Lorne Lanning is the scrappiest of old-guard game developers. His Oddworld Inhabitants survived a long drought by turning its library of console games into downloadable versions on various platforms, and now he is self-publishing a new version of another vintage game: Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee New ‘n’ Tasty.
The new version will bring cool 3D graphics to the story of the pathetic creature Abe, who first appeared in 1997 on the PlayStation and the PC. Those platforms were limited when it came to 3D, but Lanning has hired outside developers to craft a beautiful re-creation of the title in a new high-definition form. He hopes to bring a classic platform adventure game to a new generation with a downloadable release for multiple platforms including the PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation Network, and Wii U.
Lanning is still a big advocate of indie developers, and he hopes the latest game will pave the road for more original titles to come. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee New ‘n’ Tasty is his biggest bet yet that gamers will enjoy a fresh retelling of the Oddworld universe. The game is being developed by Just Add Water and published by Oddworld Inhabitants. It is expected to debut in 2014.
We interviewed Lanning at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
Lorne Lanning: It’s been a fascinating year. We chose to redo Abe’s Oddysee on 3D technology, but it was interesting how we got there. We’re able to have a conversation with the audience now. It’s more social wisdom than conventional as far as learning who’s your audience and what they want. We were able to capture more of that as we started putting more of the old games on Steam.
We said, “Okay, we don’t want to deal with publishers anymore. Distribution might be another story, but we’ll self-finance everything from here on out.” We’ve been financing Stranger HD and Stranger Vita. These are a couple of hundred thousand dollars. They’re not big bets. But it allowed us to build the coffers to where we’re able to build a business the old way. We make some profit and reinvest, instead of going out and borrowing.
That enabled us to get to here. Now, on this title, I wasn’t sure what we should build. I felt like we didn’t have the money to build a new intellectual property. The majority of the cost is in proving new mechanics, getting something creative that’s different. The bulk of the work afterward isn’t as bad as that R&D period. So on this, we were able to look at the audience and say, “You’re telling us you want new content. We hear you. But we don’t have the money. What if we could build one of these five options?” We gave them five options and started polling the audience.
What they came back to — I was quite surprised. They wanted to see Abe’s Oddysee, that 2D play pattern of platforming, brought back and completely redone. I never would have thought that was what the audience of today would want, in 2014. We said, “Okay, we can do that.” We’d archived all of our assets originally. We had a few million dollars worth of 3D database that was built at virtually film resolution for the original game. It wasn’t rendered at that res, but it was built much higher, because we were always thinking assets. What does Lucas do? What does Disney? So we were able to bring that back in, and for a couple million more of our own cash, we were able to bring New ‘n’ Tasty out.
GamesBeat: What did you say your ship target was?
Lanning: We haven’t given a firm date. We’re saying it’s coming soon. We’re not giving a month right away. Our basic tagline on that is, you’ll forgive us for not having a specific date, but you’re not going to forgive us for having a shitty game.
GamesBeat: What platforms are you aiming for?
Lanning: Right now it’s PS4 in the lead, plus PS3, PS Vita, Steam of course, Wii U, and we’re still discussing with Xbox. We’d like to be on Xbox. They’re trying to encourage us to be on Xbox.
GamesBeat: You’ve been hassling them too much.
Lanning: [laughs] I’ve backed off. I really want to see Chris Charla succeed. They’ve done a good job of navigating out of E3 in ways they desperately needed to, or else they’d be in real trouble. But the parity issue is still there. What we want to know is simple. If we invest in our platform, are we releasing, or will we be denied?
Being someone who got denied on their last fucking digital platform entirely, with content that was ripe for it, after being told I could be on there — We want to know for sure. We invest, and we’re a day late or a week late or two weeks late, are you going to prohibit us? Because we can’t absorb that loss. We want to know that what we’re investing in, we’ll get to release it. So we’re still in some discussions there. I think it’ll work out.
In the meantime, I’m being nice. I want Charla to succeed. I think he’s a good guy for the role.
GamesBeat: They have something like 250 indie game developers now.
Lanning: Yeah. He’s making traction. The parity clause is a problem for indies. It’s something you might want to play with triple-A guys, but if you say, “If you’re not simultaneous on our system, you can’t release,” well, okay? You’re more concerned about your competition with Sony than you are about delivering great games at good prices to your customers. Not a great model. Pretty vulnerable. Hopefully it doesn’t continue that way and we’re able to get past it. I think we will. I just want to be certain.
With Oddworld on Unity, we’re taking some baby steps. If we can build on a technology platform that we have some faith in through the generation, can we get a better pipeline down where we’re producing newer variations faster?
GamesBeat: What kind of resolution was the original game?
Lanning: The PSX game was basically half NTSC resolution scaled up to look like full NTSC. The videos were running at slightly under half NTSC, at 15 frames per second. The game ran at 30, but all the assets were scaled down and brought up. On PC it was full NTSC res. The PSX was largely the target platform, though.
What you have there is all in-game. It’s all done in Unity, even the cinematics. I’m kind of surprised. Unity’s been very good. They have been really cooperative and forthcoming as far as wanting to improve the fluidity of the dynamic animation system. That was important to us. We don’t want pops and shivers. We want our characters to be really smooth and dynamic and tuneable. That required more work from them to help us out at the core tech level. Even at the CTO level, we were getting attention and help.
They had a couple of titles that were prime test cases for their PS4 platform environment. We got to be one of those. Then we say, “Well, on dynamic lighting, the way this is happening, we need to do some more separations at your core so we can get truer dynamic lighting effects and still have big environments.” In my opinion, they’ve been surprisingly helpful. It’s encouraging, looking at them as a tech platform. I’m still trying to figure out their business model. How are they really going to make money? But we’re happy with the result relative to the amount of effort in.
There are things it didn’t want to do, like quick save. We had quick save in Exoddus after we completely fucked up the save feature on Oddysee. Some things like that, instantaneous saves, it didn’t want to do.
GamesBeat: What are some things you’re able to do a lot better now? Better art is obviously one.
Lanning: If you look at the environments, there’s a lot of things happening back there with particle systems, with ambiance. But to a large degree — Would Stranger run well on Unity? I don’t know. That gets to another level of complication as far as speed and performance and distances. But in this case, the idea of bringing a traditional 2D platformer to 3D, and retaining what made platforming digestible for people, that was an interesting learning experience for us. Why did people want to go back to 2D gaming? That request was coming at us a lot from the audience, now that we’re able to hear the audience.
We felt like, in the way that we’re looking at the world — this isn’t a POV where you can look around 360 degrees — that we could dedicate most of the horsepower into the environments, into the backgrounds. Make them more like true sets, a Hollywood lot set. Then we could absorb the inefficiencies that might be in the engine, without having to do full-roaming 3D that can whip-pan around and needs to operate at 60 frames per second.
To me, the big gains are, we can get a lot more characters on screen obviously. We can tune a lot better because of the dynamic animation system. We can slow it down, speed it up. Every move is tuneable at the character control level. You have to write more routines, but I wanted this really responsive, Mario kind of animation.
GamesBeat: Did you have to create a lot of new assets in the process?
Lanning: It’s basically all new, but we were able to amortize. As I say, we archived, in the beginning, in 1997 $2 million or $3 million worth of assets. Getting those off was an experience, because they were all robot drives, barcoded. Nobody’s even using those anymore.
Bringing those in gave us a template, where I didn’t have to sit there with everyone going, “That’s not what Abe looks like. You need to move the eyelid there.” We had the template for those models. They weren’t compatible data, but they were high-res enough. In the first game, if you remember, we pre-rendered all the bitmaps. It was all built at what, in the day, would have been considered film res. This was before Toy Story was released. It’s crude relative to a CG film today. But our assets were at that level.
We were able to bring all of those in from the original game to model dimensions, texture maps, get all that. We had to build new realtime data, but having those templates saved a huge amount of art direction, the normal process of building new assets. Fortunately, the artists are really passionate guys. It’s not like I’m in there going, “This scene doesn’t have enough detail.” It reminds me of the original crew, how passionate they were about crafting this kind of visually palatable, highly stylized experience.
Bringing those assets in, I think we amortized a couple million dollars of value there. Then have about $2 million in the project, is what it’ll total out to. We’re bringing much more than $2 million worth of content, and then the wisdom of knowing how to do it, that gave us a pretty good curve.
GamesBeat: Who will be handling the publishing work?
Lanning: We’re self-publishing. With Sony that’s a breeze. With Steam it’s a breeze. With Microsoft it’s not a breeze. With Nintendo, something’s going to happen there shortly. Even on the Wii U, though, how many people did buy it? It’s kind of how we looked at Vita in the Christmas of 2012. We did Stranger HD on Vita, and the publishers were kind of snubbing Vita at the time, because there wasn’t enough installed base to move their dial. We said, yeah, but that small base is pretty passionate. They invested and they want good experiences that are designed to maximize that control scheme. Why don’t we spend a little more time and attention – because we’re small and we can – and a result we took number two in the U.S. and number one in Europe that Christmas on Vita.
That’s not selling millions of units, but the way we’re looking at it, it gets us into a pool of users on a specific device, of which so far we’ve had zero on Nintendo. We’ve had zero brand visibility on Nintendo since day one. We never built for Nintendo. Today, we’re looking at it and we say, “We’ll get over to Wii U. As a business model it might not completely make sense, but we want to get to work on Nintendo, get to self-publishing on Nintendo. Everything’s a new store. Everything’s more shelf space. We’re trying to get the brand across that as widely as possible.
Then we also got Stranger on mobile, which was bizarre. You know the Square One guys, who did Bard’s Tale on mobile? They’re in Vancouver. They’ve been doing it for 20, 25 years. They’ve been burned. They’re tired of the old bullshit. Now they have a new business model where they say, “We’ve built a great mobile tech platform. We can absorb technology like your engine and make that run on mobile.” I’m like, “Sure you can. Even if you can, you’re not gonna solve the interface problem with something as complex as Stranger’s Wrath.” But they did it.
I just signed, the other day, to let Nvidia, AMD, and Qualcomm all use this as a demonstration at the GPU conference. These guys are pushing OpenGL 3 class rendering on the mobile devices.
Their business model is—Brian Fargo contacted me and said, “These guys just did a great job for me porting Bard’s Tale from console to mobile. Now we’re selling more units on mobile than we did on console. Their price point is $4.99, so it’s not free-to-play. It’s not getting into the slickness of that. It’s more about custom-crafted experiences. People want more triple-A than they’re getting. There’s a market for that if the price of development is right.
Our business model is pretty small-time now. We don’t need the same amount of units to succeed, but we need to be smarter in how we spend our money. Working with other indie groups, smaller groups, I really like it. We’re able to say, “We have the brand. It has some visibility and a certain standard of quality. If you want to do something with us in this way, propose to us. What market segment do you know? Who’s your user base? How do we work together on that?” I’m not going to run around saying, “Hey, here’s a new project I want to do at your studio.” I don’t want to do that. But it’s working out.
GamesBeat: As far as the process of publishing your whole library as digital downloads, is this the end of that process, and you go on to new IP? What’s your next move?
Lanning: I said something the other day to Eurogamer, and there were a lot of discussions up there. I said what the price point we’re targeting is, which is $29.99 for this one. That blew up a bit, because people expect $19.99 or lower for indie. But they’re not expecting an indie production worth several million dollars, with really good production values. There’s this whole discussion about the middle tier, which is totally non-existent right now. What’s between triple-A and indie?
But back to your original question, what I also said was, at 250,000 units we’d do this with Exoddus, the same thing. But that’s not blazing new creative territory. With 500,000 units, we’d finance Fangus Klot. I’ve designed it out extensively over the last 18 months. I’d love to build it. But that’s $5-6 million to build it. In that model, we’re delivering a smaller package earlier to an audience that grows over time. Call it DLC or whatever, but it expands in that way.
At 500,000 units we’d make enough money to finance truly new IP, but I don’t think we can do new IP in the Oddworld brand with what I think the audience expectation is for $2 or $3 million. I don’t think we can do what people can expect from us, having been triple-A and delivered at different levels at different times. There are ways you can launch new content today, certainly at cheaper price points. In the free-to-play market you’re probably doing it for a few hundred thousand, like Tencent and these guys.
For us, we’ve almost reached the end of exploiting the existing titles across wider bases, which we should have always done originally, but time and reality — We’re at the end of that. The last one would be Exoddus, which is taking a product that we could re-treat in a fresh new way, 20th-century classic gaming renewed with 21st-century technology. Then you pump the emotional factor — the voices, the humor, the emotional entertainment value. That’s what we’re focused on pumping up here, and having it play smoother and faster.
The new stuff I want to do, but I want to finance it. I don’t want to go have partners, for obvious reasons.
GamesBeat: Did you redo the voices in the game?
Lanning: Yeah, we redid it all. We spent a lot of time in the recording booth on this one. But here’s something we did that was fun. In polling the audience, we said, “Look, we can’t afford to do new IP now.” It’s not like we have hundreds of thousands of followers, but we have tens of thousands, and we can get tens of thousands of answers overnight if we run a poll. “What would you like us to build? We have these options as things we might be able to do. Which one do you want?” That’s where they came back and voted that this was what we should do.
It was a surprise, but I said, “Okay, that’s interesting. What would you like us to do after that?” Then they said, “Exoddus,” the same way. This trailer released this morning. Apparently it’s getting good buzz out there. I would like to do new stuff with Oddworld. But we have to have the success to make it happen. The short of it is, the audience will determine what our next content will be for the Oddworld brand. I like that position. It’s not like the marketing department is going to decide, because we don’t have one.
The brand visibility is serving us well. On digital, we’ve been able to reach just over two million units with the portfolio. That’s enabled us to put the product out there in slightly upgraded form, and then completely re-bake this one from the ground up. We’ve built a re-awakening of the brand out there. If that works and resonates well now, there’s nothing more I’d like to do than dive into some new, creative, innovative play patterns.
To me, Oddworld was never revolutionary, but it was evolutionary. It was basic platforming, but it was evolutionary in making you connect to your character more deeply. It had stronger production values, deeper character development, narratives that were more relevant, things like that. Then you got to later titles and the cost is going up. Munch was innovative in a different way. Gamespeak was innovative in a different way. But we were always trying to build more emotional engagement with characters.
In the beginning, with Abe, when we were first talking, I said, “Without talking to these guys, I don’t feel as emotionally connected. When it feels like they’re listening to me, I have a sense of investment. It’s how well they emote and express themselves, to where you can get younger people unplugging the PlayStation if their older brother is killing Mudokons.” We’d get letters like that. We were trying to make the characters more emotionally engaging, the way they are in other forms of content.
Munch was trying to do some things that were semi-successful. We learned a ton of lessons there. Stranger, we were innovative with the first- and third-person benefits, high-speed melee versus POV shooting, and the live ammo, where ammo is AI manipulators across the board. There’s different innovations there that are evolutionary, but not revolutionary. I’d like to be stepping into some more revolutionary content.
GamesBeat: Are your surprised that you can get to as many platforms as you can now? There have always been so many hurdles to that.
Lanning: In the past, the engine options were fairly narrow. Go back five or eight years. You had Unreal, and maybe some other semi-choices, but either way you were struggling unless you were building their shooting game. For us, multiplatform through our history was always a struggle. We’d start off with someone like Microsoft and be exclusive, and then we’d move on. We weren’t set up as far as infrastructure to think about advanced multiplatform, building out the core architecture so it could take advantage of different platforms at the code level. We didn’t do it very intelligently.
Now, running on Unity, it’s running on the Mac. I’m running it in a small window, but it’s basically the PS4 build on the Mac. We didn’t expect that to work, and it works. Even the lead programmer—I was over there in the U.K. last week and he says, “Is that a Mac?” He was really surprised it was running.
We’re still going through PS3 and Vita. We have the Xbox One dev systems. We’re talking a lot with other developers – “What are your pain points getting through the multiplatform process on Unity?” For some people, depending on how well they structure their own design and implementation, that affects how well they’re moving over to other platforms. But for us, so far, it’s been pretty smooth, surprisingly so. The crew has some experience in engineering. The key guys have been doing it for 20 years. They know how things should be structured, even if they’re compromised in some ways.
Steam is awesome. Their growth just keeps on happening. Steam Dev Days was interesting. I saw some interesting presentations on how they deal with different currencies now. They’re at, what, 75 million subscribers now? Pretty decent.
GamesBeat: Are you interested in getting on the Steam Machine?
Lanning: We’re looking at that. We have the Steam boxes. I think that’s really interesting. To me it’s like Steam’s Android, really. As long as you keep on making Windows 8, where the fuck is the future in that? Steam recognizes that. Microsoft wants to get everyone into their networks. Steam sees Microsoft forcing them out. It’s an interesting early countermeasure, doing the boxes.
There was a lot of excitement around that, particularly with Early Access. There’s two things, right? There’s early funding, like Kickstarter, and then there’s Early Access. We weren’t able to do that this time, but I wish we could. We’d get more hands on it, get more focus testing in. We have to predict a number of things, because we can’t afford throwing 100 people at it for focus testing.
Because we’re on PS4 first, we can’t have an early release. Being on the stage at E3 meant a 30-day exclusive on Sony platforms. I’m grateful to have that exposure. But as a result, we’re not able to pre-sell on Early Access. I think Sony needs to start doing that, and Microsoft too. It’s a brilliant plan, letting hardcore gamers get in there and give feedback and feel like part of the process. You’re monetizing it.
GamesBeat: How many people make up your company right now?
Lanning: At Oddworld there’s only maybe two or three employees, here in the states. Not including myself and Sherry. In the U.K. there’s about 17. Building the mobile product up in Vancouver, that’s a small team of about five. I’d rather have the relationships in small niche groups, people who want to specialize in different kinds of products, different spectrums.
These guys at Just Add Water in the U.K., they love the old story-driven platform games. That was their proposal to us, to form a relationship that would bring those back. We did some baby steps with some early products, but basically we’ve been funding that studio since about 2010. That started with about six people, so we helped it grow. They’re totally independent, though, and we want them to be that way. I don’t want to get in for the lockup phase or anything like that. We have a great working relationship, and we’ll keep it going.
That’s kind of a different world for developers, outside the traditional publisher deal. Which I’m thrilled to be in. It makes it more fun. We can make all our own decisions. We don’t have the deep pockets. We can only make so many mistakes before it really bites us in the ass. There’s no bailout. Like I said, on this one, there’s a couple of million of our own money in there, so it certainly stretches our kitty, our minimal reserves. But the audience is going to decide if they want us to keep building games.
There’s clarity in that. Like I said, it’s not the marketing department that’s going to decide. It’s not about whether we have airtime or not, or how many units we manufacture. I love the digital frontier. It allows us to have permanent shelf space once we’re out there. I can’t complain.