IGN Xbox Interviews Lorne Lanning

IGN Xbox Interviews Lorne Lanning [hosted by IGN]
Interviewer: IGN Xbox
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning
Date: 4 May, 2001

Source: http://www.ign.com/articles/2001/05/04/ign-xbox-interviews-lorne-lanning

Abe has always been an underdog, and from the looks of things, the Xbox launch is just another day at the office for Oddworld Inhabitants main Mudokon. In Munch’s Oddysee, he will once again be charged with leading helping ou the little guy, in a manner of speaking, as one of the Xbox’s lead launch titles thi Fall. We spoke with Oddworld President Lorne Lanning on what it’s like to work on such a pivotal title, what he thinks of the hardware, and of course, what it is like working for The Man. Read on, and know Odd.

IGN Xbox: This first question is actually from one of our more discerning readers, and while it’s a mouthful, I just had to ask it: Oddworld, as a series, has sold a truckload of copies, but then again, so has Army Men. We’ve always liked what you guys do, but it seems like major mainstream success has always been just out of your reach.

Lorne Lanning: Mainstream success in the U.S. is impossible if you release a game and the distributor doesn’t get your game on the shelf. Abe’s Oddysee had its problems making it to the U.S. shelf, but the second game, Abe’s Exoddus, suffered a disastrous distribution at launch. While commercials were running, the product was simply not available. As a result, it never fully made it into the U.S. retail space. This was a major heartbreak for us. However, with the support of Microsoft, Munch’s Oddysee is preparing for an extremely successful release. We can’t wait for its launch this fall!

IGN Xbox: You can’t wait? You should see us! But back to the topic at hand, are you making any changes to the series that would help it stand out from the first two Oddworld titles, and actually, the rest of the videogames out there today?

Lorne Lanning: Purely speaking in terms of gameplay… the obvious difference was that our previous games were 2D games that were competing in an era of 3D. We also came to believe that our games were too difficult overall, and that the controller schemes were too complex. This was a result of our wanting to have more abilities for the characters and to provide more things that they could do. But the nature of a digital controller, it is limited and thus requires more button combinations.

Having fully analog controls changes complexity tremendously. Our controller scheme is very simple now, yet has more abilities than ever before. Munch is also taking place in a lush free-roaming 3D world, populated with large numbers of characters. Virtually all aspects of gameplay have been amped up with a lot more humor and entertainment value. As for what makes it stand out in the industry today… it feels more alive, which makes the experience itself more compelling. Then there is always the Oddworld flavor of story, character development, design, graphics, AI, challenge, etc., that all help to give it a unique signature.

IGN Xbox: Right. We ask because, generally speaking, the first two games in the series were critically acclaimed, yet never saw the type of market dominance some games, like Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, and Zelda have received. Is Oddworld doing anything different this time around to raise this series to that level of prominence in gaming?

Lorne Lanning: Visibility is mostly relative to how much money your distributor is willing to spend. All the titles you mention had tremendous marketing and advertising budgets. Historically, we were a third party title with a distribution partner that wasn’t a manufacturer of a game system. Today, we are a first party title with Microsoft on Xbox. As a result, the level of visibility for Munch will far exceed anything that has been representative of Oddworld in the past.

IGN Xbox: Speaking of trying something new, the shift between consoles during development was a big bit of news. As one of the few who saw both the PS2 and Xbox versions running, we’ve seen the difference first-hand, but most gamers haven’t been so lucky. Are the differences you mentioned when the swap occurred really coming into play at this point in development? How does the system stack up to the PS2?

Lorne Lanning: Definitely! Designing Munch’s Oddysee on Xbox has allowed the team to bring their dreams to life. From our perspective, there’s no comparison.

IGN Xbox: OK, well, what type of improvements, if any, have you guys been able to make thanks to the hardware?

Lorne Lanning: The sheer number of characters on screen at any one time, lighting improvements, quantity of texture maps, quantity of projected shadows, broader pipelines for data throughput, far greater performance increases even with the larger quantities of characters, and overall just more direct solutions to achieving what should be considered basic standards.

IGN Xbox: Right…data throughput. Can’t have enough of that….Moving on, another reader question here: Comparisons aside, what kind of performance are you getting out of Xbox? Not so much polygon wise, but also in terms of what effects you are using, how you are adapting to the pixel and vertex shading capabilities of the GeForce 3, how do you like the nFiniteFX engine? And, how much are you taking advantage of these features, and how will translate into the experience of playing Oddworld?

Lorne Lanning: We’re using some reflection mapping, some bump mapping, and some multi-layered projected light effects. But we’re actually just skimming the per-pixel shading strengths of the machine, which we will be utilizing more in the future. Regardless, the machine is powerful enough that the best-looking games ever released on it will not fully tap its rendering and shading strengths.

IGN Xbox: That certainly sounds impressive. Visuals aside, one thing the series has always had is spunk…The characters from Oddworld are simply awesome.

Lorne Lanning: Thank you!

IGN Xbox: No, no…thank you! We had a chance to check out a little bit of the methodology behind the madness during GDC this year, and it seems you guys have a real burden for bringing these guys to life. Could you tell us where the inspiration for Munch comes from and what goes into designing the atypically odd inhabitants of this lively world?

Lorne Lanning: We start with concepts regarding larger issues that are typically and intentionally hidden from popular view. In Munch‘s case, the issue that fueled his inspiration was the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries’ standards for the testing and treatment of animals. But how do you translate this type of concept into a character that has only one leg and a port on his head? By creating a character who is endearing as well as hip. Talk about making it difficult for yourself. But if you hit the mark, you wind up with something that hits people in the heart and in the funny bone, too.

IGN Xbox: A larger part of the difficulty behind making a title like Oddworld float is the fact that a lot of gamers are…well..stupid. The complexity and unnatural implementation of most puzzles we see in games today tend to alienate a LOT of people. How are you guys handling this issue? If you would be so kind, give us some examples, (preferably new ones), of the type of puzzles we’ll see in Oddworld, and how it will make us forget how much we hate looking for keys and flipping switches!

Lorne Lanning: Please look at the Gamestock video (soon to be released on the Internet) that we gave in Redmond last month. This will illustrate the Scrab circumstance far better than I can describe with words. It is just one of the ways that we deal with your exact issue. [Ed’s Note: The video will be available on Xbox.com this weekend, so be sure to go check it out!]

IGN Xbox: Speaking of which, during one of the demos I’ve witnessed for the game, there was a great deal of emphasis on the camera being a “hands-off” device that the gamer never had to think about. But in light of the speed and sophistication of the gameplay itself, how have you guys fared in straightening out all the issues that come with a 3-D camera?

Lorne Lanning: Many of the issues that people have with 3D games today are related to the camera. It’s typically disorienting and confusing. However, roving cameras have enabled the gamer to look around from any view and see what they want to see. For the most part, this is critical, but there are many compromises in the sense of experience that comes from systems like this. What we have done is place the camera in more optimal and cinemagraphic circumstances to heighten the sense of action and drama. But we also allow for looking around in all directions if you need to. Ultimately, it’s a more optimal solution if it’s been laid out properly. You need to design an entirely new type of system to achieve the best of both worlds.

If we do our job properly then all people, not just hardcore gamers, will be able to enjoy what we create. Sherry McKenna (our CEO) is our litmus test. If she can’t handle the camera, then we’re doing something wrong. She wants to enjoy the experience, but she hasn’t ever been a gamer and thus she hasn’t been desensitized to the motion sickness that most non-gamers feel. We’re trying to break down these barriers and open up games to more people.

IGN Xbox: Yeah, you guys certainly seem to have a burden for making Abe and Munch as accessible as possible. One of the most interesting aspects we’ve noticed there is that the game design in Oddworld seems to focus on user-directed morality. Why is it you guys have opted to create a game with such a socially conscious message that also allows for so much violence?

Lorne Lanning: The primary reason is that our company was founded by two people (Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning) who believe in creating content that can be “something more.” Because of this, we tend to attract people who care more about evolving games into something new that people didn’t think games could be. As a result, our company grows and attracts more people who care about similar goals. If I told Sherry we were going to start making shooting games, she would be out of here the next morning and she wouldn’t come back.

The secondary reason is because it’s more fun, exciting, and realistic this way. Just because something has conscience does not mean that it is void of any irresponsibility or conflict. It’s the ying and the yang. Few people care to watch stories that are only about good ¿ good is reflected more brilliantly when it’s contrasted with evil. The two together create the strongest whole. In the end, the user finds himself on one side of the spectrum or the other. It’s a choice for the user, not a morality that is forced upon them. It’s also always stronger when a viewer finds that when he or she think they are doing good, they actually come to learn that something they were doing had adverse consequences-something that they didn’t think much about when they were doing it. In our games, it’s the user’s choices that wind up influencing the fate of those characters whose lives they’ve played with.

IGN Xbox: there certainly is a lot of noise in the media right now about this issue. How do you feel about games on the market that aren’t concerned with the method behind the madness? Do these games hurt our medium?

Lorne Lanning: We feel that games can, and should, evolve to be more than they have been. Sherry is opposed to these types of games (that you mention), but she doesn’t believe in censorship. I feel that we need to understand that a culture that is capable of creating and voraciously consuming experiences of pure violence is more of a reflection of the culture, not the game industry. The industry isn’t the source, it’s the byproduct.

IGN Xbox: I couldn’t agree more. During his Gamestock manifesto, Ed Fries stated that games were capable of so much more than occupying our time. Out of all the games we saw during the Xbox unveiling, your title was really the only game there that even gave us a glimmer of hope that his vision wasn’t completely full of $#!%. You guys obviously seem to believe there’s more to games than the “method,” and since the “message” seems to occupy your time, we were hoping to get your thoughts on why we should demand more from our games?

Lorne Lanning: Why not demand more? As consumers, we have the ability to demand more and it is demand that creates supply. We vote for the world we want tomorrow with how we spend every dollar today. Ultimately, it’s what people buy that creates the demand for what will be financed, produced and finally put to market. Nobody funds games that they believe are not going to sell.

Ed Fries is currently standing alone in the industry as a publisher who has the balls to say this, and he means it. He sincerely wants to fund titles that are trying to evolve the medium and raise the bar. He believes, as we do, that when the medium grows up it will become far more integrated into the masses and carry with it much more respect and critical acclaim. Simply put, he believes in the medium’s potential.

However, finding titles and developers to fund that are also reaching toward this goal, now that’s something that even if you have the cash… is not easily found.

IGN Xbox: No lie. Wrapping it up…it may be months away for gamers, but in industry terms, the Xbox launch is almost here. How excited are you guys to be such an integral part of a console launch, and more importantly, will you be ready?

Lorne Lanning: We are very excited and we will deliver.

IGN Xbox: Thanks for your time, man. We’re really looking forward to seeing the game at E3!

Lorne Lanning: I really appreciate the great questions. See you at E3.