Why Oddworld’s Lorne Lanning gave up games for movies

Why Oddworld's Lorne Lanning gave up games for movies [Hosted by Edge-Online]

Date: December 2006
Interviewer: Edge
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20070217172009/http://www.edge-online.co.uk/archives/2007/01/why_oddworlds_l.php

After a year out of the spotlight, a rejuvenated Lorne Lanning returns to explain why he left the videogame industry behind – and why he didn’t leave gaming…

This article was originally published as ‘A rested development’ in the Christmas 2006 issue of Edge (E170).

As co-founder (with Sherry McKenna) of Oddworld Inhabitants, Lorne Lanning steered the idiosyncratic Oddworld cycle for a decade and two hardware generations, culminating in the exceptional Stranger’s Wrath. But after hinting at the development of a new title, Citizen Siege, Oddworld Inhabitants withdrew from internal game development – choosing to focus on combining CG film and videogame projects. Citizen Siege has recently entered production under animated feature developer Vanguard, and with development of the game to follow, we talked to the reliably outspoken Lanning about gaming’s new frontiers…

Edge: How did your relationship with Vanguard for Citizen Siege come about?

Lorne Lanning: I’ll give you a little history since CAA [Creative Arts Agency] deserve the credit – Larry Shapiro from CAA saw Abe’s Oddysee in a theatre at E3 ’96 or ’97, and that’s when he decided to get more involved with videogames – when he believed they could tell stories. Abe had that cinematic flair that really said: ‘This could happen not only in a movie, but in gameplay too’. Close to five years ago, he said he’d really like to represent us at CAA. And that was the beginning of our relationship that, in all honesty, hasn’t amounted to much for them for years [laughs].

Larry believed in Oddworld all these years; we had been approached by other agents in other Hollywood studios, but we were looking for our own movies, in full CG. I didn’t want to direct other people’s projects – I wanted to have our concepts financed, and that I would direct. And that’s quite a leap of faith. But CAA fully believed in it, and we’ve been astounded by the commitment that they’ve had to the future, where videogame talent will arise and how that will help change the face of media.

E: How seriously is the creative vision taken in the film industry, compared to working in the games industry and with publishers?

LL: It’s completely polar. The film industry is a brutal industry, we’re not naïve about that, but talent is respected and revered. It doesn’t mean you’re given a blank cheque, but it is understood that you can offer something that other people can’t. And that… does it exist in the games industry? The other day, I heard my friend who runs a major development studio in the US – he’s in his 50s and has been running studios since he was 25 – say: ‘The new publisher just sent down their new 22-year-old boy to tell me what to do’. And that’s just classic games industry, in that it hasn’t yet realised what individual vision can truly bring to a project, because we’re still in a fully teamsport corporate mode. We became packaged goods before we established ourselves as an artform, or a vehicle for expression.

E: Do you think people like you and the work you do are undervalued by the industry they serve?

LL: Games are not going to go away, and will only get more and more interesting, and more talented people are going to become more interested in them. Yet it’s going to be a painfully slow growth because of the nature of the medium, and the nature of the business. Talent complains full-time, it’s just a non-stop onslaught of complaints from talent; but the games industry sees everyone as expendable, and I think that will change as the value of individual talent becomes more and more recognised. Clearly, Will Wright is, and Miyamoto has been, but how many people do we not hear about?

E: Is that contributing to the distance between critical reception of a title like Stranger’s Wrath and the impact it made?

LL: Well, that was simply because of promotion. Because there were no marketing dollars behind Stranger’s Wrath – and that was a business decision on behalf of EA – that choice sealed the sales. It still sold over half a million units, but people don’t buy $50 entertainment products if they don’t know what they are. And they didn’t have an opportunity to know about Stranger’s Wrath; so what that told us was that we need to swim in bigger ponds. We don’t want to invest three years of our life to just have a publisher abandon our title. If our game’s not on all the right platforms, or if a publisher neglects their half of the deal, are you just going to keep on living by the business practices of the industry? And our answer was: ‘No, we’re better than that.’

I don’t mean that in any pompous way – if Abe’s Oddysee was a movie, it would still be on the shelves of Blockbuster, but because it was a game, no one even has a PlayStation hooked up any more. So it’s a question of the lifespan of your work – many people remember and love Abe from over ten years ago, which is phenomenal for a game. Whereas if that type of impact were made as a movie, it would be an entirely different ball game that would open up your options tremendously.

Another issue is that through each hardware transition, we’re basically on a tools focus, and not a content focus. There’s a huge chasm between what the development community wants and what the big boys, the hardware manufacturers, are currently building. It’s absurd, and reduces the innovative output that creatives have in gaming. So, if I had games as a sole focus of my time and energy, my stories are always mulched down to get it to run on whatever technology we were using at the time. It’s 80 per cent a technical challenge, and 20 per cent a content challenge. And at the end of the day, we’re more content people than technology people.

E: Do you not feel steps towards backwards compatibility are extending the lifespan of legacy titles?

LL: Who cares about it? I mean, really. Who cares? If you already have those games, you already have the machine! It’s a marketing thing. If I buy a new machine, I’m not putting my old games in there: I want to play new games. But if games are to continue to be conducive to the development community, they’re going to have to evolve off of existing tools, so those tools don’t become valueless. And there’s a huge investment that developers make in tools with each hardware generation, and then they have to create from scratch over again. It’s crazy.

If computer graphics had gone that way, we’d be nowhere near where we are today. But the CG industry would have rejected the Ken Kutaragis: ‘If you want to discard our software creations, we have no interest in your hardware’. In fact, many computer companies tried, saying: ‘This is how you should be doing computer graphics’, and the computer graphics community said: ‘Piss off, you don’t know what you’re doing.’ So the difference with the computer graphics industry is that it was focused on the product, and the hardware was dispensable – consumers weren’t buying the hardware, but the product. The hardware manufacturers had to adhere to the needs of the filmmakers, the content creators.

The videogame industry is completely backwards that way. The engineering minds aren’t, historically, speaking to the people who actually know how to build games. Show me a hardware design built by someone who knows how to build games – they’re not there… except for Nintendo. I can see Miyamoto saying that software is most important, and to do the software right, we need to embrace the people who built their software for their GameCube, and can build off of it for the Wii. Because of that, they can hit the ground running, and are able to innovate. Whereas with Sony, now you have to rewrite everything for Cell. Why aren’t they talking to the game developers that actually know how to make games? Saying: ‘Y’know, if we could use our PS2 software to go into the PS3, we would be improving, and not just getting back to where we are now’. It’s innovation prohibitive, and cost prohibitive.

And this is why the small developers realise they can’t go on. When games get a budget of $15-20 million, the terms for the small developers evaporate quickly. When you have to do two million units to break even, something’s really wrong – a singer who sells two million units is on the front of People magazine, while a game developer who sells two million units is being asked at a conference why his game didn’t meet expectations.

E: Looking at the early PS3 titles, the quantity of work, and the standard of it, is high, but there’s a sense that the end result isn’t necessarily that different for the player…

LL: [Interrupts] And the cost to get it there was more! That’s where it can’t help but backfire. That doesn’t mean gloom and doom, but the backfire is people like myself saying that we love games, but it’s not moving to where we thought it would go fast enough, and the way it is moving, I don’t want to be involved 100 per cent of my time. I want to be more of a progressive storyteller than be bound by the hardware limitations of what games are today.

The tricky part is – and this is where it backfires on creatives – with the press and gaming public, because the gaming public is largely fed the PR line: ‘Aren’t we all excited about this new hardware?’ Maybe the public is, but the developers aren’t. Kudos to those that have great sales success, but I look at it and wish that I was still playing games now, but they’re just not captivating my interest. Not to be misconstrued, I have game concepts that I’m really excited about, but to spend three years of my life on something abandoned at retail when it was recognised as a unique and solid product… that’s a game I don’t want to play any more.

E: With the model of building Citizen Siege as a film and game project, are there economies of scale in terms of the production costs?

LL: Well, digital assets – that’s a synergy that means a lot for world builders. I think that with the hardware capacity of the game systems today, and the film resolutions for movies today, the two can be shared to a far greater degree than before. Take Gears Of War – we wouldn’t mind seeing that quality in a television show, and yet all those digital assets are just being built for a game, when they exceed what’s being developed for CG television.

On Stranger’s Wrath, we found our realtime building tools were beginning to far exceed the efficiency of our pre-rendered tools, so we started using them instead. If we wanted a landscape populated with trees, and a river, say, the time it would take to do that in Maya was a significant portion of the schedule. In realtime, we were generating them in just hours. And that’s what realtime is bringing to CG: the tool power is changing the way we think about the creation of assets.

So when you step back and think about a movie that’s going to be 100 per cent digital – how are you going to build a city? Are you just going to use the conventional Maya-like approach? Or how we’re building them in games? The image quality is going to be the same on the screen. Our goal is that it looks like a $150 million movie, but we made it for under $50 million.

E: Is it right to say that Citizen Siege continues to deal with your concerns over corporate control and globalisation?

LL: It’s inspired by global conditions now. Beyond that, I don’t want to get too much into it, as it would just open up speculation – it would be kinda like all the speculation when we closed the studio – ‘Lorne Lanning quits games!’ again, y’know? And how people say I’m confused because one day I want to make games, the next day films… I’d love the details to only start emerging when you’re watching the trailer.

E: It seems, overall, the entertainment field is more receptive to counter-culture ideas than before – in openly scathing documentaries, for instance. Have you felt that shift?

LL: I think when it comes to documentaries, that’s true. In recent years, some have been escalating to places people had never imagined, like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 – for the budget versus the returns, that was not a documentary’s financial model. But with mainstream movies, regular box office stuff, I think the audience is largely still the same: they just want great stories. And if a great story can come along and be an Apocalypse Now, where it has so much more insight into our world, where it shows us something with different eyes that wasn’t the PR spin the governments of the world were trying to sell us, then it has that extra potency.

It’s films and books that have shaped who we are – the films that blew my mind have inspired every aspect of my being. And real change is not coming through the bubblehead moronic stuff that’s passed off as news these days, it’s coming through entertainment that has potency. And that includes games.

E: People rarely talk about the role of gaming within that transfer of ideas, and that they let you examine cause and effect and relationships in a way that you can’t with linear entertainment. Why do you think that is?

LL: That’s what I think the potential is, but it’s not going there yet, for the most part. I have no doubt that games are the most powerful medium we’ve ever had, but we’re still in the tinker-toy stage. We just have to blow out to the point where a game can change the face of political opinion, like a movie does. Lord David Puttnam was firmly convinced that the civil rights movement in America was enabled to happen because it was filmed for television, and offered insight and compassion to the audience. It made issues relevant, and enabled people to see from a different perspective.

That’s when a medium really has power – the idea of the artist, mythologically, is to show us the way, or the wrong way, even. It’s showing the world something that it needs to know, but for some reason isn’t necessarily able to see. You see it in a great movie, book or play, but it’s not happening in games. What I see instead is we say: ‘Hmm, why don’t we take war, and make it as visually realistic as possible, then sterilise so that it’s just fun’, and there’s something very perverted about that.

E: As a storyteller, how daunting are the increasing player expectations for more organic, procedural narrative structures?

LL: I think you have to look at what’s really interesting about a universe and its characters, and why that can translate into something interactive. Cars the videogame sells really well, but I have no interest in buying it – I don’t even have an interest in looking at it, because I already know what it is. But when you hear about World Of WarCraft, you have a lot of curiosity about what’s going on in that world. Now even if there were a WOW movie, the story is playing in that universe, but the individuals are creating content and personas, customising themselves within that world. I think that’s far more the future. Customisation, community, teamwork, the factioning of beliefs: these should be finding their way into gaming tribalism. The more we translate the issues of the real world into interactive worlds that seem to empower people and belief systems, the more people we’ll attract to them.

E: Isn’t there a worry that more elaborate, persistent worlds might alienate people who already worry that games are too demanding a time-sink?

LL: It’s reasonable that people feel that way. Most professional people – even though I can’t account for any true nine to five-ers with no other ambitions in life [laughs] – who come home each night, and feel that they didn’t manage to achieve all of what they had wanted to do that day, especially if they’ve got kids – they just wish they had more time for that. And that’s what needs to change – if a game can enable you to spend time with your kids, all of a sudden its paradigm has changed, and it has its value in your life. It’s just as likely that people could be benefiting from a game experience, rather than just wasting their time, or being entertained for a few hours – to be able walk out and say: ‘I never knew that about this’, or ‘I never knew people could be so cruel and devious in that way’, and not just because they crept up behind you and shot you in the back. The more those things are happening within games, the more relevant they become; the less they happen, the more they have the capacity to be significant timewasters.

But I do see the problem. I have never gotten into an MMO, because as soon as I feel the gravitational force of it, I pull away. I don’t want to spend all my time there, and I know I can get caught up in it. I see the value and the attraction power and why people love it so, but that’s not how I want to spend my time. However, if there was an MMO kinda like Second Life, except it was all eco-sustainable, alternative architecture and energy, and I could walk around it and experiment with it all and be with other people who also want it – I’d be there in a second, because it would be attracting those people who are into it, from all over the world. But the people who shoot each other in Quake have no interest in connecting with one another. But it really does depend on the content. So even though I don’t want to play World Of WarCraft, I do wanna see the movie, I wanna get a good story out of an orc, y’know, just not hang out with one all the time, since it’s not offering me what I’m looking for.

Marc Ecko gave a talk at DICE a few years ago, and he said that we’re all competing for people’s leisure time. That’s how we have to look at it. If games are going to keep being what game-makers want them to be, you’re just going to lose gamers – I mean, how many have we lost to MySpace? Because now they can customise their persona and actually meet people, and exchange music and explore things that are relevant in their lives. And that’s a huge competing factor for the future, as our leisure time gets less and less. That’s the challenge games face.