Insider Q&A: American McGee talks The Gate

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By Jon Robinson Comment

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Pokemon in hell.

That’s how famed video game designer American McGee laughingly describes his new demon-collecting, free-to-play, mobile action-adventure, The Gate, a title that sends users into a fiery inferno, battling monsters while amassing an army of their own in order to dominate users worldwide with their own band of beasts.

Inside Mobile Apps caught up with McGee during his recent visit to San Francisco to find out more about this hellish quest.

Demon Pikachu not included.

Inside Mobile Apps: What should fans expect when they download The Gate?

American McGee: Our studio has a background making console and larger-scale PC games, so we’ve been trying to bring a bit of the quality and style and the 3D assets to the mobile and multi-player space. This is actually our fourth title in the mobile/online space, and it’s taking everything we’ve learned, combined with the knowledge that DeNA has brought to the table, specifically with games within this genre, and we’ve wrapped it inside a story where the player is going into hell. I’ve been jokingly describing it as Pokemon in hell because you’re fighting against demons, then collecting these same demons and then doing the usual card collecting and upgrading of and skill-expansion of those units.

We’ve also presented the fight mechanic in a pretty interesting way, as it’s much closer to a traditional RTS or RPG-style interface, so the player can engage with, in real time, the battles between the units as those things play out.

[contextly_sidebar id=”8765a44c4091cd34941b979eb160fb8e”]IMA: What’s the storyline behind the adventure?

AM: We actually started off with a pretty complicated story behind it. Myself and my writing partner RJ, we worked on the Alice games and wrote the stories for those together, and we started off with something that was pretty heavy in terms of a narrative where the main character descends into hell then is guided through this story where you either spend eternity twiddling your thumbs in hell or you engage in Thunderdome-like fights against these demons. There was a larger story above this, where there were these different forces in hell competing against each other while you play in this gladiator arena, but what we found was, as we were making this a mobile product, we wanted to streamline that. So we’ve reduced it down to a simple, you’re in hell, and you’re fighting and collecting these demons. You’re playing against other people playing the game in order to build up the most powerful collection of forces possible. One of the big aspects of the product is actually going into these PvP arenas and fighting against each other. That’s really become the emphasis. It’s not really the story of the larger forces in hell and how you play into their battles. Instead, it’s you versus other players inside of these arenas, and it’s basically King of the Hill and who can build up the greatest deck and who can dominate in these PvP arena battles.

IMA: From Alice to The Gate, why do you think you keep coming back to these dark places in your game designs?

AM: We’ve tried to make a combination of lighter-toned games as well as the darker ones, but it seems like what works best with the audience that follows what we do, are the darker games. In a sense, it’s not the only thing that we do, but it seems like it’s the thing that we do the best. In this case, it’s always fun to go back and look at a bunch of classic stories and classic mythologies and find a way to modernize them and update them. We’ve taken some traditional Dante’s Inferno storylines and combined that with some of the demons and demonology from both Christianity and Judaism and Sumerian culture, and we’ve infused this product with all of these storylines. We hope that this combination will appeal to a pretty broad range of people.

IMA: Is there one demon in particular people should keep an eye on, or a demon who has the craziest powers?

AM: We’re going to be adding packs of new demons as time moves forward, but for today, I think I’ll leave it up to the players to jump in there and see who they like best. Certainly, I have ones I like, as do other people in the office, but it’s really about how you want to build out your deck and your fight style. All of them have a really spectacular visual style, and as you move through the game, you’ll get bigger and bigger units that have even cooler animations. The art style is definitely something that we think will be a big selling point. These are all 3-D models that are hand animated and done in a really great style, so it’s hard to say which demon is best. I think over time, we’re going to see an evolution. There’s a lot to pick from there.

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IMA: How many demons can you collect in your army?

AM: The deck is pretty traditional. Your combat deck is just four units, but as you move through the game and you fight, you’re filling up your side deck, and right now, we have an upper limit of about 40 cards. Of course, you can expand that limit, but you’re constantly consuming those cards to upgrade the ones in your combat deck, so you don’t really tend to hold onto some of the cards for very long.

IMA: So what’s the ultimate goal when you play? Do you eventually fight the devil himself, or is the ultimate goal more about being the top PvP player?

AM: Originally, the story was going to be about you facing off against the larger powers that be in hell, but we found that it was much more engaging if I face-off against you, you being a very strong player inside the game world. So we put the emphasis on the idea of you being the trainer and collector and achieving a certain rank and status. On a weekly basis, we’re going to revolve through different layers of hell and present them as arenas in PvP battles. So the goal there is for individual players to achieve standing and to really stand out among the other players. We’re putting the emphasis on the players as opposed to the storyline where there might be a larger force at work.

IMA: The Gate is the latest big title to hit the free-to-play market this year. As a game designer, what do you like about the F2P business model?

AM: It’s one of the reasons I went to China and started a studio there, because it’s the largest, in terms of numbers of players there, but also the most lucrative in terms of revenue, of all the game markets in the world. It’s also one of the more vibrant game markets, as they have a really fast evolution of game design, not to mention the variety of content in the marketplace. I think that’s largely driven by the success of the free-to-play model, because it gives players a choice. They have access to original and exciting content, and just like walking into a store, they can decide whether they want to shop there and support that idea or not. So for us, it’s one of the reasons I moved out, I wanted to be exposed to that type of design culture. I think it’s going to play a very big part in how game development and publishing goes into the future.

Gate_300IMA: As a gamer, do you like it, or would you rather just pay the premium price and get everything you need to play?

AM: I don’t see it as black and white. I think the ecosystem is going to support multiple versions of how games get made and how you or I as a gamer pay for them. I engage with games in a Kickstarter format, where I’m helping give money into the development of a concept, I play free-to-play games, and I even like the premium Xbox and PlayStation games as well. I think that the different models support different types of development and different types of innovation, and ultimately, I don’t think they’re exclusive of one another. Maybe the rapid development that you get with the free-to-play mobile title might invent concepts that you see in a premium title later on or vice versa. As technology in tablets gets more powerful and catches up with consoles in terms of horsepower, you start to see console concepts in game design filter over into the mobile sphere. So I think they can be complimentary to each other, and there doesn’t need to be one or the other. The fact is, they tend to help each other out quite a bit.

IMA: What else are you seeing in China, in terms of trends in the mobile space, that might be popping up in the United States in the near future?

AM: I think the biggest thing is just the degree of penetration of smartphones and just how many people are playing games on smartphones. It’s also amazing to see the level success a wide number of these free-to-play games are seeing over there. I think another thing that’s really interesting is just how rapidly the game design has evolved, and the presentation of game content is evolving in China because they don’t have a console market. That means that everyone is focused on trying to put the best content, the best stories, and the best experience on mobile, and that kind of competition drives innovation, so I think what we’re going to see is all the ideas and quality of what we’re seeing over there filter over to the U.S., and drive even better game design and content in the near future.

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