It’s strange that so few games reflect their creators’ own stories. Not in an autobiographical sense, of course, but in an allegorical sense. Very few games really echo the conditions and the mood of the studio in which they were created, or aggressively demonstrate how a studio is thinking, where it has come from, and where it’s going.
There are plenty of games that demonstrate how publishers are thinking. The organisation of the games industry almost demands it: studios must pitch projects that publishers are prepared to invest in, and what publishers are prepared to invest in is usually determined by market research. The clear problem is that by its nature, market research can only tell us what has been successful, and the extrapolations on what could be successful in the future are rather narrow. That would explain the glut of me-too MMOs and shooters at least, and the frequent lack of innovation in many boxed products. As videogame production and marketing costs toe the red line, any risk becomes that much riskier.
It’s precisely for these reasons that Akaneiro: Demon Hunters is so interesting. Currently in beta, Akaneiro is Little Red Riding Hood meets feudal Japan. It’s a self-published cross-platform PC and tablet game by Spicy Horse, a studio known best for its warped videogame revisions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It doesn’t break much new ground insofar as the dynamics that define the action-RPG genre, but aesthetically, it is quintessential American McGee, and a loud positioning statement by the Shanghai-based studio about its future, and the future of the wider industry.
A PEARL OF THE ORIENT
In more ways than one, Spicy Horse is well positioned to manage the convergence of Eastern and Western folklore in Akaneiro. Perhaps despite his unusually patriotic first name, American McGee says he fell in love with the idea of living outside the United States, and particularly with the idea of living in Asia.
“I passed up an opportunity to move to Japan back in the Alice era 12 years ago, and I always regretted that,” says McGee, who previously worked for id Software and Electronic Arts. “So an opportunity came up to move to Hong Kong, and I thought, ‘eh, close enough.’ I made that move knowing that the project I was going there for was a bad one, but that it was an opportunity to get out of the States, and to move to a new space.”
Working with McGee is chief operating officer and fellow US expat RJ Berg. Creative director Ben Kerslake and art director Ken Wong both hail from Australia. Chinese nationals hold most of the other key positions, says McGee.
“About nine to 10 years ago I first started coming to China, and I immediately saw a really unique opportunity that it seemed no one else had noticed. Western gamers have been unknowingly playing Chinese-produced content for quite a while now, but the people working here were stuck having to work for an outsource shop where they don’t get a lot of creative control.
“So I thought if we came up here and opened up a shop as an independent studio working on highly creative products, if we could give the people here a lot of creative freedom, then we would attract a lot of very talented people, and that has been the case.”
While McGee doesn’t believe a game’s appeal is limited by geography, his studio’s international team and unconventional location can only help it in a creative sense.
THE LOST WOLVES OF JAPAN
Alice: Madness Returns was the first boxed retail game to be fully conceived and developed in China. The game was a mechanically sound – if perhaps too conventional – action platformer. It received generally favourable marks from game critics and – anecdotally at least – higher praise from players for its compelling revision of Carroll’s Alice as an abused psychotic, and its interpretation of a twisted Wonderland riddled with cancerous industrialisation.
Engaging female leads and the perversion of fairy tales are two of McGee’s favourite creative springboards, and starting points that he has leveraged again in Akaneiro. For McGee, the female lead is an interesting archetype precisely because there are so few of them.
“I think that the Alice games proved that there was a very large female audience out there that are interested in the types of games we typically, as male gamers and as a male-dominated industry, think they’re not going to want to play,” says McGee, adding that 50 per cent of people who bought the original Alice and its sequel were female.
“The other thing that interested me in the female characters and this Japanese theme is the fact that the Alice games and the books – all the merchandise sells phenomenally well in Japan. When you go over there, you find again that it’s also a very balanced male to female audience, which is even more unusual in a market a where the core gamers are almost all male.”
“So to me, it just seemed that to design another game, that would have to be a prerequisite – that we would want it to be as open to as many people as possible.”
The concept for retelling Little Red Riding Hood in Japan first sparked for McGee when he read a book called The Lost Wolves of Japan by Brett Walker.
“I’m not sure what had inspired me to read that book, but that was a retelling of the history of wolves in Japan, and the decimation of wolves in Japan,” says McGee. The book lingers particularly on the era of their extinction during the Meiji restoration. Emperor Meiji was a radical moderniser who advocated the newly introduced American practice of cattle ranching. Until that time, wolves had been considered noble creatures that existed symbiotically with the Japanese as they kept deer and other herbivores from decimating crops. However, with the reclamation of large parts of wilderness in Hokkaido and Sapporo, and with the introduction of herds, the wolves naturally became adversarial to a new class of ranchers.
“So the wolves, amongst other things, were completely exterminated. Hunters were brought in to get rid of them all. It got me thinking about the whole idea of Little Red Riding Hood, and having her there. Initially, the concept was to have her there perhaps as one of those Western hunters, someone who – having been through what she’d been through – was maybe looking for a greater degree of revenge.”
It wasn’t until the game entered development after the release of Madness Returns that the premise eventually evolved and crystalised into what it is today. Now, Red and her oath sisters are Akane, members of an order whose purview has expanded from wolves to include all demons and ghosts from Japanese folklore. Only motifs from Little Red Riding Hood remain.
FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH
Spicy Horse’s approach to game design also diverges from standard practice. Whereas many studios will start by outlining the gameplay elements they wish to use first, Spicy Horse starts at the concept phase in writing or in art, says creative director Ben Kerslake.
“We value artistic creativity as a nucleus for any creative project [and] from there we’ll let game ideas grow depending on what technology is available to the studio at the time, and what we’re aimed at.”
Settling on the aesthetics and the theme first is hugely beneficial in one very important regard: after brand, these are the elements that resonate with players most, and it’s the reason Spicy Horse’s games are so conceptually engaging. But if art direction is first, that necessarily means game design is second, and it probably goes some way to explaining why the studio’s games are more highly regarded for their presentation than for their gameplay.
“I’ve always had a personal interest in traditional Asian art,” continues Kerslake. “I happened to be in Japan at the time, so I started to gather up a lot of reference material to add to the stuff that I already had. We went at it from adapting ink, woodcut, and watercolour to the drawn texture and the shader. We did some early tests, and they were very encouraging – just low polygon test models, seeing how far the shader and the lighting and those broader techniques could take us.”
Kerslake also points to the beautiful Jade Temple level in Madness Returns as a testing bed for many of the ideas that would come to define Akaneiro’s visual direction. The level features watercolours and paper, and as Alice progresses, the effect becomes more prominent. “Originally, Ken [Wong] and I had planned to push it even further,” he says. “We did do this to a degree, but we were reined in on the stylistic stuff a little, especially through EA.”
Nonetheless, “The approach to developing the shaders, textures, and general art style application was the same methodology. So we knew how we were going to do it, and how other games had done it. I keep coming back to the Clover Studio games, because their stuff relied less on 3D fidelity, and more on shaders, and art – that’s where the artist comes into it.”
BOLTING FROM THE STABLE
Kerslake isn’t alone in reflecting on the studio’s publisher interactions tepidly. American McGee has few kind words left for the traditional console and publisher model Spicy Horse left behind after the release of Alice: Madness Returns. It’s telling that he discusses the publisher model in the past tense:
“That publisher model was brilliant – for the publishers, and for the console manufacturers, because it was all based on the idea of scarce shelf space. That’s what drove production costs to where they were as ridiculous as they were, what drove marketing costs to what they were, what drove the limitation of creativity that we saw in the marketplace in the last 20 years.”
“Everything has been heading towards this peak of extreme spending on marketing, massive teams, limited choice for consumers, and it's been this thing where it’s a race to the worst possible combination of things that you could possibly want from an industry, and that’s typically what happens when you have a monopoly.”
“So whether the consumers recognised or not, certainly the EAs and the Activisions knew what they’d built, because it was all about locking [people] out.”
“So I think that’s a model that deserves to die. I think over the years it deserved a lot more hatred than it got from developers and consumers, and just about everybody. But they were very effective in making sure that people loved their masters.”
Unsurprisingly, McGee believes the future is closely tied to PC and portable devices. “I think that the concept of ‘what is a console’ will eventually be challenged,” adds McGee. “Eventually these devices that we call phones but that we barely use as phones are going to be the consoles, and there will be a blending and a crossover when that happens.”
“So in effect it is a console, and the question becomes, ‘what exactly is it we’re using our consoles for?’ And I think that PCs also are going to play a part in degrading the value proposition for consoles because digital distribution mechanisms like Steam, Amazon, and web-based games – customers are going to ask themselves, ‘Why would I want this device that I can’t upgrade, I can’t modify, I can’t control?’”
Spurning the publisher model puts the onus on everything from investment to marketing back on Spicy Horse, and it's something that McGee and the studio are spending a tremendous amount of time learning, he says.
“It’s almost like making the games now is – I hate to say it – the easy part. Enough people in this office have been doing it long enough that we can hit our targets for making a game on time, on budget, and to the specs that we specified when we set out to do it. But all the marketing, free-to-play monetisation, word of mouth, viral – all of this stuff is a whole new challenge, and that’s where we’re having to spend a lot of time learning.”
Regardless of what business you’re in, there are times where a publisher can be of service, says McGee, but instead of working with a one-stop shop, he and the studio are now free to pick and choose smaller, specialised agencies with expertise in a particular field the company requires assistance with.
“It puts a lot more burden on the developer to choose the right marketer, but I think our options are healthier when we don’t end up with, ‘There’s only 10 publishers to choose from. If we want to get into the market, we’re going to have to trust one of them, even if we know all of them are assholes, or that all of them have their flaws.’”
The biggest challenge right now is discovering the right way to monetise Akaneiro – and other titles on the studio's slate – and it’s a question that cuts straight to the sustainability of Spicy Horse’s revised business.
“No one in this studio – that I’m aware of – feels greedy. No one is saying to themselves that they would like to generate a mountain of money, or an excess of success, but at the same time people do want to eat.”
The answer is to educate gamers who perhaps have become accustomed to free content, and who may balk at the suggestion that they should pay for anything. McGee refers to a poorly informed comment he read recently on Kotaku that asked aloud why any consumer would pay a developer to make a game when that’s already their job.
“I think there are people in the world who don’t, as consumers, know how to put a value on, or appreciate the value of the work they’re consuming, and that’s an education problem.”
Even so, McGee says that people are still prepared to spend a great deal of money on PC and in the app space. “We have customers right now that may spend $50 - $100 per week.”
“We’re seeing a response that is greater than anything we ever saw when people were buying our console games.”
Akaneiro: Demon Hunters is currently in closed beta. Interested parties can apply to playtest the unfinished game by signing up to Spicy Horse’s newsletter.