In amongst the big projects like Alice: Madness Returns, Art Director Ken Wong, CEO American McGee and the rest of the team at Spicy Horse work quietly on much smaller games, released quietlyfor iOS under the Spicy Pony branding. While we chat, I tell them that I hated their first offering, DexIQ. Both men look a little shocked for a moment, before taking the observation as a compliment.
McGee mumbles his apologies as Wong grins. "It's funny," he says.
"I knew we were onto something when we hadn't even finished, and I would take the games to my girlfriend, and she would play them. As an individual game, she'd be 'Oh, these are really easy,' but when you put them together... she would scream!
"She'd get really angry, so we knew that there was something really great going on."
DexIQ is a challenging creation - a compilation of simple micro-games that are played two at a time, one on either side of a split screen. The theory is that it's a work-out for both sides of your brain - both Dex and IQ - and the reality is mind-twisting.
"A girl that had come over from Ubisoft, she was really pasionate about mobile game design and puzzle games in particular. She had this concept, but then we thought we needed a skin to put on top of it.
So then we were actually kinda lazy - we thought 'Screw it,' we'll go back to the Fairy Tale thing and then twist it a bit - and skin it up."
With a lick of paint and a wide-eyed rodent in the lead role, the girl-from-Ubisoft's idea turned into Crooked House. Your job, obviously, is to keep the crooked mouse safe throughout the crooked house, in what was quite a moody puzzler.
McGee admits, "The theme stuff, we know doesn't hurt."
Both of these games received very different responses from the gaming public. DexIQ was lauded for being ambitious, and technically very good, as gamers (like me) struggled to play two games at once. At the same time though, it was blasted for its simplistic approach, looking too basic and not living up to its potential.
When it came to Crooked House on the other hand, people were pleased with the game's image - the return to the darkness, the embrace of the twisted fairy tale - but the gameplay was, in McGee's own words, "Eh..."
"You can't please all of the people all the time, right?"
Right now, it looks like the company's continuing to hedge its bets, catering to both crowds at once, rather than trying to combine them. Ken Wong is working on an idea of his own - a 2D/3D hybrid side-on shooter (yet more new ground for the studio!), while others at Spicy Horse are creating an RPG adaptation of Akaneiro, the "angry" Red Riding Hood tale set in Japan, which Spicy Pony released as an interactive story for iPad.
McGee tells me that the company's intention - over the next two years - is to release five or six of these smaller games, which are much faster to develop. They'll be released into the online marketplace, probably free to play, and for either mobile platforms or PC.
The main focus? Bringing one-touch, minimal games to the 3D realm.
"My sense is that where we've seen an tremendous amount of success in the 2D casual / Facebook games, in the Popcap type games. There's going to have to be a gradual revolution of that genre, and players of those games are going to start to come in more by way of the art, or the experience. We want to be there - and to be ready, with a bunch of games that go directly to that audience."
Both Wong and McGee agree that future titles from Spicy Pony (and potentially Spicy Horse, too), will aim to make things a "little more complex" than the casual and social games currently flooding the market - but to not lose the pick-up-and-play elements that make them so popular. Something like Angry Birds or Plants vs Zombies, but something that's "prettier", nicer to play and more in-depth.
The final product will bridge the gaping void between the casual and the 'hardcore', and - perhaps - will entice more non-gamers to take the plunge into different kinds of interactive entertainment.
Finally, it all makes sense. American McGee is making gateway games! I tell him that people will warn their children about him, and both he and Wong laugh, reminding me that - as the creator of a very different kind of Alice, it certainly wouldn't be the first time.
I like video games, fishing, Depeche Mode, long walks on the beach, writing discussion papers and cups of tea. Not necessarily in that order.
Jimmy the Geek
Jimmy the Geek