New ‘n’ Tasty: Lorne Lanning on Oddworld

The veteran designer discusses the ups and downs of indie development.

This year, Lorne Lanning is celebrating his 20th anniversary in the games industry, having co-founded Oddworld Inhabitants in 1994. Since then he’s designed, written and created a number of games in the Oddworld series, including the cult PlayStation classic Abe’s Oddysee and 2005’s critically acclaimed Stranger’s Wrath. We caught up with him just prior to the release of Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, a warmly received HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee, to discuss everything from the game’s art to the future of Oddworld.

On the origins of Oddworld

In the very beginning, why we first chose platformers was looking at Prince of Persia, Blackthorne, Out of this World, Flashback. What I loved about that stuff was that I felt like ‘this is a real guy’, that it wasn’t a piece of art moving around. I remember back in the day, [Jordan] Mechner did it first with Prince of Persia where he actually rotoscoped those animations, and you were like ‘f**k!’ and you’d get this feeling like you were responsible - like you would be for a pet. It didn’t have the same response times with the controller as Mario or something, but you had a different degree of impression of life.

On immersion

Part of the goal is we always try to mask loading times - and we're doing it in this one. Did you play [iOS/Android game] Monument Valley? You know how the titles come up like a silent movie and then it goes back [during] the transitions? So every time we have a level load, it's going to be a real load and we’ll fade to black and come up with a little more story, keeping the rhyming [narration] going. Throughout the game from beginning to end, we probably inject that in, twenty-something times. Everywhere we had a chance [we would] add a little more story narrative, so the voices have a lot more character, a lot more range, a lot more responses. It's about trying to dial up that narrative engagement, never trying to break you out of the experience and remind you that you're in a game, that's why we don't have a traditional health bar, menus, or things like that.

On being fun to watch

Most games are f**king annoying to the rest of the family. Why should it have to be that way? If you make the screw-ups funny - the way Mudokons get dusted in this, with the ragdoll [physics] we are just cracking up sometimes, we see all sorts of crazy s**t – people are going to be posting videos and stuff. That’s the beauty of getting more physics in there - the unpredictables. But on that note of trying to make an experience enjoyable to watch for people who aren’t playing, unless you’re a Call of Duty fan you’re not that interested to watch that gameplay of a POV shooter. It’s very disorienting. If a film were like that you’d walk out. I was concerned when I first started [on New ‘n’ Tasty] because of the camera system being different and closer to a truer side-scroller, and I wondered whether that would still be digestible, and then we got into how the camera system holds that together for the witnesses as much as the player. I think it actually worked out quite well. It took a lot of work on the camera, hopefully you don’t notice, but we had to spend a lot of time making sure you don’t notice.

On visual improvements

A lot of that really came down to the artists here, I think it has to do with the environment, personally. If you go out in the environment here [in Otley, West Yorkshire], it’s very different to where I live. And you walk around and it’s all moss, mushrooms, all this environmental detail in layers. I've worked with tons of artists from all around the world, and I've said that artists in California would not make this look the same. I mean, my camera is full of pictures just from walking in the woods out here, and you just don’t see that stuff back there. I think inherently there's something about artists living here that gives them this different [perspective] with all the plant life and grass and fungus. And you’ve got all the details they put in there that I didn't ask for. They really shot above what I thought was a fair target for the money and for how many people were making it.

On fan feedback

There's a few things we have now that we didn't really have before, and one of them is having forums and Facebook - ways to capture conversation and provide an environment where a fanbase community can exchange and be politely competitive. There’s sometimes this attitude of ‘I know this game better than you do’ – but it’s expressed as ‘they’d better not f**king change that bit’. It’s really valuable - as a designer you're trying to gauge what they mean, not just what they’re saying. Okay, we're hearing this, but let's not just react to what they're saying. What do they mean? And if they feel like you're listening and you care and you’re honest with them – I mean, they can smell a marketing pitch a million miles away, I'm amazed some of the big brands still get away with what they do. They have this gullible audience that gobbles it up every time. That's not so much our experience. Hardcore fans can be really brutal! But it really is priceless: now we can get answers from thousands of people overnight and that gives us a pretty good gauge. And it influenced a lot on this project. Like there was a greater attachment to nostalgia than I really thought there would be. The audience was like ‘don't f**k this up’. You know?

On finding your niche

We're not chasing free to play, we're not chasing a lot of the trends. We have a faith in our own personal likes and dislikes. A lot of the reason why we started working with Just Add Water was that there was this strong desire to just make story games. We don't think we're going to go out and sell millions of units, but we absolutely believe that there's a sizeable audience for people that want that type of product and there's not enough of that type of product being made. That's what some of our HD remakes earlier, like Stranger[‘s Wrath] let us find out: how responsive is that audience? And if we stay true to what people loved about us - the humour, the character, the life, the attention to detail, the artistry. The craftsmanship. Then we think there is an audience. And it's not going to be the biggest one, but there will be an audience that cares about that stuff. So we looked at it and said if we're going to do this stuff, it's got to be really tight, it's got to be really [high] quality, and so the people that really care about games and not just trends are going to recognise that. And they're going to support that if you are nurturing your community well, which basically means paying attention and not being assholes.

On what ‘indie’ means

Indie means you don't have a master, and you're not a slave. You're in control of your own destiny. You're going to live and die by your own decisions. You really get a chance to f**k it all up! But when you do, you don't have anyone to blame - not that I've ever done that, right? So if we screw this up, you're going to see me going 'hey, we gave it a good shot, we tried'. And you don't have a safety net. So if you're in with a big publisher, just as an example, and they have millions of dollars into a game, and you're screwing up and going over budget, they're going to evaluate the quality of that. They're going to evaluate the potential sales, and then they'll decide if they're going to spend more money on that or not because they have more money. We don't! So if we screw up, there's only so much runway before the whole name of the game changes, where you’ve got to go and get financial partners. And then you're back into that major space where you're not just pleasing yourselves as designers and the audience, you're now having to please a middle party that's second guessing all of your choices for that audience. And that's a lot more complicated.

On costs and price points

This is a better game than Abe’s Oddysee released at half the original cost! We've put $2m of our own into this. Now a lot of indie [studios] aren't doing that - because they can't yet, and because it's not necessarily wise for them to. But we have a couple things going for us - we have some brand recognition globally, and that's a huge benefit. We're not punching through that wall, saying ‘look at us, you've never heard of us’, we’ve got that familiarity working for us, we have the amortisation of all the original assets working for us. And we're able to put a product into the marketplace which we think is very reasonable, at a $30 price point. So with that, you're now up against an audience expectation which goes ‘hey, [it should be] $1, dude, you're indie.’ And you're going ‘uh-huh, well, it's kind of indie, but this is triple-A indie, dude’. And I hear you're really upset about spending ten more dollars. [I spent] two million more. I mean, it was probably about $50,000 just getting all my data back, buying the right drives that existed in that era to have people sifting through barcoded archives of old robotic drive systems that were around in 1997. But I hear you, man. Pretty damn expensive. I feel your pain. Maybe not ten dollars’ worth, though.

On caring about quality

Do I think enough gamers care? I do! I mean, Abe's still selling today, and that was a real surprise. If you look at our library on digital [services], we’ve had a couple of million units sold. If you look at Stranger on Steam? Hundreds of thousands of sales - not millions of sales, but hundreds of thousands. And you go huh? You look at some of the successes today – look at the success of Monument Valley, look at the success of The Room. I'm skipping a beat here, but let's look at the film industry. The Best Picture [Oscar] every year is not going to majors, it’s going to indies - because they're better. Because they have better stories. What's happening is that you have creators that are able to do it cheaper, because they're working with people that are building their brands on quality, because they have to have some edge to cut through because they don't have that $200m marketing campaign.

On the future of Oddworld

[Before New ‘n’ Tasty] we were looking at Oddworld, and people were saying 'build a new game' or 'we want a new Oddworld game, why aren't you guys doing that?' Well, it’s because there's a certain expectation of quality that we have and you probably have for what Oddworld games mean. A new game is a much bigger expense. And we don’t want to take on financial partners. So when we looked at the price point, we asked ‘what can we do with what's landed in the bank from the success of the digital sales?’ And from there, we identified, like we were talking about earlier, can we sell 250,000 units? We're not saying like on previous games, after 2 million units you'll start seeing some royalties. It’s not like if we sell 1.5 million units it's not reached expectations. If we sell 1.5 million units we’re building brand new IP! It's going right back in to make new cool stuff. And we’re still in the same boat - we can make our own decisions, but we can make them with more money, and more time and more bodies if need be.