Lorne Lanning (Afterword) [2007]

Lorne Lanning (Afterword)

Date: September 2007

Source: Simons, Iain (2007). Inside Game Design (pp.143-147). Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

WHY BOTHER? SERIOUSLY. WHY MAKE VIDEOGAMES AT ALL? Lorne Lanning, having spent over a decade making the ‘Oddworld’ universe of games, and receiving critical acclaim the world over, asked himself that question. In 2005, after the deeply troubled release of their fourth game, Stranger’s wrath, he and his partner Sherry McKenna announced they were closing down the 60-strong Oddworld studio and moving into different projects. In brief, they’d had enough of the industry. Their new project, Citizen Siege, was announced in 2006. This is a full-length Hollywood CGI movie, directed by Lanning, and with a videogame not licensed from it but conceived as an integral part of this new imaginative universe. This is a new way to make entertainment, and it’s one of the core points of this interview. Lanning and McKenna are finding new ways of creating interactive entertainment that are vitally important to anyone interested in making money from content. Oddworld made some of the most beautiful and individual videogames ever released during its decade of production. Always at the front of any project, Lanning himself is one of the industry’s few real stars. He’s outspoken, opinionated and uncompromising in his views – but he delivers them with a West Coast charisma that demands the listener’s attention. It’s no accident he’s returned to Hollywood. Having duscced the who, how and where of game design, it seems right to end this book with bigger questions. Why make games at all?

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Q: Tell me about the possibilities of game design – less what it is or what it isn’t, but what it could be.

Lorne Lanning: There seems to be a deficit in the vision pool – I believe!

Q: Over and above the responsibilities to publishers and to players, what wider responsibilities do you think game designers have?

Lorne Lanning: The simple answer is, to gamers and to games investors, which is pretty much the same answer we’ve heard from all industry through the last few centuries. Historically, industry had recognized a responsibility to shareholders and somewhat to customers, but it’s clear to us today that it failed to recognize its responsibility to the environment, to public health, and to so many other areas that have left us with the extremely challenging crises that face us today… with even greater challenges revealed when contemplating tomorrow. But our problems came upon us as a result of collective denial and our relentless appetite for escape when faced with life and its challenges. Global warming, depletion of fisheries, polluted oceans, multinational interests mobilizing to own the world food and water supply, erosion of democracy and liberties of the many while handing increased power to an elite few under the guise of safety and protection. To many, it was obvious that all this was coming our way, but most of us chose not to pay attention. The more we pay attention, the longer the list grows and our physical landscape becomes more overwhelming and depressing. So we don’t want to think about how we live amongst industrial empires that own media conglomerates that routinely manufacture misinformation campaigns in the fight against hard science and anything else that conflicts with special interests and consumer appetites. It’s not fun or easy for us to be informed about the pharmaceutical industry that is and has been systematically compounding world health crises by suppressing the spread of information that would otherwise inform the public of inexpensive cures – as was recently revealed by numerous Nobel Prize recipients. When we look at the entertainment spectrum, we could argue that our responsibility is no different for the 21st century than it was in the 20th century. But we know now that we require deeper insights and motivations to help ensure that we avoid sustaining our habitual mistakes. Maybe it’s time we try to create things more redeeming instead of just generating more crap atop the vast heap we’re already wading through. We know we have the ability to make interactive entertainment that serves the purpose of keeping someone entertained while proving profitable, but the question is, what are we dumping into the mindshare? Considering that games capture the greatest mindshare for any medium ever… what are we really doing with it? What is being passed along in the hours consumed in our artificial experiences? When we consider the amount of mindshare that games are getting today, it becomes obvious to make a difference. I look forward to the day we move beyond entertaining our audience and actually start inspiring and sensitizing our audience!

Q: So as well as the well-documented apparent atrophy of the minds of gamers, what specific by-products of gaming do you have in mind?

Lorne Lanning: To be clear, I think that there’s a lot of healthy by-product too – which continues to be validated every day. For example, it’s becoming more widely recognized that many industries and professions can benefit when their people play games. At a basic skill level, gaming has proven to improve dexterity and hand-to-eye co-ordination that helps not only the obvious military simulation skills but also scientists and surgeons and people in countless other fields. Social benefits are witnessed when individuals who might not otherwise be socializing and networking are enabled to do so because of online gaming. People who play connected games are proving that they display stronger teamwork skills in other educational – and career-oriented activities. Young people who play games are also displaying more faith in eventual success, and self-confidence, and are willing to try and fail more frequently than non-gamers. These are just a few of the benefits for game players as they make their way through the trials that come with living in a modern world. It’s important we don’t exclude the positive benefits from discussion about games and their impact, because the games industry feels rather vulnerable, and for good reasons. The industry is frequently attacked by self-promoting politicians and religious zealot attorneys that see easy fodder and a quick way to get themselves visibility or make a quick buck – so it’s a sensitive subject, and I don’t want to ignore these sensitivities. However, this shouldn’t deny our ability to discuss the uncomfortable – we should be intelligent enough to objectively analyze the pitfalls without having to fall on one side or another of a political spectrum. The saddest thing I see in gaming is the popular trend that reprocesses war into pure entertainment. TV, film, radio, news… all media does this, but there’s something particularly disturbing in that even contemporary war, fought at this very moment, is already shrink-wrapped and regurgitated as a fun product on the game shelf. Considering that the actual experience of those on the front lines is horrific and life-shattering, it somehow seems short-sighted that we manage to translate and reprocess these horrific events into something that is fun and enjoyable and void of the emotional devastation while trying to retain every other bit of detail to make the experience feel more real. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that this trend is indirectly helping to desensitize the public to the realities of war? On the upside, there are RTS [real-time strategy] games that have proven to increase user knowledge, players walk away with a better idea of what happened in history, yet they had fun while learning it. This is great. You’ll hear teachers say their kids come into class and talk about their gaming experience and commenting, ‘So that‘s what happened in the Byzantine empire!’ They didn’t pay attention in history class, but when they were invading the shorelines in a game they took interest and retained a beneficial history lesson. But as the trend moves to revisit history in more realistic first-person ways, we’re also removing the horrors and collateral damage that would sicken us, that would never pass the ratings board for the largest demographic we’re looking to target – and so we distill these distortions into a fun experience that is more likely to sell. Now we see publishers sifting through the history of warfare to see what potentially viable wars can be turned into a watered-down, branded, interactive property. And most importantly…. fun! I think this may serve shareholders well in the short term, but in the big picture this type of diluted revisionism also serves to perpetuate pro-war propaganda – which is arguably amongst our biggest problems today, at least here in America.

Q: A lot of game designers would return to the central concept of ‘fun’ as the core responsibility of the game designer.

Lorne Lanning: Yes, and the free market is definitely driving that, when looked at from a statistical market research perspective. But let’s think about it as a ‘satisfying’ experience – which doesn’t necessarily mean fun – but means that it was satisfying, engaging, or possibly compelling on other psychological and emotional levels. The deeper a good film is, the more we feel satisfied because we learned something, we feel satisfied because we saw a greater range of human dynamics or human passion, or saw truths that were currently hidden beneath the surface of our cover-story world – as in The China Syndrome, Syriana, Apocalypse Now, or so many other films that stick in our conscience for years to follow. It’s interesting that the films getting the most awards thse days are those that are intellectually and emotionally challenging works of cinema, but in the game world we aren’t tackling such issues. We are increasingly trapped in this idea that if the games aren’t ‘fun’ by traditional standards – and don’t fit within proven genres – then they can’t succeed. But this is an extremely limiting paradigm and vision for the possibilities of an immensely potent medium, and it’s a paradigm that is defined not by potential, but by insider perception and the result of retail conditions. However, it’s not the only possibility, but so long as games exist at a price point of 50 dollars and gamers are required to make a several-hundred-dollar investment in a dedicated console to play titles, and the shelf life and retail conditions and development environments continue to get worse, then we’re pretty much stuck in this non-innovating condition – even though there are alternatives that can lead to more compelling interactive entertainment. A great exemple of this was Myst. It wasn’t fun by game industry standards and, for that matter, neither was The SimsMyst didn’t have gameplay in the traditional sense beyond puzzle-solving and exploration. It wasn’t action or competitive. But it was… experiential! The nature of its otherworldly, solitary, mysterious experience introduced a lot of people to gaming who had previously had no interest. Myst sucked them in, then they wanted more. But it never arrived, and they walked away from gaming wondering what happened to the experiences they might like. What we have the opportunity to do now is create more sensitizing content that appeals to a wider range of human emotions and interest.

Q: How optimistic are you about strategies for change?

Lorne Lanning: I believe things can change, but with development conditions the way they are and the expenses and risks involved, change has to come from different directions. If we look at the engineering philosophy of the hardware design of the next generation of consoles, and the reality of the production pipeline for the developers, there’s a huge chasm between what they have to work with and what they really need. The development community doesn’t need hardware systems that stifle innovation and give use half-assed tools and libraries that come with low-cost manufacturing manifestations that were designed in an engineering vacuum. Every five years of so there’s a new hardware transition. Some are worse than others, but as time goes on it’s getting more and more unpleasant – and reliably. You’re screwed if you invested 15 to 20 million dollars in a game that’s just going to be on a PS3 at launch, because all you have is the possibility of selling a few hundred thousand units because that’s all of the machines in the marketplace. Your game might be out there helping to sell more systems, but your chance to make a profit has been shot out from the realm of possibility. This is what happens when you exclude the people who make games from the design of the consoles. So if we want to see experiences evolve into something more innovative and daring, we’ve got to get away from the current tail-wagging-the-dog hardware dilemma and shift into an evolutionary philosophy that enables the development community to develop their tools with each subsequent console cycle. Currently, you dispose of your tools and are forced to make a steep investment in order to recreate them. Digital distribution is a ray of hope in this regard, as is being proven by social networking sites, music distribution, MySpace, YouTube… anywhere where people are making creative products in their bedrooms yet finding a world market. With this comes the possibility for new expansions in creative content to emerge.

Q: This is a pretty bleak picture. Are you hopeful for your position within this business? Do you even want to work within it?

Lorne Lanning: Well, we want to work with the games industry while not being limited by the conditions of it. From a practical business point of view, Sherry and I looked at the market and saw that a lot had changed. A lot of the incentives and motivations for birthing properties as games first have disintegrated for the small developer. However, if we approach property birthing differently by assessing what they landscape is now, then we increase the odds of creating greater market success on original IP. So how do we do that? Well, first, we can’t be in denial! We have to really assess the ugly part of industry conditions and figure out how to best approach new properties. We also have to follow our hearts with the stories we want to create. Our strategy now is to launch as CG animated films first. If you can achieve this, then you can get game to ride on the brand awareness that the movie marketing is creating through its larger marketing budget. The day for word-of-mouth promotion in the retail space has long since died and been buried for games. So if you don’t have a publisher getting behind your titles properly, you cannot sell. And today, you have publishers not interested in promoting new intellectual properties they don’t own or have a path to own. What we’re now focused on is birthing our new universe in a new way. A way that can be developed across game, film and TV in ways that haven’t been possible before. But you really have to think in new ways to stand a chance of being able to close this type of deal. Once you have what promises to be a hit movie, the game publishers are coming to you – you’re not selling to them. So right now the publishers are going to Tony Hawk, Pixar, Peter Jackson. The people who are getting approached are the celebrity brand names or the larger market-proven storytellers. You think they’re going around all the game designers? Nope! The best game designers in the world are all going around thinking ‘what the hell’s going on? Why does Tobey Maguire get more eartime from a game publisher than Warren Spector? The answer is… Tobey might be able to talk about the game on the Today Show or Oprah, but a hit-making game designer, he’s not going to get us on Oprah. In today’s climate, that’s where the attention is. Game designers haven’t been able to prove that they can get that kind of exposure, not even the most successful, including Will Wright or Miyamoto. We want to tweak the odds to lean back towards the content creator. We own our properties because Sherry and I got into this business to achieve just that. We love and have breathed computer graphics for our entire careers. We don’t have any kids because we see our kids as our CG creations and stories. In order to raise them well, we have to have creative controls on our content and some degree of control over their destiny. Nobody is going to raise your kids as well as you will. Using this metaphor, we can’t hand off our children to strangers and just hope that they raise them well. When we strated in this business, people were less concerned in the brand; they were interested in people who could make new, great games. They didn’t believe that they had to own the property, they just thought they needed the distribution rights. The film industry didn’t think that it needed the licensing rights, and then Lucas created Star Wars. He knew that if it was going to take off, people were going to want his T-shirts and toys and lunchboxes – but the film industry didn’t even know that was possible. In his deal, he took less money up front in return for those rights and now he’s a multi-billionaire. Without those deals, you wouldn’t have ever heard of Lucas in the same light. We see it the same way but in a different climate. Today, the real money is in the sequels. It’s all about owning the brand. The games industry won’t finance anything they don’t own unless it’s owned by someone else bigger who’s going to be doing a bigger job of promoting it. But if you’re still in the games industry thinking you want to be content creators who own your own property and have control over your creation’s destiny, you’re barking up a fruitless tree. It’s just not going to happen, unless you start to birth those properties in other media first, not necessarily to the point of making them, but at least to the point where you have some financing and you can make deals in the game industry with very different terms.

Q: Are there enough creatives in the games industry with the vision, or maybe the experience and ability to do that?

Lorne Lanning: Maybe it’s vision, maybe just moments of craziness. But you need that vision and crazy people in order to make things better. I think the more that the game developers can expand their vision of what they’re doing, the better. Are they just making games, or are they really making worlds? The more they’re able to be aware of the difference, the more potential they have to move into a larger spectrum of possibilities. How many gamee designers are capable of that today? Probably a relatively low number, but that number will inevitably increase as we head into the future.

Q: A hybrid set of interests – people having a wide set of skills.

Lorne Lanning: Right. And a problem with the higher education system at the moment is that schools are diven towards meeting the need to get students into specific jobs. Notions of developing skill sets like critical thinking and creativity come way down the line.

Q: What are you proudest of?

Lorne Lanning: I’m proudest of the fact that we birthed a property that managed to stand out in a number of ways. With its vision and art it influenced a lot of people to get more interested in art and games and world events and to get more involved with the world around them. For example, the Ministry of Education in Britain found that people who played Oddworld games showed a higher interest in getting involved in organizations like Amnesty. We have cases of people who found that the Oddworld games have helped people, and in one case actually saved a life We’re more proud of that than we are of how much money a game made. We’re not about satisfying people’s leisure time with uninspired content. We do what we do to inspire people and encourage them to have more influence on the world around them and rise to their full potential.

Q: There are hopefully still some people reading this book who want to make videogames. What would you say to them?

Lorne Lanning: If you just want to make money, you’re talking to the wrong guy! But if you want to make a difference, then this is how I see it. We as people are creation generation machines that are capable of making things for the rest of the world that can make a difference. So, what difference is it that you are willing to work hard towards? It’s easy to be a cog in a wheel and live a life of mediocrity, but our potential is much greater than that. We have the power as individuals to change the world if we put our hearts and minds to it. Games can and should be a powerful means for effecting change, so what is it that you care enough about that you’ll work extra-hard to figure out how to make a difference with what you hope to create? Then, get ready to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life and forget about a social life!