Odd Man Out & Siege Mentality

Odd Man Out & Siege Mentality [Hosted by GamesIndustry.Biz]
Dates: 13 (Part 1) and 14 (Part 2) November 2006
Interviewer: Matt Martin
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Source: http://web.archive.org/web/20070318223230/http://gamesindustry.biz/content_page.php?aid=21046 http://web.archive.org/web/20071114001930/http://www.gamesindustry.biz/content_page.php?aid=21066

Odd Man Out

After taking a well-publicised break from videogame development following the release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, Lorne Lanning and his team re-emerged last month with details of a new creative property – Citizen Siege.

GamesIndustry.biz recently took the opportunity to sit down with the president of Oddworld Inhabitants to discuss what he sees as the sticking points that are holding back the cultural evolution of the games industry, and why he’s been willing to rethink his company’s entire strategy to make the games he really wants to make.

GamesIndustry.biz: You recently spoke at the GameCity event in Nottingham, and expressed your concern that videogames are not influential in a wider cultural medium in the same way as music and movies can be. Why do you think that is?

Lorne Lanning: If you go to hear a movie director talk about his film he’s not talking about how many scenes there are in his movie. What you’ll hear is what inspired the movie – what inspires him as a film maker, as a story-teller and a director.

In the games industry we have a lot of speeches and talks that go into the granular details of how we build games and what we do with them, but usually we’re talking about them in the context of how to be more successful.

Certainly, we need those talks because it’s an industry. But at the same time we’re over-looking a lot of things. When I look at the history of other mediums I think, where’s our Birth of a Nation? Where’s our Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Where’s our Bob Dylan or Star Wars?

What we have is some really great games, but how many people are walking away from our games and never forgetting them for the rest of their lives because it showed them something that wouldn’t get elsewhere? Something that influenced lives the way that Apocalypse Now shows what might have really happened in Vietnam, but was being eclipsed at that time by the media.

We want games to be about more than making things that are fun, we always have. That’s was the inspiration behind founding Oddworld. The pieces of entertainment that blew my mind and changed my perception of the world – not one of those was a game, except in terms of technical abilities.

What are we doing to give people the inspiration for the world we’d rather live in, what are we doing as a culture that’s in to games, to actually have more influence and not just be playing and paying?

GamesIndustry.biz: Can you think of any games or game-related concepts that have the potential to influence culture?

Lorne Lanning: Lord David Puttnam put it very well at a speech during GameCity. He said, “We have enough things in the world that desensitise. But when something sensitises it’s all the more potent.”

This is the director who gave us The Killing Fields and Chariots of Fire. The Killing Fields was something that looked back after the cameras had stopped rolling and the news reports stopped coming in.

We weren’t brought that insight through the news, we were brought it by entertainment. Entertainment has the possibility of enriching our lives, and as news becomes more infotainment rather than information, then we have to rely on entertainment to actually start giving us more of what we’re looking for in life and giving us more direction.

There’s an interesting movement that’s recently started by the Entertainment Software Association – The Videogame Voters Network. We’re constantly under attack in the industry by politicians looking for cheap headlines, which is a very easy target. But all of a sudden we have the Videogame Voters Network which starts up and the politicians see that when they attack games they get hundreds of thousands of emails letting them know they’re being watched. Here’s a sector of the populations that has a lot of strong feelings, but for the most part the games medium isn’t reflecting any of that.

For the most part, what’s popular in the game medium is just reflecting the propaganda line – “These are the bad terrorists, go kill them! There are the drug barons, go and blow the shit out of them!”

I have a great time with some of those games too, but what’s that doing? Are we adding to the desensitisation or doing something similar to The Killing Fields to sensitise and issue and make the experience richer and give it more meaning. To me, that’s what it is all about, it’s not just about making money.

GamesIndustry.biz: How have we ended up as an industry with creative game makers and passionate consumers, yet we still make these superficial games?

Lorne Lanning: In a nutshell, it’s cost and conditions. The costs are rising largely because of the development environments. And these environments are not at all what the development community is looking for. The costs are inflating and the innovation possibilities are going down because instead of focusing on the content, every five years’ we’re focusing on the tools again.

And we don’t really get to inherit much of what we built the last time. So for example, with Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, we invested a lot of time, blood sweat and tears into that – but we saw that the Xbox isn’t really being supported at all. It was discarded by Microsoft who has its own strategy, so for developers that built great toolsets for that, they’ve been discarded.

We should be in an evolutionary model. I think Nintendo is showing some real intelligence and sensitivity in that respect because if you’ve developed on GameCube it’s a pretty straightforward transition onto ‘Nintendo next-gen’ because the Wii is very similar but with more power. We could argue about whether it’s enough power, but that’s not the point. The point is that it should be an evolutionary process.

The audience isn’t aware that you’re rewriting all your tools, they just know that when they buy a 360 game it’s similar to the last Xbox but with better graphics. The reason isn’t because the industry is a void of creative people, the reason is that the barrier to entry is so high, and the price to develop those new tools, as well as a title in the first quarter for release on a new platform is so risky.

If you’ve built a good shooter then you’re in pretty good shape. And if you’ve added that online element with some good performance tracking you’ll probably stay in business. But if you really step out there on a limb you’ll get into trouble. My favourite games are not the most perfect games, and you can’t expect innovation in the first months following a console launch because it’s too risky.

We need to be in a position where we’re evolving our tool base and not having to discard it. What would have happened if the 360 was designed as a much more powerful Xbox? Not as a new platform with multiprocessing and different configurations et cetera. With something like Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath we could have gone straight in there and used the new computing power, all of our existing AI and graphics, all of which can come over, and we begin adding the new features and then we focus on the content and not on the reconstruction of tools.

That is a massive prohibiter to the types of entertainment we could be seeing on videogame systems. As long as that continues there will be a risk averse and innovative shy business that is trying to sustain itself between every five year hardware transition.

GamesIndustry.biz: So, we’re too busy chasing technology? We make the technology function really but the games lack a soul or the content that that makes players feel something truly different…

Lorne Lanning: As a developer you have to think, ‘are we running a content company or are we running a technology company?’ That’s why just over a year ago we decided to look at digital story-telling possibilities. Other company’s are going to be making great technology, so it’s silly that we should all be doing the same thing.

The idea of middleware is a good one, but talk to those that use it and they’ll give you their own impressions of how far they can expand their innovation when they’re using someone else’s’ core technology. In that respect we’d rather be creating the content and having creative influence over those that know how to build the best technology.

GamesIndustry.biz: How has this thinking influenced Oddworld Inhabitants over the past twelve months?

Lorne Lanning: One of our main priorities was to develop the new property which we could take out and shop around, as well as our existing properties which we wanted to shop around too, because we still to this day retain the ownership of everything we’ve created at Oddworld – stories, characters, everything.

At the same time as what’s been happening in the games industry, the quality of computer graphics has gone way up and the cost has become relativity cheaper. And audiences tastes are changing, largely influenced by the games industry. So we’ve watched the movies in the Warhammer games and we’re thinking, ‘Where’s that motion picture?’. It’s not out there yet because CG animated films are all in ‘plush toy’ reality, unless a company blows tons of money like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within did.

There’s a lot of talk at big media companies about the synergy between the movie and game mediums, but it isn’t really happening. Making the game of Spider-Man 3 isn’t at its core an original property. It’s derivative of a property that’s already doing something and developers are thinking, ‘How much of the property can we get in the game?’.

With our new project, Citizen Siege, we’ve had the chance to create original property that was designed as a film and as a game experience simultaneously. So the two influence one another as they grow.

This is the idea of what’s being talked about, but for the most part, isn’t really happening yet, and we saw that we were uniquely positioned to capture that. But it was a big risk and we had to be willing to take that risk, and afford ourselves the time to really go for it.

Siege Mentality

In part two, he reveals more about new project Citizen Siege, and discusses how the company’s relationship with publishers has changed in recent years.

Lanning also gives us his views on the way in which the games and film industries can work together – and the problems they must overcome – plus what it will take for games to evolve.

GamesIndustry.biz: The movie of Citizen Siege is being produced by John H. Williams with his company Vanguard and you intend to retain creative control. Are you working with an outside development team for the videogame version of Citizen Siege?

Lorne Lanning: We wanted to secure the film development deal first. Some publishers have seen the game and the response has been fabulous. But we want to see more of what the potential synergy between the two properties are before we take specific directions in how it’s going to be done. So we’re still looking for the right partner on the game.

GamesIndustry.biz: What are you thoughts on publishing partners? Has you time away influenced a rethink in what you’d like from a games publisher?

Lorne Lanning: First of all there have been no film directors that are proven games designers. But it would be much nicer than instead of having a publisher pay to birth your property, you birth it as a film first which will get a marketing commitment. Then publishers will then want to ride on it and not feel like they are baring the whole load to release a new property.

That’s a shift that we’re excited about. We know enough about working with publishers and we know enough about working in development that we feel we can navigate this better than the film community can and really bring to life the synergy of the two products, because we know how publishers work and we’ll be bringing something else to the table rather than just skillsets and a means of productions.

We’re willing to work with the best teams out there, but we want to stay on top of it creatively. And we feel better insured to do that if we have the film happening at the same time, because then the publisher knows they won’t be spreading the new brand visibility on its own. In that respect, it was part of our plan.

GamesIndustry.biz: What did you make of Microsoft and Peter Jackson’s recent announcement of a game collaboration?

Lorne Lanning: I’d love to see it succeed for Peter Jackson’s sake and for the industry’s sake. I think Peter Jackson will have a very interesting experience working with a technology company and not a film company, and also getting hard lessons from the medium.

The videogame medium is very challenging. Special effects are one thing, but interactive entertainment that people can break a thousand different ways are another. When everything in your experience is dictated by specific pieces of code it’s not quite the same as making a film and retouching frames if you need to.

We’re touching on a really interesting point here. We have fabulous games designers in the industry, but who is Microsoft trying to make a deal with? Peter Jackson. And who is EA trying to deal with? Steven Spielberg.

Film directors are looked at differently, and as the games community realises it needs stronger characters and better story-telling, it goes to the film industry to get what its needs and is looking less within its own community.

GamesIndustry.biz: That’s clearly a shame. We have all this talent but we have to prove ourselves to the outside world by getting validation from another industry to highlight our skills.

Lorne Lanning: Tell me about it. How do we even tell the inside world? I’ll tell you a story. We had a meeting with an executive from one of the big publishers and we were talking about our long-term plans, and we modestly said we’re a Pixar-yet-to-be.

And the exec who claims to know Oddworld’s work and the games industry says, “Well the difference between Pixar and you is that they have the stories.” He’s looking at me right in the face and inside I’m just stunned. Because film directors are coming to us and telling us they love our stories, whereas the mindset of the publishing community is that even when stories are in a game, they don’t actually see them.

If you have to wear a suit to be taken serious at a job interview, you wear a suit. If we have to be a film director to be taken seriously as a story-teller, then we’ll make the transition. Because if we can then we’ll make better games. Except we won’t be sweating about the games the same way as we used to be as a third-party developer under a third-party agreement.

GamesIndustry.biz: Everybody who works in film, watches films. Music executives listen to music. But how many top executives at games publishing companies sit down and play a game?

Lorne Lanning: That touches on another point, which is that games can be seen as closer to mass-market goods and things like processed foods. People work at a breakfast cereal factory but they don’t eat the product because they don’t need to – it’s just a product they’re shipping.

Games are a packaged good and less of an art form. The talent has been marginalised. The games industry is a multi-billion dollar business and yet the outside world doesn’t look at is as an art form.

No matter what the statistics say, I go by my gut and look in the stores and there’s few of the adult population picking up games. We can’t get games executives to play games, let alone the average adult.

Games are one of the most powerful mediums to ever arrive and we need to evolve them. At the moment it’s stuck in a trench because of the cost, because of the lack of innovation and because we cater to a core market with titles that have no appeal to a mass market.