Polygon Magazine: Uncommon Threads [2004]

 Uncommon Threads [Polygon Magazine]

Date: March 2004

Author: Brendan Sinclair

Source: http://web.archive.org/web/20100226183821/http://oddworld.dreamhost.com:80/oddworlduniverse.com/features/uncommonthreads.php

Uncommon Threads

Written by Brendan Sinclair
Photography by Aaron Lauer

Oddworld Inhabitants wants to change the gaming medium forever. With their unyielding story-driven approach to game development, they just might succeed.

As far as game companies go, Oddworld Inhabitants is in a class all its own. How many other unproven first-time game developers would be confident enough in its very first attempt at making a game to not only swipe the company’s name from that effort, but to promise that it was the first part of a quintology of games? How many companies could not only make an innovative-yet-old-school 2D platformer in the midst of the 3D revolution, but also make one that appeals to casual gamers while simultaneously beating them about the neck and face with its brutal level of difficulty? How many companies would have the stones to create games laced with themes damning rampant capitalism and the globally corporate mindset for the benefit of international juggernauts Sony and Microsoft?

Movies vs. Games

Much of what Lanning wants to do to games with character development and story is old hat in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple matter to take storytelling techniques of movies and transfer them to games.

“Two hours of linear storytelling allows you to put the majority of the focus on character development, character relationships and the story. So you can make an Apocalypse Now. You can make a Godfather. But the game medium is not there yet to be able to deliver that type of a powerful storytelling, emotionally connected experienced through a game system to that many people. I know guys that cry over Final Fantasy VII. I think they’re complete dorks. Most people are not going to cry over that scene in Final Fantasy VII. They’re going to laugh at the quality of the writing. I don’t mean that as an insult to Square. I just mean it’s not up to par with feature film Academy Award winning writing. It’s not even close. And I’m not saying ours is, either, but it’s the game medium.”

We recently spent a few days at the offices of the Oddworld Inhabitants to find out what makes their work so distinctively Odd, and while we expected the explanation to be anything but bland, we didn’t expect it to be so damn complicated, either. There are a million different things that seperate the people and products of Oddworld Inhabitants from those of your normal developer, but there’s no simple theme to herd them all under. Trying to tell someone what makes Oddworld, Oddworld, is like trying to explain what makes a person human. Like any living thing, Oddworld is defined more by a collection of traits rather than a single label.

To get an idea of some of the primary traits, we started with the company’s co-founder, president, and creative director Lorne Lanning. After all, the entire Oddworld universe is Lanning’s baby, a series of stories he’d wanted to tell for years before he got into the gaming business, a modern parable empowering the hopeless in an oppressive world.

“It started with a very dark theme of contemporary fear of the masses, or at least the educated masses and the third world,” Lanning explains of Oddworld’s origins. “It also started with the premise that we would be showing images of hope through the eyes of those lowest on the food chain in an overpowering world that we could relate to. Oddworld was going to be the cracked mirror of our own reality, showing us ourselves through these very strange characters, and showing us more of the world that we already relate to in a way that would tickle our funny bone and at the same time stimulate more of our intellectual capacity.”

With a story in place, Lanning chose videogames, “the most powerful medium to hit the planet ever,” in his words, as the vehicle for his tales. Despite that high esteem, Lanning will be the first to tell you this medium is a long ways from reaching its potential.

“Historically, I’ve found that the game medium very disappointing as a storytelling medium because the nature of the two mediums are in conflict,” Lanning says. “Good stories are about ever-changing conditions, ever-changing conflicts. Games are built upon repeatable mechanics, whereas stories are built on changing circumstances. What I find is the developers of a game often compromise what a story could have been because if you’ve really synergized those two well, then your game mechanics should be very closely related to who the character is and what he is.”

Previous games in the Oddworld series have certainly tied story deeply into the game mechanics, but Lanning wants to go even further and truly reconcile the seemingly counteracting goals of giving a gamer complete and total freedom to do what they want by tell them a finely crafted story at the same time.

“We don’t have that beautiful synergy of story matching the gameplay. I do believe it’s possible. We’re one of the companies that is trying to truly crack that nut in a way that compromises neither, yet enhances both gameplay and story. But it’s challenging. It’s definately a lot easier to just say ‘let’s build a challenging game and not try to tell a prefect story.'”

While there’s bound to be plenty of experimentation on the way to realizing that synergy of story and gameplay, one thing you won’t see Oddworld games toy with is gratuitous violence. When Oddworld co-founder and CEO Sherry McKenna started the company with Lanning nine years ago, one condition of her involvement in the company was that they would not indulge in the violence common among the industry’s hit titles of the time, like id Software’s Doom.

“I’m not against violence,” McKenna explains. “I’m against gratuitous violence. I’m not here to make Mary Poppins and I have no desire to make educational games. So in our games the violence hopefully, if we succeed, has a purpose.”

There are two more staples guaranteed to play a role in any Oddworld game: intellectual property and subtext. While the former sounds pretty obvious considering Lanning started the comapny to tell his own original stories, the reasons for holding the rights to the games and characters was just as much a sound business decision as an artistically gratifying one.

“I’ve always viewed game design as a way to create intellectual property,” Lanning says. “That takes nothing away from the art of game design. It only considers that it has greater opportunities than are largely looked at. That’s a big way that I saw it before we started the company in 1994, and that’s one of the ways that I convinced Sherry to actually be the CEO of this company. The reason is because in the long run, intellectual property has far greater value than any one individual game.”

To cultivate that property and make it worth something, Lanning knew it had to be built around a great story, preferably one with a devoted fan base. Gleaning some knowledge from other prized intellectual properties like Star Wars and Star Trek, Lanning realized the key for creating a world in which people could believe.

“What’s important to fan culture is that they need to have faith without even thinking about it that the creators understand a lot more of that world and that universe and all the reasons why than you were able to witness in one product. So when you think of designing a property like that and you think of the importance of a fan base, you need to go really deep into why you’re making the decisions that you do because ultimately a great story is a small boat swimming on an ocean of subtext. And if your stories evolve that way and are developed that way, then you really do have most of the answers for why you make the decisions you did or why the characters are the way they are.”

It’s not enough that Lanning knows what makes something belong in Oddworld. There’s an entire company of developers that needs to be on the same page in order to realize his vision. As production designers for Oddworld Inhabitants, Silvio Aebischer and Raymond Swanland have designed most every character in the company’s forthcoming as-yet untitled game. And even though Lanning’s vision shapes the universe, he’s often hazy about the specific look or form of what he needs, so Aebischer and Swanland have had to become very adept at interpreting his enthusiasm and giving his stories a visual form.

“Generally Lorne will have a pretty good idea of the environments and the vehicles we want,” Swanland says of the creation process. “But Lorne is very interested in having us take the idea on the most vague of levels and saying ‘OK, now show me stuff that you think is cool. Show me the stuff that you think would fit in this world that we’re creating with this new game.’ Then it becomes an interactive process where what we create can inspire him and can take the story off in any direction.”

Monogamous Relationship

Oddworld Inhabitants is a one-franchise kind of developer, a true rarity in this day and age of promiscuous game development. We tried to think of some other notable developers who took one franchise and stuck with it through thick and thin, but most of them came up short in the end.

Polyphony Digital:
You’d think with a franchise like Gran Turismo to go home to every night, the guys at Polyphony Digital wouldn’t feel the need to wander or test the waters. Nevertheless, they had a fling in 1999 with the average sci-fi shoot-’em up Omega Boost.

These guys of course are synonymous with the Sim franchise of games, but years ago when they were a publisher (our analogy’s equivalent of a pimp we suppose), they also developed an under appreciated PC title about dueling genetic engineers called Unnatural Selection.

Although they snuck in the WWII title Day of Defeat and are working on Team Fortress 2. Half-Life has always been Valve’s true love. Other projects like Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike, are based on, yes, Half Life. We’d think of them as affairs that the wife helped out with, but that’s really stretching it…

“There’s a sense of history, a sense of realism,” Aebischer says, pondering Oddworld’s distinctive nature. “There’s a certain depth, images that are associated. For example a dam, what it does and how it holds back. It’s not just a wall. There are some other icons that go with it. It could be a big plug, or a giant spider that’s holding all this water back and the building, the pumps and all that looks like its creepy arms. It has a different subtext to get the concept across better. So it’s not just a wall. What we’re trying to do is make that wall have a character. Character in a building, character in a vehicle. It’s not just a shape.”

Now we’re getting a more complete picture of what makes a game fit for development at Oddworld. It tells a story and provides an entertaining experience, pushing both the gameplay and narrative techniques towards a convergence point that will revolutionize the gaming industry. It uses violence sparingly, and only with a purpose behind it. It is an original intellectual property to allow the developers the freedom to change the universe and characters as they choose. And finally, there is a depth and substance to the games, with layers of meaning and stories behind everything.

As you might have guessed, unique gaming experience that live up to these demands come from very unique, very demanding workplaces. At first glance, Oddworld Inhabitants might look like the inside of any other game development house. There’s plenty of art on the walls, promotional materials in the waiting area, scattered toys and Mexican wrestling masks adorning desks and cubicle walls. But not everything is as normal as it seems.

As part of her duties as the company’s CEO, McKenna makes sure to promote a happy, emphatically healthy work force. The company maintains a support staff on site to take care of the developers’ every non-gaming related needs, running errands and cleaning up after them so they can get to the business of making games. Everyone gets a health club membership as part of their employee benefits. Everyone is given plenty of bottled water, fresh fruit and vitamins to encourage good nutrition. McKenna’s health culture so permeates the office that when employees confess to sneaking potato chips into the building for mid-day snacking, they do so in hushed tones, almost begging us not to expose their terrible, terrible secret. They don’t ask that for fear of punishment, however. We got the impression is was more out of a desire to not disappoint their employer.

That devotion and loyalty to the group is rare in any company, but it has to be there if Oddworld is to realize its ambitions. Lanning knows how valuable that chemistry is, as well as how difficult it can be to come by. If you ask him, he’ll tell you it took Oddworld’s first eight years and three games of existence before things fell into place.

“We had half a company of people that wanted to make as good a game as possible by 6 p.m., and half a company that wanted to make a great game [period]. And that led to them resenting each other.”

This difference in approach was so pronounced that even a casual observer could spot it. After a visit to the development house, former Xbox Technical Director Seamus Blackley pointed out that there were two seperate cultures at work there.

Towards the end of development on Munch’s Oddysee, the culture became a bit more homogenous, with the full-timers moving on and the all-timers showing they had the chops to stick with the company. The reasons they gave for enjoying their jobs differed on the surface, but they all boiled down to each Oddworld Inhabitant’s different way of doing things.

“The whole company vision is a lot stronger than anywhere I’ve been,” said Lead Programmer Charles Bloom. “At most of the companies I’ve been at, you feel like everybody’s doing their job. And even though each person is doing their job fine, you’re not all on the same page. The animators don’t talk to the programmers and things like that.”

According to Technical Director Iain Morton, lack of communication is most definately not a problem. “It’s kind of neat working for this company where Lorne, the president will come by and sit at your desk and just chit-chat with you and help you with your stuff,” Morton explains. “It’s also neat to hear the ideas coming straight from the horse’s mouth versus the company I was at before with [a staff of] 500 where by the time you get a shot handed off to you it’s gone through 10 people and bunch of different iterations and you don’t feel as connected with it.”

The draw is so great here that one of the newest Inhabitants, Lead Gamer Designer Erik Yeo, even left Seven Studios, a company he helped start, in order to work for Lanning and company.

“It’s certainly a lot friendlier than some other places I’ve been,” Yeo says. “There isn’t this super hierarchy. Everyone tends to be a lot more on a friend level and eveyone works together rather than working for someone. We all have the same goal in mind, ultimately.”

As ambitious and admirable as the company’s goals and corporate culture are, and as infectiously enthusiastic the people of Oddworld Inhabitants might be for the work they do, they are not above the realities of modern game development. No example could underscore this fact more than the Xbox development of Munch’s Oddysee. Company COO Maurice Konkle sets the scene.

“We made a deal with Microsoft and the deal was we were doing to deliver for them a launch title. That was the really important thing. And there was no circumstance under which we were not going to deliver a title for them at launch. We were going to produce absolutely the best title we could produce. We started working on the platform in October of 2000 and we delivered around November 1 of 2001. We moved Heaven and Earth to g et that game done. From a creative point of view and what we would have liked to accomplish there’s no question it would have been better to take more time and to deliver a year later.”

While far from terrible, it wasn’t what anyone at Oddworld had hoped for either, and it’s easy to see that the failures of that game still haunt Lanning.

Will Work For Spooce

Want a job at Oddworld? Before signing on, all new hires are required to hear McKenna’s hour-long lecture about the company to let them know what they’re getting into. Here’s a taste:

“I want someone that is totally passionate about what they do. I want them to love games, to love what they’re creating. I want them to work hard and strive to be the best. Unfortunately, some people have their prejudices and I’m not going to be able to stop that, but I do make it known that they cannot bring them into the studio. I happen to believe that positive energy helps and that negative energy is harmful. I am not a big believer in competition. I believe that if you work as a team and you work with positive energy, that will transfer into the product. I believe that the reason that the people fell in love with Abe is because the people creating it loved Abe and I believe that comes through. You don’t have to agree with me, you just have to do what I say. And you can pretend. Pretending’s fine.”

“What happened in Munch was there were various problems at various stages of development,” Lanning explains. “It started off with too large an idea. It started off with too aggressive a goal and we weren’t able to pull it off. And there’s a list of reasons why but we weren’t able to pull off that vision. And when that happens, you still have a contract. You still have a budget. You still have deadlines and you gotta make good if you’re going to stay in business. You just can’t throw up your hands and say ‘Guess what, guys? You blew all your money. Guess what? It’s not going to be what we wanted so lets close the doors and go home.’ You have to make it work if you’re a pro.”

In this case, “making it work” meant compromising on both the intended gameplay and story. Munch was originally supposed to be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character, where he would get angry and become a berserk monster due to adrenal steroid testing that had been performed on him. Unfortunately the technical considerations of having this happen in the middle of gameplay were too great to be done in time for the Xbox launch, so that whole idea was scrapped in order to make good on the company’s arrangement with Microsoft.

The process of pushing Munch out the door was so distressing to Lanning that he’s currently reconsidering the entire Oddworld series. When Abe’s Oddysee came out, Lanning made no secret that it was supposed to be the first episode in a quintology of stories. The plan was to have five primary Oddworld games that are the bulk of the story, with tangentially related games to pad the company coffers in between the key titles. The current project is another side story, but that doesn’t mean the quintology will continue with the studio’s next game. Or even the one after that.

“The quintology to me was first stories and then games,” Lanning says. “It was one vast, epic story. But Munch was such an uncomfortably challenging experience and so absolutely compromising to how the story was originally conceived and originally written that it has caused me to question whether or not I want to finish the quintology as games first or have them be movies first, but I don’t want to compromise the story for the sake of an awkward development system, shaky technological advances or lack thereof. The stories are too important to me.”

That said, Lanning doesn’t want us to think he’s becoming disillusioned with videogames. “I’m critical of the medium because I believe in its potential more than most,” Lanning explains. “There’s no doubt in my mind that in 20 years the game technology medium will be the delivery system for entertainment. We won’t call them games anymore because they will have evolved above that primordial identity. What we’re really talking about is into virtual worlds and the next stage of that is composite realities.”

Even if Lanning won’t endanger his quintology of stories by trying to make them before the medium is ready, he’s still going to push the envelope of what games can do. While the progress of our gaming machines’ abilities to think in ones and zeroes will improve with time. Oddworld Inhabitants will be working on the subtler art of making games, of making you feel an attachment to a character, of telling a story that acts as more than an excuse for gameplay, of creating games that challenge the norm and prove that games can be can be every bit as touching and enriching as a Dickens classic. If they realize these ambitions, you can bet a huge paradigm shift that will reshape the way games are made from the concept stage onward will occur. And in the aftermath of that shift, it’s a safe bet that the Oddworld way of doing things will become the norm.