The future’s Odd: how Just Add Water revived Oddworld, and where it’ll go next [2013]

The future's Odd: how Just Add Water revived Oddworld, and where it'll go next, Stewart Gilray and his team discuss Stranger's Wrath 2, Fangus Klott and the Hand of Odd [Hosted by]

Date: 19/10/2013

Author: Edwin Evans-Thirlwell


“One must still have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote. To risk the contempt of both Mudukon fans and Nietzsche scholars, it’s a formula that seems to describe Oddworld’s mingled bleakness and beauty rather neatly. Peel away the disgusting flaps of mass-produced meat, part the obscene alien tangles of undergrowth, and you’re left with an intoxicating combination of hope and despair – a work of staggering commercial and artistic ambition beset by savage doubts about where such ambitions might take us. Oh, and damn good action and puzzling mechanics.

A quick clarification: the interviews this feature is based on were conducted this spring, prior to the Xbox One’s reveal. I’ve updated the copy in places to reflect more recent events.

The franchise is most fondly remembered today for the misadventures of the hapless Abe, a flatulent broom-pusher who one day discovers that his corporate overlords, the cigar-munching Glukkons, plan on converting his entire species into popsicles. What follows is a sumptuously done-up 2D “oddysee” that spans the planet’s bloated military-industrial complex and primordial jungle-caverns, in which Abe pits his wits and telepathic powers against the guns, fangs and talons of Sligs, Scrabs and Paramites. But Oddworld is grander than the antics of any fugitive Mudukon – and grander, too, than any one type of game.

Worlds within worlds
10 times the size of Earth, and split into three geological levels with their own terrain, gravity and climate conditions, it was conceived not simply as a Petri dish in which to brew some inventively grotty fauna, but as a platform for a startling variety of experiences – real-time strategy games in the Command & Conquer vein, massively multiplayer services and first-person shooters like 2005’s Old Western riff on Oddworld, Stranger’s Wrath, all sketched out in astonishing detail years in advance of their intended release by co-creators Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna.
Indeed, Oddworld transcends games altogether – or at least, that was the idea back in 1994, when Lanning and McKenna founded Oddworld Inhabitants to develop a quintology of titles set in their grotesque, fascinating universe. Veterans of the youthful digital animation and special effects industries, the pair set out not merely to redeem games from the status of cultural “junk food” (in Lanning’s words) – that’s to say, to develop games that have real educational or artistic merit. Nor was the idea just to shine a light on “the dark side of globalization as seen from the little schmuck’s point of view”.
Oddworld was to be a colossal transmedia endeavour, born of a remarkably visionary sense that interactive and non-interactive entertainment would at some point converge, assisted by evolving digital communications. It would grow over the ensuing decade to embrace film and, moreover, a global online community of users – practically a requirement of any big budget videogame project nowadays, but a prospect that must have seemed barely credible at the time of Abe’s Oddysee’s release.

Perhaps inevitably, Lanning and McKenna’s vision hasn’t quite translated into practice. In some ways the initial success of Oddworld proved to be its undoing, as Oddworld Inhabitants became slowly enmeshed in the very stifling business practices it had laboured to debunk. Oddysee was a major hit, selling 3.5 million copies worldwide and picking up no less than 30 awards, and publisher GT Interactive pushed for an unplanned direct follow-up, Exoddus, which was completed in a “brutal” nine months to comparable acclaim.
2001’s Munch’s Oddysee – the first 3D Oddworld game – was also a tempestuous project. Lanning provoked fan outcry by deciding to release exclusively for Xbox in light of its superior graphical capabilities and more familiar development environment; he was also put under a lot of pressure by Microsoft, which had identified the game as a potential killer app in the vein of Mario. As it transpired, Munch’s Oddysee failed to meet expectations and was utterly dwarfed by Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, in what seems a critical moment in the rise to preeminence of the modern FPS.

Oddworld’s own FPS, Stranger’s Wrath, also fell short of desired sales despite enthusiastic reviews. It was the final straw for Lanning: “disheartened” by what he considered to be EA’s failure to market the game appropriately, troubled by rising costs, and increasingly disillusioned about the balance of power between developers and publishers, he and McKenna announced the cessation of games development at Oddworld Inhabitants in April 2005. Since then, the company has devoted itself to film projects like Citizen Siege, a sci-fi thriller, and typically far-sighted digital enterprises such as 2011’s Xmobb, a real-time social media consumption service billed as a kind of virtual film-goer’s club. Of Oddworld there was nary a peek for years, repeated assurances about the franchise’s centrality to Lanning’s operations aside, and fans feared for the worst. Thankfully, Oddworld is bigger than one developer, too.

Hydro power
Holding forth in a boardroom, snowy Yorkshire countryside visible past his left shoulder, Just Add Water’s managing director Stewart Gilray recalls how difficult it was to get Lanning interested in the idea of a new Oddworld project. “I bought the original games back in the 90’s for the Playstation 1 and a friend of mine, Dan, was friends with Lorne and I’ve been bugging Dan to bug Lorne for years – even when they were back doing Stranger’s Wrath in the mid-Noughties – to remake an Abe game or do another one with 3D art, there were so many great things you could do with the vistas in the background. And he’s like ‘oh, Lorne doesn’t want to make games any more after he’s finished this one – he’s had enough for the moment’ and I’m like, ‘really?’ And that went on for two or three years, and I bugged and bugged and bugged, and then I was across to the Game Developers Conference, and I finally met Lorne. And within six months we were talking about the cool things we could do.”
The first cool thing Just Add Water got to do was an HD port of Stranger’s Wrath for the Oddbox collection – something the tiny UK-based independent pulled off at dramatically short notice and minimal expense. “One of us, maybe one and a half of us did it in five months,” Gilray recalls. “Our chief technology officer Steve did all the programming on it and I did little bits of art here and there, just to help him when he needed stuff.” The port wasn’t perfect – Gilray was obliged to spend a month or two “literally just living on the Steam forums”, soothing players hit by coding problems. “I actually for two weeks didn’t sleep, because I thought we’d killed Oddworld,” he admits. Players responded positively to Just Add Water’s transparency on the matter, however, and after extensive patching, the port was pronounced a success.

The developer went onto release Stranger’s Wrath HD on PS3 – an Xbox 360 version was also planned, but fell through amid disagreements with Microsoft – followed by an HD version of Munch’s Oddysee. Sales of these have been respectable, says Gilray, given the relatively forgiving break-even points of digital distribution. The studio is presently working on a new version of the original Abe’s Oddysee, subtitled New ‘n’ Tasty, which introduces 3D Unity-powered graphics in place of McKenna’s beautiful but dated 2D backdrops. The latter will see release on PS3, PS4 and PC – alas, it’s not down to appear on Xbox 360 or Xbox One for the moment, though Gilray has recently suggested to Eurogamer that this is a possibility.
You could be forgiven for calling Just Add Water an intermediary rather than a partner, tasked not so much with resurrecting Oddworld as polishing it up for a new audience, but according to Gilray, the ports are paving the way for something rather more ambitious. “Each project is a bigger risk and a bigger step,” he explains. “The first two were straight ports and then HD versions of those ports, then with [New ‘n’ Tasty] we’re able to reboot and remake completely from the ground up. And for the next one we have a blank slate effectively, what we create next in the Oddworld franchise is effectively all-new.”

Off the beaten path
Gilray isn’t the only one at Just Add Water whose enthusiasm for Oddworld predates the partnership with Oddworld Inhabitants. In August 2011, the company hired a “super fan”, Wil Bunce-Edwards, as studio coordinator. “If Lorne’s not available, Will is the person you ask because he just knows,” reflects Dan Morse, community manager. “Barring anything that Lorne hasn’t said out loud anywhere ever, Wil knows it. He helps run the Oddworld forums and he’s got his own website, and that sort of thing is really is really important – it’s hiring people who are not just good at the job but also good at being part of Oddworld.” Environmental artist Brett Lewis wasn’t quite as steeped in the Odd when he joined – his prior credits include the Wrestlemania games – but quickly fell in love with the universe. “He had the Art of Oddworld on his desk,” Gilray comments, “and I thought he was just using it for reference, but he got Lorne to sign it, and that book hasn’t been seen since. It’s holed up in a f**king safe for all I know.”
Where updating Stranger’s Wrath and Munch’s Oddysee was primarily a question of programming, Just Add Water has allowed its understanding of the Oddworld universe to flower in New ‘n’ Tasty’s backdrops, using them as an opportunity to tell stories in microcosm about the wider universe. A dark tunnel-like area in the horrendous Rupture Farms is now a Stygian furnace chamber, throwing the new character models into harsh silhouette. A hitherto static camera orb now radiates laser beams, a bladed wheel now spins.
For all that, and despite environments that now scroll with character movement rather than being chopped up into single screens, it’s still very firmly the game you may have played 15 years ago. “There’s a couple of wee tweaks we’ve done, but nothing to make people go ‘you’ve ruined it, you’ve changed it beyond belief’.” The original’s taste for gore hasn’t fallen foul of any hypothetical pandering to mass markets, Gilray adds – in fact, “there’s a couple of scenes I’m worried about, because we’ve gored it up so much we might have to pull it back for age rating”. Bloodthirstier players may wish to experiment with the factory machinery, come release day.

Lending a Hand
Oddworld’s strength as a franchise, Gilray continues, is that for all its recognisability, it isn’t any one particular thing. “Unless we really screw this one up we’re doing Oddworld next, and we’re doing Oddworld next, and we’re doing Oddworld next. And as a small studio that’s a good place to be from a business point of view, because you don’t have to worry about the pay cheques. When you start doing your own stuff you’re always worrying about whether it’s going to sell, but Oddworld is a known brand. And one of the clever things about Oddworld is that you’ve got these games within Oddworld that are not completely Oddworld. I mean, if you look at Stranger’s Wrath, there’s only two characters in there that actually tie it Oddworld – the Sloggs and Fuzzles. If you took those out of there it could be another FPS, effectively.”
Lanning’s venerated, quasi-mythical Oddworld encyclopedia aside, the nearest there is to a broad overview of Oddworld could be the Hand of Odd, the aforementioned real-time strategy project, summed up by Gilray as a highly politicised Command & Conquer style experience that pits a familiar assortment of species against one another in isometric view. We’re presented with a fearsome design tome during the chat – page upon page of intricate notes on resource management systems, unit behaviour and tech trees coupled with cutaway drawings of levels.

Gilray is ambivalent about the idea, noting that strategy games and consoles aren’t the best of bosom buddies, and suggests that more concept work is necessary. “Maybe it evolves into an MMO type of thing, we don’t know yet,” he says. “We keep tossing around ideas for it. The thing that turned me onto Hand of Odd the first place was the teaser footage back in the ’90s, when they had swarms of Sligs and stuff – to do a game with those sorts of crowds would be fantastic, but I’m not necessarily sure that a Command & Conquer: Red Alert kind of game is right for it.”
Other handed-down concepts Just Add Water has reservations about pursuing include the nebulous Oddworld MMO, which seems to amount to little more than a paragraph, and a rather terrifying vehicular escapade that may owe more to a certain plumber than Lanning’s peculiar genius. “We found a Word document dated 1999 which was the plan for Oddworld over the next 10 years,” Gilray recalls, “and it’s got ‘Abe karting game #1, ‘karting game #2’. And we are like ‘no, no, no’.” Quite.

Waxing wroth
Much remains to be seen, but the Oddworld projects Gilray is most eager to take forward are a sequel to Stranger’s Wrath, the core ideas for which have already been written out by Lanning, and a bizarre-sounding FPS known as The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot, for which several levels and character models already exist. “Lorne and I spoke about it five, six months ago and nothing happened. And then in November we all said ‘what’s this Stranger’s Wrath 2 idea you had?’ and he sent me an email about a mile long and I’m like ‘oh my god!’ So I’ve read bits of it, he’s got a whole premise out for Stranger 2, and it is something we have considered doing.”
First, however, Just Add Water needs to upgrade the elderly Stranger’s Wrath engine into a modern, multiplatform affair. “What we’re thinking is this while the main team are finishing off Abe, we’re going to update the engine to be a proper standalone engine for multiple platforms – it’s literally written for the original Xbox only, there is no support in there for non-DirectX 8 rendering, there is no support for a non-Xbox CPU.” (This partly explains, among other things, EA’s inability to port Stranger’s Wrath to PS2, much to Lanning’s frustration.) “With the engine moving forward our CTO is going to spend some time basically rewriting parts of the engine properly, so we can have more modules on it. We can plug in an Xbox version or a PS3, PS4 or PC version or whatever.” Another objective is to introduce support for multithreading, allowing the engine to take advantage of hardware with several CPUs.

“What we are going to do with that is either Fangus or Strangers 2,” Gilray goes on. “We’ve actually already got three or four regions of Fangus in the early stages of development, that the original team did, but it’s still all on Xbox still. We’ve got all this stuff available to us, and we’ve got all the models for Fangus, the bad guys in Fangus and a bunch of animations.” The appeal of the game’s premise need no elaboration, given a passing acquaintance with the icky Darwinist underpinnings of Oddworld. “Cats versus dogs,” Morse summarises. “That’s the basic story.” Intriguingly, however, Lanning appears not to have made his mind up as to whether Fangus really qualifies as an Oddworld game. “Because I’ve asked him this as well and he said the name is not prepended with Oddworld so it’s not Oddworld,” Gilray muses. “OK, then you ask again and he says ‘no it’s Oddworld’. Right. Fangus is The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot, there isn’t an Oddworld anywhere near the name.”
As for how a Stranger’s Wrath 2 might play, that could be a question of what didn’t make it into the original. Gilray cites a few breeds of live ammunition (that’s “breed” and “live” in the literal sense) that were eventually dumped by Oddworld Inhabitants. “There was a porcupine one which is basically like the Hedgehog Grenade in [Resistance: Fall of Man] – you couldn’t do that on the original Xbox, it would’ve killed the frame rate to do it properly.” Stranger’s Wrath was originally conceived as a direct sequel to Munch’s Oddysee, he adds – “Stranger’s Wrath was Munch’s Exoddus, and actually there is a build somewhere, on Xbox, which has Stranger and Munch hopping round the world. And it’s like OK, this is a bit weird now.”

Strange shores
Asked to choose a favourite, Gilray says he finds the idea of a Stranger follow-up most enticing, “because it’s not a straight FPS, it’s a first and third person mix with one of the best third person cameras out there. There’s still problems with it, but compared to a lot of third person games – my wife won’t play first person games because it makes her feel sick, so she plays Skyrim in the third person and the camera in that is absolutely atrocious.” He’s compelled, too, by the idea of blending action and acrobatics with blasting, “whereas to me doing a straight FPS like Fangus isn’t so much appealing”.
The future of Oddworld may not entirely be a question of what Lanning and McKenna didn’t get round to creating. “There are certain things this studio wants to do, Oddworld-based,” Gilray hints, a twinkle in his eye. “Some are no-brainers, some are “really?” We’ve got some crazy, wacky ideas, some of those crazy, wacky ideas are based on Lorne’s crazy, wacky ideas, and some of those ideas have never been discussed anywhere before. Some are experiments, like putting leaderboards into a whole new game. And some of the game projects we have going forwards they are essentially experiments again.” Wherever Just Add Water takes us, however, it’ll be with the advice and support of the franchise’s creators. “I get emails and messages from Lorne and Sherry every couple of days and sometimes multiple times a day and that’s OK. It’s not the case that they’re encroaching. I personally would not feel happy if they weren’t involved or informed on a regular basis.”
Working on Oddworld is equal parts raw invention and painstaking archaeology, a trip through the industry’s bloody, untold history in search of the seeds of its future. Restoring this long-dormant IP to prominence will take both an appreciation for the classics and a serious degree of agility – the ability to produce spectacular, well-accoutred games without racking up comparatively exorbitant costs. Thankfully, that’s a balancing act the team at Just Add Water appear more than capable of. Only time will tell whether sales of New ‘n’ Tasty and the HD ports can bankroll a “true” Oddworld sequel, but the tools and the talent are already there.