First posted on 08 April 2008. Last updated on 21 October 2008.
Lorne Lanning is the co-founder and president of Oddworld Inhabitants, best known as the developer of the Oddworld Quintology series of games. Lanning is a legend in both the game and the film industries. His career began while attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City and, later on, the California Institute of the Arts. He then worked at the TRW Engineering Visualization Lab as a Technical Director, before moving to Rhythm & Hues Studios where he transitioned from the position of Technical Director to Art Director to Visual Effects Supervisor. In 1994, he co-founded Oddworld Inhabitants with Sherry McKenna to develop the Oddworld series. Over the next 11 years, his award winning studio (to which he served as President and Creative Director) produced 4 game titles: Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, and Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath (not including re-releases such as Oddworld Adventures and Oddworld Adventure 2). Despite receiving critical acclaims from both fans and critics for his work, Lanning announced his surprise departure from the game industry in 2005 to focus back on television and film production.
- The following article contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.
Fortunately, today Lanning still maintains close ties to his legion of game fans and the Oddworld community. He has also been a vocal critic of the video game industry and is not afraid to voice his ongoing dissatisfaction with the narrow vision of current game publishers and most game developers.
We are extremely privileged to have an opportunity to interview this legendary developer. In the interview, Lanning speaks of his career influences, his vision as a game designer and developer, the challenges of surviving in the game industry, his dissatisfaction with the current state of the game publishing business, and what holds for him and his company in the future.
- How have your experiences of working in film and television in Hollywood influenced you as a game developer?
- It helped to understand the management and processes of large scale productions and also the importance of focusing on story and character above all else.
Of course, there were many other benefits of having been involved with 3D animation and visual effects before games, as these skills now are common necessities for being a solid game designer today.
- How did you meet Sherry McKenna, with whom you co-founded Oddworld Inhabitants? What were your original visions for the company and how had these visions changed over the years with what you had learned about the game industry?
- I used to see her on HBO and Entertainment Tonight specials back in the early 80's. She was the "go to" person in computer graphics when the press was interested in a story. So I learned about her long before I knew her and long before she ever heard of me. She was a pioneering producer in visual effects and computer graphics and I was just a wanna-be at the time. Then when I was working at Rhythm & Hues in Los Angeles Sherry was a client of ours at Universal. She had a huge project for Universal Studios Florida Themepark that I was able to work on and that was when I first got to meet her. Right away, I knew she was a serious producer with amazing insights and skills. So I got to know her better and eventually helped convince her to come work at Rhythm & Hues with us. At the time, she had left Universal and was running Douglas Trumbul's company (he did the effects for Blade Runner, Close Encounters, 2001, etc). But I convinced her that she would be able to make movies that were CG animated while at Rhythm & Hues. I was wrong, but I did end up convincing her to run Oddworld. That was the smartest thing I ever did.
My original vision for the company was to create properties by launching them as games, and then eventually make the movies of these properties. It's a bit complex to try to describe the business of entertainment and its ins and outs in this answer, but overall the best opportunities for creating new brands and properties was in the game industry. So that's why I became a game designer. Because I wanted to tell stories. While that may not make much sense, it actually was a sound strategy and we did get to prove our storytelling abilities... Which led to bigger things as a result of having that much more credibility in engaging an audience.
The game industry has changed tremendously and in many ways has lost its appeal to many creators. At least, on a business front the incentives have deteriorated greatly because it has led to less innovation and exploration in ideas and creativity. The timing happened to be good for us as we felt it was time to transition back into the larger entertainment landscape but to now apply all the lessons from game development back into television and film production. It's a bit ironic, as we've always been bringing more film sensibilities to our games and now we're bringing more gaming sensibilities to our films and television efforts. Especially on the technology production front, as all of our productions are now using game engines and technology as a core component of the production pipeline. Herein lies the future.
We also learned a tremendous amount about demographics and understanding your audience. This is critical for games development but many film creators don't spend enough time understanding who the audience is and what their behavioral consumption patterns are. It's valuable insight to have this coming from games and being able to share this with film and television partners.
- It is an understatement to say that the story in Oddworld is both whimsical and satirical, touching on themes such as corporate greed, slavery, and racial discrimination. How much of your own political, moral, or religious beliefs are reflected in your games?
- Well, for anyone who does their homework in "following the money" in all things political or religious... truth is certainly stranger than fiction. My belief is that the corporate media has completely failed the democratic state and it's up to entertainment as the last front line for common sense and insight. As a case in point, the film "An Inconvenient Truth" did more for our critical global issue than anything the news outlets or networks did to inform the public. In fact, these networks actually co-financed campaigns of misinformation to keep the public ignorant of the facts and confused on who to believe. All because the truth had massive financial consequences to their advertisers and corporate parent companies.
If you look at how the media really operates (and for reference, I would suggest starting by reading the book or video "Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky". It details how we've lost control of our corporate funded media landscape that has its own agenda that is anything but democratic in nature. It's a massive misinformation machine that serves Wall Street and the White House and little else. This isn't theory, this is fact. But the fact is, most are listening to the misinformation that has become standard news today. With this the state of our "information outlets"... We're forced to consider entertainment as a way to penetrate ideas and fresh perspectives into the public mind.
If you believe like I do, that the vast majority of people on earth are good and want to do good things, then you may also believe that they need to be informed with the facts if they are to make good decisions. The best intention based upon misleading information is doomed. So my hope is that the public is learning that the most important stories of the past year... Are the stories THEY WERE NOT TOLD by the corporate media and that they are waking up to the horrific degree that they are being lied to by special interests and generally insane war mongers and greed fiends that seek money and power at the public's expense.
Why are we learning truth from films and not from the news today? What the hell happened?? Well, it's a long story to try to explain, but the end result is... We need an informed and inspired public and I believe the role of the artist is to help communicate the uncomfortable things that we need to know about. To shed light on the issues that we need to be aware of and that we need to be more responsible towards in our lifestyles and belief systems.
- What was your original vision of the Oddworld Quintology of games? How far was the development (if any) of the remaining unfinished titles that were supposed to be part of the Quintology?
- Abe's Oddysee was true to the vision. Abe's Exoddus was true to the vision even though we referred to it as a "bonus game". Munch got derailed and it was almost impossible to get it back on track. That's why Stranger took a twist from the series and the Quintology. I was beginning to believe (and still do) that the games medium was too technologically binding and story would continue to be compromised if the console cycles continued the way they did. Basically, with bozo systems being designed by bozo hardware designers that are clueless about content and what storytellers need in the medium. It's still largely an engineering medium and unfortunately is a bit stuck in that rut... Which is greatly compromising the potential for what games COULD be. So we decided to focus on the film front and keep the stories of the Quintology intact for film releases instead of game releases first. This is also a long story of strategy and the entertainment landscape and timing possibilities... But it's the course we're on and I have every intention of making the stories as great as I can and have no interest in compromising those stories. If we have take longer to achieve our goals of quality and integrity to make the type of films we want for our property... Then we will. We're not in a hurry to get something out. We are dedicated to doing great work and inspiring audiences with more compelling content than the standard fare has to offer.
- Was it your intent always that Oddworld Inhabitants would be solely focused on developing games based on a single license or brand? Why? How worry were you that your games might suffer from sequelitis with the release of each sequel?
- No, it was always our intent to do additional properties that branched into other media as well, but we wanted to start with the Oddworld property and get it rolling before moving onto new stories in different worlds. Why? Because we feel that there are so few properties out there that actually have vision beyond just making money. It's a landscape of junk media with everyone competing for your dollar but not for the integrity of your minds. We want to tell stories that people connect to and relate to and help them to see the world differently – differently in ways that might benefit us all as a global people. True, we were always a bit concerned about sequelitis, but that helped us to keep a fresh eye on where we might be getting stale. In that respect, staying concerned about it helps you avoid the trap that can easily befall a property.
- It is difficult to classify what game genre or genres to which the Oddworld series best belong. How will you classify (if you can) your own games?
- Sure, we've always thought Oddworld was a bit difficult to classify within the traditional genres, but we also saw that as a strength in that it would help distinguish the uniqueness of our products. However, you spend enough time in the game industry and you come to realize that marketing departments of big publishers don't like anything they don't already know how to sell. So you believe that you made something that cut through the clutter and then you find that the forces that should be selling your game are actually discouraged because they haven't sold something just like it before. The sad truth is that isn't something that's unique to the game industry. It's pretty much par for the course of all forms of mass entertainment. In a nutshell, the more expensive an entertainment production is, the more it will be watered down along the way. It's the nature of investment when calculating risks and rewards. The challenge is in figuring out how to be unique and get exposure and this will be a forever challenge. It's not going to change, but it does get better with the potential of digital distribution and the disintegration of the traditional distribution / retail / middleman model.
- What had been the greatest challenges in developing the A.L.I.V.E. (Aware Lifeforms in Virtual Entrainment) engine to allow for more life-like behavior of various inhabitants in Oddworld? How had it evolved over subsequent sequels of the series?
- We always saw the A.L.I.V.E. Branding as a conceptual theme more than a technological evolution. The tech changed three times on our games. The first two Abe games were on one engine while Munch was on another and Stranger on another still. What we wanted to do was stay true not to the technology, but to the idea and pursuit of virtual life forms with more degrees of believable personality and visible awareness. The idea was always a simple one yet the implementation is horrifically complicated. The idea was and still is, "if characters feel more compelling and self aware - then we increase the possibility of engaging our audience emotionally."
- Why was the decision made to switch development away from the PC and over to the console only? What was the initial reaction of Oddworld's fan base to this announcement? In retrospect, how much did you regret your decision to abandon the PC platform?
- The Oddworld fans have always had some things to say about our switching platforms, but it's a decision that comes along more with the business and less with the "ideal solution". The fact was... Our partner company was going down the tubes (GT/Infogrames) and we needed to make a move. Microsoft really wanted Munch but it would have to be exclusive to the Xbox if you were going to do a deal with MS. We liked the Xbox and so we made the choice to go with MS. People don't understand all the constraints that your various publishing partners are going to place on the product and where it can go, but the relationship governs the decision making that account for where a game ends up. Games cost a ton of money to build and unless you're going to pay for them yourself... You have to work with partners.
Sure, we wish we never let go of the PC platform, but Microsoft and EA both didn't want PC versions of the game. Hence, they paid for the games to be built so there ya have it. Of course, our goal is to transcend such relationships and be 100% financially independent and able to make all of our own decisions. But you have to be VERY WEALTHY to pull that off and we still have a ways to go :-) If you're George Lucas or Valve Software you do that, but the rest of us still have to cooperate with constraints and choices we may not agree with but have to live with.
- As an outspoken and admired insider of the game industry, you had in the past openly and unapologetically voiced your dissatisfaction with (certain) game publishers and console manufacturers. Specifically (and borrowing from a clichéd expression), what was the straw that broke the camel's back? In retrospect, what lessons had you learned about negotiating with game publishers (both PC and console) and surviving in the game industry?
- We got into games to birth and own our properties. That wasn't possible in film or television when we started Oddworld, but it was possible in games. Now, it's no longer possible in games as the game industry has since figured out that branding key. When we started, the game industry didn't believe in sequels (imagine that!). Understanding the climate then, we weren't going to create new properties for large companies to own. It's just wasn't and is not in sync with our vision, goals and dreams. So in wanting to birth Citizen Siege... had we birthed it as a game first we would have given up full ownership of the property to a company(s) that didn't share our vision.
When you're a passionate content creator... Giving up your property is like giving up your kids. We don't have actual kids, we only have our properties but we're just as protective of our properties as most people are with their children. Taking that into consideration... Why would you ever give up your kids to organizations that don't share your values? No sane person would, but most people don't look at intellectual property that way. They see it more like commercial real estate property. Something that comes and goes. Something that hits or misses and you just move on. We're way too passionate and invested in what we create to hand it over to ever changing executives within a big organization that see your "kids" as a chess piece to be used or sacrificed for the interest of their shareholders. You can also bet that your kids will be put on the front line of a war before theirs ever are... So doing more deals with traditional game publishers had little interest to us and we decided that we would have better leverage with our stories and properties if we focused on the full slate of entertainment delivery, beyond just games. We also wanted to focus more on internet based digitally distributed socially oriented type games and interactive experiences. Which, for the most part, traditional publishers have little interest in, understand minimally at best, and bring little value to. Think about it. Did Vivendi bring value to Blizzard? Or did Blizzard save Vivendi's ass? Did any publishers help to get Valve in the position of digital distribution? No. But now publishers are wanting to tap into what Valve has built. The smaller groups always pioneer, and if you're interested in pioneering, you're less likely to want to work with big entrenched entities that aren't very creative in their way of doing business.
If there's a lesson we learned it's that there are better financing and business opportunities out there than publishers have to offer. It's really that simple.
- Your departure from the game industry and shutdown of your California-based game development studio in March 2005 came about with a very public denouncement on how poorly the game industry had dealt with developers' rights, publishers' duties, and intellectual properties. At the time, what was your great dissatisfaction or frustration with the game industry as a whole? How much of your attitude on these issues had changed since 2005?
- Actually, that's an exaggeration that the press amplified. What happened is that so few people are willing to go on the line and say anything critical of a big publisher that when they do it gets amplified by the community. I think it's out of desperation for the press and the audience to hear the dirt in a world that is so saturated with obvious self stroking PR BS.
The truth is that the game industry is largely a packaged goods business and creators will never like how the nature of a packaged goods business operates. At the time I was floored at how little a massive entity cared about what we had delivered to them and how much they were interested in leveraging their decisions against us in a buyout situation. We don't care for getting kicked around and fed a steady stream of BS so we told them to stick it. Simple as that. I think that happens so infrequently in the game business that when it does it actually makes news. In film, television, and music it happens all the time and is even expected, but it rarely makes headlines like it does when it happens in games.
- What can the game industry learn from the film industry to survive, and vice versa?
- Games are going to survive, but retailers and distribution companies are going to get hit hard. Film is going thru similar transitions. The difference in film is that creative is paid for handsomely and there is a realization that key creatives (director, writer, composer, actors, producers) make or break projects and are worth their value – which at times is ridiculously high. Not so in games, and that's why you're seeing the best game designers migrating away from publishers as a source of financing for their games. They are traditionally undervalued and are now recognizing that to a deeper extent.
Film is going to be hurt by letting these costs get completely out of control. It's insane to spend $200 mil on a movie. They've got to reinvent the production techniques and pipelines to get lower costs with higher creative integrity. That's actually what we're focused on because we want to build at lower costs so we can have greater creative controls. The more expensive, the more the marketing department will be writing and directing the picture.
- What do you feel to be your greatest contribution so far to the industry as a game developer? Why?
- I've been told that "you guys brought film quality production design to games". Maybe there's truth in that, but what we always cared about was compelling stories with engaging characters that tantalized the intellectual mind while slamming the funny bone. How's that for a soundbite!?
- How different is it to deal with the game industry press as compared to the film or television press, the latter being a more established institution? What lessons have you learned about dealing the game industry press when promoting your games?
- Most press is actually trained in journalism (not that you'd notice by watching the news these days) while the game industry largely gets its writers and reviewers from the blog'o'sphere or gamers that just love writing reviews. With that comes a different degree of intellectual interest. If you're interviewed by a European games journalist, their interest tends to begin with the game but quickly transcends to the more philosophical intents of the content creator and its relevance to the world at large that we live in. Less so with American journalists, which by and large are more concerned with the basic features of the game and often times little else.
As for lessons learned... Be careful what you say and assume of their knowledge as you can bet they didn't do any research on your claims. Case in point, a recent Wired writer attended the debate I had with Jack Thompson. She wrote about it as though it was a personality contest, and didn't bother fact checking any of the misleading and falsely represented claims of my counterpart on the stage. So her opinion piece was baseless on points and only focused on who she liked more – which is a tremendous disservice to her readers who were clearly misinformed on the issue they were hoping to learn more about. I see moments like this as "Idiocracy" in motion and yet another sign of the death of investigative journalism. Journalists like that should be writing for People Magazine, not Wired – but it seems that virtually all corporate media is slowly becoming a watered down version of People magazine - including international politics.
Global citizens should be alarmed at the ongoing media consolidations and the relentless assault on real investigative journalism. I would recommend a great film on the subject called "Outfoxed" and another that is tremendously insightful for understanding our media landscape would be "Manufacturing Consent". The best would be "911 – Press for Truth / the story of the Widows of 911" as it clearly identifies that the most important stories are the ones you weren't told. These are rare bleeps of clarity that shed light on the mechanics and manipulations of the media we consume. For games, Henry Jenkins at MIT has a pretty great blog that helps to identify media trends to be aware of and how they shape public perception. I guess I'm one of those aging fools that believe people actually want the truth – regardless of how bad it may be for business as usual.
- Given what you have learned about the game industry, what cautionary tales can you give to a game fan who wants to become a game developer?
- Think online, think social, think big and start small!
- Without specifics (which you obviously cannot divulge at this time), what can we expect from Lorne Lanning and Oddworld Inhabitants in the next 5 years?
- At least... One film delivered, one television series aired, two or more MMO-lite type experience networks, and a whole lot of coolest game tech being used in completely new ways ;-)