An interview with Lorne Lanning

An interview with Lorne Lanning [Hosted by Happy Puppy]
Date: 6 September, 2000
Interviewer: Robb Guido
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning


After experiencing the spectacle of the latest Oddworld at E3, Happy Puppy couldn’t resist having a little bowwow, er, powwow with Oddworld Inhabitants cofounder and president Lorne Lanning. Before his foray into video games, Lorne spent 12 years masterminding commercials and the special effects for movies and visual attractions. He also has all kinds of thoughts on where games are headed. Check out what Abe’s daddy had to say in our exclusive interview.

Happy Puppy: How is the new Oddworld game coming along?

Lorne Lanning: Like wrestling a room full of monkeys back into a barrel.

HP: Got a release date yet?

Lorne Lanning: Spring of 2001.

HP: You talked about having trouble with the PlayStation2 hardware as far as anti‐aliasing goes…has that been ironed out?

Lorne Lanning: We’ve spent a lot of time and money to get the image quality much better, but it’s still not as perfect as we would like.

HP: Can you explain what you are trying to accomplish with Munch as far as expanding our concept of games?

Lorne Lanning: Okay, try to think of it like this: you will be controlling Munch and Abe, who are now more dynamic than you’ve seen or felt even from a character like Mario. You use their GameSpeak® to control and reposition other characters, like you would in Age of Empires with a mouse. You manage resources of factories and natural facilities, like you would in RTS and Sim games, but we’ve lightened the cryptic qualities to keep it simple but involved, and fun. And you will unfold an action‐adventure story in classic Oddworld tradition. As you enter specific areas, you will find that there are puzzles, but it’s definitely not a puzzle game.

HP: You talked about some high concepts at E3 as far as the plot to Munch goes. Who came up with the whole consumerism vs. mysticism theme?

Lorne Lanning: Consumerism vs. mysticism is something that has been the backbone of much of my thinking since before I can remember. In creating the content of Oddworld, this concept was a natural choice for me.

HP: How long has the idea of Oddworld actually been in development?

Lorne Lanning: The Oddworld quintology was really a compilation of many short (and some long) stories that I had been working on for years prior to founding the company of Oddworld Inhabitants with Sherry. The themes of these stories were consistent and related to one another in so many ways, that eventually they seemed to synthesize together into one massive epic. The epic had really been envisioned as motion pictures first, but through games they actually found their way into reality. The very first beginnings of the Oddworld stories probably started around 1987. They just weren’t compiled or called Oddworld yet.

HP: What’s the story this time around? Who are the main players?

Lorne Lanning: Munch and Abe are the heroes of Munch’s Oddysee. Glukkons and Sligs are still enemies, but in this round, the real baddies are the Vykkers and their Interns. The Vykkers are scientists and doctors who care more about the bottom line than anything health‐related. [Editor’s note: Sounds like an HMO.]

HP: Munch seems to be a mix of a number of genres. Explain the strategy portion of it — I heard you have to care for the environment.

Lorne Lanning: In an RTS game, you build forces and use them for a specific strategic goal. You use a mouse to grab characters and position them to do your bidding, such as, ‘guard here’ or ‘attack’ or ‘gather resources.’ In Munch’s Oddysee, you use the characters you’re controlling to GameSpeak other characters. You can relocate them, put them to work, have them gather resources, have them defend an area, or use them as weapons. But you’ve never done this before with dynamic‐controlled characters that feel like they have great physics and are very lifelike. Imagine Age of Empires being controlled by Mario, and you might start to get the idea.

When it comes to the simulated landscape elements, land will be fertile if it hasn’t been polluted and if the rains are still coming. But if the land has been raped and is barren of water or trees, then the life‐forms that live on the land will come into hard times, reproduce less often, etc. It’s critical to us that the gamer has responsibility over the landscape. The gamer’s actions, or lack of actions, will influence the state of the landscape, and as a result, influence the availability of resources and the behavior of the lands’ inhabitants.

We will also be cycling between day and night. Some of the world’s creatures live by day, others by night. A factory is in full production during the day, and tends to wind down at night. Nocturnal creatures come out to hunt at night, but sleep in caves during the day. You’ll have the ability to wait out circumstances and decide that it would be wiser to attempt infiltration of a factory at night, rather than in daylight. Strategies abound when you have a playing field that behaves this way.

The more fertile a land is, the more it produces plants, creatures, etc. These are all resources that the player depends on. The more barren a land is, the fewer resources it produces. The more polluted a land is, the more problems arise. Ultimately, you have the power to influence the environment toward or away from any of these possibilities. Many times, you will need to nurture the environment so that it will bring forth what you need.

HP: What else will players get to do?

Lorne Lanning: Let’s say your goal to a particular level is to shut down a factory. There would be several different ways that you could achieve this. You could rescue the employees of the factory and cause it to have no labor, thus it would shut down. You could steal all the employees and bring them to another local factory, and thus shut it down a different way. You could kill the employees that are gathering resources for the factory, and still succeed in shutting it down. As the approaches to solving problems are in how you utilize the chemistry of the characters and mechanics of the game, you can utilize these chemistries in completely different ways or different strategies to achieve similar goals. However, how you achieve your goals can have an impact on the environment, on other characters’ attitudes, and on your own Quarmic status.

HP: You have prior Hollywood experience on your resume, correct? What kind of projects did you work on?

Lorne Lanning: Commercials, motion pictures, theme‐park attractions.

HP: Any relation to Lorne Michaels?

Lorne Lanning: Aren’t people usually related by last names?

HP: Convergence of games and movies is a much‐talked‐about event. Do you believe in this idea?

Lorne Lanning: It’s all entertainment. When the interactive systems are powerful enough and the designers are being creative enough, then we will see that games (which should be called something different by then) will actually give us all of the emotional and intellectual rewards we expect from movies. But they will also have additional and more potent aspects. The day when this begins to happen, movies are going to be in big trouble.

HP: Any plans for an Oddworld movie or cartoon?

Lorne Lanning: It’s always been part of our plan to bring Oddworld to the big screen and to other mediums. As of right now, there’s been a lot of talk, but we haven’t signed anything on the dotted line.

HP: What are some of your favorite movies?

Lorne Lanning: My favorite movies of all time are: Blade Runner (director’s cut), Clockwork Orange, 2001, Apocalypse Now, The Time Machine, Empire Strikes Back, Schindler’s List, and Ghost in the Shell. I greatly appreciate the depth of story and subtext in these movies. They’re a rarity in a world where Hollywood force‐feeds us a constant barrage of boring, formula crap. I want to throw up at 95 percent of the movies that I see. But my favorite movies all take inspiring and controversial concepts and bring them to life in wonderfully lit, rich, dramatic worlds. They are interwoven with vast complexities and manage to pull it off in very simple and elegant ways through fabulous writing, cinematography, and production design. I must have watched Ghost in the Shell more times than any other movie, ever.

HP: Did you grow up playing games?

Lorne Lanning: I had a paper route when I was a still in junior high, which meant that I always had plenty of quarters and was playing plenty of pinball. Which also meant that as soon as Pong and Asteroids and all those old classics came out, I was dumping my whole income into them. It also helped that my dad was an engineer for ColecoVision.

HP: What made you decide to make the switch from movies to games? A lot of people put movies on a pedestal, you know.

Lorne Lanning: One reason is that I’m a big believer in game technology and its ability to become a very important entertainment medium and art form. The other is that it’s incredibly difficult to control content if you’re working with Hollywood. The studios want to control everything and the budgets are just too high. The higher the price tag of the project you’re trying to create, the more people will be involved and the less likely it is to succeed or to be a quality project. Also, in the game world, we’re our own content providers. In Hollywood, we’re a service business. In games, we have creative and management control, which is extremely important to us. In Hollywood, even the best directors don’t have full creative control. By the time we get involved with Hollywood again, we’ll be the client, not the vendor.

HP: Obviously, you’re pushing how far games can go, but for the most part, they lack the emotional factor of the best movies. Have you set out to change this?

Lorne Lanning: Definitely, but this is something that is hard to describe with words. I think Munch will take this fusion a lot further than it has been taken in the past. But ultimately, we’re still a generation or two of hardware away (beyond 128‐bit) from the power we’re really going to need to convince nearly all people that this medium is the ultimate medium.

HP: Was it hard converting a 2D game into 3D?

Lorne Lanning: No, because it’s all just mechanics that can easily transfer. What’s hard is figuring out how to make 3D better and stronger than what it’s been before. In most real‐time 3D games, the two biggest shortcomings that we identified and addressed deal with the camera’s systems and the character’s sense of truly being aware in the world. Many people do not enjoy roving, wild, whip‐panning camera activity that comes with over‐the‐shoulder or POV. So we will be doing a different twist to the camera logic that aims to fix the orientation and motion‐sickness problems that result from the status quo of what’s going on out there. Our camera system will feel more cinematic in its delivery, without compromising play ability.

As for characters, we feel the industry is suffering from a ‘virtual idiot’ phenomenon. What was very easy for a character to accomplish in a 2D gaming environment has become much more difficult in 3D. The controls and characters don’t seem to know where the pick‐up item is; they can’t figure out the doorway is right in front of them without slamming into the wall; they jam up in tight corridors because controlling efforts are not precise. For example, pick‐up items used to take one fraction of a second in 2D, but now, in even some of the best examples like Zelda or Mario, a pick‐up item (or sign to read) takes five times longer, and as a result, makes the character look stupid. So we’ve been working on a system that helps the game’s inhabitant identify where it is in the environment, and also recognizes what items of interest might be nearby. So picking up an item should be as fluid as it used to be in 2D, yet still look totally real and convincing in 3D. The same applies to a character running through a hallway, entering a tight doorway, or anything else that involves having the desire of the game player manifest more easily in controlling the game’s inhabitants.

HP: Oddworld is supposed to be a five‐part series. What could possibly follow a game like Munch?

Lorne Lanning: The quintology started with Abe’s Oddysee. There are five major parts to the story as a whole. The second game in the quintology is Munch’s Oddysee. The quintology is one massive—​and I do mean massive—​story that needed to be broken into five parts. Throughout the quintology, the Oddworld universe will reveal more of itself to the gamer. More and more characters will be introduced, and the plot will continually thicken. It’s not like we are coming up with each of these games as they come along. We know how the stories will grow and where they are going. Right now, Oddworld might seem like a fairly small place with just a few dilemmas. However, as the quintology unfolds, you will find that everything we showed you from the beginning has major importance as we come toward the end. As for the basis of the story, its focus is on Abe and his quest to deliver his people out of repression. But the more good that Abe does, the worse things become, and the more twisted things become. Also, each quintology game introduces a new central character. Munch’s Oddysee introduces Munch, and thus Abe and Munch go about the mythology. The third game in the quintology is called Squeek’s Oddysee. In this game, you will control Abe, Munch, and Squeek all at once. By the fifth game, you will control five primary characters all at once.

Additional good news is that people won’t have to play all five games to figure out what’s going on. Each game will stand on its own as a story and as an experience. However, if a gamer is familiar with the previous games, it will make the new stories that much more interesting.

HP: Finally, how do you think the PlayStation2 will do in the coming years?

Lorne Lanning: It’s got some issues of its own, and also some heavy competition coming from Microsoft. In the beginning, we felt very confident about Sony’s success with its 128‐bit system, but we also expected to see much better software coming out of Japan when it was released. If the system proves too hard for people to develop for, then it’s going to be that much harder for Sony to win the next round. In the end, it’s good, solid software that sells game systems, regardless of how powerful the chips are.

Lorne brings 12 years’ experience in the field of computer‐generated special effects to the helm of the Oddworld team. Prior to forming Oddworld Inhabitants, Lorne was the creative director of special projects at Rhythm & Hues Studios. While at Rhythm & Hues, he was visual Efx supervisor for MCA/Universal’s Seafari attraction, and the MGM Grand 3D stereoscopic show, EFX. Prior to this, he served as technical director for several award‐winning commercials such as Mazda Time Machine, Reebok Catapult, Goldentex, and special venue films such as the Hanna‐Barbera Funtastic Adventure ride film, and Euro Disney’s LeVisionarium circlevision attraction. Prior to special‐effects production, Lorne worked for TRW as a technical director for aerospace visualization. Lorne is the indefatigable mastermind of Oddworld Inhabitants, stamping his indelible imprint on every aspect of production, from Abe’s distinctive gait to all of Oddworld’s many inhabitants. With the multiple‐award‐winning Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus under his belt, Lorne is now scheming to extend the Oddworld franchise into the home of every man, woman, and child on Earth, starting with Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee.