Like most stories, this starts with a girl. Rather, this starts with a boy chasing a girl — to Hong Kong. The boy wasn't a boy, but developer American McGee. And the girl?
We'll get to her later. For the time being, she's the impetus that spurred McGee to start frequently visiting Hong Kong and eventually fall in love with the city.
McGee first cut his teeth at id Software, working on the first two DOOM and Quake titles. After turning out the seminal American McGee's Alice, while working for EA, he was looking for an opportunity to work in the region he loved. All he needed was a chance.
"A chance did present itself — the making of Bad Day LA," McGee recalls. "I can't say now that it was the 'right' chance in terms of the project — what a stinker. But it did get me into the region and taught me a mountain of lessons about game production in China...and in general."
Back in the States, McGee had set-up his own company, but he found himself in China, exploring Hong Kong and Shanghai and befriending ex-pat business entrepreneurs. With the debacle that was Bad Day LA behind him, McGee got something few get: a second chance.
Online game service GameTap offered McGee the opportunity to do Grimm, inspired by the German fairy tales, as an episodic title just as he was helping an Australian friend, art director Ken Wong, start an game art outsource studio in Shanghai. (Wong befriended McGee after sending the game creator Alice fanart — McGee later asked Wong to do art for the eventually canceled American McGee's Oz.) "All roads led to China," says McGee.
McGee left everything in America behind: his car, his possessions. "I reduced my life down to two suitcases, a laptop, and a cat," he says. "Voluntarily losing everything and starting again from scratch is a powerfully cathartic experience. If you want to feel at home in a new place, make sure you burn down your old place first."
Those first days living in Hong Kong were rough. Two years of previously back-and-forthing between the States and Hong Kong, aka "China-light," helped buffer the initial culture shock many new comers feel. "The difficulty of adjusting to a place like China is all about how flexible a person is," says McGee. "I see a lot of foreigners come to Shanghai and get bent out of shape because they think the world here should operate exactly as it does back home."
It was 2007, and China was buzzing — with optimism and energy. "Chinese contemporary society is like a whirlwind," says McGee's business partner and art director, Ken Wong. "It seems to have changed in 10 years as much as America has in the past 40." McGee and Wong, started boutique studio dubbed "Spicy Horse" or "Ma La Ma" in Chinese. Initially, they worked out of their homes on an island off the Hong Kong coast. "We moved into some really low-rent warehouse space in Shanghai upon our initial landing in the mainland," says McGee. "From there we moved a few more times, ever growing the company, taking on more people, and evolving the culture."
Making Grimm in China did present it's own set of unique challenges. "For me, the biggest challenge was pushing a Chinese art team to work together and be creative on subject matter and in an art style they were totally unfamiliar with," says Wong. "It's a tall order for any young art team that has never worked together, let alone one who grew up with cultural revolution and dubbed anime rather than Bugs Bunny, the Jetsons, and Little Golden Books."
There weren't just culture differences to contend with, but linguistic. Being immersed helped, and McGee kept plugging away. "One of the biggest challenges in a language like Chinese is that there are no 'anchor points' such as those an English speaker might find in French or Spanish." So while in English speakers can take a stab at words in European languages, there isn't the same learning curve for Chinese. "If you don't know a word, you simply don't and no guessing will help you grok it."
Language wasn't the only difference. While packaged titles rule in the West, China is different. "There's no such thing as 'box product' game – everything is online," McGee points out. So publishers here are all about online. And many of them have made a massive fortune online — but usually with only one or two successful games." Because of that, innovation is pushed to the side by the laziness that success brings.
"In general they're resistant to innovation, despite the fact they're sitting on huge piles of money," says McGee. "Their organizations might be huge, but there's not a lot of creative direction where it counts — in the trenches. These days, he concedes, things are, like with the rest of the country, changing and fast.
The game industry in China is still growing, still young, still hungry. "As the public becomes more discerning and computer specs in internet cafes increase, I think they will demand higher quality and more creativity from Chinese developers, who from my perspective, are adept at churning on casual games and MMOs, but with little innovation," says Wong. While, for some, China still strikes images of sweatshops and grossly underpaid laborers, the game business could not be further from those stereotypes. "The truth is, in our industry, we're working with top talent — people who demand and deserve world-standard wages, inspiring work environments, and a guarantee that their efforts are protected by reasonable production practices and solid development processes," says McGee.
"If you come to China hoping to make world-class games on the cheap, then you'll fail. Product development here takes every bit of care, creativity, and compassion as it does elsewhere," says McGee. "You don't get that sort of stuff 'cheap'. People who ignore this, whether in China or elsewhere, fail at their endeavors — deservedly.
I read a lot of bigotry and racism in people's comments about China, the Chinese workforce, and working conditions. People comment on 'slave labor in China', talk about 'backward China' and spew other unfounded hate. These aren't just misconceptions about the industry — but about the country and its people in general."
Spicy Horse expat hire Clifford Chin and junior producer adds, "Sometimes I have to deal with a stigma or prejudice from some other people within the industry who don't know what we are doing here at Spicy Horse or in China. A lot of people still think I work for an outsourcing company and there's definitely a negative connotation when you hear the word outsource."
In comparison to the hours that many in the game industry clock, Spicy Horse workers have it good: Monday to Friday, 8 hours a day. To date, the company hasn't had a crunch period or a work-weekend. "I attribute this to our strong production processes," says McGee, "and the dedication of the development team."
The Spicy Horse employees sing the company's praises. According to lead level designer SunYiMing, who's been in the industry over 5 years and worked for a Western developer, "It is quite different from working for some big company that there is no 'big shot' who knows little, but decides a lot. Everyone feels free to express their own ideas." Fellow level designer JiFeng chimes in, "American's an affable boss, and kind to everyone."
There is a solid mix of Western expats at Spicy Horse and Chinese team members. Expat Spicy Horse hire Olivier Leroux explains, "The team is international. Because of the differences of culture which you need to overcome, I feel there is a possibility to grow both professionally and as an individual."
For American, the future is China. "I've said it before, but I think it's worth repeating: The international development community should keep an eye on China. As the development community here learns (and does so quickly) and finds more outlets into Western markets, it will become a proper and powerful contender with established Western studios and publishers." The experience has changed him — as business partner Ken Wong points out: "American seems happier and more content these days. China seems to provide enough adventure and inspiration for him, while building the company keeps him grounded."
China maybe the future for the gaming industry, but not necessarily McGee. The developer is settling into Shanghai for the next couple of years, but eventually, he might feel that need to unroot and start from scratch all over again. Thailand, Vietnam or even possibly Africa. "I'd like to make another 'great game' — if I can," says McGee. "If in the next few years I can't manage that, then who knows, it might be time for something different. But that 'different' wouldn't be complete if I just came back home. I hope to keep exploring, traveling, and finding new challenges."
And what ever happened to that girl McGee followed all the way to Hong Kong? "The girl...she and I are still friends, but we eventually went our separate ways. These days she's still in Hong Kong, happily married, etc. I've since found myself another nice Hong Kong girl to spend my days with. Oddly enough, her name is 'Alice.'"
Those interested in checking out more photos of the Spicy Horse offices, do visit American McGee's flickr.