Oddworld creator on controlling his universe (Wired UK)

Lorne Lanning is the creator of the Oddworld series of games,
all set on a planet where the indiginous natives are forced into
labour and worse by greedy invaders. After debuting
with Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee in 1997, Lanning
has since seen the rise and fall of gaming empires while his
universe full of quirky aliens, corporate satire, and unusual
gameplay has maintained a loyal fan following. With the HD
remake Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘n’ Tasty, the outspoken
developer talks with Wired.co.uk about Oddworld’s legacy, the
nature of the games industry, and remaining an indie while playing
house with Sony and
Microsoft. 


Oddworld
Oddworld

Lorne
Lanning’s strange world is back with the New ‘n’ Tasty edition of
Abe’s Oddysee

© 2014 Oddworld. All rights reserved.


Wired.co.uk: Oddworld has been absent for a while.
What’s led you to bring it back now?

Lorne Lanning: It was absent for a while because we really
didn’t like how things were going in terms of relationships between
the publishers and developers. We created the company [Oddworld
Inhabitants, formed in 1994 by Lanning and his partner Sherry
McKenna] as an exit strategy — we’re not business people, we’re
content makers! We wanted to nurture the property through its life
like Walt Disney or Jim Henson did, but these days there’s a lot of
money and big business going around. It’s becoming more about
acquisitions and no-one’s going to finance your IP at a high level
unless they own it. That’s not why we got into this. So we backed
off, closed down the studio [and] waited for digital distribution
to come around. In 2008 we started building games again, on
multiple platforms and then we moved them over to PSN.

They started doing well — surprisingly well, considering how
old the games are. So we decided to start investing more, get the
games onto PC and PS3, and what that did was enable us to generate
enough revenue to invest even more. We then made Stranger’s
Wrath HD
and it cost us less than a million dollars, but the
audience responded really positively. We took number one on PS Vita
at Christmas two years ago, and that lead to the Oddysee
remake.

Was there any desire to springboard from that to a new
Oddworld instalment at the time?

We had to be honest with our audience in that we don’t have
enough money to make a new IP. We asked them what they wanted us to
do, and they told us to rebuild Abe’s Oddysee. We were
really surprised at how many people saying they wanted classic
platforming, not all that modern free-roaming stuff. And we had to
think about how that would all work with modern dynamic lighting,
ragdoll physics and 3D animation. How do we do that in a true 3D
world while staying true to sidescrolling platforms?

There are a lot of reasons why people say they want the old 2D
style back. I think mobile had a lot to do with that. People got
familiar with that style of game again and remembered why they
loved it. It led us to say we think we can do it. Then we asked the
audience what it should be called and through internet voting they
called it New ‘n’ Tasty, which we loved. This is something
I think we embraced the community early with. They shone light on
the possibility for us and showed passion. It took a few years and
a few million dollars of self investment, but we hope it will
resonate well.

Will you give the same treatment to Abe’s
Exoddus
?

With success, yes. The number one thing is selling games — when
they profit, we can make more games. With success, Exoddus
will be the next game we make and with a LOT of success we’ll start
making new IPs.

Back when you launched Abe’s Oddysee, you
talked about a planned quintology. Munch’s
Oddysee
was mentioned, but nothing for Stranger.
Where did that game come from?

It’s funny. When we originally built Abe’s Oddysee, I
thought the whole quintology would be platformer games because that
was before the rise of 3D games. It was all people would talk
about, all the press would cover, though I didn’t care because I
loved platforming and I just wanted that game experience. As games
went 3D, it started posing challenges to our plans. We’d all come
from 3D animation and film making.

The cutscenes on the original games were well ahead of
their time.

Thank you. I think that’s a reflection of our hiring artists and
coming out of film making. That’s part of how it got funded. We
thought we could bring more Hollywood to game making. That’s how it
all kicked off. With 3D came different challenges and with new
hardware came even more challenges, including drastically rising
prices of development. There were different terms between
publishing and developers, and at those price levels no-one wanted
to fund an IP if they didn’t own it. This was a combination of
events that led to it being even harder to make games and drive
teams. The way budgets were stretched out and deals were made, it
was a lot more work for a lot fewer rewards. There’s no light at
the end of the tunnel except for selling your company, which is
where a lot of game developers went. That was never our model or
intent. That’s what shifted us from being able to complete the
quintology.

As we approached Stranger’s Wrath, I wanted to build
something that wasn’t just built around the same three abilities
and mechanics. I wanted a fresh breath to take the studio in a new
direction and show that there were things we could do while still
sticking with the Oddworld Universe. And it was really well
received, but it wasn’t promoted very well. As a result it took the
wind out of our sails and we decided we’d rather not keep going. At
that point we’d ended up being the whole owners of our IP and
that’s when we chose to just wait.

With success, my motivation was always to make passionate
characters like Jim Henson did. If you mess with Kermit the Frog in
front of Jim, you really learned how the man felt [about that]. And
that’s how I feel about my characters. They come from a deeper
place. They’re not just characters. They’re representations,
reflections of our messed up world.

Was the Henson influence always there? The original
Oddysee and Exoddus felt like a sci-fi version of The Dark
Crystal
in places.

We always described it as ‘Muppets meet
X-Files‘. I was never a huge fan of Dark Crystal
myself, although I loved the production design. It was just
incredible. What I loved was that I grew up learning to read not
from school, but from Sesame Street. A sock puppet can
teach people to read, how valuable is that! In some ways, that
drove Abe. I wanted to drive inspiring characters who felt low,
like I did, who was in deep crisis, but by just sticking to it,
they could prevail through a way that was almost entirely
empathetic and not aggressive. We didn’t want the stereotypical
musclebound hero with a gun. I was never a big Schwarzenegger or
action fan. It never inspired me.

Was Stranger as a first-person shooter not a
bit of a departure, then?

He was but we still wanted to stick to certain principles, like
about killing people. In Abe’s Oddysee you could kill
people but you got different endings. There was a good karma ending
and a bad karma ending depending on if you helped people. I always
felt disappointed playing that I could never do things the
designers didn’t want me to do for moral reasons. I was thinking
“no, if you give the player a gun then let them shoot the wrong guy
— but give them a penalty for it later!” We wanted to take player
habits that were ingrained but put a twist on it.

Stranger got slaughtered by Halo, deservedly.
But what I realized was puzzle games are difficult and need a lot
of code for each puzzle, whereas shooting games have, for example,
one shooting mechanic that you just ramp and tune based on size of
clip and amount of damage. How do you compete in a retail world
where you’re on the same shelf as something that ramps challenge
like that? We needed to bring a challenge that let us do it in a
new way. That’s where the idea of live ammo came from. It’s a
shooter that doesn’t like guns. That’s what Stranger was.
You could capture everyone who was your target and not kill them.
If you did that, you prospered more. You still prospered, just not
as much if you went through it brutally.

How about Stranger himself as a character? The grizzled
Sergio Leone type is starkly different to Abe or
Munch.

Stranger was a tough character with a different kind of dilemma.
The reason he doesn’t like guns is because his whole life he’s been
sought after and had to disguise himself. That was inspired by
Malcolm X. He was an amazing figure and in the movie Spike Lee does
this scene where he’s in prison and straightening his hair with
acid. This older guy schools him and say that’s not him, he’s
trying to be something he’s not. That’s a pivotal moment, where a
strong, brilliant character feels so overwhelmed that he tries to
be something else, but when he accepts who he is he becomes
something amazing.

I wanted to embrace that in a way that felt like a Sergio Leone
Western. How do you take that idea of someone who you think they’re
one thing but what they really are is something victimised? I
wanted to create a surprise on who your character was. We got kudos
for that, that Stranger wasn’t who you thought he was. That’s what
I’ve embodied for seven years, trying to break out and show people
we have a greater capacity than just puzzle games.

Abe’s Exoddus was also unplanned, and then Abe
returned in Munch’s Oddysee. Had Abe become too dominating
a figure for the Quintology to progress as planned?

Not quite. I think Munch didn’t quite become what he was
supposed to be. We learned some hard lessons about ambition and I
have to take a tonne of responsibility for that, for being
overly-ambitious at that time. Munch was supposed to be more of a
Jekyll and Hyde character. Abe could slap him and get him mad,
which provoked the steroids that had been tested on him and he’d
turn into this big hulking maniacal killer. When you needed to, you
had to slap Munch around. I think it would have been a whole new
kind of dynamic to the game as well as a new aspect to the
character of Munch.

We didn’t get there, for various reasons. We started
[developing] on the PS2, borrowing money and having to deliver. The
environment in those days for development was bad because nobody
knew how much these games could cost, so you kept going back to the
bank for more money. Just imagine a business plan where you don’t
know how much it costs! PS2 hurt a lot of the development
community. I didn’t have enough knowledge to know not to be so
ambitious on a new platform.

What was the development culture like going from
Playstation to Xbox, where Munch wound up?

At this time, Sony vs Microsoft was only just starting up. Sony
was very different. It was Kutaragi’s
home. The philosophy was if you couldn’t figure out the hardware,
you were dumb and shouldn’t be making games. He all but publicly
said that, and it wasn’t encouraging to the development community.
That created a lot of lost time and money, and a lot of crisis.

Then Microsoft came out and said development should be easier.
They had really brilliant people addressing development needs and
looking for more content. They wanted to target casual players and
we were always targeting the casual audience even though we had our
hardcore moments.

It was a relief for us, and Microsoft wanted to step up and fund
the title. We’d had difficulties with our then-current publisher
and going to Microsoft was very exciting. They really wanted to
build better games and that was their mandate. That was wonderful.
There was all this energy from a big corporation wanting to do new
things and the way they were approaching it all was ‘developer
systems first’. That addressed a lot of the problems that
developers were having.

After it released, there was a lot of shifting of management and
they moved from being a casual platform to a hardcore platform.
That changed a lot of dynamics and it proved time to move on. The
attitude and energy and people doing it changed.

Do you see yourself going back to the original
quintology?

Anything I say about new games, I usually get in trouble for
because people think it’s a promise. I don’t have ten hours on the
web to defend myself!

Is it a creative watermark you still want to reach
though?

It is. I would like to follow that property throughout my life
and I can see a lot of things happening on that planet. But there
are some questions we have to think about. Take Microsoft; they
thought that the title to beat at Xbox launch was Super
Mario
. That was part of why they wanted Munch as a mascot that
was a contender in that space. Ultimately, no-one foresaw how
successful Halo would be or how the Xbox would be a $499
console — at the time, people were rumouring they would give it
away, like cable companies gave away their boxes. So it was a huge
trendsetter as a platform. In the course of that, another thing
happened: times changed.

We had content [in the game] where newspapers were calling Abe
and Munch terrorists in every headline. In the real world, the game
released in 2001 and then 9/11 happened. We had to go back and
change all that because it would have been tasteless. It would have
been more relevant today and I would have left it in today but it
wouldn’t have been tasteful in 2001.

It happened to us in Japan too, where the original Mudokan pop
was a severed head. What happened in Japan was there was a murder with
school kids
where one kid severed the other’s and left it in
front of a school. We had to change our game to be tasteful.

Those are extreme examples, but I never thought a platformer
would have the demand it has today, when I was watching the
industry a few years ago. I’ve tried to be careful in mapping out
the quintology — there was how I was mapped it out then, but the
world’s going to be a different place when we get [to release new
games]. You can’t really make characters that far in advance. Car
companies try to do that but everyone else will tell you there’s no
future in that. Six months from now is the future and that’s as far
as you can predict.

What I did was I knew the macro of where this epic story would
go across the world and how it would end — but I was careful not
to get too into who does what or what the characters looked like.
Munch taught me some of that actually because I wasn’t able to
manifest the full character. He was just Jekyll, and Hyde never
showed up because of time and money.

You once named Squeek’s Oddysee as the third entry -
what was your concept, at least at the time?

Squeek’s kind of a spoiler, but I’ll tell you this. The idea was
that the Vykkers, who were animal researchers that would kill a
million bunnies just to make a better fabric softener, had been
making robotic life support devices because so they could repossess
people’s body parts like how you’d get evicted. They’d stick what
was left of you in this clunky robotic form and tossed you out on
the street. That’s who Squeek was but who he REALLY was would come
out in the story.

When you were away from the gaming scene, were you
tempted to exploit them in other media like film or
comics?

We got a movie deal for Citizen
Siege
, which EA greenlit as a game but we decided to take
to a movie. What happened was the 2008 financial crisis put the
writing on the wall for our CGI animated movie with a $50-60m
budget. It just wasn’t going to work. Everything got dinged and it
went back on the shelf — it was no-one’s specific fault.

It wasn’t a good time to shop Abe as a motion picture either. I
would love Abe the motion picture and we’ve got script outlines and
hundreds of pieces of concept art. We’d love to fund it ourselves
but that would depend on success. We ended up getting a couple of
patents on mass video viewing online. That was a great learning
experience over two years but it took me out of game development -
but taught me tremendous lessons. Hopefully I’m wiser and smarter
these days but time will tell!

You’ve been very outspoken on the state of the industry.
What do you think it’s like right now?

I think it’s healthier than it’s ever been and that’s because of
diversity of platforms. You’ve got the Apple app store — that
changed a lot of things because people realized it’s a free dev
station! As long as it follows some guidelines you could
self-publish. That was the first platform with high penetration and
great development software for anyone who wanted it. It gave you a
platform to sell, and it changed the world. Android followed,
Microsoft followed. We have people who left big gaming companies to
build little apps and get rich. That wasn’t possible before. Here
we are today and we have Sony saying “not only are we doing a big
triple A console but we’re supporting self-publishing”.

There’s a book called Nudge. It’s about Silicon Valley
and how businesses built on top of other businesses. People made
Ebay stores, YouTube built that way, all these social companies
built that way. It became more of a sharing idea. Nudge was about
nudging up and it was very clairvoyant about how that changed
monopolies and how they don’t have a future. Sony was seeing that
ahead of time and Microsoft has adapted to that over the last few
years. Now there’s a diversity of platforms and products out there.
You didn’t have that before. You went through big publishers and
big retailers or you didn’t go anywhere. In that respect, the
gaming space is better than anywhere.

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Source: wired.co.uk
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