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October 18, 1999
American 'Tokay' McGee, 26, has earned enough brand equity in the world of computer game designing to now have a game named after him: 'American McGee's Alice'.
It is at id Software that American McGee entered the hall of fame as a level designer.
Last year he was canned by id. But he was soon picked up by another software house, Electronic Arts, and made creative director, but not before burning his fingers in an Internet gambling stint.
In this interview with Sutapa Mukherjee, on his first visit to India, this man with a strange name, talks of his fallout with id, his salvation with Electronic Arts, one of the largest marketers of video games and his imminent rebirth in Hollywood.
What did you do at Id software?
I was a senior designer and created the levels, not all the levels but a majority of the levels. I also directed the music. I worked with the rock group Nine Inch Nails on Quake for the sound effects and music. I also did a share of programming and art direction.
Basically, everybody there wore multiple hats. For most of the products there were three artists, three level designers and three programmers.
The artists created the 2-D textures that go on the walls and the 3-D models that are used to create the characters, weapons and other items in the game.
The level designer would funnel all this content to actually make the game.
Why did you leave id?
I was disenchanted with id. I was about to leave the company when the company found out about it and put out a notice saying that they have let go of me. I thought it was immature but I was preparing to leave anyway.
Not a lot of people understand how political and stressful the working conditions can get. We would be working for 18 hours at a stretch for one and a half to two years on a single product and with all that time and work we still didn't have time to really focus on real value addition.
And it shows. Doom, Doom2, Quake and Quake 2 are basically the same game. The technology changes, the textures, the weapons, the monsters you fought, change but really the basic game design never changes.
It became frustrating for we didn't have enough time to work on content. After a while you get tired because it was almost like you were making the same movie over and over again.
Players expect to be drawn into the story and the drama of games. It wasn't happening and it got frustrating for us designers. And then designers were leaving id all the time and every few months I was working with a whole new team.
I was the last of the non-owners to leave. In fact, I stayed four and a half years, a very long time by industry standards. The last year was the least enjoyable and the most stressful.
What did you do after leaving id Software?
I had started an Internet gambling company with a friend. We had named it One Digital. But it didn't quite work out. I lost a good deal of money and my patience. Then I was offered to be creative director with Electronic Arts.
EA is one of the biggest and one of the oldest computer games in the industry and I have been given the freedom to make whatever I want and with whatever budget.
At Electronic Arts, what are you working on at present?
It is a project named American McGee's Alice. It is pretty embarrassing. But it was not my idea - the company is trying to make some money off my name.
Well, Alice is roughly based on Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland. You have all the main characters from the story, like Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. And it's very different from the other games I have designed.
Instead of a machine gun Alice has a butcher knife and instead of a grenade a jack-in-the-box and she is much more involved with the characters.
We've actually got a story. It evokes emotions and the drama unfolds while you play.
How different is the environment at Electronic Arts?
My current employers basically said here is the money - you can make whatever you want to make. So I went ahead and actually licensed the Quake 3 engine which id is developing now and hired a group of guys and we actually spent several months writing out the design even before we sat at our computers. Our artists created the concept drawing for characters and the locations. Now we know what's going to happen.
How big is the money in this business and how did it affect you?
If one takes a company like id, it rakes in close to 100 million dollars in a given year that is divided among nine guys. That is part of the reason that made the internal politics of id so miserable.
I came from a very poor family and I was very irresponsible at first. For me it was an overnight change - from making almost nothing to making a lot of money.
It was a lot of fun but not for very long. I was very miserable. I lost friends. I lost family and pretty much lost touch with a lot of things.
Eventually I realised money is not the most important thing. Today I am not making as much money as I used to but am much happier.
How do you see yourself in a few years?
Maybe as a scriptwriter for films. I like writing and am already working on scripts for horror films and thrillers. I have a lot of friends in Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
Last summer I spent time working with Michael Crichton, the writer and producer of Jurassic Park. I spent a lot of time with him and we went through the whole process, creating a design work.
I got to see how movies were made and I gave some serious though about making a career in writing scripts. So let's see.
In the aftermath of several schoolyard shootings, the computer game industry is being accused of inciting violence in children. How much of the blame do you think the makers of these games should shoulder?
I don't agree that the games are the source of violence. Firstly, the American game industry has been self-regulated for quite sometime. There is a voluntary rating system that video games have been using on themselves for five years so the buyer is aware of the degree of violence at the point of purchase.
Also, the media has blown the issue out of proportion. The blame should be put on the parents. I really don't feel it's the fault of the product. A lot of people say it desensitises children. But it is up to the parents to teach their kids the difference between fantasy and reality.
These games cost quite a lot of money, about $50 to $60. It is not like buying a comic book. So parents need to give them that money and presumably they are aware of the kind of games being bought by their children.
Finally, our main market is between the range of 16 years to 50 years and people in this age group are not children.
What do you want to tell young aspirants who want to enter the computer games industry?
Passion is all you need. You don't need formal training. If you want to study, study for yourself, not to get into the industry. Prepare yourself for hard work and be passionate.
What kind of games do you like to play?
I am not much of a player and I do not always play the games I have designed. But I do play racing games. I like them more than the others.
What would you consider as a high point in your career?
I have been part of creating this culture and that has been gratifying. All this labour turning into something real that people enjoy.
Why do you think computer games are not marketed to women? It's a very male oriented industry.
It's been told that women have poor spatial skills while navigating 3-D space. It may be an evolutionary thing. I've noticed that girls get frustrated while trying to move around in these spaces and they get lost in these games, which are basically maze games. But there are exceptions.
It is also the subject. It tends to attract boys just like action movies tend to attract more men that women. But I'm hoping we get a broader appeal.
How do you foresee tomorrow's market?
It's pretty simple. Computers will keep getting faster. The technology will keep getting better and the games will have to keep up with that. It also means more freedom for us designers but it also means more work.
How has piracy affected the industry?
Piracy has always hampered the industry. It is difficult to get a non-pirated product here in India or in Asia. But very soon with the boom in online purchase, piracy will decrease.
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