The Odd Couple
When Abe first introduced himself to PlayStation owners around the world in 1997, the lovably grotesque Mudokon became a beacon for originality and humor in an increasingly stale market of subpar shooters, diehard racing games, and 3D platformers.
The sidescrolling epic ingeniously expanded upon the paradigms of classic sidescrollers, and each screen was a puzzling masterpiece unto itself, injected with moral and ethical conflicts rarely seen in games at the time, and since. Unbeknownst to the unlikely hero, Abe was a part of something larger; something so grand it would actually never be fully realized. He was just one of several cogs in the Oddworld machine, and Lorne Lanning was the puppet master pulling his strings. Lanning, a computer arts veteran who worked his way through the ranks of Academey Award-winning visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues before pursuing an outlet through interactive mediums. But Lanning was a creative mind, and as a million hasty iPhone developers are quickly learning, the creative side and the business side of entertainment are two wholly different beasts. He had the intuition to know he needed a strong business backbone, but also the wisdom to know that he should not be the one to handle it. He found this in longtime business and romantic partner, Sherry McKenna, who has been the Leia to his Solo since the formation of Oddworld Inhabitants.
"It's more of a classic entertainment relationship," explains Lanning, "rather than a classic Silicon Valley relationship. Infinity Ward would be more of two programmers or three programmers and a designer, people with specific hands-on skills starting to build a company. The entertainment business is more like producer-director teams. Sherry's a lifelong producer, and when we talk about how Oddworld's a co-creation, we can split it up like this: Content is largely my creation. The company and the culture is largely Sherry's creation. When you look at producing and directing in the entertainment business, that's a marriage. The best directors and the best producers, they all have the people that they like working with the most at that marriage level. I always saw that the smartest creatives got really strong producers around them. Because we tend to be flaky, we tend to be more artistic in nature. Whereas good producing tends to be more absolutely on top of things, every T is crossed. So I think in our relationship, it started off as a producer-director class relationship that naturally evolved into a production company."
Like all other lifeforms born and raised in Los Angeles, Sherry McKenna became involved in the entertainment industry early on. After working on commercials and collecting numerous awards for her efforts, she helped produce the visual effects for films throughout the '80's, including The Last Starfighter (which ironically uses a videogame as part of the plot to scout real-life space pilots), 2010, and Jim Henson's Labyrinth, and then U.S. theme park Universal Studios' Back to the Future: The Ride in 1991. After being introduced by a mutual colleague, Lanning made a lasting impression. "We were doing motion-based ride films," McKenna recalls. "Lorne was working on a Disney project. We were at my house at the time, sitting out by the swimming pool, and Lorne said, 'Let me tell you a story.' So I said, 'Sure.' The story took him forever, it was the most wonderful story, and I loved it, and it was very complex. It was about how the world worked, without hitting you over the head with it. I said, 'Lorne, this is awesome, we could make a feature.' And Lorne said, 'No, no, no, we're going to make video games.' And I said, 'What are video games again?' The PSX hadn't even come out yet. So I said, 'I have no desire to make video games, I do 70mm and these big attractions!' And Lorne said, 'You don't get it. This is the future. This is where everything is going.' And I said, 'Well, how do you know that?' And he says, 'Because I just know. That's where it's gonna go.' So it took him about two years to convince me, and he said, 'Let's just start our own company. If I can get the money, will you do it?' I knew he couldn't get the money," laughs McKenna, "because we had no experience, we had nothing. So I said, 'Sure, if you can get the money to start up a video game company, I'm there.' And somehow, he got the money."
Fast forward a decade-and-a-half later, and McKenna can't help but to think back on the early experiences of making Oddworld's first game. "I've been doing CG and special effects my whole career," she explains. "And I did commercials, I thought those were the hardest things in the world to do. You had 30-60 seconds in those days to tell a complete story. Then I got into computer graphics, and I thought, 'That's the hardest thing in the world to do! There can't be anything more difficult than making a motion picture.' And then, when I was at Universal Studios, I did a motion-based ride film. I thought to myself, 'No, no, this is the most difficult thing in the world to do!' Because you've got to sync up the motion base with the picture. And then, Lorne convinced me to get into video games. And let me tell you, there's nothing more difficult than video games. Period, end of story. It is the most difficult medium to produce that I've ever had in my career. And that's the truth." The obvious question is then, "Are games the most rewarding?" But McKenna quickly shoots down that notion, stating that her glory days were watching people line up around the block to see films she had worked on, and that little else has come close to that rush. But the unique aspect of gaming is its perpetuality. "A good thing about [Oddworld] is that the reward is still happening," says McKenna. "Because I read what the folks are saying about our games still, even though we closed shop five years ago, and that's what makes it rewarding. It's the reaction of the fans."
"I remember, for me, one day in particular, we were in Germany," says Lanning. "I think we were in Frankfurt, and we were there for the Abe's Exoddus release, doing a press tour. We went into the big game store, and Abe was in the top five. And we walked by the magazine stand and Abe was on like three covers. And then we're walking into the music store, and Abe was on the top ten with the singles, with the music video that someone had done out of the UK at the time. And there was also a bus that was shrinkwrapped, in Germany, that we saw, that was all Oddworld. Abe was everywhere. That, to me, was a very cool moment."
With all of these things in mind and the 20/20 of hindsight, Lanning contemplates making the Oddworld series in 2010. "We have a number of designs that we'd like to implement," says Lanning. "It's finding the right conditions, it's progressive… We identified that boxed product was sort of collapsing… I would say collapsing on the developer, not necessarily on the big publishers yet. The thing that's really different today is you can have a better idea of who your audience is if you're going through online. When we sell our games on Steam, we can see what country is the most interested, what time of day they have the most activity, what happens in the world that causes sales to increase or decrease. You get to see who is playing your games, and the closer you can get to the people playing your games, then the better an idea you have for what kinds of games to make, and choices to make, that your audience is going to like more. So those things said, when we look at the types of products that we would want to launch with Oddworld today, they would be of a different sort of classical format, rather than the, 'Here's the 30-hour story you're going to unfold through an action-adventure game.' It would be something that's more of a living ecosystem. And I don't mean that in terms of a natural simulation, but I mean in terms of a marketplace that would allow people to have much more custom configuration over their gaming experience. When we look at the types of games we'd like to build going forward, we want to be more settled into what we see as the new landscape, rather than the old one, which was just building huge products. On the new landscape, you build a smaller product, you get it out there, you try and learn more from the audience quickly, and then you help the audience have a feedback loop with you It's a more co-creative process with the audience. You see that happening in some territories, in Asia, you see it happening with a number of online-type games where the audience is really helping to shape the experience. And I think that's more and more important as we go into the future. That's what people want, they want more control over what they do. So that would be the difference. A new product with the Oddworld label would be born in a very different nature."
Even in a Halo-centric industry, when every other developer and publisher was going right, Oddworld went left with Stranger's Wrath, a critically-praised shooter with a heart and a sense of humor. Currently, Lanning is trying to get ahead of the curve yet again with a social networking platform he and McKenna have been building for the past few years, but he leaves us with a final message from the Oddworld Inhabitants, and one we don't even have to save 99 Mudokons to unravel. "I think it's about dreams," says Lanning. "It's about pursuing dreams. I think life is full of compromises, and you're always evolving. So whether it looks like you're on top of the world, or not, it's really about adapting to what's going on. Trying to be innovative, trying to stay on top of being creative. And following your dreams. We are absolutely still in pursuit of our dreams. I can't imagine living any other way."
You can read the full Oddworld interview in games™ on sale 8 July.