Nathan interviews Lorne Lanning again

 

In August 2011, I found myself in California and spent a few days in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lorne Lanning generously offered to meet me and answer questions from the Oddworld Forums and other Oddworld fans. The following conversation took place in a sushi restaurant in Berkeley.

We started off talking about the Forums and the fact that they’re still going strong after so many years.

Editor’s Note: Throughout the first third of this interview, Lorne talks about a project he was working on called Xmobb. Since this interview was conducted, the Xmobb company has been closed down.

Lorne: By the way, I really appreciate that you’ve kept up with this stuff through the years. It means a lot to us.

Nathan: It’s kind of that thing that, no offence, it’s gone beyond you. We’re a community now.

Lorne: Oh, yeah. Not only is that ‘no offence’, but that’s a compliment for us. I did a talk recently, remotely to GameCity in the UK and I talked about ‘weaponising’ the game medium. I think it was so shocking that the people there didn’t even ask what the hell that means. What it means is, I always saw it as a vehicle for consciousness. I saw it as a vehicle to trigger people’s thinking. You and I get together and we like to have healthy intellectual discussions. We like to challenge; challenge our assumptions, challenge our beliefs, challenge our boundaries of knowledge. I think that’s what builds a better world; not offensively, but cooperatively. We can discover so many more things if we open our minds, open our hearts and accept possibilities that may not be the fabric or framework for how we see the world.

With Oddworld, we chose not to sell it. We could have sold it and we could have taken a lot of money, but what I worked out in hindsight, especially as I learnt more about business, is that Oddworld is this ultimate passion project for both Sherry and I, and there’s so much that we hadn’t done with it yet. I mean, we’ve done okay in life, so it wasn’t sell or die. We decided to hold on because I really wanted to make those damn movies. Then I can tell those stories I really want to tell and they are seriously fucked up. But they’re so fucked up that I’m going to have to pay for it myself. And that’s part of what the new business is about.

The world is changing so fast, with the mediums and everything that is going on, it’s time to re-address and look at it differently. Last time we talked, we had the film going and that has since withered on the vine. It has returned to us, but we saw that it wasn’t going to work out and in 2008 – the financial crisis and all that stuff – really changed a lot of the terms in Hollywood. They greatly reduced your chance of success, and even if you had success, greatly reduced your chance of reward. What happens in the world is that as financial conditions get more challenging, they get better for the rich and worse for the little guys. We decided to withdraw from the passion plays and the stories that I wanted to tell, the ways that I wanted to inspire and the ways that I want to try and enlighten people, or excite them, or make them see the world or others differently.

I kinda put it like this; if someone says to you “I’m psychic”, you say “Well then, why don’t you guess the lottery?” And if you were to say, in this landscape of media and technology and commerce, “I know what’s going on!”, well then why don’t you dial in on a killer solution today? And that’s what we’re doing. So, while Oddworld was a complete passion project, it was very much – in the ego sense – my passion project. While I felt, in many ways, very selfless in the messaging, it was very ego in the creation. We can’t really separate the two; noble intent but ferocity in getting it done. The new project is really about looking at the world and asking “What’s changed?” and “What’s ripe?”. If the world has changed completely, where is the ripe fruit hanging and how do we harvest it?

Well, what’s changed since we were here last? What’s changed, obviously, is that there wasn’t a Facebook; there wasn’t a YouTube. We are feeders off of people’s disposable income and the expendable time, the leisure time. You wouldn’t have played Abe if it wasn’t for leisure time. So we asked ourselves “What if we focus on where that time shift has gone?” Rather than try and flip our paradigm in to it, let’s let it mature a little bit, see what’s happening and take a new, fresh look at what’s going on. And what we see is that today, 35 hours of linear video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s almost 5000 years a day; every 45 minutes is 150 years. And that’s what’s shared on YouTube! You couldn’t watch it all in your whole lifetime, end to end. There’s this profound shift of awareness and accessibility, where people’s time and attention are going.

On the same hand, we had dinner with the richest guy in Japan, the guy who distributed Abe. This guy, Masayoshi Son, is the founder of the largest software distribution company in Japan and he’s the richest man in Japan to this day. This was in 1998; Sherry and I went over there, he was launching a new game company. Somehow his daughter got ahold of our game through the publisher in New York and they loved it. They just loved it! And he said “That’s the game I want to launch the company with.” We were like “Really?” We went over there and we had dinner with him. He’s a really sweet guy, actually. Really. If he were here, he’d be sitting with us and talking about games. He said “You know, when I left Stanford University, I had over a hundred patents to my name and I quickly realised that not one of them would probably ever be successful; the odds are just against it. So I started thinking, how do I build something that facilitates other people’s creations? How do I not try to have a winning patent, but rather to offer a service to all winning patents?” To me, as an artist and a storyteller, that really puzzled me. Because as a content creator, how do I do that? There’s something ambitious and exciting about that very idea. It became a conundrum for me for years, thinking about how what I do can facilitate what other people do, not just entertain them, not just get them interested in something or have a good time, but actually facilitate their intent? How might I capture that? A lot of that was going through my mind about the time that we shut down the Oddworld Studio. Our plan was to branch out across the multimedias, but then the financial crisis happened and it changed a lot of things, with respect to what you could get finance for, what the terms were.

Photo of Masayoshi Son standing in front of the word 'SoftBank'.

Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of SoftBank, the company that published Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee in Japan as Abe A GoGo.

After the film deal didn’t work out, we decided to back up and ask ourselves what’s really smart at the moment. I was thinking a lot about Masayoshi-san and we started looking at the prospect of how to facilitate what people are already doing, but with a greater dimension. As I would go around trying to finance projects, some people in the investment community would say “What is it that people are doing today that they’re not going to be doing tomorrow, because they’re doing your thing instead?” I always hated that question, because it’s actually a really great question – there’s only so much expendable time in people’s day and if you’re going to have them doing something that you’re selling them, what are they doing today that they’re going to stop doing?

We started looking at where people are spending their time; it’s Facebook now. When we released Abe, there wasn’t a Facebook. Even when we released Stranger, hardly anyone had heard of it. But now it’s got 700 million people, it’s enormously valuable and it’s going to have the highest IPO of any company in history. And those people are watching videos and having a good time. And it’s not even like they’re watching J. J. Abrams videos; they’re watching what some kid uploaded in a pet store in Bangladesh and that’s more cool than anything ABC has to deliver. Meanwhile, what else is going in the world? If one thing has been massively eroded, above anything else, the obvious thing would be the environment. The second most obvious would be trust. No matter what side of the fence you live on; right, left, religious, atheist, this party, that party, we can all agree on one thing – we’ve all been screwed by the shitbags that are running things. We can all agree on that. I can sit down with a farmer wearing a hat and with guns on his belt and he’s gonna agree. I can go to grandma and she’ll agree. A teenage kid on a skateboard and he’ll agree.

We all know now we’ve been screwed. Now, we might not know exactly how and exactly by who, but at least that we can agree. As a by-product, trust is a new currency, simply because it’s been decimated. We don’t trust corporations, we don’t trust governments, we don’t trust big institutions, we don’t trust anything anymore. In that respect, trust is a new commodity that emerged around the same time as the social networks.

So what’s happening is, say, Paramount is coming out with a new movie, they’ll have a 200 million dollar campaign about it, but you and me probably couldn’t give a shit about it. But if you told me “I saw this movie and it’s awesome. You’ve just got to see it”, then I’m going to go see that movie. You had more weight and more value on my impression than 200 million dollars from Paramount ever could, because there’s no trust. Trust is in the relationships and it’s the new currency.

It’s really about people and where they are and what they’re already sharing. I mean, how do you get between that? Maybe you can’t right now. Maybe what you do instead is to facilitate it to a greater dimension. So what we’re doing in the new venture, Xmobb, is we’re looking at the world and we see that there’s the social networks – as a brand we’ll call it ‘Facebook’ – and then there’s the social media networks – as a brand we’ll call that ‘YouTube’ – and between the two there’s an enormous amount of sharing that is still largely happening at a turn-based rate. Now, as the cable ratings drop, as the movie incomes drop, everything is dropping relative to the population, social media and social networking are through the roof! People are connecting and trusting each other more than any brands or institutions. As a result, that’s what we’ve decided to focus on. Right there in between Facebook and YouTube, there’s a space where people aren’t yet able to gather en-masse to watch the same content, with people they know who are already watching together.

Not just sharing a link. I mean, I can share a link to you and you say “Oh that was kinda cool” and maybe you watch it, maybe you don’t. And then if you like it a lot, maybe you pass it on. But we don’t share the experience. It’s not like I said to you, “Nathan, there’s something we’ve got to watch. Let’s log in, let’s watch it together. And then we can talk about it as we’re watching it”

Nathan: In the same way as, say, putting on a DVD and sitting right next to each other?

Lorne: Exactly! Except now we can do that all over the world. Our new effort, Xmobb, is, basically, people-powered TV. Different themes, different ideas, different friends, different relationships; what do you like? We create virtual theatres, share any content you want, you can create your own theatre and we give it to you. It’s all free. You just start creating and you say “I want to create a channel called ‘Neural Network Passions’ and the description is ‘Anything to do with Brain Science and computers, fan gathers here”. We give you a dimensional theatre; we have a 2d version that is no-download and you can upgrade to a 3D version, which lets you customise your space. Make it like a nightclub, like a movie theatre, like a stadium. Then people start sharing, similar to turntable.fm. They’re doing what we’re doing, but we’re doing it with video; it’s a much more complicated problem.

This queue is turn-based, a constant stream of videos with a particular theme that a group of people are finding inspiring in real-time. The average session on YouTube is between 7 and 20 minutes. In our experience, the average session on Xmobb is now 60 to 90 minutes, because we’re creating YouTube-meets-Facebook theatres. All I need is my Facebook login, it generates a little avatar with my picture so that you can look in and see me and say “Hey, Lorne is in there”. We have all these people in a room and now we’re watching content together, in real-time, no matter where we are.

On a philosophical level, we felt really good about this because it’s about bringing ideas and people together faster. With the internet today, like-minded people can connect almost anywhere, given their national laws. The beauty I see is that it reduces the world to similar minds and starts to remove the geographic barriers.

Every game I made in the past was really about how I can assimilate you in to my story. As selfless as those stories were, it’s actually like “Here, I’m making this, it’s my story that I’m going to let you unfold”. It’s a one-to-many thing. A community might build around that, but how do you really facilitate a community that can build in to something greater? But what happens if well-intentioned people across the globe start sharing what they like and care about in real-time, in a hive-mind, not just with a link, but experientially? They look at it, they start talking about it together and they start showing you. A kid who’s in Somalia might have a link and he’s uploaded pictures to people that are logged in all over the world, talking about it, hearing it firsthand. Then who cares about what CNN has to say? You’ve just heard about it from the kid who’s there. That’s where it’s going – those brands are dead. CNN, CBS, MSN, they’re dead. They’re over. They just don’t know it yet. They’re walking tombstones, they’re zombies. Because who trusts all those liars? Now we know that they’re liars. We watch a Michael Moore film, we learn about genocide with pharmaceutical companies, we learn that our government doesn’t have the balls to tell BP to clean it up right. We learn who’s really doing things, who’s really in charge. We watch these shenanigans that we’re supposed to pay attention to and cheerlead if Coke or Pepsi is going to win the election. It’s a joke, it’s a total farce. And yet, people connecting around the world are seeing through it.

So if we empower people to connect more, then that’s exciting. If there’s a passion play in our current efforts, it’s the connection of people. Not bringing people here to say “Play my game”, but bringing them here to say “Hey, find each other, embrace what you’re already doing, who you’re already in contact with, what communities you’re already connected to and what you’re already sharing, but start doing it in real-time, together, live, now”. That’s the new play.

And out of that, for my partners, it’s a business play. Because for me, we still have this other property. And Oddworld is a crazy property. Just Add Water found us and they’re hardcore fans. They wanted to do things and the development industry is tough, working with publishers. So we’re their publisher. And we help them to make more Oddworld, staying within the guidelines and bringing in a new generation of people to the games and a new generation of parents who say “I liked those games, I want my kids to play those games”. As a result, with zero advertising, zero marketing, we sold 300,000 units in the last quarter. And that’s just for the 13-year old Abe games. We do nothing! That’s just people telling people, telling people, telling people. And occasionally doing the right sale price.

Nathan: How much did Abe’s Oddysee sell first time around?

Lorne: 3.5 million.

Nathan: So, ten percent of that in one quarter?!

Lorne: Yeah. Abe, on digital, has sold another million and a half plus units. Stranger is going to come out on PS3 in HD, Munch is going to come out on PS3 in HD. Microsoft don’t seem to be able to think clearly about how they should be working. Microsoft sees themselves as Sotheby’s, where Sony is smart enough to see themselves more like eBay. So, if you want to go on Sony, they’ve got a catalogue with great games and classics that people love, but Microsoft are like “Well, we’ll be the judge from up here in our ivory tower.” I’ve so had it with them, it’s a joke. But what will happen is that those games will come out and they’ll find a new audience and they’ll hopefully do well. But what I really want to do is make these movies. I’ve learnt so much about the world and its craziness that I really want to reflect that all the more than where I started back in the 90’s, cooking up these stories.

So the play of Xmobb is the first truly almost – and I hate to use the word – capitalistic play I’ve done. I mean, it’s not about making money; I wouldn’t want to make money if I didn’t believe in its purpose. I want the money to fund the movies. I want to make the effort and see what happens when people get ahold of it. We’ll have the ‘Revolutioning’ channel. You’ll be able to create your own channel and invite whoever you want, right off your Facebook, and start sharing things around the world in real-time.

So when I look at what we do today, it’s about who your friends are now, what you’re sharing now, plus add a whole other dimension that makes it that much more exciting. And if we do that well, it’s probably enormous. If we don’t do that well, you’ll probably never hear of it. It’s really either through the roof or total crash and burn, there’s not much in between. So it’s kind of exciting and kinda crazy, and it’s very hi-tech. It’s purely, massively online. We can get up to 15,000 people in a single event together at one time, watching the same content, from all over the world. But we’re focusing first on the intimate relationships; who’s your top ten, twenty friends? What would you like to be doing every night? Would you like to be watching your favourite show with your mom tonight, on the other side of the world? What we’re doing will facilitate that. So that you can be on different sides the planet, communicating, expressing, hearing the energy of each other, feeling the energy of each other.

We believe that we’ve never lived on a lonelier planet. We’re more connected than ever today, and we’re more isolated than ever. But I don’t believe that technology is to blame, as much as it’s a fall-out of what we are. But we can think of the technology in terms of how can we use it as a glue between people, between relationships, between relationships that are already bonded, but we don’t say “Look at our own content!”, we say “Choose from the billions and trillions of pieces of content out there and bring them together with whoever you want to share them with, together, live, now, anywhere in the world” . And that is the new play.

Nathan: Do you know when you’ll be publicly revealing it?

Lorne: In the next few months. It’s all about finding what we call ‘The MVP’, the Most Viable Product, the one to start with. Because the wisdom now is not to cook something in your garage or studio for three years and hope that it becomes a hit, like a filmmaker. The new chemistry is to get to the audience early and let them feed back to us so that they’re getting more of what they want and we’re facilitating that. That is what Xmobb is about. And if we do that right, I get to finance the movies myself and then they’re not going to be compromised. And that’s Sherry’s dream too. We don’t have kids, so Sherry is like… God help the person who says something bad about Abe to Sherry. It would be like your mom going after anyone who said something bad about you. She’s just in love, like they’re her children. I feel similarly, though in a slightly different way. To me it’s like they’re my weapons, because I really want to punch through the illusions of what’s out there. And I think the illusions are vast; I think most people are living in The Matrix, because what they perceive is going on the world versus what I believe is actually going on in the world are so radically different. If we facilitate a way for people to come together and share in real time, faster and faster, we’ll get enlightened faster as well.

So we’re living in this world where all this information can fly at the speed of light. How might we capture that? And that’s what Xmobb is about.

Two different designs for the Mudokon Pops logo. The first, on the left, is a cartoon Mudokon head graphically impaled by a stake. The second, on the right, is a classic ice lolly shape with eyes and mouth stitches.

Comparison of the first (left) and second (right) designs for the Mudokon Pops logo.

Nathan: In the art book, you talk about the way that the Mudokon Pop design changed and you say that it also had something to do with Japanese culture…

Lorne: Well, no, it was an event, and this was not an extortion thing. Because the finger, in my opinion… Look, if someone said to me “This is Israel and you can’t wear yellow armbands here”, I’d understand that. But if he said “Well, you can if you give me a million dollars”, I don’t understand that, because you’ve defeated the purpose of why you’re saying not to do it. In the case of Abe’s finger, what they said was that characters can’t have four fingers there unless you pay them. So that would be like saying in Israel, to use the extreme example, you can’t wear an armband here unless you pay us. That becomes extortion, rather than a principle. The finger was extortion; “Give us a million dollars a year and we’ll let you have four fingers”. So we gave them the finger!

The Mudokon Pop was more understandable. What happened was that the game originally had a Mudokon head, cut off and severed and shoved on a stick, dripping blood. It was a gross cartoon, marketing the Mudokon Pops, like a lollipop. But a week or so before we were set to do the press for the games, there was a murder. A Japanese middle-school student murdered a peer, cut off his head, hung his head on the post of the fence at the school and left a note. Now, for Japan, this was shocking. It was very, very distressful to the country of Japan that this happened. And it happened right when we were about to release Mudokon Pops to them! So they said that it would probably be a good idea to change it. So, we weren’t extorted; we were asked and we weren’t stupid, so we complied. But that would have just been rude.

Promotional picture for Munch’s Oddysee HD showing the new realtime model of Abe. He's shrugging, clearly showing he has four fingers on each hand.

Abe in Munch’s Oddysee HD and Abe’s Oddysee New ‘n’ Tasty will have his original four fingers.

Nathan: The thing is, with that one I actually prefer the newer design, because it has that gloss of marketing, hiding the true horror of what the Glukkons were doing.

Lorne: I agree. I never liked the first one either. But that was just what came out from the artists and I was like “Uhhh… okay”. I mean, I try to give the artists some room and not change everything to my liking, but empower them to take ownership. Sometimes that means you like what they produce, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes it’s just not acceptable.

Nathan: And it’s coming back, isn’t it? Some of the images released for the HD models of Abe had four fingers. Will it be reinstated it for Abe HD and do you think you’ll be able to release it in Japan as well?

Lorne: I hope so. When you’re on digital distribution, it’s a whole other story. Because what are they going to do? Forbid you from downloading from Amazon? It’s not like they can go after the publisher, there’s no retail shelf for them to say “We’re going to fine your store”. It’s different, it’s digital. When I look at Steam sales for US Steam, I see sales in Asia. There’s Indonesia, China, Japan. It’s remarkable. What we find is that the more oppressed a place is, the more the populace really becomes Oddworld fans.

Screenshot from <cite>Abe’s Oddysee</cite> showing 102 Mudokons have been rescued.

Sometimes the rescue counts in Abe’s Oddysee can get a little… excessive.

Nathan: Sometimes when you play Abe’s Oddysee and you get to the end, it will actually say that you’ve saved more than 99 Mudokons. Are there more than 99 in the game, or is that a bug?

Lorne: That’s a great question, because that was something we were debating a lot at the end; how could this anomaly occur? We were having this debate – and I don’t remember specifically what the outcome was – which was that some people said “No, if I’m told this is the number, I don’t want to be lied to”, while others said “Yeah, but how do we know that the people who went the extra mile and even saved ones they weren’t supposed to and didn’t even know they existed – they’re the really special ones”. There was debate over that and they snuck some in, in really hard to find places. I’m not sure, it might have been two? Or a few?

Nathan: You’ve said in the past that before they were enslaved, the Mudokons were not good people, per se, or not perfectly good. That they took sides in the various culture wars. Are you able to elaborate at all on what their culture was like before being enslaved?

Lorne: Let’s look at most indigenous cultures – and, really, the Mudokons are not modelled after one in particular, but a combination of them all. The saddest thing I’ve seen, travelling around the world, going to Tahiti, Bora Bora, the Hawaiian islands and other places, the saddest thing is seeing that the native populace is trying to get their MTV. That’s what’s so shocking is that we say “We should preserve the Amazon!” but when you get down there, you have an enlightened contingency saying “This is how we’ve lived, this is where our children used to swim but now they can’t” and you have the rest saying “Hey man, we want to have cars and guns too”. All across the world it’s a common pattern. What happens is that the elderly, the wise of the tribes, largely get exterminated first and then they’re just lost people.

You know, even the Native Americans had wars in between one another, but it was with different purposes. It wasn’t just ‘Look what they’ve got, we’re gonna fight them and take it’, it was different reasons with different morality and different ethics. We were modelling the Mudokons after that.

The influence of industry; let’s call it the IMF, and let’s refer to the book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’, where we really see how the IMF operates. And the IMF is one of the nastiest, dirtiest organisations on the planet, for anyone who really does their homework. So, when the IMF shows up, what they call austerity packages and what they call loans are really just gold-laced deals with the devil. It’s gonna cost you your country’s culture, natural resources and, ultimately, enslavement. The first way they do that is to annihilate your ability to self sustain, which turns you in to a cash economy. What I mean by that is that the indigenous, who are self sustaining, are not importing things.

When I was looking at that with the Mudokons, it wasn’t that it was all peace and light and they just got slaughtered. It was that they got slowly corrupted, they slowly started doing deals like Third World countries doing deals with the IMF. I wanted to model everything on Oddworld after behaviour in the real world. So if you look at the IMF and the World Bank, this is how they operate; they act like they’re going in nicely, they trick the population and then they get New York for a few beaded necklaces. Now, we look back at that and think “What a great deal, how stupid were they?”, but they’re asking “How can you own land?”. It didn’t even fit their construct of perceiving reality. So with the Mudokons, I saw it as a slow deterioration of an onslaught of industrialism, and they tricked them in to losing a lot of their soul, so to speak. And in the process, their means depreciated until they’re totally subservient. Then, when they try to find a way out, they make the most desperate deal of all. That was Abe’s mom’s deal; the queen Mudokon making the deal which she thought was saving her extended family, but ultimately enslaving them all the more.

<cite>Abe’s Oddysee</cite>-style rockart showing a Mudokon firing an industrial gun.

In this unused rockart from Abe’s Oddysee, a Mudokon fires an industrial gun.

Nathan: So before they were enslaved, they were just a basic tribal society?

Lorne: They were Shamanic. That’s like a few aboriginal tribes; the Native American, the Inuit, the Eskimo, tribes in the Andes and in Russia. There were races that were truly Shamanic, which means that they had a relationship to a spirit world. If you ask the Andes’ Shaman – who can fix your psychological problems better than the best doctor in New York – where he’s coming from, he looks at things more like an exorcist than a medicine man. These are these cultures that embraced relationships with plants. It’s a huge part of Shamanism; what they claim they learnt from the plants. Terence McKenna and other ethnobotanists deduced that it would be almost impossible for these people to find concoctions that led to remedies that they have by trial and error. It should have taken them a billion years to figure these things out; under this moon condition, with that substance, cook this long, boil that long, leave it out to dry under a new moon for this long and only under these conditions will it manifest these results. And they’ve proven that that is the real deal.

If you look at modern sociology and anthropology, it is almost impossible to define the word Shaman, because there is no single definition that really fits. But if you wanted a definition that fits, you’d say ‘Those that have a relationship with the plants’; not just in harvesting and growing, but medicinal. Plants are most often the mechanism for remedies, for healing, for solutions and for connecting to the spirit world. The point is that I think the most interesting things emerge from cultures that have wisdom that, in my opinion, a lot of it is real. It may seem very flaky in today’s scientific world, but a lot of it is real, as more and more scientists around the world are recognising and they’re trying to preserve, capture and harness it.

When it comes to the native cultures on Oddworld, I wanted to show that they weren’t just totally naive, but they were corrupted over time because they don’t understand lying. They don’t understand certain principles that we do, like the negotiated deal. This is something I find very sad in modern culture; if you’re an artist, an author, a scientist, a computer programmer, and you don’t really understand business, but you need financing, you will be taken advantage of. Because at this capitalistic level of the game, those who have the sharpest swords for how to screw, how to manipulate and deceive get the upper hand, because you’re an artist and you’re focusing on how to make great work for people. You’re not focusing on how to screw people out of deals. But that’s their job. So why is it that if you don’t have that expertise on your side, you wind up lesser? It just shouldn’t be that way. Indigenous cultures, in many ways, were like that.

Nathan: I have a vague memory of a story on the Oddworld Inhabitants website in about ’98 or ’99 about an executive at GT Interactive who didn’t like Oddworld, so he organised for his boss to take a look at what you were doing, thinking that the boss would hate it, and in the end he loved it so much that he gave you guys more funding at the other guy’s expense. Am I remembering that correctly?

Lorne: I think that’s true, a couple of times. And here’s the thing; as much as an industry is an industry, people are people. And in the game business at the time, the executive class who were in their middle age, they weren’t really proud of being in the game business. If they went to a party in Silicon Valley or in Hollywood, the people would be like “Games? You make toys…”. They weren’t taken too seriously. At the time, games like Quake and Murder Death Kill were coming out and the developers were just trying to put in more blood. The girls were given huge breasts and all the games were about murder and death and big tits. They were happy to make a living, but they weren’t necessarily going out and bragging about it. So we played off of that; we can make good part of this medium, we can make people feel better rather than just feel like they won. Now, some people were like ‘Fuck that, I just want to see more blood!’ and we were the antithesis to that.

When you’re a publisher, there’s only so much money for the games, so you’ve got to have different people fighting for the project they want. So you’ve got one guy who has a shooter and then he’s told he has to take Oddworld. He hates it, so he tries to sabotage it and tries to get some other support to sabotage it and then he finds out that they’ve become bigger supporters and he’s screwed. And that happened a couple of times!

Nathan: This is one that’s had so many arguments about, I can’t even begin to tell you. You said a while back that Oddworld is ten times as large as Earth, which is why the cultures spread so slowly and…

Lorne: And the gravitational relationship of that makes no sense!

Nathan: Hence the arguments! So it’s surface area you meant?

Raymond Swanland painting of a blimp approaching Nolybab.

Painting of Nolybab by Raymond Swanland. Nolybab is built in a gigantic crater.

Lorne: Yes, surface area. So, on Earth we live on a water planet. Oddworld is not a water planet, it’s a mostly dry planet. And there’s another layer to that… Have you ever read the theories of the Hollow Earth? It’s really far out stuff and I’m not in to it, but I’ve read it and it’s interesting as a theory. What I wanted to do is that I wanted to have cities that were underground. I wanted a world where such turmoil had taken place naturally that it had formed in to huge volcanic outside crusts and then shrunk again, so that shell stayed there but collapsed into big holes. So, the ‘leech’ creatures, the bad-guys, the Magog Cartel, those who came out of the swamps, the parasites, fleas in suits and ties, tape-worms with lapels; these guys needed to live in damp, warm places. Damp, with no sunlight, like slugs, but in suits. So we have these craters, and then out of these huge shells of collapsed earth that go down thousands of feet, they’ve built cities. When you’re looking across the landscape, you can see just the tips of cities coming out of these craters. But they’re not craters so much as large pockets.

The planet has three layers. So there’d be different ones that live here, different ones that live here and different ones that live here. And it would be different climates, different temperatures, different gravity. So the idea was that it was that much bigger, but it allows the planet to be smaller. And it wasn’t a water planet. Not perfect, you know, but fun idea.

Promotional image for The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot

Just Add Water retains all work Oddworld Inhabitants did for Fangus and may choose to resurrect the project.

Nathan: (from forum member Manco) If Just Add Water go on to make Fangus, will they continue with the project as it was, or will they go back to your original concept?

Lorne: If they make it, they’re going back to my original concept. Because, we’re paying for it. So if we make it and we’re paying for it, it’s going to be what we want.

Nathan: So you’ll throw out all the resources you have and start from scratch?

Lorne: Yeah, we’ll go back to that dog-like character you saw and then we get in to that. And then we get in to what happens if cats and dogs had guns! Guns and drug trades!

Nathan: (from Leonardo Munzlinger) The bounty can in Stranger, is that Industrial technology, Native magic or just a game mechanic that is best not thought about?

Lorne: *laughs*

Well, we always liked that sound like ‘tssss’ (impression of a soft drink can opening) when you capture someone. We were going to mention it, that if you just knew how to buy the can at the right place you could add a few more pounds of pressure to it. Part of it is not that well thought out, admittedly. The other part of it is that ‘tssss’… you feel that pressure release, why don’t we tap that? Maybe they’re all faulty cans that were manufactured, like imagine if Coke fucked up and instead in these cans there’s 2000 pounds of pressure. These are conversations that we actually had. Maybe there was a bad batch of a thousand cans that had something like 2000 pounds of pressure in a vacuum so they would do that. We were like… people aren’t going to care, we don’t need to figure it all out and… obviously they do.

Nathan: (from forum admin Wil) Back in about the year 2000, there were adverts for something called ‘Oddworld: The Online Animated Series’, to be made by Eruptor Entertainment…

Lorne: Yeah, they announced that, but we never agreed to it. I think they’re Russian? So, someone announced that and then… We’ve been approached by a lot of groups over the years, saying stuff like ‘We have a new outsourcing company and we do great animation, we want to do the series, or we want to do this, we want to do that’ and normally we say “Nah, thanks but no thanks”. But that’s the thing with Just Add Water, they’re like you guys. They loved the property, then they became game developers. Then they’re getting fucked in the industry like everyone else who’s a game developer and they say “Why don’t we just make games for you guys”. We asked “What did you have in mind?” and they made us an offer that we couldn’t refuse. So if they run with it and do a good job, then we’ll support them. And it’s working.

Nathan: Speaking of which, given that you had a reputation of being very hands on in the studio, how does that work across international borders and with a separate studio?

Lorne: Well, right now it’s pretty easy because they’re just res-ing up existing content. There are two phases there, and I look at it in somewhat of a parental model. We’ve been through a lot, so we’re able to help them understand more ways to navigate. We’re able to say maybe they should do this, maybe they should do that. But, really, what we know is that the best stuff is going to come from the internal passion of that team, because that’s where the best stuff comes from in us. They send me images to approve and ask “How’s Abe?”, and I send them back “He’s a little too greasy”. “How’s Stranger in real-time?”, “He looks pretty good!”. I’m trying not to be a dick about it. But when we get on to new content, there’s a whole other level of discretion that will go beyond that and then we’ll see if they like working with me. Because right now, I’m like the easiest guy to work for. “Do you have that level running?”, “Yeah”, “Well, I remember that level had some weak spots”, “Yeah, we saw those too”, “Good, you’re fixing them, right?”, “Yeah”, “Good, can’t wait to see that fixed”

Nathan: So you’re going to be tweaking the games, as well as HD-ing them?

Lorne: I don’t really have the bandwidth to fully do it. It’s really a lot of work, and right now I’m on a seven day week, ten to eleven hours a day. I’m dealing with venture capitalists, it doesn’t get any colder or more sterile than that, for how much time it takes to convince them and keep confidence up. We have a wonderful house on the hill, we own the property and stuff, but we’re still slaves like the rest of us. It’s hard to afford the bandwidth, so what I try to do is that I try to make people feel like they have my trust and that I’m depending on them. It’s like a good dad; “Are you going to go fishing, or are you going to go drinking? You know what – you’re a good boy! I’m not even going to worry about the question, because I know as a good boy, you’re going to do the right thing and I don’t even need to tell you what to do”. Which one hits you the worst; me going “Don’t drink out there!” or “You know what? You’re a good kid and I don’t have to worry about getting a call from the cops because you were drinking and driving, because I know you’re smarter than that and that’s why I love you”. And then you’re like “Argh! Shit, I wanted to go and get shitfaced tonight but now I’ll just be dead if dad sees me like this”.

So, what I’ve learned is that you can grind people and get them to do what you want – James Cameron is great at that – you can just fucking grind them in to the ground and get what you want, but you don’t make friends that way and you don’t get the right success that way. You might get monetary success, but you’re watching your back when you go to sleep when you live like that. But the best way is to empower people with a sense of responsibility and trust. How many of us feel, on a day to day basis, that someone has actually put a lot of faith in us? And when they do, how do we feel about that? You’ve got to be a shitbag to just not care. “You know what, fuck, this guy told me he’s leaving that decision to me because he trusts that I’m gonna really take care of it. Now, we’re just going to send it to him at the end – he doesn’t want to see five iterations away. He’s saying ‘If you want to do that, I’m expecting that you go to that bar of quality that we agreed on. I don’t have the time and it’s up to you, you’re gonna have to own it. Now, I’m available for any conceptual questions, for any of this, for any of that that, but if I have to be there and oversee all the minutia, it’s not working.’”

My impression is, that that means tremendous amounts to the people at Just Add Water. And I believe that the more that we can convey that type of relationship, then the more embedded, the more responsible they feel. And if they blow it then, hell, they blow it and we lose some money and, you know, “Next!” But what I see there is a group of passionate guys who really loved our property and really didn’t like where the industry is going. And they’re like “We think that that kind of great games should still be being made”. So we said “Okay, let’s start this way…” Let’s start the safe way; we need some stuff that’s going to be wrapped up, we have a game that needs to be converted. Let’s see how well you res-up on this property that means the world to us. And then we’ll start getting on to the new ones. If all goes well, the plan is that instead of us just making lots of money off of them, we’ll recover costs and then we’ll refund. So the message to Just Add Water is to not try and figure out how to build a 300 million dollar business. We’re not even listening, because it’s probably not going to happen and we’ve heard it a lot of times before. Build a sustainable business that keeps the fans thrilled. If that can keep you fed and the fans thrilled, let’s see where that goes. So this really is more of a quality and integrity model. We’re not releasing stuff for multi-million dollar budgets. We’re being very frugal. We’re financing it ourselves out of our own pockets. But it works; the fan community keeps it working. So, Sherry and I are thrilled that these guys just rose up and are keeping it alive and keeping it stimulated and producing stuff for a new generation to turn on and love it.

I don’t mean this to sound condescending, but if your children love you, don’t blow it. And if something does really well, they’ll prosper really well. The way we see it is, money is always a factor but it’s the lowest one. I have fabulous relationships with people around the world of all different strata, whether they’re special ops putting bullets in people’s heads, whether they’re scientists, or sociologists, or whether they’re explorers, heads of state… we have fabulous relationships across the world. And games got us there. And it was because of the integrity of the games. So when it comes to what JAW is doing, which is fully supporting it. And if we can get them to embrace more of the heart of the property, then when we get more in to new titles, I’ll get more involved.

Screenshot from Stranger’s Wrath showing the ghostly non-corporeal form of the Gloktigi.

Many Oddworld fans were bemused by the seemingly spiritual powers of the supposedly Industrial Gloktigi.

Nathan: (from Leonardo Munzlinger) In Stranger, how do the Gloktigi disappear and reappear; is it technology or mystical?

Lorne: That would be occultism.

Nathan: So there’s Industrial occultism as well as the Native spiritualism?

Lorne: Very, very ancient occultism. This gets in to more mystical practices within that controlling elite. The Industrials, at the highest levels, are actually still connected to their ancient roots, but in a more diabolical way. They’re not shamanic, but more demonic. They engage in more ritualistic practices that are dark. The Gloktigi (note: the last syllable is pronounced ‘guy’, not ‘gee’), their guards have supernatural origins, more like genies in the classical Arabian sense. Concocted and controlled, like summoning demons. They’re sort of genetics mixed with occultism.

That’s why I really want to make the movies, so I can go in to the real depths of craziness of what is going on, even if it’s just for a scene and you go “What the fuck was that?!”, where they’re sacrificing Mudokons and spreading their innards out on the table to get signs to do stock forecasting. I really want to mix it up.

That’s because when I was in the NY art world, encountering circles of dealers, collectors, and institutions; some of the richest people in the world, I was stunned to learn that at this level there are elements who operate with occultism very much still in their ways. It was a profound wake up call. So in the Oddworld mythos, it is within the oldest and most powerful families, that dark ancient practices thought to have long been extinct and dismissed as superstition, are secretly still very much alive – but hidden behind the doors of the ultra-sophisticated.

Nathan: (from forum member Mr Bungle) With the new Abe games that you’re planning, is there any chance of a level editor?

Lorne: You know, that’s a good question. It’s in discussion.

Nathan: (from forum member Phylum) This is a really nerdy fan-question, but… In the beginning of Abe’s Exoddus, they’re walking through the desert, the train goes overhead and the bone falls out of the train. But surely the train should have been going away from the mines if it’s carrying bones?

Lorne: (clearly amused and bemused) Well, yeah. I would say, great observation, but the bone was probably stuck somewhere inside and it just fell off. You know, stuff happens. (in Abe’s voice) “It’s a bone. A bone!”

Nathan: (from forum member Sekto Springs) Are Khanzumers a species or a class like the outlaws are?

Lorne: They’re Mudokons.

Nathan: All of them?

Lorne: And they’re other species. But they’re all fat, enormously fat. They sit in front of TVs, they listen to the news, they eat TV dinners. They’ve become their own species even though they’re made out of many.

Nathan: Where does their power and wealth come from if all they do is consume?

Lorne: Because they are the consumers. Khanzumers. I wanted to take… if you listen to Western society, if you listen to these assholes that lie through their teeth in the newsagencies, saying “We’re just giving the people what they want”. If you listen to the assholes in Monsanto and the pharmaceutical companies, they say “We’re just giving the people what they want at a fair price”. So what they’re claiming is, what Fox will tell you is, we’re just giving our audience what it demands. And that’s just total bullshit. The excuse for bad capitalism is “That’s what the consumer wants!” So, somehow, these massive fatcat capitalists are subservient to the consumer, which is just a total joke. It works on the storybook version of capitalism, but if you read the later chapters it’s just a complete crock of shit. So, the Khanzumers were those who had fallen in to completely buying all the party lines, sitting behind TV, eating processed food; getting fat, ignorant, stupid and belligerent. So we find that the most powerful are actually the most pathetic. It’s the trailer-park version of everyone living in the cities and this and the that. So the Khanzumers, everyone says “We must appeal to the Khanzumers”, it’s actually the joke of capitalism; as though it’s actually serving these people rather than force-feeding. They’re a class made of many species – just like us, we come from different races, we have difference heritages, but we wind up in a certain place and now we’re labelled ‘Consumers’. Because, on the bottom line, it doesn’t matter what your heritage and ancestry is. You’re just a consumer. So, I wanted to play on that; where they always blame their bad actions on the consumers, I thought to myself “What if these Khanzumers are deified in to an all-powerful thing?” But then, by the time that we actually get to the cities in Oddworld – which is where things really climax in the Quintology – we find out that the Khanzumers are just all the fat couch potatoes.

Nathan: (from forum member Manco) You’ve talked about Munch’s Oddysee and how you felt about the game as a whole. With respect to the cartoony style of it; was that part of the Xbox switch, was it planned from the start and how do you feel about that style?

Lorne: It was a manifestation of the 3D capability at the time. If you go back and you look at all the 3D games, they didn’t look that great. We had to go 3D, because that was what the market wanted. And the financing market also said it. So that brought with it a lot of limitations. Whereas, when we were doing bitmaps that we would process in to sprites, pre-render it all and then photo retouch it all, we could add all this lush detail. The Abe games look better than Munch, because they’re all paintings.

Nathan: It’s not just visually though; it’s the sound effects and the fist bumps. The humour of it, as compared to the Abe games. I mean, Abe’s Oddysee in particular is very dark.

Lorne: And then, you know… Microsoft was a partner. And it’s like… who’s going to buy the Xbox, who are they thinking of selling it to? There were a lot of decisions being made – and you have to remember that the number one game at the time was Super Mario. Microsoft was describing it as “This is our Super Mario! We’re gonna give you all this marketing support”. And we had a lot of technology challenges, and other challenges too. It was very hard. It’s the project that has me the least satisfied, of all the ones I’ve done.

And then I talked to Ed Robertson, the lead singer of Barenaked Ladies, and he was a huge Abe fan with his kids. He met me right after Munch and I was all depressed and shit, but he said “Dude, you know, I’m your audience and I don’t know that! And me and my kids, we loooved Munch. That’s our favourite game”. Then we got the cover of Wired because it was the editor’s favourite game.

I knew what I wanted it to be but, quite frankly, I think I had a lot of immaturities in myself at the time that helped stand in the way of manifesting that better. Just in terms of dealing with people and managing people. I mean, managing people is tough. And there were a lot of humbling lessons. I was a pretty demanding guy, in some ways over-demanding, which set some unrealistic goals, which I think people knew they couldn’t hit. Not out of their own capability, but maybe I wasn’t reasonable with some of what I had hoped to achieve. And there was a lot of fear, because now you have this much bigger extended family of 75 people, with families, with kids. You’re making them money to feed their families. I think if you’re human, you feel this different sense of responsibility. That was a tough project. And, at the time, I think I was harsh on various members of the team that really didn’t deserve it. You know… lessons learnt.

Nathan: (from forum admin Wil) In the 1999 E3 pamphlet there was a quote from you saying “Just wait until you see what we drop on the world of action figures!” Are you able to reveal what that was about?

Lorne: Well, we had a thing called ‘OddWar’ and it was an action figure game that you could play anywhere. The action figures had certain moves and then – do you remember what Whiz Kids did with keeping count on the bases? Whiz Kids was founded by Jordan Weisman, a brilliant guy, who created the MechWarrior series and FASA, all these different companies. But, at the base there was a scorekeeper. So, we wanted to take all the Oddworld action figures, make them really quality action figures, but make that playable as an action figure game. And we have it, we still have it, so we can still do it.

It wasn’t only cool things, but you could see “This guy’s here and that guy’s there, if you could hit him then you get two of his points taken off and two added to here.” And all the scorekeeping was in the bases of the action figures. So, that was what that was intended to be. Oddwars. And I’ve still got it all.

Nathan: (from forum member Nowtun) You’ve touched on this before, but how has your vision of Oddworld changed since 1994 and how do you think it might change in the future?

Lorne: In ’94, I was convinced that… I would call it a more intellectually elite perspective. That is, Man is flawed and there’s not really Good and Evil, as much as there is good and evil behaviour and that the failings of man manifest as greed and corporations and all that stuff. So a big part of my momentum then was trying to get away from this concept of the perfect good guy and the perfectly bad guy; like this fucking Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker thing. Life’s just not like that; it’s way more complicated. Everything is more blurry. It’s not presented to you as evil; it’s presented to you as good and then you have to dig to find out it’s evil.

So, what’s changed to this time is that I’ve learned that there’s more Good and Evil in the world than I would have thought. And I’m going to embed that in to the deeper Oddworld. So where I believed that it’s not about Good and Evil and fuck this Lord of the Rings ‘The Evil guys are gonna…’ crap; you know what, the Glukkons, if you could sit down and have a conversation with one, you’d like the guy. That’s how I wanted to do it then. But then, ultimately, I want to show who everyone’s masters are. And eventually those masters go down. There are scenes in the film I want to do where Mullock, after he fucked up and he’s being taken to the boss and he passes his mom who says “You blew it,” and he has to go down and meet the investors. They live underground; like how I said about how the world is separated. He takes an elevator ride down 1700 storeys and a little midget guys picks you up as an escort, but as you go down and the temperature increases, they’re getting bigger and bigger, while the security guards from up above are dying and sweltering from the heat. So there’s this more mythical idea of what might be pulling the strings. And I want to embrace that in a sort of left-handed, literal way.

Whereas before I thought that evil was really more of a failing of Man and Man’s failing to his own greed and stuff like that… You know, personally, I’ve actually come to believe that there’s some really nasty shit in this world and it’s not just because of greed. So, this is why I’ve had such an interest in religions, mythologies and different things. In many ways, many of my most uplifting stories come out of the Kabbalah; the scales, the feather and the heart. I love those stories. And then we get more in to what was the history of the Earth really – not what I thought it was in ‘94! It has shed light on different things for me. I’d like to take this but add another dimension of richness, and what I believe is truth, on top of the already crazy things we had. So while Oddworld was really about ‘You know what, your happy-face logo’ed corporation is really the threat to everything we believe in that’s good.’ And there’s still a lot of truth in that. But where I was coming from was that that was largely driven by the failings of man, not so much the sabotage of man. So I’m going to be taking it a little bit more towards the sabotage of man.

Nathan: Thank you!

Lorne: Always a pleasure.

 Posted by at 10·39 am

  4 Responses to “Nathan interviews Lorne Lanning again”

  1. Lorne Lanning, Sherry McKennaand and Abe = Legends :’)

  2. I want the Oddworld movies to exist, too! For more than a decade I’ve hoped to see them someday!

  3. Oddworld has become one of the best franchises in the world, though the lack of new games based on the franchise seems unforgiving, because they’re only doing an HD 2.5D remake of Abe’s Oddysee and that’s not much (though I still wanna play that game). I hope J.A.W. do work on resurrecting Fangus and I really would like to see movie about Abe and his pals fighting to protect their land from a new villain.

  4. One more thing, I hope that Illumination Entertainment (the guys behind the Despicable Me films) do make an Oddworld movie and that Lorne Lanning will be directing it as well as providing the voice of the Mudokons, Sligs, Glukkons and Vykkers… Y’know, until Illumination are finished with the Minions movie (Despicable Me spin-off about Gru’s minions) that’ll come out in 2015. Here is the URL if you don’t believe me.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minions_(film)

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