A Chat with Lorne Lanning & Sherry McKenna

A Chat with Lorne Lanning & Sherry McKenna [Hosted by GIGnews]
Date: 1 November, 2003
Interviewer: Melanie Cambron
Interviewees: Lorne Lanning & Sherry McKenna

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20040611145102/http://gignews.com/goddess/oddworld.htm

GIGnews recruited Melanie Cambron, known by most in the industry as The Game Recruiting Goddess, to use her skills for the good of gamekind and recruit some of the big names in the industry to give us all valuable insight into what they do and how they do it.

In 1994 Lorne Lanning convinced long time computer graphics veteran Sherry McKenna (winner of over 30 Clio awards and numerous international film and television awards) to be the co-founder of a new video game development company, Oddworld Inhabitants. Beginning with its debut products, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, Oddworld has created a unique brew of Hollywood artistry, solid gameplay, and stories designed to stir emotions, empathy and entertainment. As co-founder and CEO of Oddworld Inhabitants, McKenna is responsible for the company’s strategic and production planning. As president and creator of the Oddworld “Quintology”, Lanning is responsible for the development of some of the most thought-provoking and intelligent characters and games in recent memory. Indeed, the duo make no secret of their concern for the planet, ecologically and politically, and how their philosophies impact their games. When asked to describe the background for Oddworld character, Munch, Lanning has said “Munch’s soul is inspired by the tens of millions of laboratory test animals that we throw away as garbage every year.”

Wired has called McKenna and Lanning “game making gods” and, to date, Oddworld products have received over 100 awards and sold nearly 4.3 million units worldwide. Oddworld’s decision to develop exclusively for Xbox and Microsoft stirred passions and debate among their original fan base, but with the Xbox release of Munch’s Oddysee raking in the accolades, all appears well in the land of Odd.

Melanie Cambron: In the “Dear Alf” section of the Oddworld website it says, “They say the only dumb question is the one that doesn’t get asked. Well, I beg to differ. The dumb question is the one that gets asked OVER AND OVER AGAIN!” Just so you know from the outset, I won’t be asking why you switched to developing exclusively for Xbox. I’m not saying there won’t be some repeats, but that won’t be one of them.

I do want to talk about your partnership. The more interviews I do the more I see that many of the “name” developers are actually just one half of a long-term partnership. While one may have more name recognition, there are quite a few duos in this industry. Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, Richard and Robert Garriott, Philip and Andrew Oliver, and John Romero and Tom Hall. Long-term partnerships can be tricky business. Not everyone is suited to that sort of commitment. You two obviously have made it work. Do you think you would have had as much success individually? Do you each bring something different to the table making the whole greater?

Lorne Lanning: If not for Sherry McKenna, there would be no Oddworld. The classic mistake of creative types is that they tend to believe that their artistic skills are the most important ingredients to their success. Though skills are certainly important, their logic is severely flawed. Most creative types are destroyed by the business climate. It’s only a matter of time. They have no idea of how to deal with and interact with the ruthless and unappreciative world of commerce. Since day one, Sherry has guided this company through its darkest hours. Her business, producing, and negotiation skills have navigated Oddworld through some seriously treacherous waters. If I were on my own, I would have sunk the ship a long time ago; probably during those first negotiations with venture capitalists. Choosing Sherry was the smartest thing I ever did and I have never fallen into the trap of believing that smart creative is more important than smart business.

Sherry McKenna: I would have had no success at all because I never would have gotten into games had it not been for Lorne. I am a producer and a good producer knows that the most important ingredient for their personal success is to hook up with a creative person. So my success is very much based on who I hook up with.

MC: In a review I read for Munch’s Oddysee, there was a “pros” list and a “cons” list about the game. One of the “pros” was “It’s a game for people who like to think”, and one of the “cons” was “It’s a game for people who like to think not just shoot everything”. Lorne, you have been quoted as saying “Oddworld is about finding yourself caught up in an uncaring food chain. Are you just going to be eaten by it or are you going to do something about it? We think that everyone, on some level or another, identifies with what’s going on in the world today…” You have also said that the Oddworld Quintology “is largely influenced by the acts and practices of the corrupt greed and power mongers that have bled the world’s people throughout history and continue to do so today.” You go on to say that “the world is an extremely complicated place” Do you think games where the player just shoots everything, to speak in simplified terms, are popular because the world is such a complicated place? Do you think people just need a release to think about absolutely nothing or do you think that’s the reason the world is in the state that it’s in today, because too many of us just stopped thinking?

Lorne Lanning: I believe that the world we live in has a tendency to make us feel very small and quite powerless, and as human beings we need to find antidotes for these feelings. The more withdrawn we are the more likely we are to escape into virtual entertainment experiences, and maybe even find more gratification from these experiences than we get from the real world. Many people tend to escape from social activities and gravitate towards television, films, plays, games, and even books. It’s true that when we feel insignificant or wronged then we can often feel better by beating or shooting the hell out of something. When it’s not in a game world, it’s with the real world.

It’s not that I think that people have stopped thinking today; it’s just that I’m fairly convinced that a good portion of them have never thought much to begin with. Throughout history people have been conditioned to be afraid, angry, and often times overly accepting of the propaganda that governments and industries use to persuade popular opinion. Uninformed, scared, and poorly educated people are easy to control. A government that is truly democratic and honest is going to have an extremely difficult time governing its people. So I think the problem of people “not thinking” is a timeless one. In the scheme of things, mindless video games are the least of our problems.

MC: Sherry, in an interview you did with GirlTech the article notes that you do not like video games and you haven’t spent much time playing them because the bulk of them are too violent and “mainly appeal to 12 year old boys.” The article goes on to explain that rather than ignoring the problem, you decided to do something about it with Oddworld – a company that thinks about girls and women when making games. Obviously, your games aren’t visions in pink or remotely stereotypical in terms of trying to appeal to the female psyche. What’s the secret? Why do you think your games appeal to women?

Sherry McKenna: I would not be interested in making a game that just appeals to women. I think men and women, boys and girls are interested in having fun. I think women are less interested in killing just for the sake of game play and are more interested in a story and characters that you can care about. But I think males are as well. So the goal would be to come up with a game that appeals to both.

MC: Based on everything I’ve read, Oddworld’s game philosophy almost seems too organic, if that’s the right word, to use focus groups. Do you use focus groups?

Sherry McKenna: There is a place for focus groups and using them wisely is always… um…wise. I like to use focus groups to learn when folks are having too much of a hard time or the controls are not as smooth as one had hoped or the frustration level is too high.

MC: To be honest, for many years I was a manic recycler and water conservationist. Every day I tried to do something good for the planet, but I could never stop feeling like I was running up a slippery slope. For every pound of soda cans I crushed and put in my green bin, I knew some refinery was belching thousands of pounds of crap into the sky and I just thought “Uncle!” Given the state of the world today, do you ever lose faith that things can change for the better and that your philosophies as reflected in your games can make a difference?

Sherry McKenna:
It would be so cool if our games made a difference. But if our fans just have fun playing them then that is reward enough for me.

Lorne Lanning:Sure, one always hopes that their stories and games might offer some degree of insight for people. We love when we read a great book or watch a great movie that causes us to view some element of life differently. It’s true that this medium is shy to explore these possibilities, opting instead to wrap dumb and uninspired stories around play experiences. Yet, in the end, you are still creating entertainment and that means the audience needs to actually enjoy the experience. If they get the deeper insights…great! If not, hopefully they’ve enjoyed the game. What I’ve found is that it’s getting harder and harder for me to just make junk food for the masses. I’ve been there and it’s boring. It seems we have so much more potential, as human beings, than just setting out and trying to make more money. We’ve got the potential to make more money while also helping to raise the standards of the media we’re involved with. So why just be a Mindless Capitalist when you can be a Conscious Capitalist!? An example would be that Steven Spielberg is a conscious capitalist while Arnold Schwarzenegger is, IMHO, an unconscious capitalist. One makes inspiring product, the other makes great tasting junk food.

MC: For a cross-promotional opportunity, you included SoBe vending machines inside the final version of Munch’s Oddysee. You have explained that whenever a co-promotional opportunity arises, Oddworld’s first order of business is to see if there are any outstanding labor or environmental issues with the potential co-sponsor. As noted previously, you’ve also talked about the corrupt practices of the greed and power mongers. I think it’s safe to say there are people who view Microsoft as one of those mongers. How do you explain your relationship with Microsoft to those people?

Sherry McKenna:
Well you have to get your games published and you only have 3 choices. Those are Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft. We began making games for Sony and switched to Microsoft for their more powerful Xbox.

Lorne Lanning: Our bad guys are inspired by the mega corporations that consciously and irresponsibly deplete our natural resources, intentionally exploit the poor working class of the third world while systematically destroying indigenous cultures, knowingly pollute the environment and/or misinform the public as to general health issues, and/or loot our taxes and retirement funds. In the scheme of things, Microsoft is saintly when compared to this class of planetary parasites.

MC: As the game industry continues to grow and become more “corporate” in nature, it seems increasingly less likely that unusual projects will fostered. How can developers of unique games like the Oddworld series get a break?

Sherry McKenna:
I think that there will always be an outlet for great games to get published just like there is an outlet for indie films.

MC: I read in The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year that you were working with CAA, Creative Artists Agency, to bring your vision for Abe to television and movies. In an interview about three years ago Lorne said that “the idea of returning to Hollywood and having to do lunch with that group of vampiric bozos would cause me to throw up.” Firstly, are you the most honest person in the entertainment industry? And, secondly, do you think it’s a distinct possibility that you will be able to bring Oddworld’s vision to these other mediums without getting your integrity sucked?

Lorne Lanning: LOL! Ah, looks like you’ve been doing your homework. True, I don’t think I could ever live in Hollywood again and I am quite turned off by the superficial culture that surrounds it. Yet, I love films and I love storytelling and I love working with smart and talented people and, despite the culture at large, Hollywood does contain some brilliant and extremely talented people that we’d love to be working with. I do believe that we’ll be able to bring our vision to the big screen and I believe we can achieve this without having to compromise our integrity or compromise the quality of the experiences we want to create. So it seems just a matter of time before we’re able to pull it off.

MC: If each of you could narrow your success down to three key elements, what would they be?

Lorne Lanning:
Extreme work ethic, creative passion, learning from the mistakes of others.

Sherry McKenna: Success to me is simply getting what you want. So for me, it is about being passionate, working really hard, and not giving up until you get what you want.

MC: I saw a comedian once years ago who said he was lying on his couch, drinking beer, and flipping around the television channels late one night and saw a show with an armless man playing guitar with his feet and all the comedian could think was “man, I suck!” To be honest, I read much of what Oddworld stands for and I’m definitely starting to get that “man, I suck!” feeling. Surely, you guys have some less than noble vices you will ‘fess up to? Big Macs? Nikes? Britney Spears? A furtive drive around San Luis Obispo in a Hummer? Anything?

Lorne Lanning: Okay, I’m a redneck at heart. My favorite place to be is waste deep in a stream with a fly rod. My friends look at the Jeep that I use for fishing and say, “Lorne, thank god you’ve still got some redneck in ya.” I practice what I call the “fish re-education program.” I catch trout and then I tell them, “Okay, now pay attention. The next guy who gets you to fall for that trick is going to eat your ass. So smarten up, live long and breed.” My other vices…well, sorry, can’t really talk about those in this forum.

Sherry McKenna: Wow, it would be really misleading to think of me as anything other than someone who loves movies, People Magazine, my TV shows like West Wing, The Gilmore Girls and Friends. If you were even to suggest to my friends that I were “noble” you could not get them to stop laughing.