Gaming Age Special: Oddworld Interview

Gaming Age Special: Oddworld Interview [Hosted by Gaming Age]

Date: 5 May, 1998
Interviewer: Greg Sewart
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Back in our early days one of the first interviews we ever did was with Sherry McKenna, Co-Founder and CEO of Oddworld Inhabitants, in order to commemorate the release of the excellent Abe’s Oddysee. Now, as E3 approaches, Oddworld gets ready to unveil Abe’s Exoddus to the world for the first time.

Gaming Age was able to speak with Lorne Lanning, Co-Founder of Oddworld Inhabitants, concerning everything from their new game to the potential success of GOD. Read on, you may be surprised at what you see.

GS: First of all, congratulations on the success Oddworld Inhabitants enjoyed with Abe’s Oddysee. It was nice to see that title get the accolades it deserved. Did its popularity surprise you at all?

Lanning: Thank you for the praise. As to Abe’s success… well, when you spend as much money as we did you have to believe (while making the game) that you will see the kind of sales that Abe had. Abe performed at about the level we had hoped he would do.

GS: Abe’s was a solid title, but looking back on it do you see anything you may have done differently now that you’ve had a little feedback on the game? If so, how has it affected Abe’s Exoddus?

Lanning: The main thing that we learned was that we fell short on the ‘save’ feature. By the time we realized the shortcomings of the way it worked, it was too late. Because of the way the save feature did work, it created a significant amount of repetitive play and thus made the game harder than it should have been. We also had many occurrences where the user had to die to learn the solutions to the puzzles.

We knew this when we built the game, that’s why we gave the gamer infinite lives without ever throwing them out of the experience or subjecting them to entire level replay like most games do. However, some people didn’t like that they had to die to figure things out.

After seeing how some people reacted to both of these problems, we made 100% sure that they would not occur in Abe’s Exoddus. We will never make these mistakes again. Ever.

GS: That’s good to hear. Story was such an important part of Abe’s flow. What’s the story for Abe’s Exoddus?

Lanning: In Abe’s Exoddus, the story picks up exactly where Abe’s Oddysee left off. In Abe’s Oddysee, Abe believed that he did a great thing by helping out his race. What he learns in Abe’s Exoddus is that all of his actions, no matter how righteous they appear, will always have effects that cause another dilemma.

In Abe’s Oddysee, Abe rescued the Mudokons from the meat grinder then shut down the RuptureFarms plant. Well, when he shut down RuptureFarms, he unknowingly created an ingredients shortage for another Glukkon franchise. This new factory is called SoulStorm Brewery. And their brew is made from bones and Mudokon tears. Abe shut down RuptureFarms, thus he stopped the flow of bones from RuptureFarms to SoulStorm Brewery.

But business must go on, so the Glukkons have started to mine an ancient Mudokon burial ground. Needless to say, this is pissing a bunch of dead Mudokons off. And you can guess who they come to visit to ask for help.

GS: Another strong point of Oddysee was character development. Abe’s clumsy demeanor and big heart made him immediately endearing to the player. Has Abe retained these qualities in Exoddus? I heard he’d gained a little attitude this time around.

Lanning: He gained, and all of the Mudokons have gained more emotions. And Abe has gained some new GameSpeak words to help him deal with these highly emotional Mudokons. They get angry, they get wired, they get depressed, they even become suicidal.

You’re going to have to see it to believe it. But it works and it makes sense when you’re playing. Their emotions give our characters even more personality and make them much more endearing and, more importantly, a lot more funny to watch and interact with. Everyone we have showed Abe’s Exoddus to immediately starts laughing when they see how these Mudokons interact.

It’s going to be a much funnier game, without losing the qualities and the serious undertone that made Abe’s Oddysee what it was.

GS: Are the play mechanics in Exoddus similar to Oddysee?

Lanning: The play mechanics are very similar in Abe’s Exoddus, we have built on the same platform structure. But this time, we have added new powers, new GameSpeak, new characters, new levels, and new abilities. This time you can possess nearly all of the characters in the game. That means Sligs, Paramites, Scrabs, Flying Sligs, and Glukkons too. Funny stuff results from these new chemistries. All of the characters that you possess have their own GameSpeak also. And all of it has play value.

Abe can also have all of the Mudokons follow him at once in Abe’s Exoddus. In Abe’s Oddysee you could only have one at a time. With this new ability Abe also has to use the Mudokons to solve more variety of puzzles. This ability has an overall effect of making the game much more funny and much more involving.

Just as importantly we fixed the problems of the last game. We fixed the save feature which is now perfect, we designed more intensely so now you can figure problems out without having to get killed, thus you feel a bit smarter as you play the game. But make no mistake, it’s still a challenge and we haven’t lost the edge at all, it’s just better. If you liked Abe’s Oddysee, you’re going to love this game.

GS: When Abe’s Oddysee was released last year Oddworld Inhabitants was very vocal about the fact that they had mapped out a “Quintology” of titles. Now that this title is being released I have to ask, wasn’t Munch’s Oddysee supposed to be the second title? Where does Abe’s Exoddus fit in?

Lanning: Yes, Munch’s Oddysee was scheduled to be the second game of the Quintology and we had not planned on doing a title outside of the Quintology. However, we found that we could not achieve what we wanted with Munch’s Oddysee on the current level of technology (PSX, 120MHZ PC) and that created a dilemma for us. We would not be releasing another Oddworld title until the new console systems arrived (PSX II, Sega Katana, 500MHZ PC).

Munch is going to be in 3D like you’ve never seen and we need this next technological jump to pull it off. You can’t do the character personalities, art quality, and AI qualities that Abe’s Oddysee has and do real-time 3D on the current level of technology. That’s why we chose to do a “2 1/2-D” game in the first place. Character appeal, entertainment value, and fun factor are most important to us. We won’t do real-time 3D and compromise art, animation, or charm.

However, many PlayStation owners sent us email and they really, really wanted another game on the PlayStation. Our game designers also wanted to do one more version of the same game style that would achieve and do many things that they weren’t able to do in the first game. So we decided to do one more PlayStation title, picking up right from where Abe’s Oddysee left off and ending right where Munch’s Oddysee would begin. We also had a lot of story points that we wanted the gamer to learn about before we entered the world of Munch. Thus, we came to the conclusion to build Abe’s Exoddus.

So we look at Abe’s Exoddus as though it is a bonus game. It’s bigger than Abe’s Oddysee, it’s better than Abe’s Oddysee, it has all new levels, environments, puzzles, and story, but it’s not a Quintology game. Munch is still the second game in the Quintology. Overall, we found that we will probably be doing a bonus game several times in between the Oddysee games that compose the Quintology.

Sorry if it’s confusing, but basically, the Quintology games are all Oddysee games. The games in between the Oddysee games will be called Exoddus games. The reason for this is that we really, truly want to make absolutely sure that each Oddysee game takes major technological leaps above the previous Oddysee game.

GS: Does Oddworld Inhabitants have any plans to deviate from its current path and create some titles that aren’t based on Oddworld?

Lanning: None at all. We built this company to fully develop the universe of Oddworld and we have absolutely no intentions of getting off of that path.

GS: Why the strange spellings of Oddysee and Exoddus anyway?

Lanning: Well, it is an Oddworld after all. Plus we always want to be as creative with our titles as we are with the games’ content. We are mapping out a unique, smart, and involving universe. So we want to make sure that the names are smart and unique also. These names also have multiple meanings, as do all of our stories. This is not an odyssey in the classical mythological sense, but it is an “Oddysee” in a more modern mythological sense. These distinctions are very important to us and in time the reasons for this will become more clear to everyone else too.

GS: Rumour has it that Munch’s Oddysee is planned for release on Sega’s new Katana system. Is there any truth to that rumour? Have you personally had a chance to experience the new hardware?

Lanning: We are looking at the Katana system. It does meet the specs that we need to achieve what we want to achieve, but that’s about all I can say about it at this time.

GS: Is there anything you can tell us about the play mechanics and storyline of Munch’s Oddysee yet?

Lanning: Let’s put it this way. Abe’s Oddysee was a great game that pushed many of the more subtle aspects that are vital for advancing our industry in a more classically entertaining direction. Abe’s Exoddus will push this a little further. Both of these games are like little stealth bombers that snuck in through the back door of the industry, dropped their payloads, and everyone looked up and went, “wow, where did that come from?”But Munch’s Oddysee is not going to sneak in through the back door, it’s not going to cause a couple of waves and get a fair amount of attention. Munch’s Oddysee is going to be the hydrogen bomb dropped right in everyone’s lap and it’s going to blow them away. This isn’t hype or bullshit. We know what Abe’s Oddysee was and we always knew what it was. We didn’t have false expectations and we didn’t believe that it was something that it wasn’t. We put our hearts into the game, we put our minds into the game, and the

But Munch’s Oddysee is not going to sneak in through the back door, it’s not going to cause a couple of waves and get a fair amount of attention. Munch’s Oddysee is going to be the hydrogen bomb dropped right in everyone’s lap and it’s going to blow them away. This isn’t hype or bullshit. We know what Abe’s Oddysee was and we always knew what it was. We didn’t have false expectations and we didn’t believe that it was something that it wasn’t. We put our hearts into the game, we put our minds into the game, and the game players identified this and saw something unique. Munch’s Oddysee is indescribable by today’s standards of gameplay, of graphics, of creativity, and of genre merging. You’re going to need to see it to believe it.

We are heading in a unique direction with unique perspectives on things and the public is going to recognize this as soon as they witness it. It’s going to cause a lot of people to re-think what this technology and industry is capable of. As for the story… I don’t want to spill the beans yet.

GS: Sounds great, sounds like you’ll redefine the 3D genre like you did the 2D with Abe’s.

Lanning: I feel that this is true. It is also true that a lot of people don’t recognize how Abe’s Oddysee didn’t just push the 2D genre, it pushed gameplay evolution as a whole. You didn’t run around in 3D, but that’s just technology. Because it’s 3D doesn’t mean it’s captivating content and it doesn’t mean it’s entertaining.

There are mechanics in Abe’s Oddysee that deal with hearing, seeing, and with verbal communication and advanced relationships between characters that has never been achieved before in any game format. 2D or 3D. Some people recognize this, some people don’t.

GS: When Abe’s Oddysee was released, your company maintained that computers and consoles just weren’t powerful enough to do everything you wanted to do with the game, especially when it came to the question of a 3D world. Do you see that changing with the new consoles and new 3D chipsets for PC?

Lanning: Absolutely. We are very, very excited with the next level of technology. This next level is the reason we got into this business to begin with. The 32-bit arena is a place that allowed us to get our feet wet and understand the basics. The next level is where we really get to show our stuff. We’re already starting and it’s very, very exciting.

GS: Now that you’ve been in the business for a while, what are your views on the industry? Are there any trends that bother you? Do you see good things or bad things in our future?

Lanning: The industry is still in a very immature state. It has a lot of evolving to do. This is an exciting thing, but it’s also an embarrassing thing. The best example is Tomb Raider.

That the gaming press says Lara Croft is a “smart, inspiring character and a female role model” says it all. Laura Croft has fake, fake breasts, wears shorts that are two sizes too small for her, breaks into ancient tombs, and shoots every endangered species she sees. If this were a movie we would be embarrassed for her and say, “My god! What kind message are they trying to send? Can’t they be a little more creative?”

But because it’s a game, the standards of judgement are purely on new technology and gameplay. That’s ok, that’s where we are in our industry’s evolution and that’s part of what makes our lives challenging. But in time, as the industry matures, we will have higher standards of what we expect from games. We are going to want great technology, great gameplay, and great content. The content factor is largely void from criticism in the industry right now. In time this will change.

GS: Well you took a large step towards that with Abe’s, to be sure. Being a new developer yourself, I wonder what you think of G.O.D. (Gathering of Developers). It’s proven quite controversial and a lot of accusations have been leveled at certain companies. Where do you stand on this? Do you think G.O.D. is a successful formula?

Lanning: Hey, we usually tend to root for the underdog and love to see when the establishment gets a kick in the pants. If G.O.D. pulls it off it will be better for all of us developers. We wish them luck. If they don’t… it won’t be a big surprise.

Part of the problem, in general, is that people don’t know how to run companies, they don’t know how to manage themselves on their projects, and they don’t know how to manage their investors or their publishers. All I can say is that our relationship with our publisher (GT) is awesome. And I’m not saying that to get brownie points and I’m not saying that because I need to. We have no desire to do GT’s job and they have no desire to do our job. Our relationship is professional and it’s mutually respectful.

We deliver what we promise when we promise, they do the same, and because of that we stay out of each other’s hair. If this doesn’t happen between companies then everything falls apart and there are harsh feelings. The truth is there is one really big reason that it goes down well for us. That’s because my partner, Sherry McKenna, really knows what the hell she’s doing.

GS: Thanks very much for taking the time to do this interview. Good luck on Abe’s Exoddus and your other future titles.