The Making Of… Oddworld

The Making Of... Oddworld

Lanning’s early journey into games would embolden rather than tame his Hollywood mentality, his whip-cracking initiative causing no end of conflict. “It was total chaos,” he admits. “[The staff] were set on paradigms I wanted to smash. The idea, for instance, of having a shooting game in which your character didn’t have a gun. How many times was I told that was the most stupid thing in the world? I’ve been called an idiot on so many different levels, so many different times.

“I was told a lot of things, among them that no one cares about cinematics. Period. Statistically, they’d say, no one watches movies in games. Well, historically, movies in games suck, so why would I watch them? Guys, throw the quality equation into your decision-making. We all go to movies, we all watch TV shows. We love the great stories that games don’t have. So let’s make some.”

To Lanning, Oddworld was much like one of its characters’ journeys, something that began small but then grew, onward and outward, always in spite of the system. “It doesn’t make sense in such a rapidly changing industry to think in terms of a 20-year plan, but that’s how we did it. And it worked: we’ve built a brand and we still own it. We’ve done the impossible, but we’ve paid the price along the way.”

What some might simply call ‘resistance’ or ‘creative differences’ has, for Lanning and his team, been more a constant, bone-rattling turbulence. “What can happen is that expectations of an audience and a publishing community can shape your product into something where derivative is more important than new,” explains Lanning. “They want to see the Abe they know and love. So Microsoft wanted to call Munch’s Oddysee ‘Abe & Munch’s Fun Adventures’. They actually proposed that. It was like: ‘Well, can you be any less creative? Is that possible?’”

Amid howls of treason from the Sony faithful, Munch’s Oddysee, the series’ third adventure, landed alongside Microsoft’s Xbox with an aptly leaden thump. As wondrously illustrated as any Oddworld, its big ideas seemed oddly incapable of flight, as if grounded by the weight of their ambition.

Lanning sighs: “We really believed in Xbox. We believed in Ed Fries [then Xbox evangelist and vice president of Microsoft’s game division], we believed in the guys who had built it. It was a pretty robust group up there. But they did things they weren’t supposed to, like completely annihilate our market. At 400, the Xbox was just a tombstone. It was a horrifically stupid decision and one totally beyond our control. Six months prior to release, no one thought they were gonna sell it for that much money. When you first signed up as a developer, they were saying they might even give that box away. So it seemed like the right move. And they were looking at Munch, they said, because they were looking for the casual game player.”

Microsoft’s desire to tick every box is as famous as its console’s failure to do so, Xbox becoming the quintessential hardcore machine. Halo stole its launch, leaving an uncomfortable niche for the dreamy Munch, which nonetheless struggled on to become a platinum hit. Beyond its Finding Nemo-esque opening, which still leaves an Xbox-sized lump in the throat, lay a game Lanning solemnly calls ‘the nightmare of my life’.

“I won’t name names – this actually concerns a good guy – but it’s indicative of the way big companies do things. We were looking at the first movies our team had been working on – and they were always very finicky, striving for excellence – and it was the first time we’d used Bink compression. And this guy comes over, shows me the result and says: ‘What do you think?’ And I was like: ‘You’re joking, right? It’s garbage’. That ruffled some feathers.

“’But it’s just a movie’, said one of the executive producers. Well, first of all, if I show my people that, the whole department’s gonna walk out the door and go somewhere their work is appreciated. Our culture will not allow that to leave the building. And you’re selling a DVD player. DVD means better than VHS, not worse than the web. It wasn’t really a problem with Bink’s software, it was just that no one knew how to dial it properly. And they were like: ‘Well, you don’t have any market statistics to back all this up’. ‘Oh my God’, I said, ‘you guys have to do market research to decide your mom’s name. DVD means high quality. Get it together.’”

Microsoft was a good partner, he insists, though one that was, perhaps by necessity, poles apart in its outlook and behaviour. “We made plenty of mistakes ourselves, and I personally suffered from what a lot of designers do, just being overambitious and not disciplined enough to keep it small and focus on the things that really matter. So it kept expanding and expanding, and what happens then is you get less than you were
hoping for.”