Spicy Horse’s first foray into the world of crowdfunding was a success, with action-RPG Akaneiro: Demon Hunters funded to the tune of US$204,680 earlier this year. The Shanghai-based developer has already put the fate of another project at the mercy of Kickstarter: a unique take on The Wizard of Oz called OZombie.

However, this time the studio’s proposal has struggled to find an audience. With OZombie’s campaign nearly half way through and at less than 15 per cent of its funding goal, the game’s future lies in the balance. Spicy Horse founder American McGee walks us through where he believes things have been going wrong, and outlines how the soon-to-be-renamed OZombie will be salvaged.

Q: How do you think the OZombie Kickstarter is coming along so far?

The Fickle Public: American McGee on OZombie's Kickstarter mistakes
American McGee

American McGee: I will admit that it’s struggling. There are expectations people have about performance in the early days of these campaigns that indicate in a general sense how they are gonna wind up and whether they will be successful. Ours is certainly pretty far outside what people consider to be the healthy zone, so that gives us concern.

But at the same time, we’re listening to the existing backers, and we’re working to come up with ideas that we think are going to help improve the situation. Certainly there is enough interest and there is enough backing so far to tell us that we don’t just wanna give up completely – that there’s still something to fight for here. And also we’re able to recognise we made some mistakes early on that we need to correct before we throw in the towel.

Q: What mistakes are you referring to?

McGee: Probably the most obvious one is in the naming of the game. The title OZombie, which we thought was pretty cute and which I thought from a storytelling perspective did a pretty good job of going to the heart of the narrative theme of the game. But the problem is people are confusing this application of ‘zombie’ with the version that we’re seeing more frequently these days – which is these brain-hungry flesh-eating zombies – when in fact we’re using an older version of the term that refers to social or political situations where people give away their ability to make decisions.

It’s not like we didn’t think about it or think through the various scenarios and try to figure out the outcome. But clearly we got it wrong.
American McGee

They become zombies in response to power figures – political figures who are manipulating them or deceiving them. So I thought people might read beyond the headline when we made the announcement, but in fact what happened was everybody assumed that this was the traditional game style with brain-hungry zombies, and that I think messed us up quite a bit.

Beyond that, I think there’s also been some sense that there could be more about the game and that’s taken us by surprise because there’s been several successful Kickstarter campaigns recently like the Massive Chalice and Torment: Tides of Numenera campaigns that both funded successfully without showing gameplay footage. Yet we’re getting hammered for not revealing enough of the game in action.

So that seems to be another mistake on our part – to assume that given the track record of the studio and the types of games we’ve made in the past, that with what we are proposing this time people would be able to connect the dots. Instead there seems to be a significant demand to see more of a finished design and more of a playable game.

The Fickle Public: American McGee on OZombie's Kickstarter mistakes
Lion was left to rule the jungles of Oz.

Q: Why did you include a stretch goal for the Alice Otherlands property in the OZombie Kickstarter?

McGee: We thought when this opportunity came up that more exposure for the campaign would be a good thing. My expectation was that when we announced this Alice connection, we were going to see a massive flood of Alice supporters and fans of the Alice game coming to the campaign and helping us get to our goal.

In fact what we saw was a very small number of people interested in Alice coming over, and then an equal number of people who were upset about the muddying of the campaign or confusion caused by the mixing in of this element backing out. So in all it was a wash for us – we miscalculated on that. We’re removing that aspect now – we’re gonna go and try and start a separate campaign just for the film rights for the Alice property.

Q: Wasn’t it too late to do a separate Kickstarter for the Alice rights?

McGee: We’re going to be running a two week campaign on Kickstarter. The timing issue is still there. We signed an agreement with these guys that gave us the duration of our OZombie Kickstarter campaign to get these rights secured. We talked about starting up a separate campaign, but we didn’t wanna do it because we thought that would cause confusion – that then people wouldn’t know where to put their money.

It’s tough on things like this, because it’s not like we didn’t think about it or think through the various scenarios and try to figure out the outcome. But clearly we got it wrong. I think what’s left to be seen is: if we launch this film-only campaign, does that somehow take away from the OZombie campaign? It’s tough to say.

Q: Assuming you secured the rights to Alice, where would the money required for film development come from?

McGee: Well it was our hope that OZombie was going to achieve a funding level that was much beyond the initial goal. Again, this is our, I guess you could say mistake in interpreting how campaigns like this have gone in the past. By industry standards it was a relatively modest initial goal. As you know, $800k is not much money to make a full-blown game, much less make animations as well.

Our sense was that people would get the value of what we’re proposing, and that would put us in a position to get OZombie made, get the Alice rights, and also produce a bit of animation. Ultimately if it wasn’t enough to get animations done, then we’d go and find some outside source for that. Obviously it’s impossible to pursue outside funding if we don’t hold on to these rights. My biggest concern these days is that this window of opportunity is going to close and these rights are going to end up in the hands of some corporation somewhere who may just sit on them for another decade, which has been the situation thus far.

Q: What happens if you fail to reach your funding goal?

McGee: We’re not thinking about it so much, because this Kickstarter campaign is just one of many things that we have going on. We have about 50 people here in Shanghai, and today almost everybody is focussed on support of our existing games or development of new titles like Hell Invaders that we just recently announced. So that’s enough stuff going on to keep everybody busy until the later part of this year.

If this campaign is not successful we’re perfectly fine to continue working on smaller developments that we can fund on our own. The idea for something like this is: we’re asking for help in building something bigger than we can build on our own.

Q: Is Double Fine’s recent admission that it is facing a funding shortfall for Broken Age a sign that the Kickstarter honeymoon period is over? Do consumers misunderstand what Kickstarter is for?

Publishers are not the bad guys. But it seems these days any time the business side of our industry gets in the spotlight it is immediately vilified.
American McGee

McGee: I think we’re seeing an unusual backlash against Kickstarter these days. I think a large part of the problem is being created by the games media, in that they’ve taken it upon themselves to be the defenders of the players and the fighters of the evil developers and the evil publishers, and they’ve got this sort of ‘getting justice’ theme that plays really well to the audience.

The audience eats this up because it’s them versus the man, it’s them versus the evil corporation, it’s them versus the scammer. This is great for the story that the media is trying to tell – everyone likes to see the bad guy defeated. The problem is that Kickstarter is not the bad guy, and Double Fine is not the bad guy. Publishers are also not the bad guys. But it seems to me these days that any time the business side of our industry gets in the spotlight it is immediately vilified. That people might want to make money is immediately vilified. Platforms like Kickstarter are viewed as a scam, and that there’s a bubble waiting to burst. I don’t think any of this is healthy at all.

Q: You are currently taking name suggestions for OZombie. Do you think that the high level of interaction a developer and audience have via something like Kickstarter increases the risk of a game being designed ‘by committee’?

McGee: I think that’s an excellent question, and you wanna go into a campaign being clear that there is still going to be some degree of direction and control by the team. Unless the stated goal is, ‘Hey, let’s make a game that’s 100 per cent crowd driven’. We haven’t suggested that – we haven’t suggested that this is us giving over control of design decisions to the audience, but we have said that we’re going to be listening.

If you look at the campaign and the pre-production phase before the campaign began, you’ll see that we have given the audience pretty significant control over certain aspects of the game, like the design of the main character. I think that’s the kind of thing where audience participation is valuable, because it’s something they can see – they can point at it with their friends and say ‘I was part of the team that made that’. [OZombie’s Dorothy design is based off a fan’s sketch – she will receive credit.]

But when it comes to things like the timing on a jump or the tuning of a combat mechanic, the reality is that those types of things are better left to testing. That’s very different from people posting on a forum.

Q: Do you think that access to developers via Kickstarter is a double-edged sword in that creators are much more open to the negativity of the Internet?

We’re still a very immature industry, we’re still trying to figure out the relationship between the media and the players and the creators.
American McGee

McGee: I’d have to say that my experience in the industry and the fact that I‘ve got this name that I didn’t really ask for – that is also a double edged sword. So I agree that Kickstarter is an extension of that. It’s a platform that while it’s meant to be for the Kickstarting of fresh ideas from relatively unknown teams, we’ve seen that having a marketable name goes a long way towards making something possible, but at the same time it can do more damage than good.

This seems to be the history of my being in the industry. At times the recognition is helpful, at times it can be incredibly difficult to sort through all the negativity that comes through as a result. I think a lot of it has to do with the state of our industry – we’re still a very immature industry, we’re still trying to figure out the relationship between the media and the players and the creators.

Older industries like film or music have built a better understanding of these relationships, and there is a healthier relationship between the creators and the audience. So it’s not that surprising to me, but at the same time I’ll be happy when the industry matures.

Q: What needs to happen for the industry to mature?

McGee: That’s a really complicated question, because I think it’s going to have to happen on every possible side of the issues that shape the kinds of content that we create, the devices on which we play, the publishing platforms through which we put our content out, the way in which the content is financed, the themes and ideas and the stories we’re telling, and even the way in which the games themselves control.

Even controller input is kinda leading to a particular style of game design. So I think there is a lot of stagnation because we’re still 20 years on making first-person shooters that we control with a keyboard and mouse, and we’re telling the same stories of violence and overcoming obstacles with shotguns that we were telling 20 years ago, and we’re still largely monetising in the west the way the retail business worked 20 years ago.

Basically all sides of this could evolve and improve. We’ll probably have to wait for all the individual pieces to be disrupted and grow before we’re gonna get to something different – and hopefully more healthy.

Q: What is your fascination with working with existing IP such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland?

The Fickle Public: American McGee on OZombie's Kickstarter mistakes
Dorothy meets the Tin Woodman.

McGee: There’s a large part of it that links up to people’s awareness of the stories. The Wizard of Oz and the Alice stories, Little Red Riding Hood which is what we based Akaneiro on – these all have awareness. It doesn’t matter if you go to India, China, the US – everywhere in the world, people know these stories.

Beyond that, there is a depth to these stories that transcend age and cross gender boundaries – they appeal to young and old, male and female. There’s something about them that when you read them as a child there is a simplicity, but as you grow older one of the reasons that they persist is because there’s a depth that’s revealed, and you start to realise there’s a lot more meaning than what you understood as a child.

That subtext, that subconscious awareness we all have of the deeper meaning of these stories is something that’s universal and that seems to be timeless. I’m not the only one who has made a business of updating these tales to match with the cultural norms and expectations of the world in which we live today – I’ve just happened to make a name for myself for doing that inside the games business.

Q: Any final thoughts?

McGee: We’d love to have people come over to check out the Kickstarter and engage with us if they have any questions. And if the Kickstarter looks interesting, lend your support and spread the word.