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Oddworld Inhabitants has been telling the interactive story of Abe for more than two decades. And now it has shown off the first look at the gameplay of Oddworld: Soulstorm, which is coming out on the PC and consoles in 2020.
The game picks up from where 2014’s Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty left off, and it is a re-imagining of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, which debuted in 1998. That original game was a bit of a rush job, ordered to come out on a fast deadline by the publisher at the time, GT Interactive.
And Oddworld Inhabitants is returning to this title to remake it in the way that it should have been made. The game is the latest attempt to spur a rebirth in a franchise that has sold 15 million games to date, and it’s the latest brainchild of Lorne Lanning and his Oddworld Inhabitants game studio in Emeryville, California.
Soulstorm is the second in a new Pentology that takes place in the Oddworld universe, where Abe, a meek slave among the Mudokon. He discovers that his people will be slaughtered for food in a meat factory at RuptureFarms, and he escapes. Then he leads a revolution to rescue the slaves. In Abe’s Exoddus, Abe leads his starving Mudokons on further adventures in a search for the secrets of the Soulstorm brew.
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The game continues to pick up some of Lanning’s favorite themes about environmentalism, capitalism, consumerism, and addiction that have been the hallmark of the Oddworld franchise. Oddworld Inhabitants is working with Frima Studio in Canada, as well as Fat Kraken Studios in England. This new game has a bigger budget because New ‘n’ Tasty sold more than 3.5 million copies.
I visited Lanning’s studio in Emeryville and got a first look at the Unity-based Soulstorm. I also interviewed Lanning about his latest “triple-A indie” title.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me what you’re doing.
Lorne Lanning: Last time we talked was when New and Tasty was just announcing, I think. We were at a GDC. It’s been a while. Since 2008, when we started the business digitally, self-publishing the library–that’s when all the rights had reverted, so it became easier to do that. Steam let us do that. From that, we were getting tens of thousands of dollars from old titles. Abe’s Oddysee was 10 or 11 years old and still selling. That led to us being able to start making things like converting Munch’s Oddysee to PS3. But we were it the organic way, purely from sales.
The sales were always a little bit exceeding our expectations. We didn’t have high expectations, but it was amazing that 11-year-old games were still selling. That led to us being able to get to the point where we made Stranger HD. That got really good Metacritic. We were surprised. It had pretty good sales. Then we got to where we started to be able to spend millions of dollars, and that’s how we got New and Tasty.
New and Tasty then became our largest venture, self-financed, paid for the old way, the business building organically from sales and not borrowing any money or doing publishing deals. New and Tasty moved 3.5 million downloads. That was a surprise. It treated us well and helped us set up ground zero here, with a new distributed development model. New and Tasty was largely done under one development house, with a couple of others coming in to solve various problems. We learned from that and went all cloud-based. We control all the data through many development houses.
Right now we have people in Vancouver, in Seattle, in San Francisco, in San Diego, in Los Angeles, in Washington D.C., in Quebec City, in England, in Scotland, in Ireland, and in Australia. That’s our day. Managing the time zones is pretty fucked. But we’re able to control costs a lot better. It’s operating more like film development, where you set up the company for development and use all contractors. If you want to keep on going, you keep on going. You swell as you need it and thin as it makes sense. That’s the way we’ve been doing it.
It’s tough finding anyone who has the highest bar. It’s easier when we’re getting animation talent, because then we get them from the film industry, or we get them from top-tier experience. Lighting, modeling, rigging tend to go more film, less game. Then you get into level design, you’re really in a hybrid of being able to contract out. Depending on the skill set it’s easier or harder.
Traditional outsourcing companies haven’t really worked for us because they want architectural specs, basically, and then they can function on that. We’re still looking at more of a distributed development team rather than hiring outsourcers. More like contractors who know how to build games versus — if you look at the history of India and China for outsourcing, it’s very, “Tell us exactly what you need and we can get you that.” But if we have to work together to shave cycles or figure out solutions, outsourcing groups get harder.
GamesBeat: How many people do you work with now?
Lanning: When it comes to individuals, right now it’s about 30 on the project. That will be higher eventually. They’re all spread out. At times we’ll scale down and scale up. As we get through the rest of the project we’ll scale up a little, because we have your systems established and code and things like that.
Where we are with it, we started this about three years ago. We told the audience — we’ve had a lot more conversation with the audience on social, since we haven’t been at retail. We said, “If we’re successful with New and Tasty, what would you like us to do next?” They said, “Redo Exoddus the way you did with New and Tasty.” That brought us back to — Exoddus was this emergency game that we had to get done for GT Interactive because we had a hit in 1997 and they needed another hit in 1998. Other games that were supposed to ship for that publisher, like Duke Nukem Forever and Unreal, they all slipped Christmas. Being the one title that delivered for Christmas, that was our curse.
What I had thought was going to happen, I was hoping to have a hit with Abe’s Oddysee and then be able to take a couple of years and build a sequel. It would be this big five-part epic series. We put that on the back of the box. This is the first part of the Quintology. Then we got derailed from that right away because we needed to ship a game in nine months to be a good partner. It changed the story I had intended. Then I felt like the property started to get off course from that initial vision point. You know the history of the industry, the history of Oddworld.
From there, when they said, “Redo Exoddus,” we said, “Huh. We’re not sure if we really have enough money to do a new game.” It’s one thing to reskin and rez things up and re-envision. It’s another thing to do a brand new game, all new everything. We decided to bite the bullet and said, “If we’ll do that, let’s go back to the original vision of the Quintology and focus on what that second game, ideally, was supposed to be. Let’s reboot the idea of that five-part epic, where we’re at number two. If we can do that well, if we can keep the trajectory of Oddworld growing again and get more into the triple-A space where we had been, and get there on our own with the audience’s help, that would be a much different and better existence.”
We started this one about three years ago. We had the legacy of doing New and Tasty on Unity. At the time, Unreal was still a million-dollar engine. We didn’t have the money to throw at that. Unity was basically free. We continued on Unity. That had a lot of legacy code for various reasons. So we started building up, and fortunately Unity started getting better and better. We started pushing Unity in places it hasn’t gone yet. You saw a little clip the other day. All of that was rendered in real time in Unity. It’s not the highest of highlights, but we’re showing a little bit.
We have to be careful about how we’re showing the insights into the single-player story. We need the reviews come release. We’re still a year or more out.
GamesBeat: And your script is basically done?
Lanning: Oh, yeah. We built all the systems. We did a lot of code work. We expanded on what is Abe substantially. We’re riding the latest versions of Unity, so that we can help them to build into their engine the things that facilitate better building of games like this, rather than mobile games. We have a lot of caching, taking advantage of multiprocessor, various thread optimizations that they just weren’t doing because the mobile space wasn’t demanding it. How their portaling data, how they’re caching in and out. A lot of that streaming needed to get better. Various rendering things that needed to get better.
GamesBeat: Is that how you got on stage [at Unity’s event]?
Lanning: Yeah, we caught their attention early on this project. We contacted the CMO and he saw it and kind of flipped out. They’re chomping at the bit to show more. We agreed that we would only show this much, and only if it said sneak peek. It’s not a teaser and it’s not a trailer. We’re trying to be careful with that language so we’re not sending the wrong messages. But it seemed to work, because it’s just that video from the other day on a few channels that have covered it, including ours, but well past a million people have viewed it. That’s a good indication. Better than we’ve done in the past.
From there we’re going to stagger this out across the next year. We’ll try to get it done across the next year. I can’t say exactly when. There’s a lot of new systems in there, a lot of new tuning to do. We need the whole thing running synergistically. We want to do it right. It has to be a great game. But I think we’re in the zone.
GamesBeat: You’ve already been on it for two years?
Lanning: Three. It’s three years in, with another year to go.
GamesBeat: The original took nine months, and this is four years.
Lanning: Right. We’ve just ignored the original. This is a completely new game. It’s what Exoddus was inspired by, but couldn’t be. This gets back to the true inspiration. We’re able to run it better on 21st-century technology and do things I was thinking of before, but we’re probably lucky I didn’t try to do, because I would have shot myself in the foot.
GamesBeat: So a much larger game?
Lanning: Much larger. Probably the biggest game we’ve built. Definitely more sophisticated. This is why we’re going to the crowd. We’re still going to want to get physical deals. We’re still going to want to have promotional partners, various types of partnerships. We just don’t want to be at the typical end of that shortish stick, in terms of — you know how publishing works.
We wanted to take it to the crowd. Really the crowd is what got us here, because it’s the profits that allowed us to build this. It just wound up being more expensive than we expected.
GamesBeat: Does the title mean something?
Lanning: Soulstorm? It’s the essence — it means a lot of things. It’s the essence, the mystery of this one, the Soulstorm Brew. The Brew gets into, what is the Brew? The spoiler is, the Brew is the ultimate employee performance and retainment solution. What it is, it’s an energy drink. You get two a day if you’re an employee and you work in the factories. That’s great. They hype you up for optimal performance, and then to go to sleep they give you a Snoozie at night. Brews and Snoozies.
But the Brews — one of the by-products is, they’re highly flammable, which becomes an advantage. Another is, the mystery of it — what’s happening in this game is, it picks up where the last game left off. A ripple effect in the underground — all these other factories, they know they’re slaves. Think in the outlying parts of China, big factories, factory farms, pharmaceutical companies, whatever. They know they’re screwed. They just don’t have a way out. What happened in the mythos is the success of the destruction of Rupture Farms, Abe causing an uprising that frees the employees, it’s starting to spread the word across the land. Now we have employees starting to flee factories and catch up with the guys responsible for the uprising, trying to find Abe.
As they’re still just trying to keep themselves alive, Abe and the guys, now that they’re free from the farm, they’ve caused a lot of economic damage to a big — it’s like Oscar Mayer just got shut down. Imagine the impact on Wall Street. These guys are on the run and they start encountering more slaves from other factories that have fled to try and find the group that was responsible for the uprising. But all the ones that they find are sick and dying. They don’t understand yet that the Brew is designed so that you’re addicted to it for performance. If you ever try to flee the factory, the withdrawal will kill you in 48 hours. That way you’re not going to make it to the second world and talk to the labor unions and defense attorneys and human rights organizations. They keep them where they products are being built, safe away from the standards of the modern world.
That’s the theme of the game, the theme of the Brew, how the game works. That’s the initial start of it. We wanted to focus on a single-player story game. We know that’s not chasing all the trends, but we built a lot more in, a lot more RPG capability. Abe was always begging for it. Stranger took on a little more it. Here we’re going to do a lot more of it in terms of ways to exploit the environment and empower Abe to have a lot more abilities. He can deal with the world in more interesting ways and be more powerful. We’re turning the Mudokons you’re saving into less like beasts of burden and more like allies with AI mob dynamics, gang dynamics. They can have various benefits as well.
GamesBeat: Politically, you’re still pretty right-wing, then.
Lanning: [laughs] We were always considered pretty severely left. It’s funny. Someone asked me recently, “Are you a socialist?” I said, “Fuck no! My relatives were killed by the Bolsheviks. That’s not going over either.” It’s interesting, our demographic. It’s really wide. It’s misfits, right? Huge LGBT base. We’re big with women.
But sometimes I meet these guys — in England in particular, these big dudes who come up with Abe on their chest, Abe on their shoulders. What the fuck? They look like thugs, like hooligans. There were these twins, two brothers that both looked like MMA fighters, covered in Abe tattoos, and they’re like, “Dude, you don’t know, my brother and I, the shit that used to go down in our household, this is what kept us together. This was the only thing we could be successful at in our life, was playing Abe’s Oddysee. We played it through the most horrific part of our life. It meant the world to us. If we kept on trying, we could succeed.”
I met another guy who had an Elum and an Abe on his asscheeks. He wanted to show them to me. I still can’t figure that out, to this day.
GamesBeat: The new teaser looks nice.
Lanning: We’re investing a lot more in the expression of the characters and the emotional connectivity. We spent more time on the rigging and all that.
If we live long enough and have enough success, we finish the Quintology. This is part two. In that, we’re setting up — you don’t need to have played part one. They’ll stand alone. But we set up Abe’s condition — opening movies are getting shorter. People are trying to dial more for the free-to-play audience. We went the opposite direction. We want an eight-minute opening movie. We dialed in more on Abe’s dilemma, which is he’s waking up to the fact that this game is not over. It’s just beginning for him. His shit is just about to really hit the fan.
I’ll show you the opening movie. This is all rendered in real time in Unity. It’s about 12 hours for a straight playthrough if you’re playing like a speedrunner. Here we’re taking you back to where you’re actually going to begin to play. That’ll be the first screen of the game. In a traditional Oddworld flavor, we do the first screen last. [laughs] That’s where it’ll start, in that burned-down condition. He’s learning the basic moves in a burning-down hideout facility. We wanted to have destructible playing fields and more forces, like liquid, flammable liquid, and fire as true play elements that were more organic and spreadable.