To Oddworld and back: Why Lorne Lanning quit games and returned with a plan [2013]

To Oddworld and back: Why Lorne Lanning quit games and returned with a plan [Hosted by Computer and Video Games]

Date: 10/10/2013

Author: Dan Grilliopoulos


Lorne Lanning is trim, tidy, without looking too smooth, dressed like an Elmore Leonard protagonist or an artist done good. Black suit, black open-neck shirt, smart shoes, subtly masculine jewelry, smart beard and trimmed hair. A ready smile, a twinkling eye. He holds himself upright, except when he starts talking, and he leans forward, his posture eager, evangelising.

As a CVG reader, you probably know about Lanning. Or rather, you know about eight years of his life, 1997-2005. You know he made the Oddworld game series. You know that the first game, Abe’s Oddysee, was a surprise smash, combining dark characterisation with a subtly moralistic game design. You know the series carried on with that theme but, despite increasing scores, were never quite as successful again – despite selling over 7 million copies altogether.

You might know that Lanning’s Oddworld Inhabitants studio appeared to have no choice but sell out in 2005, following the commercial failure of Stranger’s Wrath (which, Lanning says, was partly because EA didn’t spend on marketing). But then… nothing. Lanning decided to stop making games entirely. What happened?

Lanning started out in visual arts, first in New York then California. He tells us that he worked as a Technical Director at the TRW Engineering Visualisation lab, helping imagine Reagan’s Star Wars program.

After his technical director stint, Lanning moved to visual effects experts Rhythm and Hues and teamed up with Sherry McKenna, a visual effects producer who worked on films like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Labyrinth and The Last Starfighter. After two years they formed Oddworld Inhabitants, with the aim of making games and films.

But why did they start Oddworld? “It was trying to do what Star Wars had done; Lucas gave people hope.” says Lanning. He sees the skepticism in my reaction “He really did! I was part of a young generation and we were kinda lost.” Though Lanning is less complimentary about Lucas’s later movies and his sale of LucasArts.

He feels that Lucas, Spielberg, Bob Dylan and the rest used entertainment as a vector for information that might help save the world.

Hand of Odd

Lanning certainly isn’t afraid to tackle new genres. In fact, at one point the designer was trying to fund an Oddworld RTS, he told CVG.

“The idea was that one side was industrial, and it would mow down everything. In RTS games today, there’s this common model that both sides play. Deplete the environment to build an army to kill the other side and leave a barren landscape. Whoever does that first wins.

“What I wanted to do was have one side gain power by growing back trees and restoring the environment. The other side was doing it by destroying. So one focused on life-force and the other focused on processing. So it was truly an industrial versus a native, shamanistic model.

The idea was very interesting, says Lanning – and it could still become reality. “These titles, whether or not we built them, we designed them, and in the process we learned a lot more about our universe, whether or not we made the title.”

Giving people hope is a strange aim for a video game studio, however. “I remember the subtle propaganda of Spielberg’s ET, where the students have to dissect a frog in class. There’s a history of that, of desensitisation, in the American system. A child doesn’t learn anything by cutting open a frog – what he learns is to not care about killing. What he did beautifully is that, because the kids have got ET at home, they start associating these lifeforms with a certain perspective, so they set all the frogs free. That’s a huge propaganda moment, a huge anti-Western public education moment.”

Stranger’s Wrath failed due to minimal marketing support, claims Lanning

You see, from his background as an artist and his military time at TRW, Lanning had seen that the world was on the wrong track. “I live in Berkeley, amongst some of the smartest people in the world.” he says.

“Neuroscientists, marine biologists. We got big problems. Some of them are obvious and some are not. But what we’ve got to do is make a collective attempt to see what’s really going on rather than being comfortable with our armchair version that’s getting beamed to us through televisions and newspapers. That’s getting us deeper in trouble and not helping at all. We need to start taking more responsibility and let the bad guys get away with less.”

It’s worth noting that Lorne is a talker – we spoke to him for 90 minutes and we could have talked for another few hours. This reflects that the man has a coherent view of where the world has gone wrong and what his role is in fixing it. And because he regards that awareness as a rare talent, his obligation is to carry out that role. He calls it nutritious gaming. Oddworld has always been at the core of that view.

“So what I wanted to do was to create content that would help kids who were lost, like me. I was really lost, I was just overwhelmed by it. And if you talk to kids today, they’re very overwhelmed by it. You go to the extremes, you go talk to the gangs, Crips and Bloods and stuff, none of them expect to live past thirty.”

So the Oddworld games took their kooky characters and the action game mechanics, and stuffed a little nutritious morality in there. Abe’s Oddysee was about processed foods, industrialisation, exploitation and power hierarchies. Abe’s Exoddus was about desecration, torture and industrialisation. The first 3D Oddworld game, Munch’s Oddysee was about exploitation and extinction. And the FPS Stranger’s Wrath was about industrialisation, extinction and exploitation of natural resources. You see the theme.

Oddworld Slave Circus

The Slave Circus concept is described as a “gladiator” type game in which players purchase and battle slaves. Lanning claims to have worked on the “insane” concept for years, claiming it requires “a new level of social integration.”

“It was a little ahead of its time,” he told CVG. “It may still happen. But I never went out there promoting it as much as people think. Actually, Gabe Newell loved it but they’re not a game publisher. He said, ‘I heard the title, I was turned off. Now that you’ve explained it, I think it would be great, it would work.'”

Although Slave Circus is a game he can eventually see being made, Lanning said he’s all but given up on games publishers.

“Three years ago I was out there looking for ways to finance it and I wasn’t talking to any publishers. I don’t talk to them, there’s no point. I don’t care for the terms, I don’t want to play. I would do it with certain people, but I’d want them to own it from the start.”

Which is why, when Stranger’s Wrath sold nothing and EA then offered to buy out Oddworld, Lanning decided to shut the studio and focus on other projects. It’s sad to say that none of those projects – movies and social networks – really worked out. However, the new and smaller Oddworld survived.

Now it’s eight years later and Oddworld is creeping back. Lanning’s studio has been patching up and remaking its old games for digital release, with the help of UK developer Just Add Water. The aim is to grow the business organically, always profitably, to gradually work its way back up to making a new AAA commercial game. And, from comments Lanning made, we’re betting that game is the Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot.
Lanning says the success of Halo and high price of the original Xbox put an end to plans for Munch’s Exodus

The Brutal Ballad was supposed to be a dark first- and third-person shooter set in the Oddworld equivalent of Afghanistan, Fangustan, which is a rural nation taken over by foreign mafia who use it to manufacture drugs. You would have played the shepherd Fangus, enslaved as a pitfighter and infected with rabies. It was cancelled back in 2005 when Oddworld Inhabitants quit games development.

Lanning doesn’t want to announce any new games until he knows he can pay for them. Still, when talking about GTA V’s torture scene, he does let some detail slip.

“I’m working on some stuff, at a design level, that is going to be more traumatic. I’m not sure I’m going to able to make it. I’m designing stuff and I’m like, wow, this might be really intense, at a basic core level. I’m really trying to think it through. But part of me wants it. That intensity.

“I’m trying to find a balance between charm and intensity. In that intensity, in the way a particular character works, it might be a shocker for some. It might not be something they’re expecting. I’m not sure I can make it, I’m not sure I can finance it. I don’t think it’s going to make worse people – and if I did I wouldn’t make it. Remember the line about Mortal Kombat? We thought the world was going to end because you were pulling out spines. But it was great fun!”

Even if Fangus isn’t made, Stranger’s Wrath won’t be the last Oddworld game – Lanning is still interested in making Oddworld: Slave Circus – but it might be the last one on a physical medium.

Lanning anning says the success of Halo and high price of the original Xbox put an end to plans for Munch’s Exoddus

“IP will be in the cloud.” says Lanning. “You’ll have to access through all your different devices, maybe at different levels of experience, engagement and depth. It could be on the smallest, most minimal device where all you can do is manipulate a couple for things, but the IP will be accessible to you. For consoles in the future, they’ll offer a stellar, premier experience and services to access IP.”

Of course, if none of this works out, Lanning will at least know that he tried to introduce morality into games. And he can always fall back on his fly-fishing hobby. To end this article I could go about drawing a clumsy oh-so-journalistic parallel between the way Lanning has made Oddworld as a perfect lure for youth; hiding the hook of moral, educational, nutritious content behind the violence and Pixar-style charm.

But I won’t. That would be crass, a cheap writerly trick. And, looking at Lanning’s smart business plan, sharp mind and stand-up morality, I feel like I should try to be a better person too.