GamesTM: Retro Interview: Lorne Lanning [2014]

Date: March 2014

Source: GamesTM, Issue 146, pp. 148-151

Interview

Lorne Lanning

“Follow me,” said Oddworld character Abe. And fans did, in droves. Lorne Lanning’s decision to put his artistic skills and vision into gaming came off. He tells us more…

When games™ spoke to Lorne Lanning in 2006 about the first Oddworld game, he told us that the title’s Mudokon star, Abe, was “largely inspired by the plight of Third World labourers who have no voice and are being swept up by the expansion of globalisation.” Heavy stuff indeed. But then Lanning is no ordinary videogame designer. Having founded Oddworld Inhabitants with producer Sherry McKenna in 1994, the pair were able to create four award-winning games over 11 years, making their debut with a 2D game on the 3D-centric PlayStation in 1997. Lanning departed gaming in 2005, only to return a few years later and remakes of the Oddworld games for new platforms have followed thanks to independent developer Just Add Water. One of them, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty!, is due out this year. Lanning tells us more about his motivations.

Q: So what’s your background – what led to you making games?

Lorne Lanning: I was always an artist, and while I studied some programming in college, I was never a coder. I studied code for the same reasons I studied sound design. I knew it would help to have more insightful and valuable interactions with engineers on future projects I knew I would want to embark on. My primary passion has always been research. This feeds the hopper with inspiration for story crafting, character development, and general high design solutions. I’d research into areas of particular fascination, and re-interpret the essence of discoveries into freshly re-crafted modern myths, which is my meta-passion.What did you enjoy playing?When I was a kid I had a paper route as a job and I had to deliver newspapers at 5am in the cold winters of New England. This was before Atari or Nintendo consoles; all we had were coin-op machines in truck stops, greasy spoon diners, ice cream shops… These were also the places to stop along the route that were warm and dry.

I was paid in quarters, and way too many of those quarters went into the arcade machines in a mission to get my three initials on to the machines leaderboard and keep them there. The games were Grand Prix, Tank Command, Asteroids, Defender, Joust. Later, when consoles came along, I still enjoyed the arcade games most. Today I think Resogun best captures my first love for arcade classics.

Q: What was it about games that fascinated you?

Lorne Lanning: I think it was a way to be good at something and to be recognised for it while having fun at the same time. I was a competitive kid, but I didn’t play sports because my parents didn’t want to pay doctor bills for broken bones or teeth. As soon as I could walk I loved doing dangerous things so I think they were tired of me always breaking, cutting, or spraining some body part or another. So I think the arcade machine was a public-displayed, honest way to have victories that even enemies couldn’t deny.

Q: You studied photorealism and commercial illustration – what did that entail?

Lorne Lanning: Its greatest value was in learning how to see not what you think you see, but what is actually before you. I was taught and later found to be true, that this way of seeing has tremendous value across a wide spectrum of life. You have to train hard to get past your logical mind (your left brain) to see the truth in reality before your eyes, which means getting past the dominance of the logical mind to get clearer perceptions capable in the right brain only. The left brain does not see clearly, the right brain does. It’s the left brain that is polluted with assumptions and pre-conceived notions of what it believes to be truth.

In photorealism, aside from the chemical process and technical craft, it’s more about observing the true behaviour and physics of light, atmosphere and their visible effects that bounce around physical matter. To observe it, you must come to understand the core principles at work, then you can deduce what it is exactly that you are looking at.

Photorealists learn that most people do not see reality. They see symbolic assumptions of what they believe to be reality. And nowhere does the difference between perception and delusion become more evident than in someone’s attempt at photorealism. Doing it well is impossible to fake if all you have is a blank canvas and oil paints to have to then walk away with a perceived photograph.

Q: What did this training teach you?

Lorne Lanning: It has left me greatly valuing the discipline demanded and benefits gained most by learning to see the world through the right brain as well as the though the left. With it comes far more benefits in life than just a summary of skills gained toward the craft of painting. If there’s a downside, I think it follows that you are indeed seeing the world differently than most people around you are, and that in itself can make for a more lonely and isolated existence for those who embark down the path of this craft. But I also believe this is where deeper understandings into natural history and shamanism help reveal how indigenous cultures valued this ability in more meaningful ways and of greater benefit to the society at large. Something Western cultures are greatly lacking yet in desperate need of.

Q: Had you been interested in animation for a long time?

Lorne Lanning: [I have] a BFA in Motion Graphics, while unofficially I minored in animation. This was at CalArts. The California Institute of the Arts, also known as the other CIA [laughs]. Mostly, I spent a lot of time observing nature throughout my life. I’m very close to it and I spent a tremendous amount of time doing this. I found many answers here to many things, and so I was always absolutely fascinated by life forms, behaviours, the patterns and rhythms.

Then, once I came to realise that painting could lead to the creation of virtual worlds and animated characters, that’s when I stopped painting in New York and went back to school in California to learn how film effects and animation were done. It melded lifelong passions while it was a later discovery that I could actually be an animator, so it combined many passions quite naturally.

Q: Having met Sherry McKenna, you founded Oddworld Inhabitants in 1994. Why the move into games?

Lorne Lanning: It was the only place I could figure out three things. First of all, I could tell stories I wanted to tell with creative freedom. Secondly, these stories could be told using 3D CG and thirdly there was a chance to control the stories’ destiny by owning the IP as Disney, Lucas, Henson, Dr. Seuss had proven could be done.

Q: What gave you the idea for Abe’s story in Oddworld?

Lorne Lanning: The backdrop was born out of insights into the deep, dark side of globalisation practices that I witnessed first hand to be psychopathically destroying our natural eco-systems that I had come to learn from, love and respect so much. Enslaved and exploited people and creatures from around the world formed the inspiration for the characters.

Q: Did you want to produce an alien world?

Lorne Lanning: I never saw myself or our efforts as producing alien worlds. I saw us producing our world disguised as alien so it would be more digestible.

Q: You stuck with 2D for Oddworld – why?

Lorne Lanning: Because we wanted to focus more on graphical richness and fidelity in animation. We wanted characters that felt more alive traversing worlds that looked richer and more interesting to engage. It was the PSone era and we were faced with choices using bitmaps or real time 3D. Real time 3D looked like it was coming from ‘Planet Low Poly’, which was still the maximum real time capability of the day.

Q: You lent your voice to Oddworld. Did you train as a voice actor?

Lorne Lanning: Only in the shower and by being a natural goofball. But then as a baby I always did love making voice effects. I was a magpie and I just loved emulating sounds from the environment. Especially when it would talk back. As a little kid spending days on creeks and streams and rivers, I would spend hours having ongoing exchanges with wild animals.

Then there were sirens. Police, fire, medical, alarms, I was awesome at them by four-years-old. I could completely freak my mother out. I could replicate any siren at a freaky decibel level. It would just scare the hell out of her and she would get so pissed. But then my voice changed with adolescence and those fun skills greatly reduced in ability. But as a five year old, I was great. [laughs] I could make anyone driving the car have a coronary. Unsuspecting adults were putty in my hands. It was an awesome superpower. Probably my only one. I do miss it dearly.

Q: Which do you prefer – design or scripts?

Lorne Lanning: In my mind, writing has always been simply a different technical expression of design. A different tool of design. I approach script-writing as a designer first. It can infuriate writers that want the more special sauce auteur approach. I want systems that then get flowered with words. I never start with words. I start with mind maps. I design stories and character development at a mind mapped graphical level. Words come into play later, after the structure of the story and its arcs have been solved on a timeline. Only then do I start to actually write. It’s more like how DNA contains the instructions that will build a body to come. I build the blueprint first, then flesh out the body words.

Q: How many people did you have working on the first game?

Lorne Lanning: Up to around 50.

Q: Did the company grow in number quite considerably?

Lorne Lanning: At its largest it got up to around 80.

Q: What was it like to work on these games?

Lorne Lanning: Brutal, with extremely dense learning curves filled with relentless lessons. Invaluable, but very difficult.

Q: Were you pleased by the reaction?

Lorne Lanning: Absolutely, but not as much with other mishaps happening simultaneously. The retail chain is a very difficult terrain to navigate well when trying to get product onto the shelf across global territories. You get wins in some areas and losses in others.

Q: Oddworld coincided with the PlayStation’s release. Was that deliberate?

Lorne Lanning: What we did do deliberately was target CD-ROM as the spec for emerging consoles that would enable us more memory capacity and video capabilities. The obvious target in 1994 was the soon-to-emerge PSone and so we had high hopes for its success.

Q: Would Oddworld have worked as well on older systems?

Lorne Lanning: It would have been different, as the medium would have been different. But basically I wasn’t interested in game design pre-32-bit because I wanted higher fidelity in production design. The 8-bit and 16-bit graphics just didn’t interest me as a creator, even though I loved a number of the games. But as a craftsman, the medium didn’t get that interesting to me until 32-bit. But then again, I was playing around in military simulators networked in real time 3D dog fights while others were playing the ‘new’ NES. So I had a different vision of where high-end military games already were and were consoles would eventually get to.

Q: In 2008, you made a return to gaming. Why was this?

Lorne Lanning: We started getting the games on to Steam and digital networks which meant independence from crappy publishing terms that ruled the previous era, which we had grown tired of playing around with.So I’ve been playing more of a self published role building businesses across networks for our games, than the role of designer. This enabled us to grow the ability to start financing new content on our own but we had to do it slowly and cleverly, and only now am I diving deep back into design and development on brand new content which I’ve not yet disclosed.

Q: Which game holds the fondest memories?

Lorne Lanning: Stranger’s Wrath. It was the first game I think I actually enjoyed building. It was brutal and had a ton of challenges, but the collective team was amazing to work with and we accomplished a ton in relatively short time. We accomplished it for around $14 million: far more than some of the biggest publishers where unable to deliver even with budgets of $50-60 million.

Q: You have promised many other games along the way – what happened to them?

Lorne Lanning: We talked about games we would have liked to build, hoped to build, or that we were actively building but got cancelled in development. Shit happens, but I’ve learned from experience it’s best not to stir it up fresh.


DEVELOPER COMMENTS

Even before I met Lorne for the first time in 2009, I knew he had focus in whatever it is he worked on, purely from the attention to detail in all four of the Oddworld titles released up until that point. Since meeting him, not only has he been a colleague but he‘s a friend too and my initial perception about him all those years ago was spot on. He is an extraordinary director, he wants to know every aspect of the production of the games and he pays attention to the details of them, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Over the years we have probably spent around 20 hours just driving around parts of California talking about game ideas and business models. Lorne is definitely a unique one of a kind character and this industry is richer for having him in it!

STEWART GILRAY, FOUNDER OF JUST ADD WATER