Status and power: Oddworld isn’t so odd anymore

Status and power: Oddworld isn't so odd anymore [hosted by Gamers' Republic]

Date: 12 June, 2000
Interviewer: Edd Fear
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

This interview with Oddworld Inhabitants President Lorne Lanning took place right before E3 [2001], when they were in a mad rush to prepare themselves for the craziness that the show entailed. But he took a few moments to give us an update on where the game is at, and a few more glimpses into what we can expect.

GR: Let’s talk a little about the status system we’ve heard about in the new game…

Lorne Lanning: The concept of status? Well, one of our goals is removing all menus and things like that, but yet getting the user all the information that they need. Another one of our goals is bringing everything to life and giving it personality. So, one—and this in nothing new in the world of decent game design, no matter what your company or product is—is that if something’s more powerful, it should look that way. If something has more shielding, it should imply that. That’s just basic design.

When you start taking GameSpeak into status and start having what we call “social dynamics”—which is a lot of what’s been focussed on for the guts of our whole next effort and how that technology’s going to run—you ask why, when one character runs up to another character and starts talking, why is it poignant? And when I say talking, I mean GameSpeak, not like text-driven Final Fantasy type stuff…

GR: …Not like cutting to a cinema.

Lorne Lanning: Exactly. And we have characters that you can possess, so in the whole Oddworld universe, our goal is creating characters that allow you to play other characters through them throughout the course of the game. So we created Abe, and he can possess other characters. And in this game, he can possess about every character except his own kind. He can possess wild creatures and he can possess industrial guys, but he just can’t possess other Mudokons, because we felt that’s kind of too weird.

In the previous games, when he possessed a Slig—this is one of the things that we didn’t like in the old game, but made sense for their day—other Sligs knew when a Slig was possessed. That kind of blew it for us, because that didn’t really have the sort of “infiltration” feeling, the “assimilation” feeling that we wanted with all the characters. So when Abe possesses a Slig in this game, in this sort of “evolved rules of Oddworld”, that Slig can now go in and mingle with other Sligs without there being any conflict.

GR: That’s cool.

Lorne Lanning: Yeah, we wanted a much more “infiltration” type of feel, rather than a direct confrontation type of feel. And the same goes for Glukkons; the same goes for whoever. You can possess a guy, and now use him to start to GameSpeak other Sligs around, kind of like you’d use a Paramite to GameSpeak other Paramites in Abe’s Exoddus. So now, Abe possesses a Slig, and he’s got this Slig—by the way, now when you de-possess a character in this game, you have to make it an effort to actually kill them when you de-possess them, to explode them, because normally when you de-possess them in this game, they’ll just go back to who they were. So you haven’t blown them to pieces just because you’ve possessed them.

So, Abe possesses a Slig; now you have that Slig, and now you go to voice locks and things—voice locks, to us, are kind of like keys, you know? Like, a voice is a living key. So I go up to this door and I say, “Hello.” And it goes, “Whadda ya want?”, or it goes, “BLEAH!”, meaning, “You can’t get in here; GO AWAY!” But if I take a Slig and go up, the door says, “Whadda ya want?” and I say (GameSpeak): “Wah Wah” or whatever, and I say something in Slig, the door says, “All right!” and lets me in because I’m a Slig. See, you used to have to run around and find keys…

GR: …or flip switches…

Lorne Lanning: Right, and now you’re running around finding characters to open voice locks. Even though we did that in the other games, y’know, ‘I can’t pass here unless I have a Slig,’ you know, that kind of simplicity, we’re making that simpler and more intuitive, but the concept is now I can take the Slig into places where I’m controlling a new character, I have new abilities, and I’m taking it to places that I couldn’t get to with my hero character. And now that I bring it in, they don’t go, “Oh, possessed character!” and start shooting at me, because they don’t know the difference. And now when I start using that Slig, the way we would ramp a level, for instance—just to start introducing the concepts of status for the player—let me draw this orthographically.

(Lorne steps up to a whiteboard and draws a stairstep with 3 levels.)

Here’s a room—

(at the bottom level)

—and I’ve come in from another room where I’ve possessed this Slig, and through the voice lock I was able to get the Slig into this area. However, to take a little elevator or whatever to this area—

(points to the second level)

—I’d need a higher-status Slig. Or—let me put it this way—there’s a low-level Slig here—

(points to the bottom level again)

—and I possess him, and now over here—

(points to top level and draws five boxes)

—I need five Sligs to perform a certain task. No matter what it is, I need five Sligs. But the only guy that I’m able to possess is a low-level Slig, and the other Sligs in the environment are all of a higher status, so when you look at them, we did the little samurai-like light sticks on them, so we could tell from far away what the status of a guy was. And it’s basically like status in the corporate culture or status in the real world or in the military, which means these big guys don’t take any shit from the little guys, and the little guys get pissed on all day, and if you’re the bigger cheese, then all these guys will listen to you. If you’re a little guy, nobody listens to you.

And so I possess this guy, and I take him through the door, and I go over to another area, and [a higher-level slig is] there. And let’s say there are four guys in there that are like this. So I go up to each one of them, and I go, “Hey.” And they’re like, “hey.” I say, “Follow me,” and they’re like, “Piss off.” So they just dissed me right away. Well, we’ll have a billboard—all the power-ups and the vending machines are being promoted to you in this game—that says “Tired of being dissed by fellow Sligs? You need the Big Whammy! Instant status!” So this is the Big Whammy, the Big Whammy gun. Now, Sligs can go up to ATM machines; all industrial characters have accounts, like, they have Visa cards, right?

So you have the standard card, the Gold card, and the Platinum card. And, of course, there are different amounts of things you can buy, based on these different cards. So these guys, they’ve probably got a Gold card—you’ve probably got to be a Glukkon to have a Platinum card. So I take this Slig, I go around, and this guy tells me to piss off. I’m like, Shit! But I can take him up to the ATM as I’ve got him possessed, and I can go, “I want to buy the Big Whammy kit!” And BOOM, my character will transform; basically the ATM will transform your character into a Big Whammy Slig, but he’s still the same guy I’m controlling. And now I go over to these other four guys, and I say, “Hey.” And they [are impressed and] say, “Heeeyyyy!” And I say, “Follow me!” And they go, “You bet!” So now they’re following me.

And that’s the essence of status: now I can control these five characters, where before, if I wasn’t at a high enough social status level, where I was more impressive to them, then they’re not going to listen to me. So when Abe’s walking around amongst the Mudokons, they say, “Hey, it’s Abe!”, whereas if you’re just another Mudokon peon walking around, they don’t really give a shit as much.

To take that concept further, now all of the categories of characters have these levels of status. And status, of course, equals armor, firepower, resistance, you know, the basic elements that come with RPG and RTS games; what you count on for your units. Like, if I can get ten high-powered Big Whammy Sligs guarding this area, that’s a pretty good defense system. Now, as Abe, I can possess the little Slig, get him over there, upgrade him to a high status, and now get the respect of the other Sligs, the whole time laughing because it’s just too fucked up to see in a game. It’s like, I don’t normally have characters dissing me in real time. Now I get them, I have those five Sligs guarding an area that Abe wants guarded, and because a higher-powered Slig told them, now I can start repositioning the opposition’s troops by infiltrating. So I say, “I’m going to get all these guys away from the door, but they’re pretty big, so I need someone more impressive to be able to GameSpeak them away.” Or I can just try a direct confrontation, but that sets off alarms and does different things. So the feeling of infiltration is big-time.

GR: But you could just try blowing them all away with the bigger guns, right? I know I’ll probably try that approach.

Lorne Lanning: Yeah, you can do that; everyone’ll probably try it. And at different times, that’ll be the fun way to do it. Now, Glukkons have status too; did I tell you about Lulu?

GR: No, we haven’t heard about him.

Lorne Lanning: Well, this is the different status levels of Glukkons that you’ll find on the terrain of Oddworld. These guys are always running factories to some degree, as managers or CEOs or whatever. This guy’s based on Mullock; he was the one from RuptureFarms in the last game, right? And we started to see some of these guys, these wanna-be Glukkons; we call them Jr. Executives, in Abe’s Exoddus. These guys have more power than the Jr. Executives, who have more power than the plant managers, who have more power than the shop steward. So these guys are just puds, he’s a chump, he’s a wanna-be, he’s a Big Cheese, and he’s a Glockstar. Now, this is the social hiearchy of the male Glukkons. Then the females are queens and they’re in a whole different level.

In the story of Munch’s Oddysee, they find that in order to get back to Vykkers Labs—which is where Munch escaped from, and where Abe’s mother is being held captive-they’re told by the Almighty Raisin, “There’s no way you guys are gonna get to Vykkers Labs; it’s impregnable. It’s huge, it’s a fortress. You’re never gonna get in there. Unless… There’s one way; there’s this one incompetent Glukkon named Lulu.” This is Lulu: he’s just a Pud. His business card would say “Lulu: Pud.”

What you have to do is you have to make Lulu’s job successful. You have to make Lulu successful at being a Glukkon. So you’re operating behind the scenes as Munch and Abe, and you’ll be possessing Lulu and doing different things with him, and you’ll be reading his itinerary, all the things that he’s supposed to do. And you’ll see little video blurbs, like the first time you see him, he’ll be sleeping and another guy, Sask, who’s his boss, who is just a plant steward guy, will be yelling, “Hey, you idiot! Wake up!” And Lulu will be saying, “Uh, yes, boss!” And he’ll be yelling, “Lulu, you’ve gotta do this and if you don’t do it, goddamnit, you’re fired! That’s it; you’ll be through!” And Lulu will be there, going, “Yes, boss!” But when he leaves, he’ll go, “Duh, what’d he say?” and the way that we do him will be cute and funny. And what you have to do as Abe and Munch, who are available on your controller at all times, is that you have to get Lulu promoted through the Glukkon ranks.

So, let’s say his first task was there was a pen of scrabs in the back yard that need to be chopped up, and those 500 pound of meat should be sent off to such-and-such a facility. And you go, ok: Abe and Munch, they could possess Lulu and get him to GameSpeak Sligs around and get them to chop up the scrabs, turn them into meat, and get the job done for Lulu, but in the end they’re just looking for meat. His bosses don’t know necessarily that it’s scrab meat. Lulu just needs so many of those round barrels of meat to be successful at his job, by which he’ll get promoted. And if we do that, he’ll get promoted. However, that’s bad quorma, because you’re chopping up scrabs.

So, around the corner, there’s a Slig picnic going on, a Slig company picnic. You could chop up all the Sligs, out of which you’ll get the same barrels of meat, but you’ll also get several extra barrels of scrap, because Sligs have mechanical pants. So now when you deliver that to where it was supposed to go, not only do they think you did what you were supposed to do, but you also got these extra materials, too, this scrap. And it’s like, “Lulu, you’re a genius! Not only did you get the scrab meat here, but there’s all this scrap, too! How’d you do it? You’re a clever guy!” On that basis, Lulu’s given missions definitely give you bad quorma. However, there are always multiple solutions, so that you don’t have to get bad quorma as you’re promoting Lulu.

The idea is that you’re promoting Lulu up through the ranks, so Lulu is staying with you on your playing field though at least half of this game. There’s all these Lulu missions: it’s like, “Ok, Lulu, at this plant over there, those guys ran away because the Mudokons scared them off. You’ve got to go over and get that place operational again.” So you take Abe and Munch and go over there and try to get the place to work for Lulu, who’s always falling asleep, smoking his cigars, reading girly magazines, that sort of stuff; he’s never doing what he’s supposed to be doing. You’ve got to get the operations happening for him.

GR: And it sounds like he’ll never question why he’s doing so well.

Lorne Lanning: Oh, yeah; he thinks it’s all him. You know this guy; you’ve worked for him at some point in your life.

GR: Several times, in fact.

Lorne Lanning: Yeah, and as you get him ranked up, he gets the better jobs and the better jobs and the better jobs, and ultimately only Glockstars can have jobs at Vykkers Labs. So when Lulu is finally promoted and becomes a Glockstar, you’ve nurtured him into a Glock Star, now he gets promoted to Vykkers Labs, and they send the big airships to Vykkers with him on board, it’s like, well, the storyboard scene right now is like, remember when Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Titanic is out there on the bow of the boat? We’ll have Lulu out on the bow of the airship approaching Vykkers all ecstatic; so we mirror that move. It’s really funny. And that’s how they get in, to ultimately infiltrate that final level and rescue Abe’s mom.

But along the way—and this is what I’m saying is our “next level” of social dynamics and technology—there’s things like Glukkon clubs in different places that won’t let you in unless you’re a certain status. So when you walk up to the door, he goes, “No puds here!” Meanwhile, [a Glockstar] walks up, and they’re like, “Yes, sir!” It’s like going to a club in New York or something, you know; you’re waiting in line. So we create a lot of barriers in the game, sort of atmospheric and geographic barriers, that are restrictive based on status. So you go, “Shit, I’m not an impressive enough character yet” or “The character I’m controlling isn’t impressive enough yet to get into that club,” and only in that club can I make that killer arms deal and raise that extra moolah, or where I can do this or where I can do that.

So socially it’s broken out, and how that works with GameSpeak is that if the little Glukkon goes up to the big Glukkon, let’s look at what’s happening in their own minds now. A guy in his own mind is always asking himself the question, “Who am I?” And so, depending on where he is and things he’ll say, “I’m just a pud.” And that means to guys that are below me, my GameSpeak is condescending. To guys that are equal to me, my GameSpeak is pretty much equal, socially; it’s pretty level. To guys that are up above me in my social status, my GameSpeak is subservient.

Now, I’m just a pud, right?—and Glukkons we represent by the size of their shoulder pads—so this guy has small shoulder pads. And here’s a Slig, and over here’s a Big Cheese Glukkon. Now, when I talk to the Slig, I’m like, “HEY!” And when I talk to the Big Cheese, I’m like, “Excuse me, sir!” But to you, it’s just one button. Now, this is all dependent on memory; how much we can ultimately squeeze in? We can go one level in status below, and then below two, which is ever lower, and if I’m a Glukkon, there’s, like, fifteen different categories of guys below me. If we get enough RAM, we’ll give fifteen different words that all mean “Hello” but in a different social ranking. And as it goes upward, you start having more subservient levels. So as you walk around with any of these characters possessed, if you’re hitting your ‘greet’ button, depending on who you’re talking to, your character says different things, but it’s always in the same flavor; it always has the same meaning, it just has a whole different social connotation to it as you go through it.

The reason that we’re doing that is, number one, GameSpeak is just a very logical mechanism for being the foundation to build social dynamics amongst virtual characters. The other reason is it has good gameplay aspects that are humorous. It sets up more of a virtual world where you can possess a Slig and walk around the floor in the first level, and you are just going to crack up. The things he says and the way he says them and the way the other guy reacts; it’s a crackup. So the Slig, in his brain, is saying, ‘Who am I? I’m just a chump Slig. He’s saying this shit to me; how do I answer?’ So one guy says, “Hey, pud!” And the other says, “Aw, man…”

GR: Hey, I think that guy works for me!

Lorne Lanning: Exactly! So that’s the basis of how it starts to work. So, a Slig goes up to a Mudokon and goes, “HEY!” And the Mudokon goes, “Oooh, yes sir!” The Slig goes up to another Slig: “HEY!” The other Slig goes, “Yeah.” The Slig goes up to a Big Bro Slig, “HEY!” “What?!?” Slig goes up to a Glukkon: “Uh, sir? ‘Scuze me, sir?” All the same button, but the degree of life is enhanced tremendously, and the play value is exactly the same—meaning, this could get really confusing if you didn’t have consistency in what these variations mean. But the consistency is always exactly the same. The ramifications that other characters are receiving it, whether they’re going to do your bidding or not, is relative to what their status is.

And then their emotional system is something that, for the most part—well, in the beginning, we had the emotional system be very heavily involved in gameplay. In the end, what we found out was emotional systems have very limited gameplay value. However, they have tremendous entertainment value. And so we’ll change their GameSpeak based on the emotional system to increase how the character’s feeling. So I go up to a Slig who’s depressed, and even if I’m a Big Bro Slig, he’s gonna respond to me differently, but he might have more of a [whining sound]. It’s like, what’s wrong with you, man? So relationships in status are a lot of how you’ll grow through the game; you nurture other characters who grow through the game.

A lot of the things that we’re doing is like that: you should be required to start controlling large amounts of characters. From five to, in our vision of it, hundreds. In the end, we’ll see where the power is ultimately falling out, and where the framerate is, and that’ll determine exactly where the number is. But to do that, and then the social GameSpeak, that has consequences; you can start to play a large entertainment role, but also start creating natural, intuitive types of obstacles you need to overcome. You go, ‘I just can’t get that guy to listen to me. Look at his big hat. He’s much more impressive than I am. He spits on me when I go up and talk to him.’

Glukkon spit is another thing: if you’re a Glukkon and you spit on another Glukkon, it’s like an ultimate disgrace. They’re Glukkons; they don’t have arms, so they can’t slap another character; they just spit. It’s like, P-TOO “Hey, what’d you do that for?!?” and then they freak out. Those are the concepts of status, and they relate through everything: Glukkons have status, Vykkers have status, so this kiss-ass chain is going up through all the various species.

And then with the Mudokons, because they’re one of the native cultures, they have less of a visible hierarchy but they’re more compassionate. They have a slightly different relationship to it. It works on the same fundamentals, but the big shaman will be saying more what you’d expect a wise man to say, rather than what you’d expect a corporate CEO who doesn’t give a shit to say. And these things allow your character to navigate through the game in different ways than you ever could before.

If you look at that as a basic example, then you go, ‘Now I’m playing 20 hours of this stuff,’ or ‘I’m playing a whole night of this.’ Most things I find require me to use other characters, so every time, just by default, by going “Hey” “C’mere” “Hey, you”, doing that stuff, the entertainment value is just going to peak and pipe through in a way that we just haven’t seen before. And we should just be cracking up. So those are the things that are happening with status.

GR: Sounds like there’s going to be a lot of funny moments, and the way you’re describing it, it’s just begging for jokes and things like that.

Lorne Lanning: Exactly.

GR: It also seems it could have an additional effect, if this is going to be aimed at kids, of teaching them that ‘this is how status works’, ‘this is how you can use it if you just step back and look at things.’ Like when I was in high school, I used to believe that everyone should just accept me for who I am, but I’ve realized that isn’t the way things work in real life. You’ve gotta figure this stuff out, and then you can move up. So I’m thinking this might end up being a valuable lesson for the kids to learn.

Lorne Lanning: It’s pretty sad, what’s going on with the youth. Maurice here at Oddworld has to pick his kids up from school, and he’ll say, “God, I just can’t stand going down to that school.” Because those kids are right at the age-not his kids, but the kids in general—when they think they run the world. So when they cross the street, they walk twice as slow just because you’re waiting. It’s the attitude and all the shit that prevails. And at the same time we’re trying to mirror it in a way that you just have to accept it. You know, if you want to move up in the world, here’s the way you manipulate the cast in the big play, and it can be fun. It doesn’t mean you’re being a wimp or that you’re selling out; it’s just how the world works. And it’s especially how this world, the Oddworld, works, in the new level. And we think it’s just gonna be a blast.

GR: We’re looking forward to getting our hands on it.

Lorne Lanning: Yeah, you and I both!

GR: Well, you’ve gotta get through the E3 milestone first, I suppose.

Lorne Lanning: Yeah, E3 is always a major distraction. We’ll get through it, though. But the thing that’s cool, too—getting back to Munch—is that there are wild characters that we get to grow, like we can find a little baby Meetle and then we can feed it this, that, or the other thing, and turn it into something different. And the “something differents” it turns into are truly different, like, from the same type of baby Meetle, this is now an herbivore full-grown Meetle, and this is a carnivore full-grown Meetle; they have different diets, they have different things that they gravitate toward, they have different personalities as a result: the herbivore is more friendly and a little more shy, whereas the carnivore tends to be more aggressive, they seek out meat; they’re killers.

So you get to have that type of nurturing. This is my personal analysis of nurturing and the phenomena of things like Pokémon, and even before that the Tamagotchi. So with Tamagotchis, one of the most amazing things is that Japan Airlines had to change its policy for electronic devices because of Tamagotchi. When they were telling kids, “You can’t bring your Tamagotchi on the plane,” kids just freaked out. You had five-year-olds just screaming, “Aaah! He’s gonna die!” And they weren’t letting them on the plane, because you can’t turn them off. And it was causing all this mayhem at the airports, so they had to analyze it and they went, “Are these devices really a threat?” And they changed their policy just because of the Tamagotchi phenomenon.

But why do these kids get so connected to these things? Why is the Pokémon success what it is? Why did the Tamagotchi explosion happen like it did? Why is this horse racing game the most successful game in Japan on PlayStation, when we don’t even have it here? It’s this game where you raise your horse, train it, and then race it. Why are these so big? Well, in our modern world, we’ve now got dual-income families—if you have two parents—and shrinking geographical space, smaller houses costing more money, all these things. And what’s happening is that we as human beings in our human condition are born with a relationship to nurture, meaning we get it right off the bat.

We usually, historically, in our evolution, we were helping to raise the younger child. We had pets. We had farm animals. And all of these social connections were being made. We are genetically programmed to have a desire for nurturing: girls with their dolls, at the younger ages, and boys with their G.I. Joes and different stuff. Kids with their pets: they all want a kitty, they all want a puppy, they all want a hamster. The less that those things are available to them, this does not mean that their genetics have shut off.

So now we live in a culture where, in America, we’re doing 60%—I don’t know if you knew this, I just found it out recently—60% of children under five are on mind-altering substances. Meaning Prozac, Lithium, Ritalin; under five years old! We’re absolutely trying to force the youth into this paradigm that really doesn’t work for what we are as organisms. So we’re becoming this pharmaceutical drug culture. And one of the things that’s falling out is that these kids have this desire for nurturing.

In the middle class we’re seeing smaller families, less pets—parents don’t want to be bothered, no one’s going to feed it, they don’t have time. Especially in Japan, where there’s typically one child-and this is where I find Japan really interesting: I think Japan is the future culture. I mean, we’re it in different ways, but Japan is the future culture as it relates to a society that’s run out of space. They live on a small island, you go to Tokyo, you see the living conditions, the coffin motels, you go, ‘This is Blade Runner.’ They’re more in the future than New York is. They’re capping, geographically speaking.

And then the social and cultural ramifications are very interesting to perceive, but one of them is now you’ve got more of where there’s one kid, crime is on the rise—so the kids don’t walk as freely as they used to—there’s one kid living in a house, existing not with living organisms but with virtual experiences. And what do we see? Every time something that’s done well, even ok, that involves the concept of nuturing, meaning that it supplements the genetic conditioning for nurturing, the thing explodes. It flies off the shelf. So Tamagotchi is a world-wide phenomenon. Even adults are figuring it out.

It’s funny, I was going, “Shit, man. That should be your license for whether or not you have a kid.” You go, “Oh, you wanna have a baby? Here’s your Tamagotchi; bring it back in three months happy and you can have a kid.” It’s gonna cry during the night, it’s gonna do this and that, and if it comes back depressed or angry—or dead—you don’t get to have a kid. If you can’t keep this little electronic thing alive for three months, you’re not going to be a mother. You’re not going to be a father. That I find really, really insightful, really interesting to what it implies as to what’s been happening in subconscious game design. And when I say subconscious game design, I mean we all sit around the world, designing games, going, “Yeah, but it’s not addictive. What is it about this that’s making it not addictive?” We never think.

And then we go argue against the Senate that these experiences are not addictive. And we sit there all day long, trying to make them addictive. We don’t even really get the essence of the sort of electronic chemicals that we’re dealing with. Because I look at these and I go, when I saw that people were playing Doom and some were losing their jobs in Hollywood… When Doom went on the SGI-because it was pretty much just Hollywood and aerospace using SGIs at the time-when that came out, someone released a Doom patch for the SGI, and we were all networked together, so now you’ve got 40 technical directors at Rhythm and Hues or PDI or Pixar or wherever, going BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.

I mean, we’d been doing flight simulators for years, but wasn’t the same as Doom: no Gatling guns. What happened was Pixar took all the Doom games off the network, and said “No more. This is bullshit.” People just stopped working. And in Hollywood, in a lot of companies, even at Rhythm and Hues, it was like, “Look, you keep playing, you’re going to lose your job. Because every time a producer walks around, he says ‘No wonder we’re not getting any work done. All you assholes are playing Doom’.” So people lost their jobs.

And this I found real interesting: Wow. They are so into this experience—and I have to admit, I played it too, late at night, but I was more responsible and still getting work done—but there were other people that just, for lack of any better description, they just couldn’t stop playing. It was like an alcoholic or a gambling addict. The gambling is a more interesting parallel, because there’s no substances involved. It’s purely a psychological experience. And yet we have 12-step programs today, and we recognize gambling as one of the rising dilemmas for our culture, and there are not enough methods to unhook gamblers.

Its really fascinating, because we are now dealing with physiological chemical changes in people based on simulated experiences that have no actual exchange of anything but light particles and audio. It’s not capsules, it’s not food, it’s not pharmaceuticals, and yet here’s a guy sitting there, like a gambler, with someone saying, “You will lose your wife, you will lose your job on Wall Street, you will lose your house, you will lose your apartment, you will have your kids hate you, you’ll be disowned by your family, you’ll lose your family inheritance if you keep on gambling” and yet by midnight they’re on the phone again to the bookie. That’s truly an addictive experience just as much as any chemical is, except that something’s happening psychologically that makes it so addictive.

That’s what I felt was happening with the concept of nurturing, and that’s when we see the explosion of these types of games. I mean, when you sit down and you play Tamagotchi, the controls are shit, none of the real gameplay laws are holding up, and it’s not very entertaining, but it’s kind of cute, and it’s supplementing the need that this organism is sort of requiring. It’s like, 100,000 years ago, when we first came upon an orange on a tree, our body just knew it needed it. So we just gravitated, and you can watch this today: a deer is born, and it still knows what to eat and what not to eat. The body knows. And the body knows that it’s lacking nurturing; the modern social body knows that nurturing is one of the biggest parts that’s missing in our completely dysfunctional world. As a result, we see the explosion of certain things that cater to this phenomenon, like Pokémon, like Tamagotchi, like the horse racing game out of Japan; it will only get more and more and more.

And so, looking at that phenomenon, you go ‘how do we get the concept of nurturing in, but not just feeding and not just hokey and not, like, creatures; I mean, they deserve the credit they get, but they’re just not the visceral type of experience that we want out of the next level of games. How do we implement that? And that’s a lot of how status came about, too, because with this concept you can go, ‘Ok, the Slig really needs this status and, for some reason, this is as close as you can get, since he’s the first one you’re able to possess. But he doesn’t have enough money in his account to upgrade, so now you start nurturing his account to get the cash to enable him to start to upgrade himself, as more of an RPG-type model, except happening like that [snap, snap], in the dynamic flavor of what yesterday was only accustomed to something like Mario, in terms of dynamics and the way that the character moved, and with social interaction that was accustomed only to something like Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus, where you had these little humorous spells.

But then every time you find new characters, new species, there are new levels of hierarchy and status in the game that require you, at different points if you want certain goals, to start nurturing those characters, and as you’re nurturing them, you see their fashion change, you see their attitudes change, you see they start becoming more—well, when you possess a guy at the bottom, he’s kissing ass to everyone; now you’re nurturing him up, now you’re watching him become more and more condescending to those below him. And it’s kind of weird how some of these things come to be game design elements, because they come from more philosophical social commentary and criticism. But you look at that stuff and you go, ‘Well, that’s just good ingredients to mix up batches of new brew for new virtual experiences.’ And that’s what’s happening with status.

GR: It certainly looks like you’re building a firm foundation.

Lorne Lanning: One of the things we say a lot is, when some people say, “Wow, it’s brilliant,” and we go, “Well, maybe,” but the problem that I’ve always had with words like brilliant or genius or certain solutions is that they don’t give credit where it’s due, meaning that they’re real sort of divine type of words; they don’t have any real basis in reality. It’s like Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” The way that we solved a lot of these problems or came up with a lot of these creative solutions was by first identifying what we thought were important problems to be solved to evolve the genres, to evolve the medium.

You know, I said a long time ago that we identified that the more aggressive a game player is over time, the more it was rewarded. And we said, “Well, that’s not really going to hit the mass market.” But if we can change it to empathy over time that is rewarded, then we start being able to get older females involved and more interested; there’s more entertainment value, it’s more thinking, there’s cute things happening, it’s more endearing than just shooting stuff. So we get a different demographic going if we start expanding and looking at and going, “Wow, if we could make empathy the curve, and not aggression, then that achieves some of our objectives.” But then we go, “Shit, how do we make empathy the curve?” And that was in the beginning, before we had even created GameSpeak.

And then you go, “Well, what’s missing from entertainment characters—television, film, stuff like that—and video game characters?” And then we start creating lists. We go, “Well, entertainment characters see and hear, they talk, they have relationships,” and then over here you have these things: “Well, video game characters shoot, they bounce.” And you identify the gap. And then you go, “How do we start to get video game characters to seem like they’re seeing and hearing?” And you figure sneaking should become a basic mechanic, so that you could get a sense that the enemies don’t hear you coming and it should look funny as it’s happening and then you get a laugh.

So with GameSpeak, we started to create these concepts where I can talk to someone the same way I throw a punch, and that’s after recognizing the problem of the gap that exists between the traditional entertainment character and the traditional video game character. And then you get to something like nurturing, and you go, “Yeah, but how do you nurture without just raising hamsters, or raising kitty cats…creatures, you know?” I think Black & White is going some pretty cool directions for this stuff. They seem to be on a similar wavelength with what the next generation of games should entail. You know, ‘I did good things, so this is this type of creature’, ‘I did shitty behavior, it manifests in a whole polar type of behavior.’

But, with a thing like the status and all, in everything in life you see status. You see a hyena pack, it has a pecking order. You put fifteen cats in a room, one winds up dominant in three days. How does that get into these experiences? And so it’s like, we create all these sons of bitching problems that are killers, and then half the guys will say, “You’re crazy! You’re nuts! Why are we focussing here? I mean, what’s just fun? Why is it more fun when you bounce off a wall?” And we say, “Well, that’s important, but it’s not solving these larger creative thresholds that need to be cracked.” And when we crack them, it should feel completely natural, if we do it right. It’s like, some stuff, like emotions in the last game, we had gone over-the-top on, and we went, “This is just becoming very lifelike, but it’s just not fun anymore. This is more like being a therapist than being in a fun experience.”

And so these concepts of status came out of “how do we get their relationships to be more human; how do we get it to feel more like real life and yet still have it happen with the same patterns taking place on the controller?” And if we get it right, you should find all the things you like about old genres, like I always loved, in RTS games, how I was building characters. I’d go, “Yeah, now I’ve got enough money: ARMOR! Cool!” There’s a certain little gratifying element that comes with that, and we’ll figure that should not be lost; the evolutionary ideas should not be at the expense of what worked in very practical terms.

So that was the status concept and how it works with our solution to that. And it wasn’t possible before we had enough memory to do it right; I mean, tracking the brain isn’t all that difficult, but designing the brain is difficult; keeping track of CPU cycles it eats isn’t that difficult, but you couldn’t do it without the audio memory. That was the real bottleneck. I mean, you just can’t do it on the PSX unless there’s nothing else in the game. But on the PS2…well, just wait and see!

GR: Once again, thanks for your time, good luck with E3, and we look forward to our next visit to Oddworld!