The Oddworld Inhabitants Interview: Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna

The Oddworld Inhabitants Interview: Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna [Hosted by GamerWeb Xbox]
Date: 20 March, 2002
Interviewer: GamerWeb
Interviewees: Lorne Lanning & Sherry McKenna


The video interview is available here.


We sat down for a lengthy talk with the co-founders of Oddworld Inhabitants to discuss industry politics, creativity and the exciting future of Oddworld on Xbox. Half an hour of video interview goodness inside.

One of the most astounding games from Xbox’s launch line-up is Munch’s Oddysee. When Oddworld Inhabitants announced their most valued of franchises would be coming to Microsoft’s console instead of PS2, there was outcry, but the company had a plan. We paid them a visit at a swanky London hotel on the eve of the Euorpean launch, to find out exactly what their game is.

In the spotlight are the company’s co-founders, Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna. With over 35 years combined experience in the film effects and games development industries, not only do they know how to run an elite video game development team, but they have a lot of interesting stuff to say as well.

GamerWeb: OK, so you guys are now both games reviewers… Munch’s Oddysee has just come out, what do you give it out of ten?

Sherry McKenna: What would we give our own game? That’s not fair!

Lorne Lanning:
I’d have to be consistent with the biggest game magazine in the US, I’d have to say nine out of ten.

Q: Where did the idea of Abe first come from, and what influenced the ecological side of it?

Lorne Lanning: Well, my first love and passion is fly-fishing. And I think anyone who’s a fly fisher finds out in a very short amount of time the ecological impact the industry’s had… all different types of industry, global warming, all these things. When you’re standing in a stream, you notice very quickly the species that live there. That’s always been an issue of mine. Seeing a big faction between what people think is going on with the environment, and what’s really going on, because the state of it (as the latest UN report revealed) is horrific… but because we live in cities, it’s like, “no, it’s fine! I read an article yesterday and apparently the environment’s fine…” even though there’s not a wild animal within a hundred square miles and there’s eight million people! You know, we see things differently.

So what happened with me was that a lot of the writing was like therapy. I’d get really frustrated about an issue, but as an artist, you then try and vent how you feel into your work by creating all these characters and short stories. They all had common themes, industrial and political corruption, conspiracies (a great subject matter). With Abe’s Oddysee that stemmed initially a lot from what was happening with the rainforest being burned down to grow cheaper meat. People didn’t understand that the 99% burger was actually at the expense of half the lungs on the planet. That in many ways influenced the beginning of Abe’s Oddysee, the third world laborer who worked in horrific conditions for a big corporation, with a big happy logo… everything seemed fine on the surface, but it wasn’t quite the case underneath.

Q: Do you think gaming is necessarily the right medium to try and get across a message like that?

Sherry McKenna: I have a question: do you think that… uh, have you played Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exodus? Because it’s interesting when we get that kind of a question whether or not people have played the game. If you get on a soap box and try to convince people that what you have to say is the right thing, people aren’t going to listen. So if you can disguise what you’re trying to say in irony, and make it funny, (and still get the message across) then gaming is the right medium, and any medium is the right medium. It’s like when I first went to see Star Wars. You can walk out and say “wow, those were the best effects I’ve ever seen” – or you can say, “I think Lucas was trying to say something as well as just showing great effects”. If you can pull that off then all the mediums are the right ones. And games especially. We get so much fan mail from young kids who have played the game for the first time, and then go onto the website to tell us they had no idea that there was so much to it. For me it’s so worthwhile when you make young people consider that the world is maybe not the way they thought it was.

GW: So how much of the success of Munch’s Oddysee would you say is down to the story and the characters?

Sherry McKenna: Well I like to hope that it has a lot to do with it. I like to hope that a great story and characters draws the kind of audience that we’re looking for.

GW: What is it in the game that you think influences the younger audience go onto the site to find out more?

Lorne Lanning:
Well coming from the younger audience…

Sherry Mckenna: Anything is younger than us right?!

Lorne Lanning: …our worlds are so sort of twisted, ironic and odd, that with any story telling or character development, the idea is that ir provokes more interest in where they’re coming from and what they’re about. When people play and ask, “why would you ever design a character like that, so bizarre?” which is what we’re trying to get them to ask, then that starts leading them to other places. And the more their interest is sparked, the deeper it tends to take them into the subtext of the world. It’s not just message, I just look at it as quality storytelling. There’s a saying, “a great story is a small boat floating on an ocean of subtext.” A superficial story is a yacht sitting in a puddle. The Godzilla movie is a perfect example; it just doesn’t have depth. As a storyteller, I don’t know how to create stories or characters that don’t have depth; I just wouldn’t be inspired to write for them. You know, how do we take animal testing, and the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical research industry and put you in the rabbit’s position?!

GW: One question we had for you in particular Lorne was that… it says here you’ve got six years less experience in the field than Sherry, and also that you had to beg Sherry to co-found the company with you… does that make you a sucker?

Sherry Mckenna: No, it makes me the sucker!

Lorne Lanning: You mean outside of gaming right? I’ll get killed if I tell you how many more years more experience Sherry has in the film industry!

GW: You both come from different backgrounds though, tell us about that.

Sherry Mckenna: Well I come from traditional special effects, models and miniatures, and after that I went directly into computer graphics. You know, I did CG for The Last Starfighter, that kind of stuff. Mine was really traditional film making… but always as the vendor. You know… the studio comes to you, and you have to do what they tell you. Whereas, when I first hooked up with Lorne, I was working at Universal Studios in Florida, working on attractions like Back to the Future. They were motion-based ride films, like simulators.

Lorne Lanning: I think I got the better end of the deal. What I understood was that games production was getting more and more complex. The biggest advantage I had as a film maker getting into games where most others failed, was that although I’d been playing games my whole life, I really didn’t know that much. There’s so much to learn here… it’s not nearly as easy as all these Hollywood people think it’s going to be. That was a tremendous strength. But what I also knew was that games were becoming more costly to produce, the teams were getting larger, and therefore that the business management and the business aspect was going to get more and more important.

Visual effects companies are probably more similar to games developers than any other companies out there. They’re trying to marry programmers and artists, and it can be a mess of cultural ideas. To get those people to work together, I knew we needed a good producing structure. That’s why I went to Sherry… it took two years to win her over, but I got the better end of the deal because if Sherry wasn’t handling the negotiations, the publishers and so on, we’d be out of business! Like so many other developers, no matter how brilliant your ideas are, artists and programmers. It doesn’t take a lot to screw up a good relationship, and it takes a lot to build a great relationship. I knew that wasn’t my set of skills, and I needed someone to guard the kingdom while we were tapping on the keys. We wouldn’t be here without Sherry’s experience.

Q: Why did you choose to develop Munch’s Oddysee on Xbox and not on PS2?

Lorne Lanning: As you know we were developing it for the PS2 originally. But we were really dissatisfied with the structure of the architecture, and also the final image quality. We had hoped it would be something else. That doesn’t mean we didn’t think great games would eventually be built on the PS2, it just meant that we didn’t want to build them there. We thought the potential of PS2 would max out far sooner than what we’d want for our titles in the 128 BIT era. We were having a tough time, because we had to make a lot of compromises.

And then Microsoft came and talked to us early on, and asked what we thought about Microsoft entering the gaming industry. They asked what we’d want from a new games machine, and we were like, “more memory! Cleaner structure, cleaner data flow! DVD for sure. Faster CPU. A SINGLE graphics chip, not like three of them… don’t do that to us, don’t make the pipelines obscure and strange.” So they came back to us and said they were going to do it, and call it the Xbox. We told them we’d love to be a part of it, because we can achieve the image quality we’re after. We were looking at games development as trying to find a platform that we would want to build games for over the next five years. Look at the PC market today… look at the image quality, the mip mapping and aliasing capabilities of a $100 graphics card. Not all consoles can say they can do these things well but with Microsoft it was like, “We’re really going to have a fun time developing for this machine over the next five years.”

Q: So we take it you’re working with Xbox exclusively then.

Lorne Lanning: Yeah, we have a four-title exclusive deal on the Xbox with Microsoft first party.

GW: Isn’t your part of California quite crowded in terms of the games development community?

Sherry McKenna:
Actually we’re in the middle of nowhere!

GW: Well say you were a bit further south, in LA near Tecmo et al… what would you say distinguishes Oddworld Inhabitants as a developer, from others in the area?

Sherry McKenna: Any great story, book or game needs great characters and story, every time. The way I feel about it is that it doesn’t matter where you’re located. I want to see games attract more creative and artistic people, and the way to do that is to make the technology more user friendly. If we were up in San Francisco or in Silicon Valley, or even in LA (where I was born and raised) I wish that the technical people would hurry up. It’s like, “when are you going to get broadband into everyone’s home?” Everybody keeps asking us about online, but you don’t get to do that until broadband is everyone’s house.

GW: You should thank your lucky stars you’re not trying to achieve it in the UK then…

Sherry McKenna: Yeah you ain’t kiddin’! But the point is, hopefully what sets us apart is the quality of the art, the story and the characters. And of course, you have to have great gameplay…

Lorne Lanning: I mean if you walk through our studio, it’s run more like a film effects studio. It’s more about content and pre-production. You get the feeling that it’s more a directive model, like in a film, to get a succinct vision. That doesn’t mean you’re stamping out creativity on the floor, but trying to encourage and integrate it as part of a process.

Q: You said there would be another three games from you guys on Xbox, are they all going to be Oddworld games?

Lorne Lanning:
Yes. They’ll all be within the Oddworld Universe, but that doesn’t mean they’ll all be Abe and Munch.

GW: Is there anything else you can say about those games at the moment? And please don’t give it the usual “we can’t say anything at the moment folks!”…

Lorne Lanning: It’s too soon to talk about the characters and the story (all that’s on the drawing board, so I don’t want to say anything I’ll wind up regretting) but I can tell you a bit about the technology. After we completed Munch we decided to build a new, fresh engine that optimizes the Xbox. Munch’s Oddysee did not optimize the Xbox. At best maybe we tapped 50% of what’s there, and in image quality terms, maybe just 20%. What we’re running today after just three months of development work on an engine, I’ll say “Hey Sherry, come and check this out”… then she’ll say that it’s got to be pre-rendered… but it’s not. She’ll say, “How did you do that?!”. There are some pretty amazing things happening that are getting people really excited. We have our programming team who’ve written the tools the way we want them, but didn’t know they would look this good. We can add a lot more detail like fully 3D background images, instead of transparency tricks and stuff. There is going to be a lot more happening with the image quality that will make the next Oddworld game feel a lot more like a film.

GW: Sherry, you’ve won over 75 awards during your career, and Oddworld has received 40 as a company so far. What were those awards recognizing, and how does your previous career help Oddworld as a company today?

Sherry McKenna: I am absolutely a sucker for beautiful images – I just love beautiful computer graphics. Probably because I started in models and miniatures – I mean let’s say back then we wanted to create an airplane explosion. We’d build a really intricate, photo-real model, and let’s say you’re some executive suit from the studio. I’m a producer and I’ve had to find out exactly everything about what you want the explosion to look like. I do exactly what you want, blow up the plane and you go… “Oh, that’s not what I meant.” Then I’d have to build a whole new model, and it’s a pain in the ass right? With the advent of CG, it was just a case of “Oh you don’t like that? Hold on a second.” The reason I’ve won awards in my previous work is because we did beautiful computer graphics, and the work really looked outstanding. This was all for things like television advertising and feature films. But we didn’t own the content. So you could come to me and say “Do something, because you are paying the check and you own it.” So now I do something really great and you go, “make it blue.”… “Why?”… and you know what your answer is…? “Because I told you to.” And you just want to kill them.

GW: So do you prefer being in a position where you’re able to control your company’s intellectual property, as opposed to what you used to as part of a big corporation where it’s hard to have any control over IP?

Lorne Lanning: There’s no comparison.

Sherry McKenna: Oh! I mean, when Lorne first said to me ten years ago, “we’ll own the content”, I didn’t even know what ‘content’ meant! I mean like, “own IP?” what the hell does that mean?! I always tried to make it great for agencies and studios, but now we do what we want to do! If the games fail, we have nobody to point the finger at but ourselves. If they do well, then it’s because we did well. There’s just no comparison. You’re really are responsible for what you do. It’s not like on The Last Starfighter, which is this old movie I did a million years ago… we thought it was really cute, but people will go, “you know Sherry, we’ve never heard of it.” I mean, I had nothing to do with the story. I did the computer graphics. So if these movies I’ve worked on have failed, it wasn’t because of the CG… but if audiences didn’t go and see it then it’s not worth it – I’m not here to make art for art’s sake. I want to make games that people play. So for me it was very frustrating not to own the IP. Not to be the person in control. The stuff that failed… it’s not my fault! And the stuff that did well, I didn’t get the credit. With games, it’s much more rewarding.

Lorne Lanning: When we were in the service industry and I was a visual effects supervisor, I was enough of a pain in the ass to all these people working on lighting, characters and so on. Always saying, “No, that’s not right, we should change this and this.” But in the end it’s worth being pushed. You get these morale hits as well in the development phase. But at Oddworld, we’re concerned about the audience, not about the client.

Sherry McKenna: At Oddworld I can go, “You know what, I want these games to appeal to women, I want less violence, I want Abe not to carry a gun!” But when I worked on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I did what they told me to do.

GW: It’s a good film! Now you’ve met our friend Brandon Justice haven’t you? Would you say he made the right movie going into games development from journalism?

Lorne Lanning: It’s a hard question to answer. It depends on how long the developer is going to be around. Developers come and go quite quickly. I look at some people and think, wow – it’s so great that they’re in journalism, because they’re the ones really helping promote the games. But there are some people in journalism that should be in development, because they have better ideas than the developers! So if he’s following his heart then he’s doing the right thing.

GW: Well he’ll be pleased to hear that won’t he!

Q: You used to get hate mail when you announced the move from PS2 onto Xbox. Do you get nice mail now that the game has been released, saying how great it is on Xbox?

Sherry McKenna: When we moved from Sony to Microsoft we got some real hate mail. There were petitions and everything. All these kids were saying, “But Abe wouldn’t DO that!”

GW: Most of these guys were probably in their twenties!

Lorne Lanning: Nintendo fans won’t like a Sony game no matter how good it it. That’s the state of the industry. You don’t hate a movie because of the camera that was used to shoot it – either it’s a good movie or it’s not. But games aren’t like that, and it’s the same with Microsoft. But a lot of the fans don’t understand how hard it is to make games. How expensive it is, how hard the developers work… it’s easy to have strong opinions, but hard to build the games.

Sherry McKenna: A lot of the fans had a right to be mad after they bought the PS2 just for Oddworld games. But we tried to let them know quickly.

Q: What about broadband?

Lorne Lanning: I think it’s going to be very important, not just for Xbox but for consoles in general. I don’t know when it’s going to happen but Xbox will be more prepared to tackle online in a faster, cleaner and smarter way. Our interest in online won’t peak until we see that we can have things like voices and audio going back and forth in real time. And that will happen on Xbox, but we’re not going to do MMOGs and stuff, we’re going to experiment… we’ve not seen true online gaming yet, although Dreamcast touched on it. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but there is also a lot we want to do and a lot we’re going to have to take advantage of.

GW: And finally, do the two of you intend to get drunk tonight?

Lorne Lanning: Absolutely! That’s a 10/10 answer right there!

GW: That’s a lot for your time guys and good luck with the future.

Adam Doree
Lives in a pretty odd world of his own. “MUNCH ON MY XBOX!” (©)