Everything in pop culture builds off what came before, but sometimes it’s not so obvious exactly what inspired your favorite video games. Luckily game recognize game, and Source Code is where Playboy explores games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
I had an idea: to talk to game developers about games that did, uh, poorly. Obviously, this requires some self-effacement on the creator’s part. And there are few game developers who have had to eat more humble pie than American McGee, the developer behind American McGee presents Bad Day LA.
When Bad Day L.A. was first announced in 2005, it promised to be a biting send-up of American foreign and domestic policy. At the time, we were knee deep in George W. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, and only four years removed from 9/11. There weren’t many games that directly skewered these hot button issues, and players looked forward to a South Park-esque experience: smart satire with a simple aesthetic, delivered with a splash of low-brow toilet humor.
But the end product didn’t deliver on any of these early promises. The graphics were fugly, the controls were clunky, the physics were wonky. It was clearly not on the level of what we expected, and it seemed like it wasn’t even trying.
Why was there such a big difference between what was in the trailer and what eventually made it into the game? It was a problem with marketing: fans do not expect or demand anything they were not promised to begin with. But the marketing campaign did not exist in a bubble; it was informed by a development period that was both toxic and conflicted.
The problems with Bad Day L.A. started at its very conception. McGee was contacted by Trevor Chan, the CEO of a company called Enlight, who wanted McGee to develop a game for his development team in Hong Kong. Despite McGee’s concerns about the team’s ability to deliver an original game of considerable complexity, Chan pushed for one. Eventually, McGee hit upon the idea of creating a satire of American fear culture, and he and Chan established some primary goals to guide production on the game:
- Mass-market appeal
- Ease of use/play, i.e. low frustration gameplay
- Comedy mixed with social commentary
- Build for less than US$1mil
- Design geared toward the team’s capabilities
“I was focused on the art early on, because that was one of the things that I thought we could do to be original,” said McGee. “The game, in terms of the gameplay, was pretty straightforward. I wanted the team to have a point of reference that was unique to the title, and to establish a very strong and very distinct style, where someone couldn’t just look at it and say, ‘Well, you just copied this from somewhere else.’”
So McGee hooked up with husband-and-wife art team Kozyndan, who he felt had a style reminiscent ‘of the moment’ and fitting with the setting and time period of L.A.
“I felt that if we could get them on board, it would be a way to quickly establish a very distinct art style—an art style that came out of artists from Los Angeles,” McGee said. “Their whole style was all about imagery from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the rest of California: a marriage of American and Japanese that suited the feeling of the game.”
“There was a simplicity to it that I thought would blend well with the game’s space.”
Kozyndan created some initial concept images, all hand drawn, that were quite promising, and enough to go on. But when McGee and his team got into the actual development, they ran into major problems. As McGee predicted, the Hong Kong production team’s ability to implement the game’s intended visual style and mechanics was not sufficient.
“Let’s say somebody’s building a house,” said McGee. “You go there in the first week, and they’ve put down the foundation. If you go there a month later, and you’re supposed to comment on their progress, and they still only have the foundation, what do you do? Every time that [the team] was supposed to hit a milestone, a month or two would go by, and anything they would send us barely reflected any significant change.”
A lot of this had to do with expectations—the team had not built a project on this scale, ever, and they were asked to do things that were beyond their technical ability and talent. They were also being tasked with more than one game at the time, which McGee was completely in the dark about. Here’s some cover art that shows the conceptualized visual tone of the game:
And here’s a couple of in-game screenshots of the same characters:
The clean, simple art style now looked rudimentary. Small details were non-existent, and basic aspects of gameplay such as how things moved, and how enemies reacted, were broken, and in obvious ways. The game also appeared incomplete to most players; the background characters all looked the same, and much of the voice acting and animations were looped incessantly. The game’s missions were tedious and repetitive. McGee estimates that only 10% of what he had originally conceived made it into the final product.
KNOW WHEN TO COMPROMISE, KNOW WHEN TO QUIT
It’s important to note that partway through production, McGee was still living in the United States, which created a disconnect in communication. He made plane trips to Hong Kong to maintain some level of quality control, but bringing the game to a finished form would require something more drastic, and ultimately, McGee decided to move to Hong Kong to oversee production.
In a postmortem on his website’s forum, American McGee pointed out that there were multiple times when he could have, and should have, walked away from the project. But still, he kept going, whether out of stubbornness, or pride, or the need to make the best out of a bad situation.
McGee also noted that he was demanding high quality late into the game’s production, when perhaps he should have settled for mediocre. If he had done this, McGee opined, then perhaps Bad Day L.A. would have been merely average instead of a full disaster.
When he arrived in Hong Kong to oversee the project, McGee immediately ran into problems with the workplace culture. Many of these problems were cultural, and had to do with the motivations and differences between American and Chinese workers. Prior to Bad Day L.A., McGee had primarily dealt with American workers, who by and large could be autonomous, self-motivated, and prideful about their work.
But Chinese workers, who he says lived under the ruler/subject power structure of Communist rule and Confucian principles, were not personally invested in McGee’s project, and nor did they interact with the authority figures in a way that would challenge or push the project to a higher level. The Chinese developers did exactly what they were told: nothing more and nothing less. It’s a survivor’s mentality: don’t make waves, don’t stand out, and don’t cause trouble. Just do your job, and do it to the exact letter. In a field like game design, that can be an extremely prohibitive way of thinking, particularly for a Westerner who experiences this for the first time.
McGee told a Bad Day L.A. story that illustrates the Chinese adage, “The nail that sticks out gets the hammer.” The head of Enlight was bringing in new LCD monitors for 15 people in a room, but he could only bring them in one at a time. But despite the monitors piling up, unused, no one touched any of them until there were 15 of them in the office. No one in the office was willing to be the first to claim a monitor or take the lead on organizing their distribution. This mentality was evident in other areas as well.
“If there was something broken in the production pipeline for example, the guy who oversees that probably isn’t going to put his hand up and say that something is broken,” said McGee. “If you were working on something, and you knew you were going late, or didn’t have enough instruction to finish it, you still wouldn’t raise your hand to receive more instruction. This mentality leads to an unbelievable amount of issues up and down the development chain.”
A particularly amusing incident occurred when the designers were designing a female character that was a Paris Hilton-esque stereotype. But perhaps they took the satire too far—they gave the character ridiculous, massive breasts, and then without asking for directions or clarification, proceeded to graft these breasts onto all of the other female characters as well.
Giving more specific directions in advance didn’t help things. McGee wryly referred to this solution as “a trap.” The amount of didacticism needed to explain something would make it impractical, and McGee was better off doing the task himself in the time it took for him to account for all variables. Eventually, this became normalized; the team was reduced to the abilities and speed of the least skilled, slowest member.
Another problem that cropped up: the staff in China were not treated with respect by management, and this was particularly highlighted in a conflict over air conditioning.
“Trevor would turn the air conditioning off at 5 PM every day, and so we would all be sitting around in our underwear because it was so hot in the office,” McGee said. “Those were the working conditions.”
McGee and his team coped the best they could, both for their own comfort and health, and for the machines, which had to run and operate in the sweltering summer heat.
“It was part of Trevor’s management technique,” McGee said. “He felt like the project was behind schedule, and people needed to work overtime, so he would tell them ‘You’ve got to work overtime,’ but then he would also tell them, ‘I’m not going to leave the air conditioning on past the normal work hours.’”
“Literally, we all stripped down with no shirts on, and some of the guys were not wearing pants, sitting there in their boxer shorts, doing their work. I think that kind of thing is demoralizing. That’s not a good way to motivate a team.”
American McGee presents Bad Day L.A. was not the first time that McGee, who made his bones working on the Doom and Quake franchises, used his name as a selling point for a game. He first used this tactic to market American McGee’s Alice, and he caught criticism for it; many observers accused him of egomania, to have such hubris so early in his career.
Name branding is a risk/reward tactic, because it puts the creator in the line of critical fire. He or she welcomes all of the credit if the project is a hit, but if it flops, the creator shoulders the blame for its failure; after all, whose name is emblazoned across the front of every cover?
Thankfully Alice was the sort of video game that anyone would be proud to stake his or her name to. It had some of the most beautiful, artsy graphics of its time, and some creative puzzle and level design as well. It was a high profile, highly polished release, and so, the name-branding gamble paid off; consumers were pre-conditioned to expect similarly polished, visually creative work from future American McGee games. And this confused players of American McGee presents Bad Day L.A., who may have thought they were getting one thing, and received something else.
“Clearly [with Bad Day L.A.], we were not pushing some type of technological or graphical envelope,” said McGee. “Clearly, we weren’t making a statement about advancing game mechanics. The real thrust of it, and the reason why the game existed, was because of the theme, the content, the story, and the characters.”
During the conceptual stages of Bad Day L.A., McGee did not want his name used in the marketing materials; unlike Alice, this was not material that he was personally, emotionally invested in. He also knew, owing to the development team’s limited technical ability, that Bad Day L.A. was going to be a B- or C-level game. But by the time the game hit the press circuits, “American McGee presents” was written across the top. And in the court of public opinion, this was the beginning of the end; Bad Day L.A. was now framed as the spiritual successor to Alice, not the minor, ‘fun’ title it ought to have been marketed as.
McGee became jaded and embittered by the entire affair, and eventually, he became part of the problem. He communicated less and less with the rest of the office. Development stalled. And eventually, Chan, who had invested a great deal in the project, had enough with the lack of progress and pulled the plug; he sent McGee and art director Ken Wong packing, and pushed the team to complete the game under a strict schedule. McGee agreed in hindsight that this was the right thing to do—that ultimately, the team didn’t have it in them to polish the game in the way they needed to, and after a while McGee was no longer motivated to push for it. He wasn’t even around for the final two months as Chan tied up loose ends, stuck the product in a box, and shipped it out.
The critical response was expected and unanimously negative. A small sampling of the reviews: IGN stated, quite plainly, “Don’t buy this game. It’s terrible.” GamesRadar claimed that one of the main highlights was “turning the game off,” and ranked it #25 on its list of the worst games ever made. Gamespy expressed disappointment, awarding Bad Day L.A. its “Coaster of the Year” award, and citing the game as a prime example of “great ideas gone wrong.”
“It’s not the best game, but I’m also certain it’s not the worst game,” said McGee. “That was their headline; that was their clickbait. Of course, that created a lot of attention for the game, but most of it was negative.”
“I think what the press did, and what they went out of their way to do, was strip away everything that I had told them during the interview about it being a low budget game, about expectations that needed to be lowered. It’s not supposed to be something that’s competing for design accolades. It was supposed to be a spoof game; it was meant to be comedy. But [those sentiments] were all thrown on the floor.”
“The only thing that would have made it better would be if I was not involved in it at all. If my name wasn’t associated with it, it wouldn’t have gotten the low scores that it got.”
McGee never moved back to the United States. Instead he founded independent gaming company Spicy Horse and settled in Shanghai. In 2011, they released the sequel to American McGee’s Alice, named Alice: Madness Returns, which was similarly praised for its visual flair and artsy creativity.
Spicy Horse is now the name placed front and center, rather than McGee himself. The company, which is the largest independent gaming company in China, is currently focused on building mobile and tablet games. Their most notable games, The Gate, Akaneiro, Bighead Bash, and Chains of Darkness, are available to play and download on SpicyHorse.com. All of their latest games are also available on both iOS and Android.
McGee looks back on the Bad Day L.A. debacle with reflectiveness. Open communication between boss and employee is something that McGee continues to negotiate today. And he doesn’t view the Chinese approach as inferior, nor superior to any other. He did, however, have to create more oversight in order to work within the Chinese system. McGee built Spicy Horse with a system of checks and balances in order to maintain quality control, and also to provide employees with an opportunity to “save face”—to follow a protocol if things go wrong.
“I think failure should be embraced a lot more than it is,” said McGee. “When I go online, and people laugh at me for my failures, I think to myself, ‘I’ve had more failures than you’ve had successes. I’ve had more failures than you’ve had failures, because I’ve tried more things, more times. And I think failure is actually really important—to look it in the eye and ask oneself, ‘What did I do wrong there?’”
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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