Oddworld Inhabitants has had an interesting journey over the last two decades. After their breakthrough mainly on PlayStation they signed an exclusive deal with Microsoft to launch Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee on the original Xbox. The second game in the deal Stranger's Wrath was abandoned by Microsoft and EA picked it up close to release. The quirky shooter wasn't a success, perhaps mainly as it was released exclusively on the ailing original Xbox at a time when a PS2 port would have been a great idea.
That game also signaled the end of Oddworld Inhabitants as a game development studio, instead it was repurposed as a production company and Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna looked into perhaps going full circle and returning to the movie business they once came from. In the years, since the movie plans never materialised, but Oddworld Inhabitants forged new alliances and have launch Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD on a variety of platforms as well as the recent Oddworld: New'n'Tasty (the remade Oddworld: Abe's Oddyssee.
We met with president, creative director and co-founder of Oddworld Inhabitants, Lorne Lanning, recently to learn more of the company's current focus and future plans and we also talked a lot about a industry that's constantly changing and the advent of virtual reality.
"It's been an interesting journey," says Lorne Lanning of the state of Oddworld today. "We started in '94 and we shut down our operation in 2005... The industry was changing quick so we made a lot of decisions. We placed a bet that eventually digital distribution would be a way to revitalise ourselves the way we wanted to. Basically moving out of the traditional developer/publisher relationships more into self-publishing. And 2008 we started that on Steam and now that allowed us the revenue where we could finance things like New N' Tasty and now we're planning a second title I can't mention yet, but it's kind of obvious and we're doing it with a similar treatment."
There's no longer any need for secrecy as since the interview Lanning has officially revealed that they are in fact working on a remake of the second game in the series Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus. And that's exactly what everyone was expecting.
"Where we're currently at, it's wonderful, we like it. And now we're looking at how do we take that to the next level? But you know in what we've been doing we've been very conservative. We've had to build it the old way. You actually make some money and you reinvest it. You don't go out and get loans, you know financing. So that was new to us, building businesses the old way, but it's actually working and it's giving us some creative freedom. And hopefully it gives us enough of a bank reservoir that we can start doing that new IP sooner [rather] than later."
"Obviously that's our goal, but we've got some other announcements we'll be making before that. But the trajectories look great so I think the future is bright and I've got to say we're happy."
"The way we look at Oddworld is we want to be in more of a film-like relationship where we scale with the projects. We keep our core very small, very simple and then we're contracting out for all the needs and we go to the best people for the right time on the job and so far that's been working out really nice."
Lanning goes on to tell us how being autonomous means you really can't blame anyone but yourself. Not being able to release New'n'Tasty simultaneously is one example of where Oddworld could have done a better job. But working like this also affords Oddworld the ability to control their games and preserve them for the future so they're not stuck on dead formats with long since banktupt publishers.
"That was always the idea," Lanning started. "We started talking long before you were out in the studio last time [back in 2005], and when you look at the whole history of it, that was the idea."
"The idea was why can't Oddworld be like Doctor Seuss, why can't it be like Mickey? Why can't it grow with generations, and why can't someone who played it when they were a kid [play it] now when they have kids? And we're seeing that; people that were kids with Oddworld, are now playing Oddworld with their kids, and they want to go back to the same games because it meant something special to them."
Lanning continued: "So that longevity is there, but what we didn't expect, we didn't expect that the old games would actually still continue to sell, and that new devices like mobile devices and things like this would create new opportunities and new exposure. So someone who may have never played games except on a mobile device, so now for the first time Oddworld's in their visibility and accessible, and we're getting good receptions in those areas. So when I look at it I definitely want to keep on building into the future, keep on building upon things, I have to be smarter now, because it's really do or die and you've got to figure it out for yourself, but it's exciting."
Oddworld is one of those franchises that was a bit ahead of its times. Most video games stayed clear of society and politics, but Oddworld made it a point to challenge our view of the world.
"And it I think one of the things that helped Oddworld is we were always about dark side of globalisation content right. So if we look at it Abe was the original 99% of gaming."
"He was the original guy [saying] 'capitalism is kind of a problem, folks, and this is what's happening'. And I remember when we released almost all of the reviews would come out 'they're very anticapitalistic'. And now they're like 'look at Oddworld, man, they were ahead of the curve and the world is screwed today and they were talking about it back then, this is cool'. But then youth today is more informed, it's got the web access when it's like 6 months old. It's got an iPad. So we have a whole different audience and a different awareness and I think the content of what we created and what Oddworld was is about is really resonating today more than then. And that brings a certain fan loyalty with it and I think that as long as we keep the quality high and stay true to what those ambitions of ours were and what we always told the audience we were about."
Given Oddworld Inhabitants recent output you could easily think it's a company more focussed on the past than the future, but listening to Lorne Lanning it's easy to deduct they are looking keenly at virtual reality for the future.
"Really exciting stuff happening, don't know exactly where it's all going. See a lot of exciting opportunity. Hopefully we have some announcements in the future, but not stuff I can ID right now."
"[It interests me] tremendously. And I think it has a lot of challenges as well. I think the biggest challenge that's going to happen to VR is bad software," says Lanning.
"And this is just a fact. Most of the gaming community does not know how to create software for VR. And what's going to happen is we're going to have a lot of nausea, a lot of sickness and we're going to have a lot of designers and developers blaming the hardware for why their software is making people sick. But really it's a design solution. I feel that the good devices, the people that are leading this space have the tech in a place where if you just design properly for it you can really make it work into a beautiful experience. If you're trying to reverse engineer your old thinking into the VR format you're in trouble. And I don't think you're going to create very compelling experiences for people maybe quite the opposite. I mean when did a consumer electronics product ever give you a five hour headache if it was a bad piece of software? Ever? So we're in a whole different category and the reason I tap it is because it's so powerful."
During GDC Lanning had the opportunity to sample the recent advancements in virtual reality and it was obvious he was very excited about the prospects even if he saw problems.
"So you need to [try the Crescent Bay demo]. Cause when you do it's game over. You get it. It's a game changer. And then there's a lot of other complications that come with that I think we need to check out. On all kinds of levels. Because it really is that game changing. The question is how soon is it really in the market place? How early should small developers be investing in it? When is there an install base? How long is the duration of stay? How long are players willing to stay in there? Right now there's not much that lasted more than a few minutes and there's a reason. So there's a lot of things to learn and I think there's going to be a lot of failures. And we get to learn from a lot of those failures, but overall VR is not going away it's here to stay."
"And so as a designer I get very excited about it. As a business person I'm less excited about it, because I can't tell when we can actually stay in business building for it."
"There's no doubt it's here to stay. Exactly who is going to be the winners and losers. Are games going to be the biggest place? Is industrial going to be the biggest place? Is virtual real estate, virtual wedding planning - is this going to be the biggest space? Is repairs on truck enginges going to be the biggest space? Who knows?"
"You get in there and you're standing on the ledge of a building in Valve's demo and they just tell you to step off and you can't.. I couldn't step up. So I know there's a 100% safe floor in front of me, but when I look down I'm seeing a 60 stories building with traffic running beneath my feet. And being a normal human being I'm a little afraid of heights. A little, not massively, but enough that knowing 100% I can do that be safe, but you're mind sees one thing and your body knows another and there's a lot of new discovery here. Very powerful technology."
It's interesting how Oddworld Inhabitants have managed to presevere, especially given the criticism the games direct towards capitalism. Here's a company that survived largely, because it saw the value in its intellectual property and didn't sell out, but instead opted to scale down. And that's why there's still hope for more Oddworld in the future, even if it's going to take time.