Oddworld creator on controlling his universe [Hosted by Wire] Date: 29 June, 2014 Interviewer: Matt Kamen Interviewee: Lorne Lanning Source: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/oddworld-lorne-lanning-interview
Lorne Lanning is the creator of the Oddworld series of games, all set on a planet where the indiginous natives are forced into labour and worse by greedy invaders. After debuting with Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee in 1997, Lanning has since seen the rise and fall of gaming empires while his universe full of quirky aliens, corporate satire, and unusual gameplay has maintained a loyal fan following. With the HD remake Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘n’ Tasty, the outspoken developer talks with Wired.co.uk about Oddworld’s legacy, the nature of the games industry, and remaining an indie while playing house with Sony and Microsoft.
Wired.co.uk: Oddworld has been absent for a while.What’s led you to bring it back now?
Lorne Lanning: It was absent for a while because we really didn’t like how things were going in terms of relationships between the publishers and developers. We created the company [Oddworld Inhabitants, formed in 1994 by Lanning and his partner Sherry McKenna] as an exit strategy — we’re not business people, we’re content makers! We wanted to nurture the property through its life like Walt Disney or Jim Henson did, but these days there’s a lot of money and big business going around. It’s becoming more about acquisitions and no-one’s going to finance your IP at a high level unless they own it. That’s not why we got into this. So we backed off, closed down the studio [and] waited for digital distribution to come around. In 2008 we started building games again, on multiple platforms and then we moved them over to PSN.
They started doing well — surprisingly well, considering how old the games are. So we decided to start investing more, get the games onto PC and PS3, and what that did was enable us to generate enough revenue to invest even more. We then made Stranger’s Wrath HD and it cost us less than a million dollars, but the audience responded really positively. We took number one on PS Vita at Christmas two years ago, and that lead to the Oddysee remake.
Wired.co.uk: Was there any desire to springboard from that to a newOddworld instalment at the time?
Lorne Lanning: We had to be honest with our audience in that we don’t have enough money to make a new IP. We asked them what they wanted us to do, and they told us to rebuild Abe’s Oddysee. We were really surprised at how many people saying they wanted classic platforming, not all that modern free-roaming stuff. And we had to think about how that would all work with modern dynamic lighting, ragdoll physics and 3D animation. How do we do that in a true 3D world while staying true to sidescrolling platforms?
There are a lot of reasons why people say they want the old 2D style back. I think mobile had a lot to do with that. People got familiar with that style of game again and remembered why they loved it. It led us to say we think we can do it. Then we asked the audience what it should be called and through internet voting they called it New ‘n’ Tasty, which we loved. This is something I think we embraced the community early with. They shone light on the possibility for us and showed passion. It took a few years and a few million dollars of self investment, but we hope it will resonate well.
Wired.co.uk: Will you give the same treatment to Abe’s Exoddus?
Lorne Lanning: With success, yes. The number one thing is selling games — when they profit, we can make more games. With success, Exoddus will be the next game we make and with a LOT of success we’ll start making new IPs.
Wired.co.uk: Back when you launched Abe’s Oddysee, you talked about a planned quintology. Munch’s Oddysee was mentioned, but nothing for Stranger.Where did that game come from?
Lorne Lanning: It’s funny. When we originally built Abe’s Oddysee, I thought the whole quintology would be platformer games because that was before the rise of 3D games. It was all people would talk about, all the press would cover, though I didn’t care because I loved platforming and I just wanted that game experience. As games went 3D, it started posing challenges to our plans. We’d all come from 3D animation and film making.
Wired.co.uk: The cutscenes on the original games were well ahead of their time.
Lorne Lanning: Thank you. I think that’s a reflection of our hiring artists and coming out of film making. That’s part of how it got funded. We thought we could bring more Hollywood to game making. That’s how it all kicked off. With 3D came different challenges and with new hardware came even more challenges, including drastically rising prices of development. There were different terms between publishing and developers, and at those price levels no-one wanted to fund an IP if they didn’t own it. This was a combination of events that led to it being even harder to make games and drive teams. The way budgets were stretched out and deals were made, it was a lot more work for a lot fewer rewards. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel except for selling your company, which is where a lot of game developers went. That was never our model or intent. That’s what shifted us from being able to complete the quintology.
As we approached Stranger’s Wrath, I wanted to build something that wasn’t just built around the same three abilities and mechanics. I wanted a fresh breath to take the studio in a new direction and show that there were things we could do while still sticking with the Oddworld Universe. And it was really well received, but it wasn’t promoted very well. As a result it took the wind out of our sails and we decided we’d rather not keep going. At that point we’d ended up being the whole owners of our IP and that’s when we chose to just wait.
With success, my motivation was always to make passionate characters like Jim Henson did. If you mess with Kermit the Frog in front of Jim, you really learned how the man felt [about that]. And that’s how I feel about my characters. They come from a deeper place. They’re not just characters. They’re representations, reflections of our messed up world.
Wired.co.uk: Was the Henson influence always there? The original Oddysee and Exoddus felt like a sci-fi version of The Dark Crystal in places.
Lorne Lanning: We always described it as ‘Muppets meet X-Files’. I was never a huge fan of Dark Crystal myself, although I loved the production design. It was just incredible. What I loved was that I grew up learning to read not from school, but from Sesame Street. A sock puppet can teach people to read, how valuable is that! In some ways, that drove Abe. I wanted to drive inspiring characters who felt low, like I did, who was in deep crisis, but by just sticking to it, they could prevail through a way that was almost entirely empathetic and not aggressive. We didn’t want the stereotypical musclebound hero with a gun. I was never a big Schwarzenegger or action fan. It never inspired me.
Wired.co.uk: Was Stranger as a first-person shooter not a bit of a departure, then?
Lorne Lanning: He was but we still wanted to stick to certain principles, like about killing people. In Abe’s Oddysee you could kill people but you got different endings. There was a good karma ending and a bad karma ending depending on if you helped people. I always felt disappointed playing that I could never do things the designers didn’t want me to do for moral reasons. I was thinking “no, if you give the player a gun then let them shoot the wrong guy — but give them a penalty for it later!” We wanted to take player habits that were ingrained but put a twist on it.
Stranger got slaughtered by Halo, deservedly.
But what I realized was puzzle games are difficult and need a lot of code for each puzzle, whereas shooting games have, for example, one shooting mechanic that you just ramp and tune based on size of clip and amount of damage. How do you compete in a retail world where you’re on the same shelf as something that ramps challenge like that? We needed to bring a challenge that let us do it in a new way. That’s where the idea of live ammo came from. It’s a shooter that doesn’t like guns. That’s what Stranger was.
You could capture everyone who was your target and not kill them.
If you did that, you prospered more. You still prospered, just not as much if you went through it brutally.
Wired.co.uk: How about Stranger himself as a character? The grizzled Sergio Leone type is starkly different to Abe or Munch.
Lorne Lanning: Stranger was a tough character with a different kind of dilemma.
The reason he doesn’t like guns is because his whole life he’s been sought after and had to disguise himself. That was inspired by Malcolm X. He was an amazing figure and in the movie Spike Lee does this scene where he’s in prison and straightening his hair with acid. This older guy schools him and say that’s not him, he’s trying to be something he’s not. That’s a pivotal moment, where a strong, brilliant character feels so overwhelmed that he tries to be something else, but when he accepts who he is he becomes something amazing.
I wanted to embrace that in a way that felt like a Sergio Leone Western. How do you take that idea of someone who you think they’re one thing but what they really are is something victimised? I wanted to create a surprise on who your character was. We got kudos for that, that Stranger wasn’t who you thought he was. That’s what I’ve embodied for seven years, trying to break out and show people we have a greater capacity than just puzzle games.
Wired.co.uk: Abe’s Exoddus was also unplanned, and then Abe returned in Munch’s Oddysee. Had Abe become too dominating a figure for the Quintology to progress as planned?
Lorne Lanning: Not quite. I think Munch didn’t quite become what he was supposed to be. We learned some hard lessons about ambition and I have to take a tonne of responsibility for that, for being overly-ambitious at that time. Munch was supposed to be more of a Jekyll and Hyde character. Abe could slap him and get him mad, which provoked the steroids that had been tested on him and he’d turn into this big hulking maniacal killer. When you needed to, you had to slap Munch around. I think it would have been a whole new kind of dynamic to the game as well as a new aspect to the character of Munch.
We didn’t get there, for various reasons. We started [developing] on the PS2, borrowing money and having to deliver. The environment in those days for development was bad because nobody knew how much these games could cost, so you kept going back to the bank for more money. Just imagine a business plan where you don’t know how much it costs! PS2 hurt a lot of the development community. I didn’t have enough knowledge to know not to be so ambitious on a new platform.
Wired.co.uk: What was the development culture like going from Playstation to Xbox, where Munch wound up?
Lorne Lanning: At this time, Sony vs Microsoft was only just starting up. Sony was very different. It was Kutaragi’s home. The philosophy was if you couldn’t figure out the hardware, you were dumb and shouldn’t be making games. He all but publicly said that, and it wasn’t encouraging to the development community.
That created a lot of lost time and money, and a lot of crisis.
Then Microsoft came out and said development should be easier.
They had really brilliant people addressing development needs and looking for more content. They wanted to target casual players and we were always targeting the casual audience even though we had our hardcore moments.
It was a relief for us, and Microsoft wanted to step up and fund the title. We’d had difficulties with our then-current publisher and going to Microsoft was very exciting. They really wanted to build better games and that was their mandate. That was wonderful.
There was all this energy from a big corporation wanting to do new things and the way they were approaching it all was ‘developer systems first’. That addressed a lot of the problems that developers were having.
After it released, there was a lot of shifting of management and they moved from being a casual platform to a hardcore platform.
That changed a lot of dynamics and it proved time to move on. The attitude and energy and people doing it changed.
Wired.co.uk: Do you see yourself going back to the original quintology?
Lorne Lanning: Anything I say about new games, I usually get in trouble for because people think it’s a promise. I don’t have ten hours on the web to defend myself!
Wired.co.uk: Is it a creative watermark you still want to reach though?
Lorne Lanning: It is. I would like to follow that property throughout my life and I can see a lot of things happening on that planet. But there are some questions we have to think about. Take Microsoft; they thought that the title to beat at Xbox launch was Super Mario. That was part of why they wanted Munch as a mascot that was a contender in that space. Ultimately, no-one foresaw how successful Halo would be or how the Xbox would be a $499 console — at the time, people were rumouring they would give it away, like cable companies gave away their boxes. So it was a huge trendsetter as a platform. In the course of that, another thing happened: times changed.
We had content [in the game] where newspapers were calling Abe and Munch terrorists in every headline. In the real world, the game released in 2001 and then 9/11 happened. We had to go back and change all that because it would have been tasteless. It would have been more relevant today and I would have left it in today but it wouldn’t have been tasteful in 2001.
It happened to us in Japan too, where the original Mudokan pop was a severed head. What happened in Japan was there was a murder with school kids where one kid severed the other’s and left it in front of a school. We had to change our game to be tasteful.
Those are extreme examples, but I never thought a platformer would have the demand it has today, when I was watching the industry a few years ago. I’ve tried to be careful in mapping out the quintology — there was how I was mapped it out then, but the world’s going to be a different place when we get [to release new games]. You can’t really make characters that far in advance. Car companies try to do that but everyone else will tell you there’s no future in that. Six months from now is the future and that’s as far as you can predict.
What I did was I knew the macro of where this epic story would go across the world and how it would end — but I was careful not to get too into who does what or what the characters looked like.
Munch taught me some of that actually because I wasn’t able to manifest the full character. He was just Jekyll, and Hyde never showed up because of time and money.
Wired.co.uk: You once named Squeek’s Oddysee as the third entry – what was your concept, at least at the time?
Lorne Lanning: Squeek’s kind of a spoiler, but I’ll tell you this. The idea was that the Vykkers, who were animal researchers that would kill a million bunnies just to make a better fabric softener, had been making robotic life support devices because so they could repossess people’s body parts like how you’d get evicted. They’d stick what was left of you in this clunky robotic form and tossed you out on the street. That’s who Squeek was but who he REALLY was would come out in the story.
Wired.co.uk: When you were away from the gaming scene, were you tempted to exploit them in other media like film or comics?
Lorne Lanning: We got a movie deal for Citizen Siege, which EA greenlit as a game but we decided to take to a movie. What happened was the 2008 financial crisis put the writing on the wall for our CGI animated movie with a $50-60m budget. It just wasn’t going to work. Everything got dinged and it went back on the shelf — it was no-one’s specific fault.
It wasn’t a good time to shop Abe as a motion picture either. I would love Abe the motion picture and we’ve got script outlines and hundreds of pieces of concept art. We’d love to fund it ourselves but that would depend on success. We ended up getting a couple of patents on mass video viewing online. That was a great learning experience over two years but it took me out of game development – but taught me tremendous lessons. Hopefully I’m wiser and smarter these days but time will tell!
Wired.co.uk: You’ve been very outspoken on the state of the industry.What do you think it’s like right now?
Lorne Lanning: I think it’s healthier than it’s ever been and that’s because of diversity of platforms. You’ve got the Apple app store — that changed a lot of things because people realized it’s a free dev station! As long as it follows some guidelines you could self-publish. That was the first platform with high penetration and great development software for anyone who wanted it. It gave you a platform to sell, and it changed the world. Android followed, Microsoft followed. We have people who left big gaming companies to build little apps and get rich. That wasn’t possible before. Here we are today and we have Sony saying “not only are we doing a big triple A console but we’re supporting self-publishing”.
There’s a book called Nudge. It’s about Silicon Valley and how businesses built on top of other businesses. People made Ebay stores, YouTube built that way, all these social companies built that way. It became more of a sharing idea. Nudge was about nudging up and it was very clairvoyant about how that changed monopolies and how they don’t have a future. Sony was seeing that ahead of time and Microsoft has adapted to that over the last few years. Now there’s a diversity of platforms and products out there.
You didn’t have that before. You went through big publishers and big retailers or you didn’t go anywhere. In that respect, the gaming space is better than anywhere.