Strange Empire: An Oddworld Inhabitants Retrospective [Hosted by Retro Gamer] Date: August 2014 Interviewer: David Crookes Interviewees: Lorne Lanning, Farzad Varahramyan, Paul O'Connor & Chris Ulm Source: Retro Gamer, issue 132, pp.70-75.
When Abe introduced himself in the opening sequence of the first Oddworld game, he was also heralding the launch of a a new gaming studio: one that, as David Crookes discovers, wanted to change the way we see the real world.
Oddworld is back – which is great news for fans of the series but less so for those who prefer their platform games to be rather light-hearted, easy to navigate and packed with cute characters. After all, floor-waxer Abe is a poor schmuck at the bottom of the food chain, an unlikely anti-hero whose story is one of capitalism against mysticism. It’s a deep a game as you’ll ever find – as the recent 2014 release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty will attest. But the desire for Oddworld Inhabitants co-founder Lorne Lanning to strip back the phony, glossy veneer of life in his games has always gone further than the titles themselves, infiltrating his entire company. Oddworld Inhabitants was less about setting up a games company producing anything and everything and more about promoting the new universe Lorne wanted to create. It had been a long-lasting desire too: Lorne’s vision was formed in the early Nineties and it was quite advanced by the time he and his friend, Sherry McKenna, did the rounds at E3 in LA, telling all and sundry about their plan for a series of games. “Lorne was talking about delivering a message to the world, a way of showing what we are doing wrong as humanity wrapped up in something fun and nutritious,” says artist Farzad Varahramyan, who met Lorne that day. “Lorne shared his vision in such a manner that you wanted to be a part of it.” A few months later, in September 1994, Lorne and Sherry had formed a company called Oddworld Inhabitants. They began hiring people to work in a temporary office in Los Osos, California, a commuter town close to San Luis Obispo, looking for those with skill, motivation and drive. By January, worked had started on what was being called SoulStorm. It was set to be Oddworld Inhabitants’ debut game. Among the hired workers was Farzad, the 11th person to join the company. He had received a phone call from Lorne who remembered their chat ten months earlier and Farzad became one of two people employed in production design, the other being Steven Olds, a hard-working production designer who Farzad found to be “without equal” and “unbelievably intimidating”. He also found him highly educational and rewarding. “Steven’s artwork was so unique and skillful that it was – and still is – without compare,” Farzad says. “When I walked through the doors of Oddworld Inhabitants, I knew immediately that I was in the presence of the mentors I was so desperately seeking. It quite simply blew my mind. The office comprised of a healthy number of people, young and old, women and men, experience and novices. But what we shared was the belief we were part of something great and meaningful.” The early meetings were rather scattershot. Although Lorne had ideas for the company and the game, they threatened to overwhelm him. “Lorne was full of ideas, and he was still working out the dimensions of what he wanted to do,” says Paul O’Connor, who was hired to work on SoulStorm‘s game design. “He was trying to build a business, a world, a game, and a new approach to videogames all at the same time so he’d ping back and forth between big visions and little things.” Those big visions included trying to instil a feeling that the game and the company were about a world dominated by religious oligarchs while looking at how the mechanics of the game itself would work out. The direction of the game and the company altered many times as a result. “Lots of things changed – the world, the characters, the aims of the game,” says Paul. “A big early move was to shift the bad guys from being mullahs who oppressed monks to businessmen that exploited workers.” The meetings were not always formal. “I’m sure we had plenty of meetings but Lorne’s management was more organic – a design choice was as likely to spill out of an informal art review that I’d overhear from my desk than it was to come out of some formal sit-down and frankly I don’t remember a lot of those,” he continues. As worked progressed, more people were taken on. Just nine months into production. Lorne and Sherry decided it was time to move offices to accommodate them, hiring premises in downtown San Luis Obispo, an old, sizeable city midway between LA and San Francisco. “Walking into this Oddworld office was like ascending the staircase to some kind of artistic Valhalla,” says scriptwriter Chris Ulm. “The office was awesome – black bookcases, pool table, big window, lots and lots of black pinboards filled with amazing sketches. Artwork was everywhere – the work of Steven and Farzad unleashed on you as soon as you opened the door.” In some ways, Lorne and Sherry were creating their own office-based Oddworld. It was a fantasy environment, influenced by Flashback, Out Of This World and Myst. It also worked in a different way to most gaming companies. Lorne and Sherry had a background in film and met at the Hollywood effects studio Rhythm And Hues. “We would approach the game in the same way as you would approach an effects film, starting with a script then putting an additional layer of game mechanics over the top that you know you’d want to implement or evolve upon,” says Lorne. The game’s visuals were important to the team. SoulStorm had cinematic cutscenes and a 2D style, putting it quite at odds with the trend for 3D PlayStation gaming – the platform on which SoulStorm was set to make its name (only it wouldn’t because Oddworld’s Inhabitants’ publisher GT Interactive, which came on board in 1996, suggested the game would be better named Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee). “Lorne had figured out how to create a game that was as visually stunning as the concept art that it was created from,” says Farzad. “To me it made no difference, other than the experience you had on the screen.” Lorne’s vision for the game and the company wasn’t always easy to implement. Oddworld Inhabitants emphasised huge, original ideas that, in their early stages, appeared impossible to achieve technically. It led to rows. “Arguments occurred but not frequently,” says Farzad. “Spirited discussion is needed from time to time to make sure the things that really matter are exposed. We all knew it was not personal, but from a shared desire to just make the game better. Once there was a thrown chair, but fortunately I was not in the vicinity, I just heard it.” With tales of bottles of water being thrown at somebody’s head (“I can’t remember the reason,” says Chris) and with lots of banter, the culture was about being tough enough to stick it out and actually make something great. All the while Lorne’s overriding vision remained intact. He would frequently bring up the subject of politics – “it was a hoot to talk politics with him,” says Paul – and Lorne’s enthusiasm, confidence and charisma helped to drive his staff forward. What struck those working at Oddworld Inhabitants more, though, was was less Lorne’s politics but “his abundant belief that Oddworld was going to be a new kind of game and company that was going to change the business and the world.” It may be crass these days to compare anybody with a bit of passion and a “reality distortion field” to Steve Jobs but Lorne appears to be very close to the Apple founder in his make-up. “Jobs once said ‘real artists ship’ and that was kind of the vibe at Oddworld,” says Chris.
Lorne Lanning would work closely with the design, art and programming team at Oddworld Inhabitants but he got stuck in other ways, not least with the voice acting, which he proved to have a particular talent for. The company had a small recording studio in which Lorne would get very excited, recording the various voices such as “Follow Me”, “Stay Here” and the whistles and other less savoury noises that would emanate from the characters. “I worked with Lorne in recording the character voices and in putting them in animatics for the cutscenes”, says Chris. “Lorne would drop into character anywhere, anytime. We got some strange looks when having story meetings over sushi.” The speech was one of the key components in the games’ subsequent success, helping to lighten the mood while also providing much humour. Farzad Varahramyan was responsible for Abe being able to drink a Brew, pass wind, control the gas and detonate it whenever it was positioned – an idea that had been half-jokingly suggested.
There was boldness about Oddworld Inhabitants’ decisions. It commissioned developer Saffire to produce a Game Boy version of Abe’s Oddysee, which it called Oddworld Adventures, thereby taking the company’s message to a more kid-friendly console. And in May 1997, Abe’s Oddysee was shown in its own theatre behind closed doors at the third E3. Lorne believed the cinematic nature of the game would be perfect for such a showing and he believed the game could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with film. A few months later, the game was put on general release in much of the world on what Oddworld Inhabitants called Odd Friday. It ensured there was much marketing dollar behind it. It was so successful that GT Interactive wanted a sequel and fast. In order to speed things up, Lorne asked Chris to co-script the game wth him. “My previous background had come from the comic book and animation industry, so collaborating on a game script was a fun challenge,” he says. By now there were 20 people on the team. It was a tight deadline. Abe’s Exoddus was released 11 months after Oddysee. Created to satisfy the hunger of gamers while the company waited for the next generation of consoles to arrive, and with the working title Abe Gets Boned And Brewed, the company stuck to its principles. Once again, it worked collaboratively, ensuring all of its staff had a say in the final game. With the small time frame of the second game, though, even more hard work was needed. There was twice the level of content of the first game using an engine that was literally bursting at the seams. “We scarcely saw the sun. In crunch, I’d leave about 9pm or 10pm every day and I was never the last guy out the door,” says Paul. “Oddworld went like a blowtorch and I’ve never seen such relentless crunch in 30 years in the business. The remarkable thing is that this is what we wanted to do – we were very much a cadre of true believers.” And believe they did. Although not everyone was as interested in the political stance of the company and games as some, there were those who embraced it wholeheartedly. It was part and parcel of the company, it seems, the key element which made it tick. “I was 100 per cent onboard with the idealistic values behind Oddworld’s games,” says Chris, who had uprooted his life in Southern California and skipped off to the Central Coast with his fiancé. “I liked that these games made commentary on commercialism, corporations, addiction and exploitation while still retaining a sense of humour and wonder. We were trying to create ‘nutritious content’ as Sherry called it and in a world where most videogames were nothing more than potato chips, it was and is a very [worthwhile] goal. Oddworld was pitched to me when I first started as a ‘Dysfunctional Disneyland’ and this concept always spoke to me.” Abe’s Exoddus became the first videogame to be nominated for an Academy Award. To qualify, cutscenes from the game were shown in a theatre in Los Angeles. But although it sold well, Oddworld Inhabitants’ relationship with publishers was becoming strained. It was also a time of flux: Oddworld: Hand Of Odd was a real-time strategy game that was being worked on around the same time as Exoddus but it was canned in 1999. There was talk of two karting games with an Abe theme. They, too, didn’t materialise. Instead gamers could enjoy Saffire’s Oddworld Adventures 2 on the Game Boy Color although this was merely a port of Exoddus. Oddworld Inhabitants struggled to work with the PS2, as well – “high-quality 3D games on the PS2 were a more complicated challenge for the Munch team,” admits Chris. It didn’t help that the company was becoming weary of developing games for publishers, believing them to be more concerned about shareholders than the actual games. The politics of Oddworld – the feelings of slavery, the downtrodden serfs putting in all the work only for the lords to take the spoils – was, ironically enough, spilling over into real-life. “We got tired of the bullshit of the developer-publisher broken relationships that plagued the triple-A console space,” says Lorne. “We saw that our destiny was one of inevitable acquisition with diminishing incentives that would take a lot more effort if we stayed on the traditional path. I guess you could say the fun was being lost to conditions of the industry.” Even so, Oddworld Inhabitants knew, at that time, that publishers were still an essential link in the chain, which is why it continued to link with one. It was able to resolve its PS2 issues, though: the third Oddworld Inhabitants game, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, became an exclusive for the Xbox in 2001 even though it has been announced for the PlayStation 2. Oddworld Inhabitants believed it would better realise its ambition for the game on Microsoft’s machine.
THE DNA OF… ODDWORLD INHABITANTS
The Oddworld universe was inspired by the real-world conflicts between the natural world, indigenous cultures and civil rights versus corporate practices, irresponsible media and corrupt politics. It underpins everything Oddworld Inhabitants does.
Each of the Oddworld stories centres on a protagonist, be it Abe, Munch or Stranger. Abe is the most recognisable. Far from being a muscle-bound hero, he’s still the messiah of his people, with the brains and common sense to deal with his extreme circumstances.
If Oddworld Inhabitants’ output was entirely without humour, it would consume players in breathless anxiety and depression. The great voices, the farts, the visual flourishes, the funny walks and the snigger of the Sligs all helped to lighten the mood.
Was there anything political in the fact the game’s downtrodden Mudokon’s were being harvested for their tears? “We are, if one is actually paying attention, witnessing an incompetent and arguably insane elite class of globalists actively ruin the planet for the rest of us for their own short-term power gains,” says Lorne. So, yes.
Had Lorne not had his vision of a world populated by characters that would span many games there would be no Oddworld Inhabitants and no Oddworld games. Lorne is without doubt the beating heart of the company and the central figure today.
PC Zone magazine did not mince its words when describing the gameplay of the first game in the series, Abe’s Oddysee: “It’s too f***ing hard,’ it said. And it was. The difficulty level eased a little as the series went on but it was very much a game that appealed to the hardcore.
The decision was made to make the first two games 2D and given that they are the most recognisable, most people will identify Oddworld games with a 2D universe. Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath were 3D but the new Abe’s Oddysee, New ‘N’ Tasty, will be 2.5D.
Rows and resolutions
Lorne is outspoken and unafraid of getting things off his chest. He shunned the PS2 in favour of an Xbox-only deal only to return to Sony in later years with the HD remakes. He also called on the Xbox One team to be fired for focusing too much on triple-A blockbusters to what he saw as the detriment of indie games.
Munch was Oddworld’s first fully-3D game even though the designers and programmers had little collective experience in building real-time games in the thrid dimension. It was a hard project. “The Munch production was smack dab in the middle of the perfect storm of game development: an incredibly ambitious design centred around two-player co-op, a launch title on a new console platform and an undercooked third-party engine.” says Chris. The switch from PS2 to Xbox delayed the project – leading to the three year gap between games. Oddworld Inhabitants also insisted that, on paper at least, there were to be no budget considerations. It led to ambitious thinking, much of it taking a while to implement. “Lorne wanted us to think big and we did,” says Farzad. “It was always way easier to make a huge idea smaller and budgetarily achievable, than try to make a weaker, cheaper idea great.” Buoyed by the success of the game – even though it was less successful than the other two titles – there had been discussions over a 2D platform game called SligStorm but this was axed due to the demand for 3D. Munch’s Oddysee was released for the Game Boy Advance, courtesy of Art Co, but the next major release would be the fourth Oddworld game Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, some years later in 2005. Released again as an Xbox exclusive, it was to be the last. Even though the team was working on a new standalone, non-quintology game called The Brutal Battle Of Fangus Klot, poor sales of Stranger’s Wrath and increasing disillusion with publishers, meant Oddworld Inhabitants found itself having to make a major decision. EA may well have tabled a bid to buy the company but Lorne wasn’t having any of it. He was angry at EA, accusing it of failing to distribute the game properly, but more than that, he was disheartened. Believing Stranger’s Wrath to be the developer’s best game overall, he bemoaned the lack of marketing budget. There was also little enthusiasm for another instalment so Oddworld Inhabitants decided that it would leave the videogame industry while it waited for a new model of business to arrive. “We placed a big bet and took a hiatus,” says Lorne. In April 2005, Lorne announced the studio would be cancelling all of its projects. Instead, the idea was to look at starting a new world from fresh IP using an entirely new Hollywood style business model that would see Oddworld Inhabitants find funds, plan the project and freelance it out. Lorne and Sherry teamed up with Vanguard Animation to develop Citizen Siege which was to be an original CG animated feature. By going into film, Oddworld Inhabitants was showing its tiredness of the videogame industry and yet it understood the wealth of talent within gaming: the idea was that talent from games and film would be used to produce the animation. The theme was similar to Oddworld – revolving around an ex-patriot who found himself ensnared in a nightmarish credit racket that left him repossessed in a new universe where current global conditions are extrapolated into a frightening near future in which democracy has all but disintegrated under global corporatism – but the film never got made. There had also been a plan to create a game called Wage Wars that would tie into Citizen Siege and a HD machinima series was to be produced. Again, these did not come to fruition. In 2008, though, there was some movement. “We were waiting for digital distribution to arrive,” says Lorne. “By 2008 we were realising the Western financial crisis wasn’t helping any of our other efforts but around the same time Steam was becoming a viable distribution platform, then GOG, then PSN, and so on.” Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were released on Steam and other digital distribution platforms. In 2009, Lorne and the CEO of Just Add Water, Stewart Gilray were introduced at the Game Developers Conference. An agreement was struck to allow Just Add Water to recover archived data but it developed into allowing the developer to bring Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath to Steam. The first two games were also released as PS One Classics in 2009. By 2010, a new Oddworld.com website was created and PC ports of Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath were released. Remastered versions of the games followed. In 2014, Just Add Water rebuilt Abe’s Oddysee from the ground up using Unity to create the game in 2.5D. It is not, Lorne insists, an HD remake. “New ‘N’ Tasty is our way of revisiting what we think of as a Grimm Fairy Tale,” he adds, now heading a company in which Just Add Water tends to do the bulk of development. “We wanted to stick with the original script so it’s a redux told in the same rhyme, modernised it to make it more beautiful.” For Oddworld Inhabitants, this represents an entire new world – a different way of working. But it’s a positive one, with plans to bring back some of the games that were devised but abandoned. “It’s exciting and it shows that we are very much alive as a company,” says Lorne. “We can’t wait to see the reaction of gamers.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Lorne remains the president of Oddworld Inhabitants. He has few staff, though. Thanks to his successful deal with Just Add Water in 2009, Oddworld Inhabitants has been able to outsource development work. Just Add Water has created Stranger’s Wrath HD, Munch’s Oddysee HD and Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty, bringing Oddworld games to a new audience. Lorne is a frequent speaker at games industry events.
Still at Oddworld Inhabitants, Sherry is the company’s CEO and has been for close to 20 years. She works with Lorne on the future direction of the Oddworld series and on fresh IP. Citizen Siege is not completely dead in the water and could be due a dusting off at some point.
Farzad is the creative visual director of Appy Entertainment. He left Oddworld after Munch’s Oddysee was released. His talents have been put to good use in Hollywood too. He is credited for the creature effects on the 2007 film Aliens VS Predator Requiem as well as Race To Witch Mountain in 2009, both completed by the special effects company Amalgamated Dynamics.
Paul is brand director for Appy Entertainment. He had gone on to become a producer and game designer for EA in 2001, leaving in 2002 to be the lead game designer at Sammy Studios. For six years he was VP and design director of High Moon Studios where he directed the design of The Bourne Conspiracy. He co-founded Appy Entertainment in 2008.
Chris, like Farzad and Paul, left Oddworld Inhabitants years ago, becoming chief design officer of Sammy Studios and the chief design officer of Sammy Studios and the chief development officer of High Moon Studios. Eventually the trio were on to set up Appy Entertainment, a company which develops and publishes social-mobile games.