Date: September 2008 Source: Edge (UK Edition), Issue 192, pp. 102-107
From Rupture Farms to Sekto Springs: the unlikely story of a wonderful world
FORMAT: PC, PS, XBOX PUBLISHER: GT INTERACTIVE/MICROSOFT DEVELOPER: ODDWORLD INHABITANTS ORIGIN: US
For a movie-maker in the mid-’90s, familiar with almost ten years of high-end 3D graphics, the response of gaming to Sega’s Virtua Racing was, in a word, odd. “It was grad-shop development still,” recalls Lorne Lanning, the movie-maker in question. “Sceptical of anyone who didn’t how to build videogames, especially Hollywood. But it didn’t know 3D — and suddenly it knew that it didn’t know. That was how we got in.”
It was a chaos familiar to any sea change in technology. ‘Siliwood’ companies like Rocket Science and Crystal Dynamics would hire 3D talent from Industrial Light & Magic, production designers from Hollywood and effects experts from Apple, and the result would be mayhem. “The film people dramatically underestimated games’ complexity. They made no intelligent connection that would result in something the audience would enjoy. Good business stories, perhaps, but bad production models.”
Lanning, on the other hand, together with long-time business partner Sherry McKenna, spoke a good rap, and for good reason. He knew high-end 3D, but more importantly he knew games, even if his experience was gleaned entirely from the joypad. For jaded executives, his passion and McKenna’s acumen were precious, if precarious, commodities. “We wouldn’t have got the money today,” he believes. “The industry is much more like the rest of entertainment, dominated by less than a handful while everyone else scrounges for pennies.”
Not many startups share a name with their first IP, and you have to wonder what Oddworld Inhabitants devised first. Was it Oddworld, the remarkable, ever-expanding universe of weird creatures, skewed satire and emotive plights? Or was it Abe’s Oddysee, the PlayStation platformer that put the art in fart? Lanning laughs. “What came first was a story we haven’t told yet. It was about a guy who lost his body to a credit card racket. I told it to Sherry in 1992, in the context of a larger epic, and it was basically Oddworld.”
The core theme of haves and have-nots, then, was there from the start, and has driven the series ever since. But Lanning’s vision was still to be shaped by the realities of videogame development. Abe was a city-dweller, rejected yet surrounded by society, fashion, hustle and bustle. Not, it emerged, an easy life for anyone. “Doing 3D with clothes was a royal pain in the ass, so I focused on the guy with the loincloth instead. And where does he work? The meat processing plant, of course. It’s silly how the most practical necessities can drive your biggest ideas.”
A sinister tale of globalisation told by one of its sorriest slaves, Abe’s Oddysee didn’t just start at the bottom, but on the outside. “If you thought of it like our world,” says Lanning, “there’d be some areas that were as primitive as possible, others as high-tech as Tokyo, New York or London. So we’d have the full gauntlet. What I wanted to do with the Oddworld Quintology [an ambition that, on and off, he still pursues] was start in the third world. Then you find yourself dead smack in the centre of trade and commerce, Gnarlybebb. That would be our Manhattan.”
Was it a tough pitch? “Tougher today, I think. Back then, Sherry’s philosophy was simple: we’re all people. So if you wanted to do a business deal, that’s what she was looking at. Who are they? What do they care about? And it was obvious to us that the executives, the ones making the business decisions, really weren’t proud of the games they were making.
“They felt they were largely for kids. And not just kids — boys. Boys who like to break and kill shit. Seeing how thick that perception was, we basically said: ‘Wouldn’t you like to feel better?’” Abe, then, in the age of Mortal Kombat and Doom, became a kind of talisman for the men in suits. Men who, in the eyes of the press, were seen increasingly as having blood on their hands.
Sauntering between puzzles, cutscenes and ethically sound combat, Abe’s Oddysee sits in the allowed company of games like Another World and Flashback, feeling thoroughly adventurous despite being, essentially, a platformer. And that, says Lanning, is no coincidence.
“Flashback engaged me more than any other game at the time. It just blew me away. While people were trying to get more of the screen moving, that game put its resources into animation. It did things that felt less like artwork moving about on the screen, which is what Mario was doing, and more like there’s this little guy living in this box, and you’re in control of him. Sherry got excited just by watching it. And she could play it – and she is not a gamer at all – because the pacing was up to her.
“Then it had this narrative that was really just the ambience of the environment. That was the feeling I wanted to capture. Funnily, we got the money for the first Abe based on our 3D expertise, but I knew we were really gonna make a 2D game. We never said that, of course. I wanted to slow the screen down, create some nice transitions, things that felt more like film, and leave the orientation of casual gamers intact.”
Lanning’s early journey into games would embolden rather than tame his Hollywood mentality, his whip-cracking initiative causing no end of conflict. “It was total chaos,” he admits. “[The staff] were set on paradigms I wanted to smash. The idea, for instance, of having a shooting game in which your character didn’t have a gun. How many times was I told that was the most stupid thing in the world? I’ve been called an idiot on so many different levels, so many different times.
“I was told a lot of things, among them that no one cares about cinematics. Period. Statistically, they’d say, no one watches movies in games. Well, historically, movies in games suck, so why would I watch them? Guys, throw the quality equation into your decision-making. We all go to movies, we all watch TV shows. We love the great stories that games don’t have. So let’s make some.”
To Lanning, Oddworld was much like one of its characters’ journeys, something that began small but then grew, onward and outward, always in spite of the system. “It doesn’t make sense in such a rapidly changing industry to think in terms of a 20-year plan, but that’s how we did it. And it worked: we’ve built a brand and we still own it. We’ve done the impossible, but we’ve paid the price along the way.”
What some might simply call ‘resistance’ or ‘creative differences’ has, for Lanning and his team, been more a constant, bone-rattling turbulence. “What can happen is that expectations of an audience and a publishing community can shape your product into something where derivative is more important than new,” explains Lanning. “They want to see the Abe they know and love. So Microsoft wanted to call Munch’s Oddysee ‘Abe & Munch’s Fun Adventures’. They actually proposed that. It was like: ‘Well, can you be any less creative? Is that possible?’”
Amid howls of treason from the Sony faithful, Munch’s Oddysee, the series’ third adventure, landed alongside Microsoft’s Xbox with an aptly leaden thump. As wondrously illustrated as any Oddworld, its big ideas seemed oddly incapable of flight, as if grounded by the weight of their ambition.
Lanning sighs: “We really believed in Xbox. We believed in Ed Fries [then Xbox evangelist and vice president of Microsoft’s game division], we believed in the guys who had built it. It was a pretty robust group up there. But they did things they weren’t supposed to, like completely annihilate our market. At €400, the Xbox was just a tombstone. It was a horrifically stupid decision and one totally beyond our control. Six months prior to release, no one thought they were gonna sell it for that much money. When you first signed up as a developer, they were saying they might even give that box away. So it seemed like the right move. And they were looking at Munch, they said, because they were looking for the casual game player.”
Microsoft’s desire to tick every box is as famous as its console’s failure to do so, Xbox becoming the quintessential hardcore machine. Halo stole its launch, leaving an uncomfortable niche for the dreamy Munch, which nonetheless struggled on to become a platinum hit. Beyond its Finding Nemo-esque opening, which still leaves an Xbox-sized lump in the throat, lay a game Lanning solemnly calls ‘the nightmare of my life’.
“I won’t name names — this actually concerns a good guy — but it’s indicative of the way big companies do things. We were looking at the first movies our team had been working on — and they were always very finicky, striving for excellence — and it was the first time we’d used Bink compression. And this guy comes over, shows me the result and says: ‘What do you think?’ And I was like: ‘You’re joking, right? It’s garbage’. That ruffled some feathers.
“’But it’s just a movie’, said one of the executive producers. Well, first of all, if I show my people that, the whole department’s gonna walk out the door and go somewhere their work is appreciated. Our culture will not allow that to leave the building. And you’re selling a DVD player. DVD means better than VHS, not worse than the web. It wasn’t really a problem with Bink’s software, it was just that no one knew how to dial it properly. And they were like: ‘Well, you don’t have any market statistics to back all this up’. ‘Oh my God’, I said, ‘you guys have to do market research to decide your mom’s name. DVD means high quality. Get it together.’”
Microsoft was a good partner, he insists, though one that was, perhaps by necessity, poles apart in its outlook and behaviour. “We made plenty of mistakes ourselves, and I personally suffered from what a lot of designers do, just being overambitious and not disciplined enough to keep it small and focus on the things that really matter. So it kept expanding and expanding, and what happens then is you get less than you were hoping for.”
A complete rundown of lessons learned throughout the making of Munch’s Oddysee has been publicly available for some time. It’s called Stranger’s Wrath. The hero this time was a creature of cruelty rather than a victim, an unkempt, navel-gazing sharpshooter with a unique take on the term ‘live ammo’. He was a hardcore solution to the Xbox problem, the game juggling contradictions that would ruin most. Adventurous and disciplined, pensive and playful, it gunned down an Edge 9 with ease.
“Games at the time were getting more hardcore, not more casual,” observes Lanning. “All this talk today of: ‘Casual games are huge, blah blah blah’. Well, not on consoles they’re not. Bullshit, just bullshit. What happens is that your big publishers say: ‘These are our games that sell really well — what do you have that will sell like them?’ And you look and it’s like: shooting, shooting, shooting and shooting. Then maybe bombing and shooting. Then shooting. Then The Sims. It’s the war shelf, not the game shelf.
“I felt, with Abe starting off as this non-violent personality, it would be a good time to divest into something more action-driven. But there was a very practical reason for doing it as well, which is that, when you build an adventure/puzzle type of game with high-fidelity graphics and audio, the code effort is more than building a really good shooter. Every turn and new screen has to have a twist, and what that really means is new code. When you’re dealing with a shooting engine, it’s much easier to ramp up your challenge and complexity factor.”
Over three years on, that trip to Gizzard Gulch remains our last to Oddworld, its creator still to announce details of its new opus, Citizen Siege, widely believed to be part game, part something else, perhaps even a movie and TV show. There’s also a new Oddworld, inadvertently announced during a university lecture by none other than Maxis co-founder Jeff Braun, Lanning’s surprising new collaborator. Lanning himself talks passionately about new forms of multimedia (on Valve’s Team Fortress 2 shorts: “Look at those and you’re looking at the future”), which makes some form of Oddworld movie seem almost inevitable. It’s been a long time coming, we remark.
“We never wanted to lose control of the property, which pretty much cancelled any idea of leasing it out to some company for $100,000,” he explains. “The easily forgotten history is that GT were going out of business as soon as they started, and they owned half our company. So half the time I’m trying to get a game done and half the time I’m on the road, looking for new partners and clients. Then they sold to Atari, and Atari was a disaster of a magnitude that’ll never be told or else someone’s getting sued. That debacle was just unbelievable. We got in with EA — that was a disaster. So we were just pulling our hair out.
“When we were building Munch, a guy named Brian Burk, who for the most part no one had heard of, wanted to do the movie. And we never even had the time to read a treatment from this guy who loved Abe and who wanted to shop in Hollywood. To cut a long story short, he just finished the movie Cloverfield and his partner, who we’d also never heard of, is JJ Abrams [creator of Lost]. But because we were dealing with these idiotic, dysfunctional publisher relationships, we were never able to engage. And that’s why, in my opinion, no game companies have ever really transcended to taking on TV shows.
“But, if we can maintain the integrity of the franchise and the quality of the brand, if we can keep the fans not necessarily supplied but aware, and confident that what we release will be high quality, with a certain signature that they’ll like, we’ll always be OK. So we’re focusing on the film and TV fronts right now, but we’re doing it our way.” He chuckles. “The hard way.”
Abe and his fellow Mudokons had to be tweaked for the Japanese release of Abe’s Oddysee, their four-fingered hands symbolising a subclass of accident-prone Japanese meat packers, much to the ire of pressure groups. The art for Rupture Farms’ Mudokon Pops packaging — a head on a stick — also underwent changes
In a nod to the movie Soylent Green, Abe’s Oddysee depicts a world in which environmental decline and financial hardship has driven capitalism to the most despicable of solutions
A number of proposed trips to Oddworld have been postponed or cancelled, the highest profile being RTS The Hand Of Odd and the mysterious The Brutal Ballad Of Fangus Clott. “Hand of Odd was on the table as: if we can become a studio that works on two games at a time, the other will be this one,” says Lanning. “So let’s put a little of that out there, as PR buzz, to see if it’ll resonate. At the time, I remember looking at the guy next to me at the LAX urinal and it’s Bobby Kotick from Activision. And he asks me what I’m doing and I say: ‘I’m thinking of doing an RTS game’. He says: ‘Don’t do it, you’ll lose your ass’. That was the time when PC was starting to have this ‘retail condition’, and the viability of PC was going down. So we decided not to expand, and Hand Of Odd basically sat on the shelf. But I can tell you that it might not be gathering dust. A friend of mine is a high-level executive in China, and he’s like: ‘Hey, man, what about Hand of Odd? We can do it’. If someone can come back with a real passion, and really get what it’s about, then it’s something we could conceivably license out for someone else to do.”
And Fangus? “We started that with a publisher and it didn’t work out for reasons I can’t describe. But the character I loved, and the story I loved. Actually, Fangus may show up in an upcoming announcement. But it would be one piece of a larger thing — he’d be one of several characters.”
Aside from enemy types like the Sligs and Slogs, life beyond Rupture Farms took AI spontaneity to a new level thanks to the game’s bespoke engine, ALIVE (Aware Lifeforms In A Virtual Environment)
From a bewildering array of options to a simple contextual talk button, Oddworld’s Gamespeak feature was substantially reduced between Abe’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath. Is this to say Lanning would have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight? “Absolutely. If I did it again today, I’d have you press one button and your voice options would come down as a menu, right over the character. But at the time I was totally against menus of any kind. The guys would say: ‘But you need more menus, man!’ And I was like: ‘Get more creative’. We really wanted it to look like a film, not something that was built for challenge. In Stranger, we just said: ‘Screw it, let’s just reinvent enough wheels’.”
Whatever its woes as a 3D adventure, the achievement of Munch’s Oddysee in making you feel, even cry, for a character who looks like a Dalek’s genitals cannot be overstated. The dire predicament of his race, the Gabbits (their eggs are a ferociously farmed delicacy, their lungs popular among the first game’s chain-smoking Glukkons), makes Abe’s look like a holiday
Munch’s Oddysee bears more than a few scars of its troubled development for PS2 and then Xbox. The manual describes features that aren’t in the game, while Lanning’s concerns over Bink video compression are recalled during the odd dodgy cutscene. A YouTube clip of the canned and quite different PS2 code makes for interesting viewing