Archive:Gettin' Odd with the loonies!

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  • Published: 19 October 1998
  • Host: loonygames
  • Interviewer: Jason ‘loonyboi’ Bergman
  • Interviewee: Lorne Lanning
  • Format: Published Online

The interview

When I first saw Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, like many people, I was pretty much confused. A side scroller, in the middle of the 3DFX revolution? You can't be serious.

After playing the game, however, I quickly realized that not only were they not serious, but those weirdos at Oddworld Associates were onto something truly original, and mind-bogglingly enjoyable. In an age where technology frequently takes the place of storytelling and character development, the Oddworld quintology (or decology, actually) stands alone as a series where the characters come first, and are always worth the price of admission.

This last week, the news broke that the CGI sequences for Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, the second game in the Oddworld saga, have been entered for consideration for this year's Academy Awards, making it the first game to do so. While the jury will be out as to their nomination for quite some time, the fact is, that the kids at Oddworld Associates are definitely striving for something new amongst a sea of mediocre games. Oddworld co-founder Lorne Lanning took some time away from finishing up their second title (and planning the third) to answer a few questions for loonygames.

- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman, editor-in-chief.

How did the initial concept for Abe's Oddysee develop? Abe's Oddysee is the first of the Oddworld Quintology.

The Quintology is a series of five games that will ultimately tell one massive story. Each game in the Quintology incorporates a new hero character that will join up with the previous games hero character. For instance, the next game in the Quintology will be Munch's Oddysee. Munch is a new character with problems of his own and you can bet that he is also an unlikely hero with a twisted background and one hell of a dilemma. Abe will find Munch and they will team together to work towards a greater cause. By the end of the Quintology there will be five central hero characters that all work together in one massive game that is not even comprehensible with today's technology. Fortunately by the time we wrap the final game in the Quintology it will be ten years from now and the technology will be significantly advanced from today's. Along the way each Quintology game will take significant leaps in terms of technology, innovation, gameplay, and overall size. Each of these will take about two years to produce.

In the meantime, we will be building some bonus games that help fill in the story and take the last Quintology game's engine and hero characters to new places with new levels of character interaction. So in the next ten years you will probably see 9 or 10 games that all take place on the Oddworld. To us Oddworld is another planet that is absolutely huge. Abe's Oddysee has just set you down on this planet and you've just seen a tiny portion. The Inhabitants and Gamespeak are something that we see as a interactive digital equivalent to Jim Henson's "The Muppets". Or as we would say, "The Muppets meets The X-files".

Did you always intend to make the game a 2D side scroller, or was this decision made after the storyline was created? We could have gone with what the critics would think is a newer real-time engine, but doing it with the current hardware systems means that we would greatly compromise puzzle complexity, character personality, animation quality, and background art beauty. We are not willing to sacrifice these qualities because the press thinks a better game needs to be in 3D. A lot of people appreciate finer qualities in a game and do not just want the latest POV shooter engine or the latest roving 3D engine. A lot of people want more entertaining experiences and they are finding themselves with little to chose from on the retail shelf. We are aimed at making characters have more life, using their behaviors to challenge your mind, and weaving it all together seamlessly and beautifully within a cool story that actually has some thought behind it.

The current 32bit systems just don't have the power to do 3D and do the other things that are important to us. We are giving game players something that is unique in its experience, in its look, and in the gamers relationship to how it's played. We are not doing "me too" kind of games. We're pushing in a different direction and a great deal of people recognize it's uniqueness and it's fun playable value. Some people think it is important to make 3D games, we think it is important to make more entertaining games.

Is the character Abe based on anyone at Oddworld? No. He's based on all the little guys in our world. The unlikely hero. A guy just doing his job and then one day finds he has in up to his neck in hot water and that his efforts could make a big difference.

Who played Abe's voice? I do Abe's voice.

Were you surprised at the success that Abe's Oddysee had? I must admit that we always had very high hopes for Abe. We had to have high hopes in order to justify the costs of such a game. To build games like this you need to be committed to believing that you are building something that people will really want to play. Otherwise you'll cut to many corners in trying to save costs and ultimately the game player gets shorted.

Abe's success means that we are on target with the dreams of what our company was originally founded upon. It proves that what we believed people would want to experience is in fact true. The success also shows how the market can expand.

We get more mail from girls and adults than anyone would ever have believed. Our original intent was to give characters more life (we call them Inhabitants) and more personality while introducing new concepts (not just technology) in gameplay.

Was there anything you feel was lacking in Abe's Oddysee? Anything that if you had more time you would have liked to have seen put in? When Abe's Oddysee was released we watched all the chat groups and forums on the net very closely. When we saw that some people were having difficulty and were getting frustrated it devastated us. I personally couldn't sleep at night. We really poured our hearts into this game and we wanted everyone to love it. Some people weren't bothered but others were. We found that the biggest problem was our save feature and another was that they had to die often to learn the solutions to puzzles. We knew that you needed to die to learn solutions, that's why we gave you infinite lives and actually encouraged dying. But when hundred of thousands of people start playing your game it's weaknesses get revealed to you very quickly. If we knew earlier we would have fixed it and it would have resulted in less frustration. As it stands we have fixed both problems in Abe's Exoddus and it will be even more enjoyable than the first game.

Why license the Unreal engine? We see it as a "possible" small piece in our next technology effort. We are not even sure if we will be using it yet. The reason we decided to license it, even if we don't use it, is to learn from it. They do some things really well, but will it hold up with the next level of demands. Well, we have our skepticism, but the only way to find out is to get inside it and see what is truly possible. It has beautiful lighting effects, and a smart layout structure, but beyond these things, what we need is not yet apparent in this technology.

Will Munch's Oddysee be a 3D game (like Unreal) or will you keep the 2D perspective? Munch's Oddysee will utilize 3D technology, will not be in a 2D perspective, but will be done in a way that the world has yet to see.

Has it been more difficult to develop characters in full 3D as opposed to working with prerendered sprites as in the Abe games? It is more difficult, especially when you have such a high spec for physics like we are doing. However, the opportunities that open make all of the complexities and difficulties worth while.

Who is Munch? Have we seen him before? Nope, you haven't seen him yet. He is an escaped lab animal from Vykkers Labs.

Will Munch's Oddysee be multiplayer? We are currently designing multiplayer options. It is too soon to give the details on how it will work. But it is one of our design objectives.

Will the Glukons be making an appearance? Oh yeah. You're even going to meet his mom. Munch's Oddysee is the first time you will start getting a deeper look into the matriarchal family structures and the economical and social pressures that many of the Inhabitants live with.

Will Munch's Oddysee support user-add-ons like Unreal? If so, how do you think this will effect the game's longevity? If you mean user-add-ons as in 'editors' or 'layout tools'... no, we don't intend to have this in Munch's Oddysee. In fact, we have had many requests not to have these types of editors. Most of these requests have come from fans who work with the press. But if you mean user-add-ons as in characters to down load or customize... then yes, we plan to do things of this nature. As for longevity, we believe that Munch will be so far ahead of its time, that it will have a very long shelf life.

Will Munch's Oddysee continue your trend of using full motion video, or will you be doing them in-engine as in Unreal? We will always do fully rendered video as it is the only way to get great looking movies. Show me someone who claims otherwise and I'll show you some stiff, emotionless stuff. However, there will be two databases for each character. One is high res and takes forever to render, the other is lower res and runs in real-time. The visual connection between the two will always be right on.

Will the A.L.I.V.E. system be moved over to Munch? Can he speak? A.L.I.V.E. is a philosophy for us. Our goal is to ultimately create dysfunctional living and social systems. That is what A.L.I.V.E. is all about for us. So we will still be using the A.L.I.V.E. philosophy as a backbone in our decision making and design processes. As for Munch's vocal abilities, yes, he will speak. All of the characters that we create from here on will speak.

How was Oddworld Inhabitants formed? Have you worked for other gaming companies in the past? The name Oddworld came from a moment of clarity between myself and Sherry McKenna, the CEO. This happened in 1994. But the stories for Oddworld had been started (in written form) back in 1986. I used to write lots of stories that didn't seem to have any practical application because they were so weird, yet ironically true. I couldn't help but write them as they just seemed to haunt me. Eventually, many of these stories came together to form the basis of Oddworld.

Neither Sherry McKenna nor myself have worked for any other game companies. We come from Hollywood where we both specialized in Computer Graphics and Special Effects.

How many people work at Oddworld? 60. There are about 30 on the Production team and 30 in other areas.

Are they all working on one game at a time, or do you have separate teams of people for each game? All the members of the art team work on all the projects all the time. This helps keep the consistent look of all of Oddworld's images. Including PR & marketing. The programmers and designers are split up into teams.

Any chance for a stuffed Abe doll? How bout an action figure? :) Absolutely! But we want to do it with a whole different twist. We have plans for this, but a release date is not set. Possibly before the release of Munch's Oddysee will we bring out the action figures. But we don't want to just make dolls, we want them to have many more applications. When the world finally gets to see how we have dealt with it, we believe they will be very excited about it.

Why do a quintology of games to begin with? That's how many it's going to take to tell the whole story. It's very big and it's very complicated. We're unfolding an entire new world for you. There is no way that the entire quintology would ever fit into less story structures. When we broke down the big story, it have five distinctive places for logical separations to occur. Which means five places where we could clearly find 'beginnings, middles, and ends'. This allowed us to clarify the details over time, instead of rushing and cramming it in a way that would result in watering it down. We believe that in the end, this will have been one of the greatest stories ever told. Not just in video games, but in all mediums.

Do you ever see an Oddworld game that is completely separated from the quintology ever being made? Abe's Miniature Golf, or Munch's Racing, for example? Yes, we have already had talks about this with other developers. In fact, there is already an Oddworld Adventures Gameboy game that will be releasing this year.

How planned out is the quintology? Do you have five game layouts? We have five story layouts. As for game layouts, we cannot design the later games yet as we know they will be utilizing newer technology. To design layouts now would be a waste of time. However, we are designing higher level AI and Social interactions that will effect these later games. We also know that as we get closer and closer to the end of the quintology, that we will be using more highly populated types of gameplay strategies. Meaning, you will be seeing a lot more group/crowd behaviors.

Any plans for what you'll do after the quintology? Absolutely. But it's way too early to start letting that cat out of the bag. I will say that in many ways I can't wait till we get past the quintology. Which I have lived with for many years and will continue to live with for many years. And even though the next series beyond the quintology is years down the road, I already spend a significant amount of time thinking writing about what happens after the quintology.

Got any strange tales of wacky Oddworld employees to share? I could tell you... but then we would probably get sued. That's why they're Inhabitants.

Where can a guy get some Meech Munchies, anyway? Talk to GT I think they have a plan.

Thanks, Lorne! Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus is shipping sure to check it out. And be sure to look in a few months to see if they get nominated for an Oscar!