Next Generation: A Conversation with Lorne Lanning [2001]

A Conversation with Lorne Lanning

Date: April 2001

Interviewer: Next Gen

Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Source: Next Generation, issue 76, pp.56-58.

One man’s pursuit of better games – and a better game industry

When Lorne Lanning and the developers at Oddworld Inhabitants abruptly abandoned PlayStation 2 in favor of Xbox, it caused quit a stir. Now, with Munch’s Oddysee coming down the stretch on its long production cycle, it seemed like the perfect time to have a talk with the man who introduced GameSpeak (and sewn-up lips) to the videogame world.

Next Gen: So you want to be there on Xbox at launch?

Lorne Lanning: Absolutely. We’re exclusive on Xbox for the next four titles, and we’re very excited about that. When we came off PS2, we were so frustrated. Every time you hit an obstacle that you think the hardware should handle, you’re slashing that out of your features budget because now one of your guys has to try to write this thing for mip-mapping, which every video card in the world does, except this machine doesn’t. And you’d ask, “How is that possible, that you would overlook this?” It was simple, stupid stuff, and we’d wind up having to invest our game budget in non-game code. The ideal way to design for a platform like that is probably to figure out what the capability of the machine is first, and then build your game around that. But if you have a vision for a game that you’re striving for, and you’re hoping that the technology supports it, it’s a lot more difficult. But Xbox is so much more powerfully designed that you can plan for more of the features you wanted, and less of the hiccups and hidden obstacles. On the basis of what would make it easier for developers, this is a smartly designed system.

Next Gen: Did you have to write stuff for PS2 that you don’t need now on Xbox?

Lorne Lanning: Of course. This is what we were upset about, because we want to build great games, and you’d think that we’re all in this together. After a while, you get the impression that we’re really not. In the end you go, “Yeah, well grow up—this is the way the game business is.” But this isn’t what’s going to make the game business what we want it to be—this is what keeps the game business where it is. And if we think that having a 7-billion-dollar industry is our goal, then it’s pretty sad because there’s no reason why this industry shouldn’t become a 700-billion-dollar industry. Everyone should be playing this stuff, but as long as the software curve is so convoluted, then it’s going to be a minimum market. The game store should be like a music store—thousands of titles—but it’s not. You can cut an album for 30 grand, or in your bedroom, but you can’t produce a game today, one that will compete, with the systems you have to fight with to get there. But ideally you should, and that’s why I think Xbox is a step in the right direction, building upon evolving technology models rather than reinventing models for the sake of trying to maintain a monopoly on the hardware.

Lorne Lanning

Next Gen: How has life changed for you, and what’s changed at Oddworld, in the years since Abe’s Oddysee?

Lorne Lanning: I’ve got a lot more gray hairs. I’ve never been involved with anything as difficult as software development. Being at Oddworld has been probably the most humbling experience of my life. There are a lot of really talented people trying to build something that hasn’t been built before. It’s just an extremely challenging endeavor. Trying to build high-quality stuff in an industry where, lots of times, people don’t really care about quality. But we’ve been successful, and in many ways very successful. We’re on the front line now to take it all to the next level, which has been in many ways our dream. It’s tough when you’re under pressure, when you want to spend a little more money on a title because you care about what the industry can be, but then have that put you in a dangerous place. The interesting thing about Oddworld is that there are a lot of people that the company’s making better. Maybe it’s those of us who are running it, or maybe it’s the nature of the work we’re trying to produce, but it really tends to bring forth the personal issues that we have and confront them. There’s something about this company that makes the baggage in your life come to the surface, and you either have to deal with it, or you’re not going to make it. At times there’s been turnover. People who don’t want to build high-quality work, who believe you just go with it no matter what the quality of it is, people who don’t believe in an organic process. And that’s the only way you build great shit—an organic process. It has to change and improve as it’s being worked on. If a guy is coding a character who thinks that as long as he did what was on his checklist, it’s fine, no matter how it feels, he’s not going to make it here. Having someone like Microsoft for a publisher, the excitement they have for supporting creators, and with a new console and the way they’re designing it, it’s such a tremendous release of pressure on all levels.

Next Gen: Your characters always seem to have been victimized, yet revenge never seems to be part of their motive. Is that something you’re conscious of?

Lorne Lanning: Yes. It’s kind of a “What’s a healthy life?” perspective. Maybe that could get boring to a lot of people, but at the same time, it’s very empowering to a lot of others. For example, without naming specifics, I get really annoyed when the point is, “Let’s go blow everything’s head off, for… Freedom!” That’s a major problem in this country today. I’m serious. We have more people in American prisons than in any other country in the world. You can get into a thousand different things about why, but in the end it’s about what kind of content are we delivering to people, and why do we, as content providers, feel good about it? In Hollywood, and especially in the game industry, [the theme of] “You’ve been victimized!” gives you the license to go kill and maim and torture because that’s going to be your gratification. Personally, I think that’s pretty weak. As a content designer and a writer, it’s very easy. It’s more difficult to try and achieve something that has a little more thought behind it, that has a little more of a feeling behind it, and yet at the same time can be aggressive in tense moments. I think Star Wars is a good example of this. It’s caring about the content of your content and not just creating stupid stories as excuses for violence. And in our games, while certainly they have their own representation of violence, the other feelings are what make life so fun. And I think violence can be fun, but people may never know how difficult it was to create concepts like GameSpeak, how that’s enabling us to manage so many more things. It will be a fundamental building stone for us forever, and we’ll make it simpler and more powerful along the way, but what it really does is give us entertainment value and a sense of life that just hasn’t been in these experiences before. And that’s critical to evolving the experience beyond “punch them in the head, shoot’em, find the key.”

Next Gen: Moving beyond collision detection to more of a… call it social detection.

Lorne Lanning: We call it social dynamics, social mechanics—”I talked to these guys, and their responses felt right, which made them feel more alive and conscious.” It’s a very simple concept, but it’s really hard to code or conceptualize as a base mechanic.

Next Gen: Of course you want people to actually care about the characters. That’s what gets the player motivated to save them.

Lorne Lanning: Or it makes you feel more devious for putting the screws to them! In the grand scheme of things, I think that’s really what interactivity is about. It’s about the extremes of dynamics, to try to get the balance of extremes, and not just extremes of violence. I didn’t use the old Nintendo school of, “No violence. We want our kiddie reputation preserved.” That doesn’t work. That’s not real either. And we don’t want to make games that are highbrow in terms of “you can’t shoot that guy because you shouldn’t” Let them shoot him. If you want to be a dick, be a dick. But you’re the guardian angel over these characters. That’s kind of an idea where, when people read it the game player goes, “I don’t give a shit about that.” But then when they kill a character they’ve grown to care about, they go, “I replayed the entire game because of that.” That’s one of the things about introducing new concepts and mechanics into what traditionally works. People don’t necessarily get it until they see it, until they feel it. We have lots of people email us and say, “I have two sons. One’s 11 and one’s 6. Every time the ll-year-old starts killing the Glukkons, the 6-year-old gets upset and unplugs the system.” Why do they care about it that way? Because it’s hitting a different dynamic that gives you a different level of depth, one that people appreciate. And one thing that’s true is that people like feeling smart, and they like having depth. If you can give them an experience that’s easy to get through, that isn’t highbrow, and yet they find that they feel better because of it—and this is what Hollywood constantly struggles with because the writers know this well, but the studio executives don’t. People like quality, but they will buy crap. You can fell into the crap curve.

Next Gen: Despite that darker design, do you think your games are still family-friendly?

Lorne Lanning: Traditionally, our games have been too difficult for the little kids. Little kids have sort of used it as a toy—they’ll GameSpeak to fart, and watch their character laugh, and that’ll crack them up for three hours. Other times, it’s been really frustrating to see young people not being able to deal with the controls. One of our primary objectives in this game was to make sure we got past that control barrier for young people, and we’ve done that. My feeling is that, to have a really successful chemistry, it can work both ways. I’d call it PG-13. There’s no reason why we can’t be PG-13 and have it darker to the intellectual, trendsetting crowd, and still appealing to the family. Star Wars does it. I mean, if you’re trying to communicate about the rave/techno movement, for example, then you’d better use the language of that community, but if you’re creating a fantasy reality, it’s darker to throw a guy into a recycling bin than to say “fuck.” But “fuck” will automatically get you the mature rating. Why do you want to do that? It’s stupid.

Next Gen: Even so, it could be a really interesting story, like a cast of anti-heroes.

Lorne Lanning 2
Lanning’s personal art and image library spans more than a thousand volumes on dozens of different subjects – he started his collection in high school.

Lorne Lanning: Pulp Fiction was kind of like a high and a low point for that. That was an unbelievable movie, yet at the same time it was really scary that we were laughing at innocent people getting their heads blown off. When I was 18 I would have thought that was the coolest thing, but with age, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where everyone thinks that’s the coolest thing. And at the same time I look at history, and I think well, we used to feed people to the lions—have things not really changed? But I do think that we [as videogame developers] will find more science supporting that we should be responsible with our content. However, it’s ludicrous to isolate the videogame industry for violent content in the face of the evening news, or the average TV content, or the average movie content. It’s really a sign of the insanity in our society that we’re trying to find scapegoats like the game industry in the face of the popular media’s addiction to violence and sex and violent sex. So how do we try to make something that has more value in the scheme of life? I don’t want to sell twinkies to kids—I’ve been there and I’ve done that. It’s a really hard world to create meaningful content, so I’m not going to dog anyone for not doing it. It’s a tough road and you’ve got to put up with a lot of shit if you want to try and pull it off. But ideally, it would be great if that’s where we were all headed, and we all tried to do content we care about — I don’t care what your issue is, but just build something that you care about. That would be an interesting place to live.