Lorne Lanning & Sherry McKenna Discuss Oddworld

Originally published in gamesTM Issue 98 under the title "The Odd Couple" [hosted by gamesTM]

Date: July, 2010
Interviewer: gamesTM
Interviewees: Lorne Lanning & Sherry McKenna

Source: https://www.gamestm.co.uk/features/lorne-lanning-sherry-mckenna-discuss-oddworld/

When Abe first introduced himself to PlayStation owners around the world in 1997, the lovably grotesque Mudokon became a beacon for originality and humor in an increasingly stale market of subpar shooters, die-hard racing games and 3D platformers. The side-scrolling epic ingeniously expanded upon the paradigms of classic side-scrollers, with each screen a puzzling masterpiece unto itself, injected with moral and ethical conflicts rarely seen in games at the time or since. Unbeknownst to the unlikely hero, Abe was a part of something larger; something so grand it would actually never be fully realized. He was just one of several cogs in the Oddworld machine, and Lorne Lanning was the puppet master pulling his strings.

Lanning was a computer arts veteran who worked his way through the ranks of Academey Award-winning visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues before pursuing an outlet through interactive mediums. But he was also a creative mind, and as a million hasty iPhone developers are quickly learning, the creative side and the business side of entertainment are two wholly different beasts. He had the intuition to know he needed a strong business backbone, but also the wisdom to know that he should not be the one to handle it.

He found this in longtime business and romantic partner, Sherry McKenna, who has been the Leia to his Solo since the formation of Oddworld Inhabitants. “It’s more of a classic entertainment relationship,” explains Lanning, “rather than a classic Silicon Valley relationship. Infinity Ward would be more than two programmers or three programmers and a designer, people with specific hands-on skills starting to build a company. The entertainment business is more like producer-director teams. Sherry’s a lifelong producer, and when we talk about how Oddworld’s a co-creation, we can split it up like this: Content is largely my creation. The company and the culture is largely Sherry’s creation. When you look at producing and directing in the entertainment business, that’s a marriage. The best directors and the best producers, they all have the people that they like working with the most at that marriage level. I always saw that the smartest creatives got really strong producers around them. Because we tend to be flaky, we tend to be more artistic in nature. Whereas good producing tends to be more absolutely on top of things, every T is crossed. So I think in our relationship, it started off as a producer-director class relationship that naturally evolved into a production company.”

“And then for our personal relationship,” adds McKenna, “I had been married. And if you’re in the entertainment industry or the game industry, it’s called, ‘How many hours do you work 24/7?’ And I just found it’s almost easier to be with someone who understood why I had to break a very important engagement at the last moment. If you’re married to someone who doesn’t get that at all, they’re very offended, and they’re not happy; they don’t understand why you have to be gone every weekend. So it just evolved into a natural thing where we were working 24/7 together anyway, and like I said, after my experience of being married, I realized, ‘Wow, this is the only way it can work.’ So for the last 15 years, it’s been working really well.”

Like all other lifeforms born and raised in Los Angeles, Sherry McKenna became involved in the entertainment industry early on. After working on commercials and collecting numerous awards for her efforts, she helped produce the visual effects for films throughout the Eighties, including The Last Starfighter (which ironically uses a videogame as part of the plot to scout real-life space pilots), 2010, and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and then U.S. theme park Universal Studios’ Back to the Future: The Ride in 1991. After being introduced by a mutual colleague, Lanning made a lasting impression.

“We were doing motion-based ride films,” McKenna recalls. “Lorne was working on a Disney project. We were at my house at the time, sitting out by the swimming pool, and Lorne said, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ The story took him forever, it was the most wonderful story, and I loved it, and it was very complex. It was about how the world worked, without hitting you over the head with it. I said, ‘Lorne, this is awesome, we could make a feature.’ And Lorne said, ‘No, no, no, we’re going to make videogames.’ And I said, ‘What are videogames again?’ The PSX hadn’t even come out yet. So I said, ‘I have no desire to make videogames, I do 70mm and these big attractions!’ And Lorne said, ‘You don’t get it. This is the future. This is where everything is going.’ And I said, ‘Well, how do you know that?’ And he said, ‘Because I just know. That’s where it’s gonna go.’ So it took him about two years to convince me, and he said, ‘Let’s just start our own company. If I can get the money, will you do it?’ I knew he couldn’t get the money,” laughs McKenna, “because we had no experience, we had nothing. So I said, ‘Sure, if you can get the money to start up a videogame company, I’m there.’ And somehow, he got the money.”

Fast forward a decade-and-a-half, and McKenna can’t help but to think back on the early experiences of making Oddworld’s first game. “I’ve been doing CG and special effects my whole career,” she explains. “And I did commercials; I thought those were the hardest things in the world to do. You had 30-60 seconds in those days to tell a complete story. Then I got into computer graphics, and I thought, ‘That’s the hardest thing in the world to do! There can’t be anything more difficult than making a motion picture.’ And then, when I was at Universal Studios, I did a motion-based ride film. I thought to myself, ‘No, no, this is the most difficult thing in the world to do!’ because you’ve got to sync up the motion base with the picture. And then, Lorne convinced me to get into videogames. And let me tell you, there’s nothing more difficult than videogames. Period, end of story. It is the most difficult medium to produce that I’ve ever had in my career. And that’s the truth.”

The obvious question is, then, ‘Are games the most rewarding?’, but McKenna quickly shoots down that notion, stating that her glory days were watching people line up around the block to see films she had worked on, and that little else has come close to that rush. But the unique aspect of gaming is its perpetuality. “A good thing about [Oddworld] is that the reward is still happening,” says McKenna. “Because I read what the folks are saying about our games still, even though we closed shop five years ago, and that’s what makes it rewarding. It’s the reaction of the fans.”

And the fans did react. To date, Oddworld games have accumulated over 4 million sales, but one sale in particular stands out the most. Although it’s McKenna’s most memorable experience, she lets Lanning recount it, claiming that he tells it better. “I don’t know if you ever read about this guy that we named Alf’s Rehab and Tea after,” says Lanning, “but he was basically a 70-year-old guy, out of the UK, who was on the verge of suicide and somehow found our game, and playing our game brought him back the brink, from the edge. Reading this six-page handwritten letter, from this elderly person who had been a war hero, who had lost a wife after a long illness, lost a daughter after another tragic accident, just this heart-wrenching story…”

McKenna adds, “At the end of the mail, we’re all crying, because he said, ‘You’ve literally saved my life. I had gone out to kill myself, I took all the money I had and thought about what to buy with this last money,’ and for some reason he bought Abe’s Oddysee. Who knows why? And the end of the letter was, ‘You saved my life.’ I’m reading this to the group there and we’re all crying hysterically. So to me, the happiest things, the things that meant the most, were every time I got a fan letter that said something to the extent of, ‘If Abe can do it, I can do it.’ Or ‘If Munch is in a wheelchair, is able to achieve this, then you know what? I’m going to achieve it.’ The more that the fans identified with our characters and the more that it really did change their lives, those were the happy stories, and that, to me, still is what matters the most.

“I remember, for me, one day in particular, we were in Germany,” says Lanning. “I think we were in Frankfurt, and we were there for the Abe’s Exoddus release, doing a press tour. We went into the big game store, and Abe was in the top five. And we walked by the magazine stand and Abe was on, like, three covers. And then we’re walking into the music store, and Abe was on the top ten with the singles, with the music video that someone had done out of the UK at the time. And there was also a bus that was shrinkwrapped, in Germany, that we saw, that was all Oddworld. Abe was everywhere. That, to me, was a very cool moment.”

“At the time I’d never thought of Oddworld really as niche,” says Lanning. “I always thought of it as more mass-market. I think if they were films, we would have seen them as more like Pixar films than something that was niche. They had more entertainment value than your average game of the day; I think history has revealed that more clearly, in terms of the charm and the character and classic entertainment values. So I always designed and looked at it to be a very popular brand, that I thought would resonate with lots of people. But then when you get into the game space, especially when you go through the PS2/Xbox era, or Xbox exclusivity, and all of a sudden – boom – the price point, Halo… suddenly it’s a hardcore gamer’s box. We were going for a more casual audience, where you’d have fun with the family playing these games. You’d have fun playing with your kid. We didn’t see that coming, that the Xbox would be all hardcore gamers for the first several years. So those things changed.”

“I always thought that the world’s too fucked up to just be about making money, you know? I know a lot of people are about the bottom line, they measure their value, their status, they measure a lot of things by the bottom line. And in an economic world, that’s important. People aren’t donating to your cause, they’re investing in your ideas. You need to be responsible with that, try to earn them back their money. But at the same time, what’s going on in the world? What are we here for? It gets into the timeless questions. When people tell me, ‘Yeah, but he made a lot of money,’ I mean, the silent voice in my head says, ‘Dork. That’s your measurement of success? Pretty fucking shallow.’ Really. All these things going on in the world, and we think that because he made money, that’s the really great thing? I think it’s deeper than that.”

McKenna agrees, adding, “If Lorne had told me that the goal of Oddworld was just to make money, I would have had nothing to do with it. Most videogame people don’t like me to talk about this – which is why I stopped doing interviews a long time ago – but it seems to me that when you do a videogame, in order for it to be a huge hit, it has to have some violence, and it’s generally a shooter game, or a World of Warcraft, or something like that, and here’s Lorne telling me these stories that really were very, very provocative and very moving, and about what was happening in the world today. But since it happened on another world, the Oddworld, you didn’t have to be offensive about it. What is the story of Abe? What is the story of Munch? It’s not what most videogames in the day were really talking about. I had no desire to make a violent game.”

“As a matter of fact, if you notice, Abe never carries a gun. And that was really important to me. It was really important that we hit our fans with a message, but the last thing we wanted to do was stand on a soapbox and preach, because nobody listens to the person preaching, myself included. What we wanted to do was disguise the message, in a way that was really fun to play. It never occurred to us that people would consider it niche, because, as Lorne said, in the film industry, that kind of a movie would absolutely be for the mass market. But when you’re talking about videogames, you’re talking about a unique set of demographics. And whether the folks want to admit it or not, this medium did not attract women or girls. And the reason is, if you describe a game and you say, to a guy, ‘Here’s the deal. Here’s how you can win. You have to blow everything up and you have to kill everything and we’ll keep score.’ The guy says, ‘Awesome!’ But if you say to a girl, ‘You need to blow everything up and you need to shoot everything,’ the girl’s going to simply ask, ‘Why?’ That’s how I felt. Why can’t we make a game that has substance and style, and appeals to everybody?

“What we found out was, well, that’s not necessarily what the videogame industry was looking for. So there’s no way I would have entered videogames if I thought we were going to make the kinds of games that made a lot of money on the bottom line. Like a Halo. When people say ‘Are you successful?’, it seems today that everyone has made an agreement that what that question is really asking is, ‘Did you make a lot of money?’ That’s not my metric for success. My metric for success is: did the fans love it? Did you get the kind of response you wanted? Nothing’s more important to me than the fans. And that the fans are still avid fans today really touches my heart.”

Despite Oddworld’s continuous success, many of Lanning’s plans have yet to come to fruition. At the apex of Oddworld’s mainstream exposure, it was revealed that the core series was designed as a quintology, with complementary stories such as Abe’s Exxodus and Stranger’s Wrath not detracting from the five central Oddysee entries. We finally had the chance to ask what went wrong.

“You’re right,” agrees Lanning, “it was extremely ambitious. And that was the idea. It was the idea for us to think big. And quite honestly, at the time, I expected the appetite of the game audience to be a little different than what was happening, than what actually transpired. I didn’t think people would care so much about the latest bells and whistles on a 3D feature or something. But if you look back to the mid-Nineties, that was heavily driving what people thought constituted good graphics or great art direction. It was like, ‘Wow! 3D with a specular map! That’s great graphics!’ And we thought, ‘No, that’s crappy graphics with a new trick on it.’ So it was kind of annoying to watch that happen at times. People were evaluating tech and they thought they were evaluating art.”

Lanning continues, explaining the hardships of a small studio struggling to adapt to the rapidly increasing complexity of game engines and hardware. “There was always this momentum towards new and different, every time, every time, every time. What I was looking at, I thought that the tech wouldn’t evolve so quickly, or that every game would require you to be on different technology. I thought you would get more games out of one piece of technology, in terms of software and development and your engine. That really made things a lot more expensive than I had anticipated. And this was to become a personal disappointment, with the whole process of the console business, which is that when a new console comes out they rarely –historically – provided a good toolset with it in the beginning. So you wind up rebuilding your engines from the previous generation almost from ground zero. The PS2 was really the gleaming, huge beginning of that. Previous to that, the game engines weren’t as complex. They had other challenges with fitting on the cartridges and all these different things, but the PS2 really started introducing more parallel processing and all these other complexities that really boosted the cost of development and caused you to restart. It’s like you want to write a new novel, but you’re having to write the word processor again before you can write the novel. That’s life in the game business.”

Echoing recent events and his own troubles with publishers in the past, Lanning explains the frustrations of trying to maintain the rights to his creation: “While I wanted to keep on making Oddworld stories, no doubt, there’s a price where it’s reasonable or where it’s not. Wanting to control the destiny of your property is a difficult thing today. You don’t meet many creators that actually own their property. You hear people talk about it all the time, trying to do that. But the thing is, if you do own your own property, then once you start getting into centralization of a distribution channel; there’s only five publishers that matter or something like that, there’s only a handful of retail distributors. Then what happens is they’re no longer really incentivized to push your brand. They’d rather be pushing their own brand. So that started changing in the industry as well, as the publishing community started to understand the value of brand.

“It didn’t get that in the mid-Nineties, but once we were past 2000 – the Xbox generation – the publishers had come fully to understand the value of IP and brand, especially to their Wall Street shareholders, who began to think that was the basis for a lot of their potential growth. So, all things said, the games started getting more and more and more expensive, and there’s a certain point where it’s hard to justify the effort. As they get more expensive, the terms get worse for the people building the games. People say, ‘Wow, you’re on a 25 million dollar game,’ not that ours cost that much, but there’s a lot of that. But if you were the one who got that 25 million dollars to build that game, that’s a tremendous amount of pressure on you, to deliver and get it done, meet audience expectations, meet publisher expectations. But the problem with the industry, for the development community, is that the rewards have been fewer. If you just look at Infinity Ward, it’s a perfect example, in terms of who builds the product and who takes the mountainous lion’s share of the money.”

With all of these things in mind and the twenty-twenty nature of hindsight, Lanning contemplates making the Oddworld series in 2010. “We have a number of designs that we’d like to implement,” says Lanning. “It’s finding the right conditions, it’s progressive… We identified that boxed product was sort of collapsing… I would say collapsing on the developer, not necessarily on the big publishers yet. The thing that’s really different today is you can have a better idea of who your audience is if you’re going through online. When we sell our games on Steam, we can see what country is the most interested, what time of day they have the most activity, what happens in the world that causes sales to increase or decrease. You get to see who is playing your games, and the closer you can get to the people playing your games, then the better an idea you have for what kinds of games to make, and choices to make, that your audience is going to like more. So those things said, when we look at the types of products that we would want to launch with Oddworld today, they would be of a different sort of classical format, rather than the, ‘Here’s the 30-hour story you’re going to unfold through an action-adventure game.’ It would be something that’s more of a living ecosystem. And I don’t mean that in terms of a natural simulation, but I mean in terms of a marketplace that would allow people to have much more custom configuration over their gaming experience.”

“When we look at the types of games we’d like to build going forward, we want to be more settled into what we see as the new landscape, rather than the old one, which was just building huge products. On the new landscape, you build a smaller product, you get it out there, you try and learn more from the audience quickly, and then you help the audience have a feedback loop with you. It’s a more co-creative process with the audience. You see that happening in some territories; in Asia, you see it happening with a number of online-type games where the audience is really helping to shape the experience. And I think that’s more and more important as we go into the future. That’s what people want: they want more control over what they do. So that would be the difference. A new product with the Oddworld label would be born in a very different nature.”

Even in a Halo-centric industry, when every other developer and publisher was going right, Oddworld went left with Stranger’s Wrath, a critically-praised shooter with a heart and a sense of humor. Currently, Lanning is trying to get ahead of the curve yet again with a social networking platform he and McKenna have been building for the past few years, but he leaves us with a final message from the Oddworld Inhabitants, and one we don’t even have to save 99 Mudokons to unravel.

“I think it’s about dreams,” says Lanning. “It’s about pursuing dreams. I think life is full of compromises, and you’re always evolving. So, whether it looks like you’re on top of the world or not, it’s really about adapting to what’s going on; trying to be innovative, trying to stay on top of being creative, and following your dreams. We are absolutely still in pursuit of our dreams. I can’t imagine living any other way.”