Enter the Oddworld of Lorne Lanning

Enter the Oddworld of Lorne Lanning [Hosted by ComputerAndVideoGames.com]
Date: 20 December, 2004
Interviewer: Graeme Boyd
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20070113123027/http://computerandvideogames.com/article.php?id=113375

Lorne Lanning, the co-founder, president and creative director of Oddworld Inhabitants, could be said to be a model developer. Tall and athletic, when we meet him he’s sporting a fine pair of black cowboy boots that match his precisely-trimmed goatee and slick haircut.

He swears like a trooper too and, unusually for a man who uses the word so much, doesn’t tend to bullshit. As he runs us through a demo of Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath, the latest Xbox addition to the notoriously quirky Oddworld series, he’s adept at pointing out exactly what’s brilliant about it – but he does it with such an engaging enthusiasm that we want to believe (almost) all of it.

Honest to God, he was doing the voices of all the characters because we had the sound turned down to avoid distracting the hard-at-work around us. We might as well have had it turned up, because after ten minutes of Lanning’s performance half the room was watching and chuckling along with Stranger’s experiences in Oddworld’s Wild West.

In a way, we should have expected it. The Oddworld games have always been a departure from the run-of-the-mill videogame production line fodder, with a sense of satirical humour and fascinatingly different visual style that has attracted an almost cultish band of fans.

Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath is no different, setting its sights on the ironies of American history, the evils of prejudice and discrimination and the rape of the natural world – and the people within it – by big business.

But it’s not just about the message. Stranger’s Wrath is also an intriguing blend of third-person action and exploration with stealth built in, and first-person shooting using a unique ‘live ammo’ system that requires you to capture your own crazy ammo from the countryside. It’s perfectly unhinged Oddworld stuff, with just the right amount of knowing humour to keep the whole thing from spinning out into a completely different dimension.

The Oddworld games aren’t like other games, and Lorne Lanning isn’t like other game developers. That means when we sat down to have a chat conversation often shot off at a tangent from the questions asked, but unvariably ended up on a topic far more interesting. Lanning’s got some important views on the future of videogames, and whether you’re into the Oddworld series or not, you have to read this interview.

CVG: Humour is certainly a very important aspect of your Oddworld games. How important do you see humour in videogaming as a whole?

Lorne Lanning: Well, if you’re making a game like Halo, or a racing game, then I don’t think humour’s very important at all. But in the experiences that we’ve been trying to build, which are action-adventures where we sometimes intentionally want the action to slow down and to have you become more immersed in the world, then we feel the humour’s extremely important. If we’re slowing down on one front, we better be paying you off on another. If we can make the game funny, and if the characters you’re talking to are giving you witty, sarcastic, wise-ass responses then you’re more encouraged to talk to them.

It helps with the pacing too, and keeps you engaged. Even if you’re not interested in a particular aspect of the game at one moment, if the humour is witty enough then it’ll keep you believing in what’s happening and give you the motivation to keep going.

Also, we’ve always felt that games aren’t just for guys. We believe that they could be for virtually everyone. We haven’t achieved that yet, but I think we’re heading there. Bringing more entertainment value to games is a critical part of that. There’s a difference between challenge value and entertainment value, and I think a lot of games today are lacking entertainment value.

There’s lots of challenge, sure, but the way the camera works, the poor dialogue – you know, if these games were movies they’d be intolerable. But if we can make the interactive gaming experience more like the classic movie entertainment experience without damaging the challenge value, then we’re going a long way to close the gap. Once you’ve married both of those worlds you’re looking at a brighter tomorrow, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

CVG: In many ways Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath is quite a departure from the other Oddworld games, given that it’s heavily influenced by Wild West themes and satirises America’s history rather than present. In what ways would you say your approach has been different with Stranger’s Wrath?

Lorne Lanning: With Stranger we got a chance to look at ourselves from a fresh perspective and we wanted a fresh approach. We definitely did not want to do another Abe game. We needed a break and wanted to go much more action, but we refused to do it the way everyone else does an action game. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I have the utmost respect for game developers, but we always want to bring some new twists and innovations to the process. That’s what excites us.

So we were looking at shooters, and Halo in particular. Now, in single-player mode Halo’s story didn’t engage me at all, but you get a lot of value out of shooting code. It offers much more challenge value than, say, puzzle code because you have all this code built for one particular puzzle, but nobody wants to do a puzzle more than once. They’ll shoot things all day long. You can easily ramp the challenge value of a shooter in a much more efficient way than with a puzzle game.

But there was another boundary we wanted to break. Another game we were playing a lot at the time – and it’s one of my all-time favourite games – was Driver. I loved just driving around and ramming into stuff. I loved the transference of energy, the physics that would send something flying. I thought, ‘hey, we should be doing that,’ so that became the basis for Stranger’s ability to run faster and faster until he becomes akin to a vehicle in controls and then you can [ram] into characters and send them flying through fences. It’s pretty gratifying.

So we wanted to have this third-person action game with melee combat, this high-speed Driver-style game where you could ram stuff, and we also wanted the shooting on top of that. We wanted to break down the barrier between first-person shooting and third-person adventuring. It took a lot of work, because we wanted to make sure there were sufficient tactical reasons to make you care about both.

The we wanted to add a more strategic depth to the shooting so it wasn’t just ‘BLAM, I cancelled that guy, BLAM, I cancelled that other guy,’ but more like ‘crap, that guy’s after me but I’m going to run over here and hide and then hit him with this and then do that.’ That’s why we introduced the live ammo, the stealth elements, and the ability to retreat by running fast.

When you’re in first-person mode you’re locked to a maximum of about 15 miles per hour, which is roughly Halo speed. But when you’re in third-person mode you’re able to run up to a top speed of 55 miles per hour. That allows you to get distance between you and your opponents, and because the AI is so good and persistent they’ll come after you. We thought that was crucial to the more cinematic aspect of the shooting. We wanted Sergio Leone-style shootouts that go on for quite a long time, where you’re thinking ‘damn, that guy just won’t go down!’

When you put together the high-speed third-person action, the ability to be aggressive or stealthy, the first-person shooting and the live ammo, the chemistry works together really well.

CVG: The live ammo’s a real departure from the traditional first-person shooter. How do you think it affects the FPS genre?

Lorne Lanning:
There were a couple of things we wanted to address about traditional first-person shooters. A lot of people haven’t been turned on to shooting games. I can understand why, but they’re missing out. But the problem is the shooting genre’s missing something, and that’s why these people haven’t been engaged yet. That’s why we think the majority of female gamers haven’t been interested in shooting games, but it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be.

For a start it’s hard to have a relationship with a character who you can’t even see because you’re in first-person. So we figured the third-person viewpoint coupled with the humour and the interesting AI lets anyone who hasn’t been interested in shooters get engaged with the characters and storyline, and then slowly begins to acclimatise them to the shooting itself. In our own experience we’ve seen people who haven’t been interested in shooters before suddenly digging the shooting experience in Stranger. That’s not to say they’ll go and enjoy lots of other shooters, but they might think about trying one.

Thing is, with Abe we wanted to add humour, depth, a rich storyline and cinematic qualities to the videogame, and we won an audience of gamers because of that. With Stranger we’re looking at what’s cool in gaming, what gamers like, and adding all out elements to these things to make them better. I think it worked.

CVG: It’s actually very hard to categorise Stranger’s Wrath into one genre. Do you see the blending of genres as an important step for gaming to take?

Lorne Lanning: I’d like to think so. In some ways the videogames industry is very exciting. In some ways it’s very uninspiring. I think there’s very little risk-taking going on and the way we look like it is that if we have to do status quo we’d rather not do it at all. I’d rather go make movies – and in time, I will. But I don’t want to give up games just yet because I believe in this medium and I think it can be very important.

I’m very critical about it, but that’s more because of my love for what it could be rather than pessimism of what it is. I respect the development community because even people who make crappy games don’t try to make crappy games, it’s just that making games is really, really hard! I know what we go through and how hard we work, so I have a lot of respect for any development team that can just get a game out the door. And we’re not going to make games that glorify US Marines going into Iraq. We’re not going to do that, and we never will.

I’d quit the business before I’d do that. You couldn’t pay me enough because I don’t morally believe in that kind of representation, and that’s how powerful I think this medium is. I don’t want to just stick a gun in a kid’s hands and say ‘Hey! Killing is fun! And if you have the right excuse it’s really fun!’ Instead, I want to say killing’s messed up, and this is going to be a messed up experience, but we’re going to treat it in a way which has a context and is not just an excuse.

You really have to think about the psychological and sociological impact of a medium that people are going to spend 60 hours a week immersed in, and some people are doing that.

I don’t have any answers to that, but when you look at what the medium could be we’re not taking many steps to get there. The first thing is the hardware, which is not at all what the development community wants it to be. It’s all about ‘how can we hit the cheapest pricepoint for manufacturing, and let the development community figure it out.’ That’s not helping anyone get better games. When we have developer friendly development environments you’ll see a proliferation of content, because for half the price you can have twice the game.

And that means you can have twice as many games because there is more room for experimentation. But when the development environment is so sensitive and so unfriendly, then the risk’s too great. You get the big publishers saying, ‘well, that idea sounds great but can they make it work and how many millions of dollars do we need to spend to find out if it even could work?’ Which executive wants to take that risk and lose his job? I don’t know many.

CVG: How do you see that going with the next generation of consoles and development tools?

Lorne Lanning: Oh, horribly! I’d say the next generation of development will be about ten times more complicated than this generation, so a lot of small developers will go out of business or be acquired by larger companies, there’ll be a lot less risk-taking as we’re already seeing, we’ll see a greater amount of sequel-itis and even more examples of videogaming being the client of the Hollywood whore.

People will increasingly rely on paying more money for licenses because the marketing’s in-built and the audience is already there, which is fine from a business point of view but it’s not helping better games get built or newer IPs be birthed in a medium that really has the opportunity to do that.

It’s a shame, because look at the best-selling games right now – Grand Theft Auto, Half-Life, Halo, Doom – these are all IPs that were born in the games industry and are making the most money, but it’s still a much safer bet for publishers to get a license.

Because our medium is so unique, it really lends itself to new property birth. If a new idea is birthed in this medium, everything about it can be tailored to the medium, as opposed to a movie license… someone like Stranger is designed exactly for gaming. All his abilities are designed with gaming in mind. There’s no character like that in a novel or a movie or a television show, and I’m not saying he’s a better character but he is better at exploiting the medium.

CVG: So where do you see yourself in that? The Oddworld universe and Stranger are original creations coming from the games industry, but then you’re inherent in the hierarchy by being an established developer and publishing your game through EA.

Lorne Lanning: Well, with the stars on our side and the wind on our back, hopefully we’ll be able to continue developing new IPs at Oddworld Inhabitants. The Oddworld brand was birthed at the beginning of the 32 bit era, when Mario was king. It affected every aspect of the game – that’s why Abe was bald, because we couldn’t do hair.

Now Stranger is birthed in the 128 bit era, so we see a different type of character and aesthetic design. Looking forward to the next generation of hardware we’ll do some fresh stuff with the Oddworld universe. We’ve got one guy on our drawing table who’s so intense he makes Stranger look like Munch in terms of intensity. I mean, this is one intense Xbox character who’s new and fresh, and we hope to be able to birth that.

While everybody’s doing sequels and licenses, we have an opportunity to establish ourselves as a brand where you respect fresh new things, so the brand identity is there but it’s more like a comic book company.

If you look at Image Comics and the original stuff they come up with – Spawn, Jinx, The Mask – you know, all these crazy characters. I expect that from Image Comics now, all that fresh, new original content from that brand. It’s always been our dream to establish Oddworld Inhabitants as a brand where you expect that, and you’re not just relying on a previous game or a licence that you work until it’s dead. It’s got to get better, and if it can’t get better give that character a rest.

As we look towards the next generation realism and the tactile sense of the world is going to become more and more important. But also, in the climate of the world today, we want to create some really controversial stuff. And that’s not going to be because we’re going to run down people in the street and pick up hookers or anything like that. It’s going to be politically controversial.

CVG: That’s an interesting point, because with all your games you’ve commented on aspects of modern day life like big business and consumerism, and in Stranger you’re commenting quite heavily on American history. Is this kind of commentary important for the future of gaming?

Lorne Lanning: The brand of Oddworld has been the cracked mirror that reflects our own world. In Stranger the character reflects prejudice and being the hopeless loner in a world that’s hostile to your kind, and also about the exploitation of native people and natural resources. These are themes that are all close to my heart and it’s hard not to have them embodied in the games.

I think that’s what draws people to the games as well, because they want the story to be about more than just excuses. But with Oddworld the subject matter is often so dark that we’ve had to use not only humour, but a whole different universe to talk about the dark side of ours. There’s a place for that and I think that’s great for the Oddworld brand, and as we move forward I think that will continue to work as long as we’re making great games.

But with the atmosphere of the world today we were inspired to birth another universe. This one’s Earth in the future – and not too far in the future. It’s a very intense gaming experience, and it’s about martial law and the diminishment of civil liberties. It hits far closer to home than Oddworld does. I expect that if we’re blessed enough to see it through that there’ll be quite a few senators and congressmen who’ll be really pissed off. And I hope they are, because we’re really pissed off at their behaviour.

As the climate changes and the technology allows us to create something more realistic, we want to match that with something that’s contextually relevant and culturally relevant to where our society is today. We’re not afraid to show the darkside of what’s going on.

It would be built at Oddworld Inhabitants, but it wouldn’t be called Oddworld any more – it’s another brand. Our working title for the universe is Citizen Siege, and then we’d have multiple characters birthed within that universe – a place where a state becomes privatised and America becomes Americo.

CVG: It’s not something that’s done very often or very well in videogames. How close to the bone do you think you can get?

Lorne Lanning: There are a lot of reasons for it not being done very well, or often. If you’re working within a large publisher the economic pressure, the review process, the committee climate and so on make it very difficult to take that kind of risk and to be that passionate about putting across a particular point of view. It’s easier to do it from the outside, but it’s not any easier to get the money.

Someone has to be there to fund it… I’m not going to put up $20 million of my own money, because I don’t have it and I wouldn’t even if I did when there are people out there with the cash to make as much out of the project as well.

So it’s really difficult to get titles through the development process in the climate today, with these big companies who have a lot of pressure from their shareholders to make profit. When you start to talk about things that are out of the box they become a big risk, and it’s hard for development teams within a big publisher to take those risks. If smaller developers can continue pushing forward with projects that depend on an idea rather than a marketing package and get funding for it, then I think we’ll see more original and controversial stuff.

CVG: Are your future plans for Xbox or Xbox 2?

Lorne Lanning:
We have plans for both, and PS3 as well. We came to the party late with the PS2 version of Stranger because we were previously a first-party Microsoft developer, but we don’t intend to miss out on the opportunity again.

CVG: Many thanks for your time, Lorne.