Nintendo Force: Adventures In Oddity [2014]

Date: January/February 2014

Source: Nintendo Force, Issue 7, pp. 20-21.

The Nintendo Force chats with the legendary Lorne Lanning about his pair of upcoming Oddworld remakes.

LAST SUMMER, NF readers got their first glimpse at Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD, two remakes of the two titles that helped define one franchise Nintendo fans have never seen before (besides one old Game Boy version). Now, with the pair just a few months away from their scheduled Spring 2014 launch, we got in touch with Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning to learn more.

NF: Nintendo platforms haven’t gotten too much love when it comes to the Oddworld series. Could you give us a rundown of how the franchise came to be, and the overarching goals you wanted to hit?

Lorne Lanning: Well, for some history, we started Oddworld and development on Abe’s Oddysee in late 1994 with a focus on bringing more cinematic sensibilities to the character and story of the platformer/action/adventure genre, and we wanted to push ahead some game and production design disciplines. We also wanted to focus on more worldly, globally relevant, high concept material that would be delivered in a fun but dark “modern myth” kind of way. All the while, we were trying to push and enhance the emotional connections between the gamer and our characters. This meant trying to bring the characters and worlds to have more believability and life in their animations, etc…. with a belief that if players cared more about who the characters were as life forms, and why they were in their current horrible circumstances, they might feel more emotionally compelled to help the games’ heroes accomplish their goals. As Sherry used to say, “the current game paradigm can be summed up as ‘aggression equals rewards.’ What if we could change that paradigm to empathy equals rewards?” But this meant making characters that you grew empathetic toward, and that was a key challenge for us. All in all, the projects done at Oddworld were always labors of love. No matter how difficult it was for us to deliver each end result, we always kept a firm commitment to high quality artistic craftsmanship and did our best to create rewarding, unique experiences for players.

NF: Was there any particular reason why Abe and friends mostly shied away from Nintendo’s hardware? The universe and its characters seem like a perfect fit!

Lorne Lanning: As mentioned, we started the company and Abe’s development in late 1994. This was the early beginning of the PS1 dev environment where we were targeting the storage capacity of CD, which at the time was in the 600-ish MB range. Meanwhile, it was still the 16-bit generation, which was still cartridge-based and largely limited third party developers to under a 64MB capacity. That was the only reason we didn’t get onto Nintendo – it was a capacity issue with the type of game we were building. With our movies and CG pre-rendered bit maps for character animations and full-screen pre-rendered CG backgrounds with shadows baked in as well as our full-motion videos for our cinematic video sequences… we were simply way ouf of compatibility just in terms of memory storage capacity alone, unfortunately.

NF: After Oddworld’s initial success and some spin-offs, the franchise seemed to go a bit quiet, as did you. Was there any particular reason work on the franchise died down for awhile?

Lorne Lanning: Well, to sum it up, at the time we just no longer felt incentivized by how the practices of the industry were going for independent AAA developers, and we didn’t want to get into another one-sided deal with another huge publicly traded publisher that had different interests than we did. So we decided to wait out the non-favorable retail box-product reality of the day in hopes that digital distribution would someday soon start to become a viable way for us to get our games to our audience ourselves. In the meantime, we focused on some other projects and waited for outlets like Steam to mature. When such outlets became viable for us, we started bringing back our library of games to the digital shelves and started getting them there without being dependent upon a publisher. From there we slowly took our revenue gains and invested incrementally with successes which enabled us to fund our library across wider consoles and networks. It was a frugal, cost-driven approach, as being 100% independent forced us to look at conditions and possibilities with a more strategic discipline. This strategy allowed us to carry over and increase our financing ability, and with success it would eventually lead us to creating entirely new content – albeit self-financed and self-published. Which meant a more patient approach done in smaller steps over longer spans of time. Which brings us to today. Now we’re making our largest independent investments in our completely new technology redo of our original platformer game, Abe’s Oddysee. If this succeeds, we’ll be in a much better position to self-publish and develop brand new experiences that explore the Oddworld Universe. Step by step, we’re getting there.

NF: We’re very that Wii U owners will soon get to experience both Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD. How did the decision come about to bring those games to the platform?

Lorne Lanning: We’re thrilled, too! Nintendo has always been an inspiration to our gaming styles. We relentlessly studied Mr. Miyamoto’s efforts and greatly admired the charm and life that was injected into his character creations and game designs. But our incompatibility with Nintendo consoles through history was always one challenged by simple memory constraints. As a result we just never had a straightforward compatibility with the (then current) generations of Nintendo consoles as we entered each of our dev cycles. FINALLY, this coming year, we will be bringing some of our games to the Wii U. FINALLY, we are more closely compatible with the memory and capabilities of the current-gen Nintendo console, and being on Unity helps us in the compatibility process. All in all, the timing is quite good because at the same time Nintendo has grown committed to supporting self-published indie developers. Now console performance and business model support are compatible, and we can’t wait to get our games on Wii U. We’ve always felt our brand was potentially highly compatible for Nintendo’s audience – now we’ll actually get a chance to find out. Did I mention, “FINALLY!”?

NF: Will we see the Wii U GamePad put to use in either of these remakes?

Lorne Lanning: Definitely. If you look at Stranger’s Wrath for Vita and also the version coming out soon for mobile, you’ll see that we put a lot of care into taking advantage of the controller benefits of each target platform. We have spent significant effort to get our games to feel as native and exploitive of the benefits that come with a console’s special features in their dedicated controller. We’re giving the same love and care to the Wii U controller. For Stranger HD, we’ve been able to utilize the GamePad as a full-time ammo select ability and extended some usage of menus – to utilize this screen while freeing more dedicated television screen time to full-screen game visibility. Each game, of course, will take advantage of the GamePad in particular ways that benefit them and make sense, but we do our best in trying to bring unique controller joy traits that can enhance the game experience.

NF: How did the decision come about to remake the original Oddworld? What do platforms like Wii U make possible that couldn’t be achieved on the original PlayStation?

Lorne Lanning: Largely, it was driven by audience polling. We had straightforward conversations with our fan community and asked them what they would like to see from us, considering our limited abilities to invest. We made some suggestions and the audience responded most favorably to seeing the original Abe’s Oddysee redone in a new tech way that stayed true to the original platformer experience. We then took a good hard look at what this would take us to do, laid some best guess plans on how we would do it, and then made the commitment to get started.

NF: Stranger’s Wrath always stood out in my mind as a game that really did an excellent job weaving together different genres. How difficult was development on that title?

Lorne Lanning: It was incredibly difficult. When you try new mechanics, particularly at core character control levels, it takes a lot of time and experimentation to get it right and to have faith it will work out and stay the course through all the failures and impossible-seeming circumstances throughout the development process. There’s a reason we’re not seeing a lot of innovation at the AAA level. It’s very expensive, experimental and time consuming. It takes a unique team to want to tackle the headache that inevitably comes with such a development adventure. Stranger failed to get his fair shot in the marketplace at launch, and this meant many people never got to play it. But if you look at the reviews and fan reactions to it, it’s obvious that it’s a unique gaming experience that a wide spectrum of people greatly enjoyed. Nintendo-dedicated fans never got to play it, and yet it still holds its ground in design, art and quality of unique experience. So we talked with Nintendo about getting it into the Nintendo universe this generation and Nintendo agreed it would be a strong addition to the offerings available on the Wii U for the audience. Together we agreed it was a no-brainer.

NF: Can we get an update on planned release dates/pricing for these two Oddworld adventures on Wii U? We’re chomping at the bit to get them!

Lorne Lanning: 2014 is our date, and we have our internal deadlines, but we need to put quality ahead of ship date – so we aren’t releasing the exact date until we’re confident we’ll actually ship on that date with the quality product that we feeld confident in.

NF: Because we’re Oddworld fanatics, we have to ask about the rumblings of an Oddworld animated feature. We remember hearing this idea getting passed around a few years back, but things have been quiet since. Any updated on that?

Lorne Lanning: No updates. It’s still a possibility and dream, and we still own the IP and all of its rights, but if you take a good look at the feature film market and financing conditions… it’s just not a good time to embark down that path at this time.

NF: Finally, we have to know about the future of the Oddworld franchise when it comes to games. If I remember my Oddworld history correctly, the series was originally going to be a quintology. Things obviously got steered towards some off-shoots and other ideas along the way. Any chance we’ll see a brand-new, main installment in the series at some point in the future? If so, can we hope to see that land on Wii U/3DS?

Lorne Lanning: That’s true, we wanted to release five consecutive games that would tell one overarching epic story. Yet different consoles, market trends, and publisher needs and conditions diverted us from getting each story to be the next one in the quintology, and we did do some detours that filled in the universe while being outside of the story arc of the larger quintology. But it’s still a desire for us to get there. It’s just a lot more difficult when you’re actually paying for it yourself. As for the Wii U and 3DS, we’ll see when we get to new titles and their specs, but I can say that finally getting into the Nintendo universe of players is a big deal for us, and we’re going to want to keep an ongoing presence on the Nintendo platforms. But shy of a specific project announcement, we hesitate to promise anything that we’re not completely committed to actually delivering.