Acclaimed videogame creator American McGee as returned to Wonderland with the help of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3. Electronic Arts published the long-awaited sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, across PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in June 2011. McGee’s Shanghai-based Spicy Horse, which is the largest Western game development studio in China, brought this universe to life using UE3. McGee has worked with this engine over the past few years on episodic game projects like Grimm, which added a twisted take to classic faerie tales.
“It helped a great deal that we'd had a good experience with it on our Grimm project,” explained McGee, senior creative director, Spicy Horse. “That was super-rapid prototyping and development across a series of 24 individual downloadable games. When it came to Alice: Madness Returns, we wanted an engine solution that would play to our strengths — content production, art presentation, storytelling and delivery of wide ranging game mechanics — while granting that same flexibility and speed we'd experienced with Grimm. We did eval on several other tech solutions before returning to UE3 and found that none of them could offer that.”
McGee added that based on his studio’s previous experience with the tech, they were able to move quickly into a full prototype stage on Alice while doing pre-production and design. He compared this stage as the equivalent to “sketching” ideas with the game engine. Although much of what was done during this phase ended up being cut, everything taught the team valuable lessons that were applied to full-blown game development and production.
“Compared to other game engines we've used, Unreal tech is one of the fastest and easiest to use, especially when it comes to the content pipeline,” said McGee. “When it comes to integrating new people into our production team, it usually takes only a few days for them to familiarize themselves with the development environment and start producing.”
Spicy Horse had 70 internal developers working on Alice and another 45 externally building 3D assets. With two U.S. developers focusing on story creation and community management, a team of 117 brought this sequel to life.
McGee said all aspects of the core Unreal tech were used in the production of this game, from Kismet to Matinee, FaceFX and more. Through Kismet and Matinee Spicy Horse has been able to present a wide range of beautiful interactive and dynamic environments representing Alice's psyche.
“It's a truly flexible environment which has allowed our artists and designers to express the full range of their creativity,” explained McGee. “Ultimately, it's a tool that gets out of the way of the creatives while empowering the tech guys to quickly and easily answer requests for extending the core features.”
Throughout the development process, McGee’s team was able to tap into two rich resources for Unreal – the Unreal Developer Network and Epic’s China studio, Ying Pei Games. Mcgee said that support from both the local Epic office (Ying Pei Games) and the online community has been invaluable. The quality of that support is another reason why his studio originally chose to work with the tech.
“The expectations we had for UE3 was set through interactions with Epic U.S. and Ying Pei Games,” said McGee. “Both groups brought a level of professionalism and service seldom found among game engine providers. When the team has needed to overcome truly unique obstacles (like limited access to the wider Internet from within China) both groups worked together efficiently to route around the problem and maintain our development rhythm.”
McGee said that from the outset, one concern he had was about the scale and detail that could be presented inside a given scene or level of an environment. The bulk of his team’s early frustrations, and then learning, came as a result of misunderstandings about limitations and possible workarounds for presentation of content.
“Once we'd mastered the tools and our understanding of building in the ‘Epic way,’ everything smoothed out,” said McGee. “Now we're building impressive, expansive and imaginative worlds with little indication of constraint. In terms of the environments in this game, it’s partly about going back to places that Alice visited in the first game. In the original game she battled characters like the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts, and she’s going to travel back to these areas and see what the effects of those battles had on these spaces, and we’re also introducing new places. Players will also be able to travel around in real-world London, so Alice actually spends some time traveling back and forth between these fantastic locations in Wonderland and also spending some time in London.”
McGee said he’s been influenced by many games over the years. But for the Alice franchise, which is so story-driven, game series like Valve’s Half-Life and 2K Games’ BioShock (another Unreal franchise), served as inspiration. McGee said that while these games are narrative driven, and often times linear, they’re very innovative in terms of the way that they present the story and the gameplay.
The original Alice PC game was built over 10 years ago in Texas by Rogue Software, using id Software’s Quake III technology. As an employee at Electronic Arts, McGee worked with R.J. Berg to develop the story behind the game. They went back to the Lewis Carroll books and took a new take on the world.
“We re-introduced Alice as a character who was dealing with the trauma related to the death of her family in a fire that consumed their home,” said McGee. “In that first game she used the mental landscape of Wonderland to overcome the problems that she was dealing with in the real world. Now, 10 years later, we’re returning to this same character and to this power that she has to travel into Wonderland and deal with her real-world problems.”
McGee said that Unreal Engine 3 has helped his team develop this sequel as a cross-platform title, whereas the original was a PC-exclusive title – which went on to sell over 1 million copies. The expectations are much higher for this game, especially coming off the $1 billion Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland film from Disney.
“Since the moment the original book was released, Alice is something that took the world by storm,” explained McGee. “And then every couple of generations, it comes back again and is revived as a play or as a film or as a game.”
The latest interactive revival brings a new take to a character beloved by many and known by all. And it’s going to be an Unreal new adventure through the looking glass.