Abe: The Story

Abe: The Story [Hosted by Nasty's Dungeon]

Date: 10th December, 1998
Interviewer: Kane
Interviewees: Lorne Lanning, Sherry McKenna & Frank Simon 

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/19991009182117/http://mail.standard.net.au:80/~kane/abe1.htm

The Beginning …

The idea was first born in at the time Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna were working together at Rhythm and Hues, one of Hollywood’s most cutting edge special effects houses. Sherry McKenna, a pioneer in Computer-Generated imaging (CGI), was producing the award-winning commercials and movie effects that have earned her more than 30 Clio Awards, 25 International Film and Television Awards and 20 International Broadcast and Addy Awards. However, the lack of final-say-so on many of her projects was becoming an increasing source of frustration and her entrepreneurial heart was beginning to beat a little louder.

Cue to Lorne Lanning, an award-winning director in his own right, whose artistic creativity and expertise had taken him from the upscale art galleries in New York’s trendy Soho district to the advanced flight simulators of the aerospace industry. His interest in computer graphics took him west to California, where he landed squarely in Hollywood’s special effects community. But Lorne Lanning harbored a deep secret, one his fellow artists and designers just didn’t understand. He was a video game nerd and was amazed at the new capabilities of the new video game system.

“I was always fascinated by video and arcade games,” said Lorne. “It was probably due to the fact that my Dad was an engineer for ColecoVision and was always bringing something home from work. Hey, what kid wouldn’t love that”.

With the advent of Sega’s new CD-ROM game platform, Lanning saw the potential of technology.

“I was absolutely floored that the programmers were able to achieve that level of graphics and interactivity,” says Lanning. “It was like having an arcade in your house for less than $200. The guys I was working with didn’t understand that game designers had an infinite amount of space in which to work their magic. Game programmers weren’t working on Silicon graphics systems with unlimited space and power in which to create their worlds. I was blown away and thought that I with the increased space a CD-ROM offers, now was the time to get into video games.

Lanning also had an ace in the hole. He had been meeting with different people in the video game industry, picking their brains, finding what worked, who was best at what and taking notes. He also had an idea that he was ready to implement.

Lanning sought out Sherry McKenna and told her of this world filled with a vast array of characters and companies whose actions, attitudes and problems mirrored those found on Earth a tale that would reward “the good” and castigate “the evil”. Lastly, Lanning said the entire world would be designed using Hi-Res computer-generated graphics.

Sherry McKenna was enthralled by the story. Here was a chance to create a CGI masterpiece and have a voice in the final approval process. McKenna said, “This will be a great movie! When do we start filming.”

Lanning said, “It’s not a movie. We’re going to make a video game. Five in fact.”

Lanning said, “Follow me.”

Sherry said, “Wait”

A.L.I.V.E

Push the clock ahead to 1995. After two years of trying, Lanning convinced McKenna that the graphics they intended to create would be on par with those of her Hollywood peers, and that interactive entertainment was the next “creative wilderness”. McKenna and Lanning then began the journey that would evolve into Oddworld Inhabitants

Having already parted with one investment banker and relocated to the out-of-the-way town of San Luis Obispo, CA, McKenna and Lanning set out to find another partner, one that would allow them to create their world without interference, yet one that would have the muscle and savvy to market and distribute their product. So they made the rounds of the major publishers.

Activision: “We love this, but you’re going to have to…”

Sega: “This is great, but in order to sell it, why don’t you add….”

GT Interactive Software: “This is awesome. When can you start?”

And so the partnership was born.

“GT Interactive really was the best fit for us”, says McKenna. “They showed a tremendous amount of faith in us because, basically, we said give us some backing so we can make this game and leave us alone. GT had the foresight too see that we were really onto something, that we could make a game that would change the way people played video games.”

GT Interactive believed enough in Oddworld Inhabitants vision to acquire a 50 percent equity in the company, obtaining exclusive global publishing rights to the Oddworld software titles to all media, including print, merchandising and online vehicles.

Today, Oddworld Inhabitants is thriving in San Luis Obispo and is fresh off the success of its million-plus best seller, Abe’s Oddysee. Noted for its beautifully rendered graphics, engaging storyline and fully developed characters, Abe’s Oddysee launched the A.L.I.V.E. (Aware Life forms In Virtual Entertainment) genre in games. A.L.I.V.E. games are such because they totally immerse the game player into the action while bringing on-screen characters to life.

Explains Frank Simon, Producer, “We’ve done a lot to up the ante on the immersive quality of games by eliminating the distracting inventory bars and made controlling the pickup items extremely intuitive. We’ve incorporated clues as to how to play the game into LCD signs located within the environment and seamlessly blended the full motion video cut-scenes into the gameplay so once the player is in, they know it.”

Another big component of A.L.I.V.E. games is an innovation known as Gamespeak whereby in-game characters are given their own vocabulary that gamers control and, depending on what is said, impacts how the other on-screen characters react.

“A.L.I.V.E. games are truly a combination of the aforementioned qualities,” adds Simon. “But Gamespeak is perhaps the major component as it breathe life into the characters and each in-game encounter changes depending on what is said. So despite having played through a particular passage, players really feel that they are experiencing a completely new adventure because the characters are responding differently.”

Beehive

Nowadays Oddworld is a beehive of activity with the two games, Abe’s Exoddus and Munch’s Oddysee, the second game in the quintology, currently in production.
Says Lanning, “No doubt about it, Oddworld is humming, but we have sought out and hired not only the best talent, but also the most dedicated. Its not unusual for staffs at development houses to do 24 hour days, seven days a week in order to get a product out. What’s really unique about the staff here is their passion for and commitment to making the best games. We do not cut corners in any aspect of development.

“That’s right,” says McKenna. “It’s a total team effort from Lorne and I, on down. Because we ask our employees to devote so much of their lives to the games, I see part of my responsibility as CEO to provide them with a place in which they want to work. So, in addition to the pool table up front, we have recently installed a gym and have added a personal trainer on staff. I make sure that all my employees try to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible. At work, there’s no junk food or soda allowed, and vitamins once a day.”

Oddworld is able to handle a tremendous workload and maintain a high consistency in style and quality for every piece of artwork. To the uninitiated, however, it can be overwhelming, but Oddworld has experienced producers who are used to juggling a myriad of projects.

So as the Inhabitants all head for the finish line, what’s in store for the folks at Oddworld? In addition to completing Abe’s Exoddus, Lanning and crew are bust researching engines for Munch’s Oddysee, a game that will have an online component and be infinitely bigger than anything before and will require the power of next generation chips and processors.

The appeal of Oddworld characters knows no boundaries, as people of all ages, male and female, gamers and non-gamers alike, have all fallen for the quirky cast of Oddworld. That fan club will only grow as Abe, Munch and the rest of the Oddworld denizens head towards additional entertainment media, including feature film and television.

“We knew from the start that we wanted to create and control a brand much like George Lucas did with Star Wars, or Walt Disney did with Mickey Mouse, which is why we have followed a typically Hollywood movie model in creating our games—from story boards to sculptures,” says Lanning. “We did it all in feature film resolutions, thus creating a digital back-lot from which we can archive and access all our assets quickly and easily.”

With all the headaches that are involved in developing a game. Let alone simultaneously building a company, are Lanning and McKenna satisfied?

“I don’t think you can ever be satisfied,” says McKenna. “You always want to go from better to best, especially in this industry. But I will tell you one thing. I am ecstatic that when Lorne asked me to follow him I finally said, Ok.”