In Odd We Trust: An Interview with Oddworld Inhabitants

In Odd We Trust: An Interview with Oddworld Inhabitants [Hosted by Games Abyss]
Date: 25 March, 2013
Interviewer: Andreas Asimakis
Interviewee: Stewart Gilray


“Only 1,326 work related accidents this month. Keep up the good work!”

If you were a gamer in the late 90s, when Sony’s Playstation console began to hit its stride with the release of Final Fantasy VII and countless other memorable titles, the above quote may seem familiar.

It has been nearly two decades since Oddworld Inhabitants debut title, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, premiered on the PSone. Regarded then as one of the most innovative 2D platforming titles with some of the best animation and graphics ever seen, Abe’s Oddysee won many a gamer’s affection with its wonderfully imaginative world and lovable cast of characters. For the next eight years it was all Mudokon Pops and SoulStorm Brew for Oddworld Inhabitants as the company’s following three titles were released to critical acclaim and praise. Or so it seemed.

Stranger’s Wrath, Oddworld Inhabitants’ second Xbox exclusive release, was met with incredibly poor sales. According to Lorne Lanning, co-founder and president of Oddworld Inhabitants, Electronic Arts – the developer’s publisher at the time – failed to market the game properly and, as such, sabotaged the title and “condemned it to failure”. It was then that Oddworld Inhabitants faced a possible acquisition from EA, to which Lanning’s famously turned down.

Rather than let the company be bought out, Lanning decided put Oddworld Inhabitants in a state of hibernation until the next steps could be carefully planned out. Those next steps would come in the form of a small-time UK game developer by the name of Just Add Water. With nothing but a title known as Gravity Crash under its belt, JAW approached Lorne Lanning and Oddworld Inhabitants with a plan to revive the brand and return Abe and his captivating world to the gaming industry.

I recently had the privilege to speak with Stewart Gilray, Development Director at Oddworld Inhabitants to discuss the celebrated return to Oddworld, the company’s relationship with Just Add Water, and the next-generation of gaming.

Games Abyss: Let’s talk about the revival of Abe’s original adventure. Is New n’ Tasty simply a graphical overhaul of the classic PSone gem, or does our revisiting Oddworld hold any surprises?

Stewart Gilray: This is no boring old overhaul. New ‘n’ Tasty is completely rebuilt from scratch. There’s literally not a single asset from the original. We’ve also got some surprises in there. ^_^

Games Abyss: Fundamental mechanics such as GameSpeak are certain to return but is the remake going to feature any new…and or tasty gameplay features?

Stewart Gilray: Yes and no. What we’re doing is keeping the same mechanics, however we’re adding some variation to the lines, so it’s not the same thing over and over and over again; that way we can keep it a little fresher.

Games Abyss: What are your expectations of New n’ Tasty? Is the title a nostalgia trip for fans or are you trying to bring in a newer audience? And if so, how?

Stewart Gilray: New ‘n’ Tasty will be a treat for both. We’re bringing the original game literally into the 21st century. We want to take advantage of what the latest tech can give us in terms of telling the story and making it enjoyable. We can’t tell you how just yet… we want as much of it to be a surprise, seeing as how a lot of people already know the story.

Games Abyss: Abe’s Oddysee could be a punishing title, especially for those hoping to rescue each and every enslaved Mudokon. Are any changes being made to the gameplay in terms of difficulty to make the title accessible to a younger audience?

Stewart Gilray: We’re hoping the game will be as challenging as people remember. One thing Oddworld Inhabitants learnt between Oddysee and Exoddus was quicksaves, which we will have in New ‘n’ Tasty. Obviously, the game is now scrolling rather than screen-based, so it’ll be interesting to see how people react.

Games Abyss: Let’s talk about Oddworld Inhabitants for a bit. You were quick to point out on our last featured article that none of your titles were cancelled, but merely put on hold. So what’s next for the series? Will Hand of Odd see the light of day? Aside from HD remakes (which we love) what original Oddworld adventures can we expect to be released?

Stewart Gilray: Oddworld Inhabitants is basically rebuilding from scratch. We’re using the HD remakes as a means of funding the company’s future projects. Some people have picked up negatively on that, but we’ve had far more support than complaints. You may have seen that we recently asked fans what their views were on what to do next. Even though we gave all the options, including new projects, a large bulk of the votes were in favor of finishing off the HD remakes. But, yes, we still have plans to finish all the originally announced projects, including the Quintology. We’ve just delayed the schedule somewhat, with the company going into hibernation for a while.

Games Abyss: Taking into consideration the aforementioned poll up on, is an HD remake of Abe’s Exoddus in the works?

Stewart Gilray: We’re always thinking about all the options, but nothing has been decided yet.

Games Abyss: Describe your relationship with Just Add Water. What brought about the partnership? What is it like working with a developer that is so passionately involved with your intellectual property?

Stewart Gilray: The team at JAW are fans that’s the awesome bit about this, they have a passion for the characters and the titles, so we know they’re not going abuse the IP, which makes us breathe easier. It’s true we could have worked with other companies in the past, the problem is we felt that those other companies could just have taken advantage and pumped out title and title after title. The partnership with JAW is somewhat symbiotic, in that we work together, they always run stuff past us, we work closely with them, to the point that there are emails and conversations everyday between us.

Games Abyss: Let’s talk about the future. What are your thoughts on the next-generation of gaming?

Stewart Gilray: Now we are working on PS4 and are incredibly excited by that prospect for the future. We’ve had no communication at all with Microsoft on their new system, so I really can’t comment on that at all. But PS4 seems like a fantastic system, we’ve had kits for a while, and it is as people say, incredibly easy to develop for, as it is a lot closer to a PC system than ever before. Some of the ideas Sony have for the way it all works are truly inspiring and we are happy to be working with them again.

Games Abyss: On the subject of working with Sony again, let’s go back to when Munch’s Oddysee was first released. As a young gamer, I could not afford both the Xbox and the PS2. So given how loyal I was to Sony, I opted to purchase their new console over Microsoft’s. It was sad for me to learn that one of my favorite franchises had jumped over into the Xbox camp, as Munch’s, and subsequently, Stranger’s journey would be lost to me for years to come. Why take the series exclusively to Microsoft consoles at that time, especially after Oddworld debuted on the PSone?

Stewart Gilray: We had been working with Sony and had fully intended to continue on the PS2, however our progammers at the time, we perhaps not as familiar or used to working on architecture like the PS2, so after a lot of time pulling hair out and talking with various folks, we spoke with Microsoft, in particular Ed Fries and Shamus Blackley, and they really helped us out in that area, our team started to get it, so we moved to Xbox. It was nothing about money, we didn’t receive a dime from Microsoft, contrary to some beliefs, it just seemed a logical choice, at that time, to work with Microsoft.

Games Abyss: What are your thoughts on Nintendo, specifically the Wii U. There hasn’t been an Oddworld title on a Nintendo system since Munch’s Oddysee. Do you feel the series would succeed on the Nintendo platform? Given the bright and colorful cast it would certainly feel right at home.

Stewart Gilray: Actually, those previous Oddworld titles on Nintendo systems, were licensed out, we had little/nothing to do with them. As for working with Nintendo now, I’m still extremely unsure, it’s reasonably true to say that unless you ARE published by Nintendo you won’t make a lot of sales on any of their systems. If you look at the top 20 charts for any Nintendo system three quarters of the titles there are all by Nintendo, so it’s a hard market to penetrate.

Games Abyss: The flora and fauna of Oddworld are easily the most entertaining part of the series. The world is just full of imaginative creatures and characters that are sometimes too charming and adorable for their own good. I’m always interested to know what ideas stayed on the cutting room floor; what sorts of character designs were scrapped? Would you ever revisit them in the future?

Stewart Gilray: There are so many unseen Oddworld creatures waiting for their chance to shine. All of the games have had designs cut, from livestock at RuptureFarms to strange alternative Live Ammo. Then there are a whole slew of characters and races that are integral to future Oddworld stories, whose role in the ‘civilized’ world will be revealed as Abe journeys further towards centers of consumerism. All of these concepts and ideas are carefully archived for when they might prove valuable to us in the future.

Games Abyss: We’ve reached a point in gaming history where many are unfamiliar with the Oddworld franchise. In bringing the older entries into the modern era, have you tried to keep the new audience in mind?

Stewart Gilray: We’re very aware of how our hiatus has affected our Oddworld’s exposure. One of the aims of work we’re doing with Stranger’s Wrath HD is presenting to new audiences the back catalogue while taking advantage of current tech. We introduced both Move and 3D support in the PS3 version and very recently rolled out a patch for the Vita version that adds online leaderboards over PSN.

Games Abyss: How has the reception to the HD remakes been so far?

Stewart Gilray: We got number one in the EU and number two in US for December, and number one in EU for January in the Vita PSN sales charts for Stranger’s Wrath HD. Yeah, we’re pretty happy. ^_^

Games Abyss: The gameplay mechanics of the early Oddworld titles have a timeless quality to it. Have you seen Oddworld’s influence spread over the years?

Stewart Gilray: We still feel the gameplay in Stranger’s Wrath stands out, even now. Live ammo, the blend between first and third person play, a great story. Although the title isn’t part of the Oddworld Quintology, it holds its own. Oddysee and Exoddus came at a time when 3D environments were the big thing. They had a certain charm that helped the everyman story stand out.

Games Abyss: With the current indie game renaissance that we’re experiencing, do you think Oddworld fits into?

Stewart Gilray: Definitely, Oddworld is a micro-publisher as such we self-fund everything, which is the definition of indie, so yeah I’d say we’re a good fit.

Games Abyss: And finally, who does the voice of Abe, and can I have him/her record my outgoing voice-message?

Stewart Gilray: There were actually two voices for Abe. In Oddysee, the sound designer, Josh Gabriel (now one half of Gabriel & Dresden) was the voice of Abe, with Lorne taking over from Exoddus onward. Both are pretty busy!

Games Abyss: It was worth a shot!

I would like not only to thank Stewart for taking me on this trip down memory lane, but for also showing me a glance at Oddworld Inhabitants promising future.

Much like catching up with a really good friend, my conversation with Oddworld Inhabitants made me feel as warm and fuzzy as a Chippunk. It reminded me of a time when my PSone was hardly ever turned off, and titles like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Parappa the Rapper eclipsed all other forms of entertainment.

Abe’s Oddysee was for many a quintessential platformer; a perfect balance of action, puzzle elements, and humor. From the looks of it, New N’ Tasty appears to be as just as smart, just as engaging, and most importantly, just as entertaining. Expect the latest from one of the industry’s finest intellectual properties to release during the Fall 2013 for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PC and Xbox 360.

In the meantime, the complete Oddworld library is currently on sale so if you haven’t already done so, fire up those Steam accounts and start downloading. Oddworld Inhabitants is also known to giveaway the occasional Ps3 and or Vita code for it’s latest HD release of Stranger’s Wrath, so do as Abe says and ‘follow me’ (and by ‘me’ I mean them) on Twitter and Facebook.