American McGee’s Grimm Brings Fairy Tales to Life Courtesy of Unreal Engine 3
By John Gaudiosi
American McGee has always had a unique perspective on the world of games, and that vision is coming to life exclusively through GameTap with his first episodic endeavor, Grimm. The long-time id Software creative turned to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 to tackle his new take on traditional fairy tales, which presents an accelerated production schedule for the game’s 24 episodes. The model requires that McGee’s Shanghai-based development studio, Spicy Horse, go from concept to shippable content in 12 months. In that regard, McGee said that UE3 works ideally because it allows his studio to prototype an innovative game concept, establish a unique art style, and build large amounts of content in a rapid and efficient way.
“The funny thing is, because of my background with id Software, I always thought of Epic and their technology as ‘the other side,’” said McGee, creative director, Spicy Horse. “In the early days, we’d play around with Epic’s engine just to see how it might have solved problems with tools, interface, etc. I always felt the tools were clunky, but in hindsight, it’s probably no more than what I was used to. Over the years, the change has been phenomenal. The toolset has evolved into a mature, robust, and flexible total solution. These days I feel confident we’re working with the best total solution for our needs.”
McGee’s core team actually explored several engines before settling on UE3, including Valve’s Source engine, the Gamebryo engine and id’s technology. Ultimately, they found that they were able to integrate content and achieve the visual results they wanted faster and easier with UE3.
“This was primarily attributable to the superior reference materials, tutorials, and content pipeline and tools,” explained McGee. “Once our decision was made, attracting other team members with UE3 experience and gaining critical knowledge on our own was easy. Because Grimm is such an experimental game concept, rapid prototyping was essential to proving our new ideas. Being able to quickly build a world from near-final content allowed us to focus on the challenges of implementing original ideas.”
Although the initial core team of 10 last year had very little experience with UE3 outside of what they gained while doing their evaluation, it had no problem meeting all of the game’s deadlines throughout the development process, even as the team grew to over 35 internal employees, 20 external artists and a handful of people in the U.S. When it came to the UE3 toolset, McGee said they utilized every aspect of the technology to some degree or another.
“And everything was useful,” said McGee. “Because Grimm contains a large amount of narrative cinematic elements, we spent a lot of time editing content inside the FaceFX and Matinee tools. Custom modifications we made often had to do with ‘old-schooling’ something. Take the FaceFX tool for instance; we had to gut it in order to get the sort of simple animated faces we wanted. It’s not easy to get ‘South Park’ style facial animation out of a next-gen game engine!”
GameTap backed McGee’s concept of taking a fresh, fun and funny interactive take on traditional fairy tales, while focusing on the concept of transforming environments from light to dark. McGee said Grimm is a truly episodic “experimental” game, delivered in 24 unique episodes, and is initially targeted at the PC. Since the beginning, McGee has intended Grimm to be for a mainstream casual audience.
“I’d really like to see people who’ve never played 3D PC games before be able to enjoy the story, visuals, and game mechanic,” said McGee. “To that end, we’ve kept things as simple as possible. Controls are as simple as a single two-button mouse, or you can use standard WASD keyboard controls.”
Gameplay is wrapped around the idea of transforming things from light to dark; wherever the main character Grimm goes, darkness follows. He’s like a dark paintbrush in a cute cartoon world. As he converts the world to dark, his power grows, and as his power grows, he’s able to transform larger objects, move faster, and jump higher. Each episode focuses on a traditional Grimm fairy tale.
“There are standard 3D platform game elements layered on top of the transformation mechanic,” explained McGee. “The end result, we think, is a visually compelling, compulsively addictive play experience with rich story, and a lot of humor. I think we can honestly say there’s nothing else out there like Grimm. It’ll be interesting to see how the world reacts to it!”
McGee said UE3 provided his team with the ability to go from concept to playable concept in record time – something that the episodic game’s development cycle required. In simplest terms, the model has forced Spicy Horse to break 12 hours worth of game content into 24 smaller games. This means the development cycle for an individual “game” is measured in weeks, not years. Yet despite the accelerated cycle, the team has not had a single crunch time, missed milestone, or even a minor production mishap.
“The development process follows some standard schedule beats like design, concepting, first playable (alpha), beta (content lock), and final, but the whole process is accelerated–each major phase taking no more than six weeks,” said McGee. “The combined process takes 18 weeks for a single episode. Additionally, we have multiple development cycles running in parallel, with content moving from designer to designer, from concept to final. In many ways, it’s a mini model of larger-scale development efforts.”
The result of all this is that Spicy Horse will release its first Grimm episode about one year after its first pre-production meeting. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly for eight weeks. The team will then take a short break to make any adjustments to content based on user feedback and suggestions before embarking on the remaining episodes over another eight-week period.
“Episodic content, or whatever it evolves into, will continue to be interesting to us – and to our audience, I hope – for a long time to come,” concluded McGee. “There’s definitely something worthwhile about the process and the result. Grimm is just another step in the evolution of the idea for how to build, distribute, and consume games in an episodic fashion.”