Date: October 1, 2018 Source: DeMaria, Rusel. Game of X v.1: Xbox (pp. 129-136). CRC Press.
Even though they were new to the console market, Microsoft understood that console sales depended on the quality of games they could offer, and that strong launch titles would be critical to the new system’s success, particularly when they were going up against far more entrenched competition from Sony and Nintendo. So, while the hardware team was building the console and the software team was creating the OS, Ed Fries was on the hunt for some first-party launch titles, and not just any launch titles, but games that would rock the world. He knew that his current first-party portfolio, which consisted of Flight Simulator, Age of Empires, the Links golf games from Access Software, and a few more small titles would not do the trick. Moreover, none of Microsoft’s current studios had console development experience. They needed something big.
One of the first big steps Fries took was to contact Lorne Lanning at Oddworld Inhabitants. Oddworld’s Abe’s Oddysee had been a PlayStation hit, and Fries hoped to get him over to Xbox. “We had an opportunity to work with Lorne Lanning and we really saw that as a key deal because he had worked on PlayStation in the previous generation, and so to be able to take a developer away from Sony and have him working on our platform was good.” Fries also approached Liverpool-based Bizarre Creations to adapt their Dreamcast title, Metropolis Street Racer for the Xbox, which became the launch title Project Gotham Racing. NFL Fever was another launch title developed by Microsoft Game Studios.
Oddworld was formed by two industry veterans, only their backgrounds were not in the game industry. Lorne Lanning was a technical artist who had worked in special effects and high-end animations, most recently at the prestigious Rhythm and Hues. (If you remember the famous Coca Cola bear commercial, that was from Rhythm and Hues.) Sherry McKenna was a Hollywood veteran producer who had worked with some of the top animation and special effects people in the business, and at the time the two met, was working for Disney on theme park attractions.
Lanning had a grand vision for a five-game series (a quintology) based in a capitalistic nightmare world, initially featuring a truly odd character named Abe. He sold McKenna on the idea and together they started Oddworld Inhabitants. Their first game, Abe’s Oddysee, was a big success on both PC and PlayStation.
While Oddworld’s games were truly unique, so were their production values at the time, based on 1997 standards. They modeled and rendered every aspect of their games in cinematic quality 3D and then dropped them down to PC and console resolutions, and for the first two games, went from 3D to a 2D sidescroller. The second game in the quintology was Abe’s Exoddus, which was released in 1998.
Although Oddworld was originally funded through investment from a private trust administered by the heirs to a billion dollar estate, they later made a deal with GT Interactive for a 49% stake in the company along with publishing rights. Although the relationship with GT went well enough for the first release, problems with the second release caused Lanning and McKenna to start thinking about getting out of the relationship.
Initially, when McKenna told GT that they were seeking a buyout partner, they were given the go-ahead. So in late 1998 McKenna began having secret meetings with Steve Schreck, who was a product planner for Microsoft. Although they were also speaking with another publisher, the meetings with Schreck were going very well, so well in fact, that they came to a verbal agreement that Microsoft would buy out GT’s share and enter into a first-party publishing deal.
In the meantime, GT was experiencing its own problems and had decided to seek a buyer for their company. So when McKenna told them that she had found someone to buy out their shares, she was told no. GT was for sale, and they needed Oddworld as part of their portfolio. They would not approve of a buyout deal, and because GT was their publisher, Lanning and McKenna couldn’t complete the deal with Microsoft. “Considering the playing field of business in Silicon Valley,” says Lanning, ‘who’s going to buy a company that has a lawsuit going on with its current partner? And we were still a developer relying on a publishing deal, so we can stay fed month to month.”
Consummate professional that she was, McKenna was mortified. “I pretty much told Steve that we were going to do a deal with him. And I didn’t check with GT. I didn’t think I had to… I had to call Steve, and it was really embarrassing. I had to say, ‘Steve, I know you have every right not to forgive me, but GT won’t let us go. And I’m so sorry, and you can’t buy us.’ And I felt like an idiot. I didn’t think that GT needed us that badly to sell… whatever. And I blew it.” According to McKenna, Schreck and the other Microsoft people, while they weren’t happy, “they weren’t mean about it.”
But then Infogrames stepped in and purchased GT Interactive.
Life under Infogrames—their new 49% partners—wasn’t any rosier than it had been under the original GT management. Ironically, it was McKenna’s suggestion to GT that led to the Infogrames acquisition. After meeting a couple of Infogrames’ people, she had gotten a very good impression of the company and made the suggestion that GT approach them. “I really liked them. I really believed them. And I thought it was a good idea. And then after I signed like a moron; I met Bruno [Bonnell]* and went, ‘What have I done?’”
*Bruno Bonnell was one of the founders of Infogrames (later Atari after acquiring the name) and served as the company’s CEO and chief creative officer from 1983 to 2007.
One main source of their concern with Infogrames in charge centered on a policy that Lanning heard about through the grapevine: That Infogrames was going to cut any of their titles with budgets above $3 million, a policy that would leave Oddworld out in the cold. They were working on Munch’s Oddysee, but could not show any of it publicly because the PlayStation 2 developer contracts legally prevented them from showing any game footage that hadn’t been approved by Sony. Lanning knew that Munch would be axed if he didn’t do something.
Lanning performed what he called “a jujitsu.” From his days working in the aerospace industry, he remembered that they often created “visualizations” of future products. So what Lanning did is have his crew pre-render game scenes from Munch. Because these scenes were not rendered in the PS2 devkit, but were simply “visualizations” of their product, it was perfectly legal for them to share them, which they did. They made about a hundred CDs with these game visualizations and sent them to major media contacts. They said, ‘Hey, look at what we’re working on. Here’s the movie clips. Here’s screenshots. Here’s the story about Munch’s Oddysee.” And it worked. Pretty soon there was all kinds of buzz about Munch’s Oddysee. “Infogrames is a public company,” says Lanning. “And we just got blown up in the press as one of the early people that you should be watching for the PS2. Big Sony story, right? That got us into Forbes. That got us splashed all over because no one else had PS2 footage to show.”
In Game of X v.2 (page 118) there’s a story about Alex St. John doing something similar, and as St. John described it, what Lanning did was to “tar baby” Munch to Infogrames. This not only saved Munch and Oddworld, but ultimately led to them regaining their shares, getting total control over their IP, and a new round of talks with Microsoft.
Once again McKenna and Schreck began discussions, this time to include
Munch’s Oddysee as a launch title for Xbox. From Oddworld’s perspective, they wanted a publishing partner to help them complete the quintology. One embarrassing moment occurred at E3 when Bruno Bonnell walked into the room where McKenna was demonstrating Munch’s Oddysee to Schreck. “It was a moment of embarrassment, but we pulled it off,” says McKenna.
Eventually, they began speaking directly with Ed Fries who told them that he was very interested in working with them on a multigame deal. As McKenna remembers the conversations, “He said ‘If we have Oddworld, we’ll be able to attract a lot of other publishers.’ And I said, ‘Fair enough.’ And he said ‘We want to do casual games. And I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, too.’ And so… OK. Munch would be perfect. Munch is a casual game. That’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
The decision to go with Microsoft hinged primarily on the answer to one important, and currently unresolved, question. Were Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer going to greenlight Xbox? Even though they were hoping to go with Microsoft, there was at least one other company interested in them. The dilemma was that final meetings with Schreck and Fries took place in December of 1999, and Xbox had yet to be fully approved. Did they wait for Gates to make a decision, or take a deal that might not be available later?
When they learned that Gates was going to speak at the upcoming GDC, they were hoping that he would announce the console officially, but they weren’t positive. “So we didn’t know at the time and I think it was that Ballmer was hesitating or something, and we didn’t know what the final decision was, and we had to wait until Bill got on the stage,” says McKenna. “And I remember we were all sitting there terrified. Are they going to announce it or are they not going to announce it? Because if they don’t announce it, that means we’re not going with Microsoft, and that was a really scary moment. And they, thank god, did announce it.”
An Artful Deal
Oddworld negotiated a very good deal for themselves. On the Microsoft side was the law firm owned by Bill Gates’ father. On the Oddworld side was precedent. “Precedent is a big part of deal making,” says Lanning. “So you can make demands. You can say, ‘Well, these are our terms,’ And then they’d say, ‘Well, no one has terms like that.’ And you can say, ‘Well we do.’” And then they trotted out Exhibit A and Exhibit B: Two previous contracts that showed their previous deals. Precedent. The final deal didn’t include any advances, but Microsoft took over development costs and treated the game as a first-party title at launch. Of course there were royalties, but that’s another story.
When news got out that Oddworld was going to develop exclusively for Xbox, a lot of people freaked out. Sony wasn’t happy, but they didn’t have an exclusive deal, so there wasn’t anything they could do about it. But the fans… Many of Oddworld’s fans went a little crazy. There were even death threats aimed at Lanning. “Oh yeah. It was not funny,” says McKenna. “‘How could you do this?’ ‘How could you be a turncoat?’ ‘Abe would never do that.’‘How could you go with Microsoft? You’re a traitor.’ And I wanted to say,‘Wait guys. Sony is a Japanese company. Microsoft is an American company. What do you mean? Yeah we all have problems with some of the things that Microsoft does, but this is insane.’”
What the fans didn’t know at the time was that work had begun on a PS2 version of Munch, and they were encountering problems. They weren’t sure that the PS2 would be able to handle what they were attempting, and what they had seen of Xbox convinced them that it was more robust in certain important areas, and that they wouldn’t have to compromise if they went with Microsoft.
One of the reasons Oddworld had gone with Microsoft was because they didn’t
think they could do Munch on the PS2 without making compromises. “We were on a middleware engine,” says Lanning. “It was complicating things, and our engineering was basically saying, ‘Look, if we get on the Xbox devkit, all of these performance problems go away.’ And then we get onto the Xbox and we were running at the same performance. So we had a big problem.”
McKenna was no stranger to technology. Lanning notes that her experience working with Academy Award winning effects guys in Hollywood meant that she recognized a problem when she saw it, and wasn’t going to let them miss their deadlines. “I don’t play games,” says McKenna, “and I have a reputation in Hollywood and a reputation everywhere of speaking my mind, and I don’t like cover-ups.” At one point Lanning recalls that she spoke directly with Seamus Blackley and told him to come down and review the code himself, or send Mike Abrash. McKenna admits to being thoroughly embarrassed, “but I knew that I had to bite the bullet because we wouldn’t be able to make the launch, and that is something we’d agreed to do.”
She told them she needed someone immediately, “and sure as shit, they sent them down and they helped us.” Blackley sent several people from ATG to help out and identify the problems they were facing, some of which were technical differences based on how Xbox handled graphics. ATG even helped Oddworld interview a new tech lead, who restructured their team and got them all up to speed on the technology Xbox was using. About ATG, McKenna raves. “They were great. They were just wonderful. I couldn’t believe it. They just dove right in. It was really important for us. I mean we never could have gotten there from where we were. I mean, just no way.”
Fixing the Brawl
One of the ATG people sent down to Oddworld was Mikey Wetzel. “Munch’s Oddysee was ready to ship, but it had one lingering problem that was driving the developer crazy. In that game, fights could break out—in fact it was part of the strategy of the game. You could go up and you could slap a character and then start the equivalent of a barroom brawl, and all the enemies would start fighting, and that’s one of the ways you’d solve some of the levels.
“The game boasted that up to 30 people could fight at a time. Well that was actually—I don’t know if people appreciated it—but that was really impressive from a technology point of view, to have that many AIs running and doing different things at the same time. Well, what happened is that, whenever a fight broke out, the frame rate would go from 30 frames a second down to 3 or 4 frames a second. Obviously, they couldn’t ship the game that way. Everything else in the game was ready to go. And I’m kind of a firefighter. I get called in at the very end. Fix this and we’re good to go.
“I looked at the code, and the way the AI worked is that every character would look at all the people near him, and they had a variable called ‘beatability’. Like beatable is that character? And so when they’re in a fight, they’re looking at all the characters around them, and the AI would assess which of the nearby NPCs was the least or greatest threat. Well, 30 characters looking at 30 other characters, that’s 900 AI decisions going on every single frame. A thirtieth of a second later, they would go through all 900 permutations and look at who’s closest to me, who’s the easiest hit, and there were different AI criteria for how these characters would fight. Like a character would prefer to fight somebody who was less strong than him, another AI character would prefer to fight somebody who maybe didn’t have a gun in their hand, who is closest to them… so forth, right? And I was thinking about it, and it was like, ok, if I was in a fight—a barroom fight—I’d probably have to pick a guy and just fight that person. I couldn’t possibly be concerned with all 30 people around me at the same time. And so, my very simple fix was, once you make a decision to fight a guy, let’s commit to that decision to fight the guy for, let’s say, a second like 30 frames. And rather than reconsidering that decision… it’s not even realistic to think that you could change your mind 30 times a second on who you fight. And the developer took that fix and said, ‘It’s brilliant.’ It was about two lines of code to fix it, and the game shipped. I was another pair of eyes, although I don’t know why one of the other developers didn’t think of the same solution.”
About their experience working with Microsoft during the development phase Lanning says, “It was quite great, and the support was quite great. On the marketing front, leading up to launch, Ed Fries I think really had a lot to do with the vision at the time for software, and on one level you felt the energy of that group and its must-have success orientation and commitment; and those people worked hard. They were working round the clock. All of the people that I knew and was aware of at Microsoft at the time were running themselves really ragged. But they were excited still, so it was a really unique moment, and when they were at the studio, they were only helpful and productive. So that was a wonderful time.”