Whether it’s from the Disney cartoon, the Tim Burton film, or the Lewis Carroll novel, everyone knows the story of Alice and Wonderland. A young girl follows a white rabbit down the rabbit hole leading to a psychedelic adventure with a bunch of mean playing cards, strange tea parties, and hookah smoking caterpillars.
While American McGee’s Alice is closely modelled after the original books, it's safe to say that — if you haven't experienced it — you've never seen Alice and Wonderland play out quite like this.
The video game — originally released by Electronic Arts in 2000 — approached the classic tale from the dark side. It was funny, macabre, and creepy, evoking the fantastic worlds of writers like Neil Gaiman and H. P. Lovecraft. In the game, and it’s sequel, Alice: Madness Returns (2011), you play a vorpal blade-wielding Alice, fighting your way through a labyrinth of bizarre twists on the source material, from a psychotic Tweedledum and Tweedledee to a monstrous, tentacled version of the Queen of Hearts.
Due to its innovative story, detailed characters, and elaborate level design, the series developed a cult following that’s grown bigger by the year. Fans dress up as Alice in cosplay, create fan art of the characters, and some even get tattoos inspired by the game — and now, twenty years after it was produced, they have the chance to help the game's creator, American McGee, build the third game in the series from the ground up.
“Patreon is the fans coming together to help to build all the story, the design, and all the production planning, which you could say will end up in something we might call like a design Bible,” said McGee about how his patrons are helping create the game Alice: Asylum. “In other words, (something) the potential financier can hold in their hands and say, ‘Yeah, okay, I can see this entire game as it's going to be when played.’”
Through Patreon, live streams, blogs, and videos, McGee is democratizing game development, a process that most major game companies keep shrouded in secrecy.
He’s discussing everything about the game with his patrons, from level design to character details. If they like it, they tell him, and if they don’t, they tell him that, too. And while McGee can’t promise that he’ll be able to secure financing for Alice: Asylum (game development is a notoriously difficult prospect) — if he can, then someday, all those patrons will get the ultimate fan treat: they’ll get to see their ideas come to life in the game.
“I think that games and game development in general — it's always been one of those things that hasn't been properly democratized,” said McGee, who got his start in the game industry building classic shooters like Doom and Quake for id software in the early 90s. “Like, with film, you get the sense that, ‘hey, these plucky, college kids picked up a video camera and they made a movie, and it's The Blair Witch thing, and it made a million dollars.’ That story, you know, I think is still not being told as often as it should be in the game space. There's still a lot of black magic and a lot of industry control over the creation and the marketing of games.”
And, while this is certainly the biggest creative project he’s collaborated on with his patrons, it’s not the first. He’s also crowd designing merch with his patrons, from enamel pins to stuffed animals.
Take the White Rabbit for instance, a cute and spooky stuffed animal that Alice carries around in the game series. His fans — especially cosplayers — had long asked for him to produce an actual, physical version of the White Rabbit.
But instead of creating the plush toy alone, McGee created it with his patrons. He made videos for his patrons about touring potential factories, and they helped him create the toy’s packaging and pricing. When a prototype of the White Rabbit came back orange, he shared that with patrons too.
And his patrons loved it: “‘I can't believe how ugly this prototype is...I can't wait to get on YouTube and show everybody just how bad this is,” said McGee when asked to describe the kind of reactions he was getting from patrons.
Then, when it was time to actually produce and sell the toy, his patrons weren’t just consumers — they were also co-creators, who couldn’t wait to purchase one of their own to have and to share with their friends and followers on social media.
“The whole process of what would normally be the thing you do behind the scenes and with much trepidation and stress about — ‘Oh, am I setting the price point, right? Are people going to accept this? Am I going to get enough people who are interested in this to validate the initial investment and making all of it’...All of that stuff we put out there and opened up to them, and they loved it.”