Arguably, Alice: Madness Returns was one of the most underrated and visually interesting releases of last year. While it would never go on to challenge the regular big-hitters in the charts, American McGee’s mature platformer struck a chord with many, especially if Adelaide’s premier anime and gaming convention AVCON has been anything to go by.
Having attended the event two years running (once for business and once for pleasure), both times I found it amazingly easy to lose count of those who decided to don the blue dress and cosplay as McGee’s interpretation of Alice Liddell (and others among her supporting cast). This year, however, there was a lovely twist, typifying surreal moments only possible in the games industry.
As all the AVCon Alices wandered around the show floor, they mostly did so oblivious to the fact that Adelaidian Ken Wong, the Art Director behind the 2011 sequel and therefore the designs they had taken to emulating, was actually in the Indie Games Room promoting his first indie game, Hackycat. This is a surrealism not lost on the man himself.
“It is indeed weird” says Wong, “Having stared at concept art and 3D models of Alice for hundreds of hours, it’s quite something to see her running around, in the flesh. Alice cosplayers have all been super nice people.”
Down the rabbit hole
Ken Wong’s transition from mere Student to Art Director, and now to Indie Developer, is one of the most interesting but widely unknown stories I’ve encountered in my little career. Wong, studying at the University of South Australia during 2000, had begun following the development of American McGee’s original Alice game, which came out in October that very year, courtesy of Rogue Entertainment and Electronic Arts.
Around that time, as a starry-eyed digital artist, he produced a piece of Alice fan art that would unexpectedly change his career path, thanks to former id developer American McGee stumbling upon his piece “Mercury Girl” on the internet.
“American McGee saw it [the fan art] on an Alice community website. He liked it enough that he asked me to do some concept art for his next project. I did various pieces of contract work for him for a while, and then he helped me get my first job as Art Director. In 2007 he started Spicy Horse in Shanghai, and I was the first employee.”
I had read in research for this piece that Ken was initially hesitant to join up with Spicy Horse and took some convincing to join. This is a claim that he doesn’t completely agree with.
“Ha ha, I’m not sure what you heard. I initially didn’t want to Art Direct Alice: Madness Returns because it meant staying another two years in Shanghai, but in the end the opportunity was too good to miss.”
“It felt like things were coming full circle,” he recalls. “I felt very fortunate to be given this chance. I had this notion that everything I had done up until that point had been preparing me for Alice: Madness Returns.”
An accidental game developer
Surprisingly, Wong hadn’t ever considered games development as a potential career, prior to McGee’s interest in his art.
“In those days it was such an outlandish notion for most people, to get a job making games. Nowadays the paths into the industry are much more established and publicised. There’s so much you can learn online, and the tools are much better, and the student/amateur/indie scene is much bigger.”
Wong spent four and a half years with Spicy Horse, before deciding to call it quits in 2011 to start making games for himself, but he left with important lessons learnt from his experience at a big studio.
“I learnt a lot along the way… mostly by making mistakes,” he admits. “The biggest lesson for me was learning to work with people, and not just art. As an Art Director you have to figure out how to engage each artist and help them do their best work. Sometimes that can be difficult if they haven’t yet found a way to connect to the project.”
Leaving the comfort of Spicy Horse was a hard decision, but he tries to explain his reasoning:
“The reasons are complex, but I guess a big part of it was that I wanted to spend some time travelling and working on personal projects, which I couldn’t really do when I had those full time responsibilities.”
Striking out on his own
Since then, Ken has been working hard on his own start-up and more specifically, his first iOS game, Hackycat, which is a far cry from his work with Spicy Horse. Why the indie route? Why not another established studio?
“Working with a team can be really challenging. Sometimes you just want to do things your own way, and not spend energy trying to convince your teammates of something! So I wanted to take full responsibility for a game project, to see what I can do on my own.”
Going independent also harbours its own challenges, obviously, although for Wong it’s not in the areas that most would think.
“I guess covering all bases is the biggest challenge now. Coding game mechanics and doing some decent game art actually only takes a few weeks, but constructing professional looking menus, designing the logo, making a trailer, maintaining social media, getting t-shirts printed, organising play tests, making a sound list, and courting the press – all these things take time and attention. I’m also having to learn animation and improve my programming at the same time!”
While he’s doing most of the work himself, Hackycat isn’t totally a solo project, seeing him call in a favour from an old friend. “The sound designer of Alice: Madness Returns, Roland Shaw, is doing the sound and music for my game. Apart from that, all the art, animation and coding is done by me.”
On Adelaide and lone wolf development
While finding the Australian independent scene to be a freeing experience, he does admit to missing being part of a larger team at times.
“I miss having teammates to chat to or bounce ideas off. I miss the daily commute and having a workstation. Oh, and I miss super cheap Chinese street food for lunch! Being a solo developer can be quite isolating, so one of the skills you need to develop is how to fight cabin fever.”
Unlike most developers in Australia, Wong has decided to operate from his hometown of Adelaide, rather than everyone else’s preferred base of Sydney or Melbourne. The reasons are much humbler that you’d probably imagine. “I wanted to spend time with my family. It also doesn’t hurt that living with my dad means no rent and a car I can borrow, so I can focus on making my game instead of needing to worry about income.”
What’s Hackycat about, then?
“Hackycat is like Hacky Sack, but with cats,” Ken explains. “You tap the screen to bounce cats into the air. If any cat hits the ground, game over. That’s the gist of it. I could tell you about the lo-fi, DIY, amateur sports league and vegetarian cafe menu inspired aesthetic, but that would be spoiling things.”
Despite the huge departure from his previous work in video-games, Hackycat received decent reception at AVCon, though he admits there is some work to do before he releases the game later this year.
“Most people were pretty amused to encounter a cat-kicking game. Quite a few people came back multiple times to play more. A few people really got into the different cat designs. Some people still had trouble understanding how to play the game, which is something I’m always trying to improve on.”
I had to ask — why opt for iOS as the platform for his first solo game, rather than PC or console given his experience?
“Recently all my gaming has been on iOS, and it’s a really interesting market that supports different creative ideas. Consoles and Steam are really hard markets to get into for a first time, solo developer, and non-steam PC is so messy and full of pirates.”
Another Alice in the works?
So what does the future hold once the Hackycat is out of the bag? (I see what you did there. –Ed.) How does he see his independent career evolving and what’s his goal?
“Creating a game by myself is a huge challenge and that will be a valuable experience in itself. Beyond that, it would be nice if Hackycat becomes profitable enough that I have the option to continue making independent games and add a team mate or two to attempt slightly more ambitious projects.”
“I don’t have any lofty goals when it comes to game design,” he continues. “Some people have strong opinions about where games are heading or where they should be heading; I’d simply like to make games that I’m proud of.”
Lastly, I put forward a hypothetical situation where Alice 3 is a reality. American McGee is on the phone asking for his involvement. What does he do?
“I’d never say never to an Alice 3. It would have to depend on a lot of factors, but Wonderland is definitely a really fun, creative playground for ideas.”
Hackycat has no firm release date yet, but will hopefully be available around September/October this year. Follow the project on @hackycatapp or on Facebook for more details. For those of you interested in the art, check out Ken’s art site at kenart.net.