developers and having direct access to distribution platforms.

T: When you started Spicyhorse you took a chance on hiring a fairly inexperienced team. Since then many of them have moved on to work for some of the best game companies in the world. It could be said that you jump started their careers. How do you feel about that. 

A: It’s always been my intention to give people a chance. It’s one of the main reasons I came to China in the first place. When I first arrived in Shanghai what I saw was a landscape of highly talented game developers trapped within a select few industries – either outsourcing for Western publishers or working for local operators. In both cases, the amount of creative freedom to be had was pretty limited. My thought was that by opening an independent studio with a focus on original content and high quality of life we’d be able to attract some of the best and brightest from the local and global market. Ever since my own entry into the industry was the result of someone taking a chance on me (when John Carmack hired me at id, despite my lack of experience) I’ve felt it part of my responsibility to continue that tradition. The formula early on was “hire highly experienced local talent and pair them up with inexperienced expats looking for learning and adventure”. That’s worked out great for everyone involved – creating very unique company culture and outputting a large number of highly skilled developers who’ve gone on to amazing new heights after their time here.

T: For anyone interested in getting into the industry. What do you look for when hiring? 

A: We don’t look at written qualifications anywhere near as much as personality and the uniqueness of their ‘pitch’. When trying to get into the industry, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone has “passion”. Passion alone won’t get you anywhere – you have to find a way to go above and beyond in proving your ability and desire. Just saying “I’m passionate about games” isn’t enough. Find a way to prove it by building a demo, creating fantastic art or making a video in which you show off your ideas.

For the Second part of this interview with American McGee be sure to check back this Friday.