GameFan: Lorne Lanning of Oddworld Inhabitants [2000]

Lorne Lanning of Oddworld Inhabitants

Date: April 2000

Interviewer: GameFan

Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Source: GameFan, volume 8, issue 4, pp.18-19.

GameFan recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lome Lanning, Oddworld’s creative force. And if you thought their games were odd…

GameFan: How did you come up with the concept of gamespeak?

Lorne Lanning: Well, what do we love about characters? One, they’re self-aware. Any characters that aren’t self-aware in classic entertainment just don’t do anything for us—they have to have the appearance that they see and that they hear. They also have to talk, otherwise, there’s really no attraction to them. Forget their story and their medium—you’re not just going to become attracted to them on a deeper emotional, dynamic level if we don’t give the characters some degree of vocabulary-listening, hearing, and the ability to respond… That’s how we came up with the notion of gamespeak. You know, basic speech and communication, getting other characters to follow you around, etc. That is to say, well, where I used to throw a punch, I should now be able to throw a word, and that word should be able to trigger a response that seems lifelike(“Hello,” “Hello?,” “Follow me,” “O.k.”).

GF: So was the PlayStation spec the minimum you needed, or has it surpassed the
minimum spec?

Lorne Lanning: I’ll tell you exactly what happened: We started designing Munch’s Odyssey a long time ago, and weren’t far into it when we figured out it wouldn’t even run in real-time 3D on the PlayStation. With all those links of animation, making, sure those feet were locked to the floor, making sure they bounced back with the right sensibilities, we said to ourselves, “There’s just no way Munch and its story run on a PSX.” So we came up ideal spec, and we started designing it, but it just wasn’t the game we wanted, it was too constrained. We were kind of setting the spec really where the Dreamcast wound up being… We had to ask ourselves, “Is Sony going to come out with something that meets this spectrum, or are they going to blow it away—and by the time they announce what it’s going be, what are Nintendo, etc., going to do? We finally decided we’d place the bet that there would be enough pressure from the PC world to force the next generation of console systems to be a winner, with very impressive specs. So we went for that spec, and when we finally flew out to Japan for the PS2 announcement and saw what they were talking about, I said, “Ah, thank God,” ’cause we really put our asses on the line. Finally, it met—it just met, basically.

GF: So even with the supposedly incredible horsepower of the PlayStation 2, it still just met your basic requirements?

Lorne Lanning: That’s right. Abe’s a diamond miner in the mines of South Africa; he’s thinking, “Why is the world so messed up? Why are my people and my culture being destroyed? What’s going on here, and why are we digging these black pieces of coal out of the ground?” Abe follows that black piece of coal, and it takes him right dead smack into the center of consumerism, which means by the end of the quintology, he’s in worlds with Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York-type density. Well, the story was written so that as the games grew, the bases of population the games were played in would grow, too. When we started off, Abe’s Oddyssee was O.K.; it had about ten characters on-screen at a time, tops. But in Hong Kong, we’re going to need ten thousand characters on-screen. No one’s even pointing at technology today that’ll run the fifth game in the quintology, which I think will be two generations of hardware away. Which is really only ten years…

GF: So you’re saying the PS 4 would be spec?

Lorne Lanning: By the end of the quintology? Yeah, the PS4.

GF: Will it be five years between games, then?

Lorne Lanning: Well, we’re still evaluating… If Squeak [a later chapter] could run on a PS2, man? Love to get it out there. This is the basic concept of Odd World: the Odd World’s ten times the size of Earth. So far, we’ve only seen Nicaragua, but by the end of the quintology, we’ll have crossed one continent and found a whole other world to explore. And if we have to explore that in the meantime because the quintology won’t be able to reach the densest parts of the city, then we’ll start exploring other areas… different races, different continents altogether, that still make up Odd World. To us, it’s a planet-universe in development, and the closest model—I hesitate to say it after the last film—is “Star Wars.” That’s the best model of the universe that’s really successful, where everything you see is unique and different. The only difference is ours is going to be 100% synthetic.

GF: Can you describe the emotional component of the Oddworld series?

Lorne Lanning: Empathy became a critical factor of how we wanted to design games. Namely, if I could feel a little more responsible for this guy, if I could feel more like just brought him all this way, only to get wasted, I’m that much more emotionally affected. And to me, that’s what emotional gameplay’s about, conceptually. It’s not “I hate that guy because I hit him 50,000 times and he still wins”—you know, the end boss. Emotion is “I hate that guy because of who he is,” and we’re getting closer and closer to that. You should hate him for the reason you hate him in the movies, not because he’s just harder than you are. I believe that same basic paradigm is what should be happening in characters, that we should feel more connected, more responsible. When things go wrong, it should pull the rug out from under us emotionally. We’ve received letters about Odyssey where, you know, a mother would say, “I have two sons, one’s six and one’s eleven, and every time the eleven-year-old’s killing Mudokons, the six-year-old unplugs the game machine.” That’s more the dynamic you want to try and get after. The concept is: If I see a living creature, I have two ways of looking at it—I can use it in its natural form, or I can use it by processing it and turning it into something else. So if I see a tree, well, that tree has a life force in it, and if I’m a Mudokon, with a sort of native mentality, I can channel that to my own needs, right? But if I’m a Glukkon, I go, “Man, there’s some moolah on a stick just waiting to be chopped down.” Both viewpoints are valid, you must decide what you would do.

GF: Exactly—it’s just a matter of which side you fall on.

Lorne Lanning: Exactly, which side you fall on, and so, in the world that we’re building, we want the consequences of your actions (and those of your opponents) to represent these two different ideologies, even if they’re just Al.

GF: Yeah, it would be a lot more interesting if you were fighting someone with a different ideology, not just a different color, different machines, etc.

Lorne Lanning: Exactly. Oh, he’s the bad alien from Mars, I mean, let’s shoot’em all—how many times have I heard that one. Oh, the zombies are coming back from the dead, we need to shoot’em all and protect. Please, guys— some originality. It’s so much more interesting if we say, “Here’s one side, here’s another. Here’s your playing field. Now, your interests are in preserving all this, and your interests are in mowing it all down.” That way, we not only have physical conflict, but we have moral positions that conflict as well. I think this sort of idea elicits much more passion on the playing field.

GF: Can you touch on the consequence factor?

Lorne Lanning: I’ll show you some ways today that we’re dealing with the new violent components, which are much more funny, and have more entertainment value. For the most part, we’re looking at a neutral guy, just a schmuck that
lives off the land. Then this factory opens up, and the management starts recruiting workers. How do they recruit? They walk out, find these neutral guys, clock ’em over the head,then drag them back—and now they’re workers. Until you save that guy, he’s not back on the open playing field. It’s more like you’re a government, conceptually. We want you to feel more like a schoolteacher who’s managing kids, or a dog walker who’s managing some eighteen dogs. It’s strange, the things that come out of that, that we feel. They take my guy, I go, “Damn! He’s beaten my guy over there, he’s going to take him and put him to work. I worked hard for that.” There’s this extra, demoralizing quality we experience that comes with that. It’s one thing if you shot my guys—it’s another if I see you over there kicking the hell out of them, dragging them off and giving them a lousy job.

GF: Especially after you worked so hard to try to get him to where he was.

Lorne Lanning: Exactly. And your feelings of revenge are so much greater than if you just got shot, your guy just got shot…

GF: Right. Like in Exoddus or Oddyssee; it’s taking it to that next level in Munch’s.

Lorne Lanning: Yes.

GF: So what it comes down to, really, is you’re injecting these games with humanity?

Lorne Lanning: Exactly.

GF: Is that the biggest problem, development-wise (good Al)? Making it a living, breathing world while you’re not there?

Lorne Lanning: I think there are so many potential problems, I don’t even know which is the biggest. I would guess the biggest problem initially is creative—figuring out how a world sustains itself, lives and dies, is able to come back to life, and is able to be brought back to death, while being run autonomously. And how to; maintain a sense of entertainment value while it’s doing that, just watching these guys go about their business, the way they do it, and the things that happen in their pre-existent social dynamics. Creatively, that’s just a mother… it took us a long time to narrow that down to the simplest set of workable components that are logical, but not as deep that you don’t get it.

GF: Are you guys still confirmed for the launch date of the American PlayStation 2?

Lorne Lanning: That’s our target. We have the whole studio here focused on that one goal. And that’s why I’m saying, when we look at the milestones, the play patterns—if we get Munch done, we’ve got 85% of Hand of Odd done, and 80% of Munch’s Exoddus is done. And the quality of the games will be enough that people won’t say, “Yeah, they’re done, but they didn’t seem like it”—we get to tune so many different types of experiences from this one infrastructure technology. You couldn’t think this way on a 16 bit or 32-bit; the technology wasn’t enough to think this way. It was too isolated, too specific. But I think you’re afforded the luxury now, to think this way.

GameFan would like to thank Lome Lanning, Sherry McKenna, Gerilyn Wilhelm and the entire Oddworld staff for their time—few in our industry are as genuine and gracious as the Odd!