Lorne Lanning Q&A

Lorne Lanning Q&A [Hosted by The Electric Playground]
Date: 6 June, 2001
Interviewer: Chris Hudak
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning
Source: http://web.archive.org/web/20020124131818/www.elecplay.com/feature.html?article=5971&page=2#mr_toppy

Electric Playground: Playing the Oddworld games is as much a cinematic experience as a gameplay one–can you talk about what prompted this deliberate approach?

Lorne Lanning: In the larger scheme of things, we believe that a huge part of the future of games is all about getting games to feel more compelling. We believe that characters will have more charm, more appeal, and especially more entertaining and engaging relationships with the characters that they encounter during play. This doesn’t mean long lists of dialogue, but it does mean that they would have more interesting relationships with each other in the game experience. Their actions on basic levels should be more interesting when they react to one another. We think more humor is a big step in the right direction. Story becomes a natural in trying to get people more involved with the experience. People love good stories, and they tend to hate bad ones. We wanted to try and give game stories a more serious production touch, and try to take the narrative closer to motion picture quality. If we could get more life out of the characters during the video sequences, then we believed you would get more engaged with them during the gameplay, provided the two were in sync with one another. We also felt that the game’s world should try to feel more like an actual place (even if fantasy) than just purely a game level laid out only for the sake of challenge. Combining all of these elements successfully into a fun game has been very challenging. But we think we’ve made great strides in a positive direction. All in all, it’s a natural for games to start feeling more like movies. Not all games, of course, but those that are trying to portray characters that are caught in dilemmas.

EP: Did Oddworld begin life as a cinematic concept?

Lorne Lanning: Yes, the Oddworld Quintology was originally conceived as five motion pictures. It was because of these stories that I was able to convince Sherry McKenna to be the CEO of Oddworld. Six years ago, Hollywood looked so dismal in terms of the possibilities of making full CG movies that we turned to videogames as a way to bring the characters and universe to life. If it were not for the content of the stories, Sherry never would have started this company with me.

EP: Tell us about your own philosophy (Lorne and Oddworld Inhabitants as an entity) as regards game design and the gameplay experience, whether Oddworld-related or otherwise.

Lorne Lanning:
I feel that the game industry is still in a very primitive stage in its evolutionary path. Much of its ancestry from the coin-op days is still driving videogame design. Not enough influences are coming from outside of the game industry or outside of gaming’s history. Our philosophy is that we’ve yet to scratch the surface to what games can and will be. We need to evolve the characters in order to make their basic interactions and relationships with each other far more entertaining. We need to have them take more responsibility for their actions in their own world, thus creating more engaging circumstances and choices that they must make. The challenges should extend beyond immediate obstacles that need to be shot at, jumped on, or blown up. We also want people to feel like they’re interacting with basic life forms, not just game art that looks like a character. We are after a sense of virtual life that has consequences and rewards for how you treat it. We need to think living worlds that are full of challenges that go beyond the norm of play pattern repetition.

EP: How concerned are you with game standards, ESRB ratings, etc. in relation to your own creations?

Lorne Lanning: We’ve always received Teen ratings and we expect to continue to get them. We feel that the ratings we’ve been given have always been fair. We understand that we’ve got to give consumers a decent idea of what they’re buying before they buy it. But censorship… now that’s another story entirely. We don’t believe or support any form of censorship.

EP: Is Oddworld especially meant to be a “clean” or viewer-sanitized thing? (some of the darker, nastier bits in previous games certainly tread the line for what the moviemakers call “intensity”).

Lorne Lanning: Intensity is critical to the experiences we create. We will always be striving for moments of intensity and occasional dark behavior. It’s the balance that comes with the yin and the yang. An experience that’s all sweetness and light is great for little kids, but boring for those of us that have been around the block. We strive for a design that allows for nasty things to happen, but we encourage the player not to do them. When you do, it’s fun, but you know it was a messed-up thing to do. It’s the dynamics of behavior, of letting people be nasty or be nice, that makes experiences far more interesting and intriguing. It’s also critical that we try to encourage a different direction, a more enlightened direction, but to allow for a slip in error or moral behavior (at the expense of an innocent victim) is to allow for a more believable world to unfold.

EP: What are the most difficult emotions or ideas to impart to the gaming audience, and why?

Lorne Lanning: The hardest things to communicate in this medium are those things that have to do with true character interactions. Any emotional or even intellectual connections are easily killed off if the game doesn’t play or respond well. How to get games to play well while also having characters that we come to care about or feel connections to… this has always been a difficult goal to achieve. Some people feel connected to the Final Fantasy characters because of the story they are in, but when I play those games and I see the lifeless animations and controls in gameplay, it kills any association I may have had to the characters. I guess I’m not willing to let my imagination fill in that many blanks. We try to achieve both without losing a sense of dynamic control and without having you feel like you’re just moving around a lifeless piece of coded artwork. It has never been easy to achieve, but it’s always our goal. In the end, when the characters talk to each other in funny ways (in realtime), move quickly and respond well while keeping their feet sticking to the floor and not moonwalking around, and all their animations support the actions they encounter… then they become more lifelike, which we feel is the first step to getting people more hooked on them.

EP: When you play a game, what are you looking for?

Lorne Lanning: Quality! In whatever type of game is, I pay attention to the controls and the details. If the controls feel wonky, forget it. I’m out of the game. Just like if I hit ugly slow down and performance hindrances. Aaargg! Intolerable. Bad animation can kill a game for me too. When a game works well its goals are clearly defined and its controls are simple and have excellent response.

If it’s a quick type of game, like a driving game, then it needs to really perform and have great physics. Driver had the best physics ever in a driving game. It also had the worst ramping ever, as the initial driver test (the learning tutorial) was harder than the actual game, but I got past that because the physics and AI were so damn great. Much better even than Gran Turismo. Which is what makes me go back and play Driver over and over again.

For character games, I look for a sense of life and variety of what I can do… as well as great controls. The animations need to be tight and the controls need to feel fluid. If it’s awkward and clunky, it kills it for me. Resident Evil is in that area of wonky controls. No matter how good the game is or how many people like it, if it feels lifeless and awkwardly controlled, it loses me. I also get bored if I’m waiting for new levels/load screens all the time. It breaks the joy of the experience.