At this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, Oddworld chief creative officer Lorne Lanning and executive producer Bennie Terry III are talking up their latest project, Oddworld: Soulstorm. But they don't have a booth of their own, and they aren't hitching a ride with a publishing partner or platform holder, either. Instead, they are being hosted by Unity, the engine in which Soulstorm is being built.
Naturally, they want to talk about technology, and there's plenty of reason for it. After all, the Oddworld franchise was built on high production values. Lanning and Oddworld chairman Sherry McKenna co-founded the company in the mid-'90s after working together at Hollywood visual effects house Rhythm & Hues, and the studio's early titles showcased cinematic visual and storytelling sensibilities that set them apart. Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exoddus were heavily promoted exclusives for PlayStation. Then Microsoft lured Oddworld away from Sony to show off the Xbox's technological virtues with the exclusive Munch's Oddysee.
But things got tricky after that, and Oddworld's position in the industry shifted. Its fourth title, 2005's Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, launched late in the Xbox's lifespan and with an unimpressive marketing push from Electronic Arts, which wanted a PlayStation 2 version that never materialized. Months after Stranger's Wrath launched to critical acclaim but commercial apathy, Oddworld shut down its development studio and shifted its focus to film and TV. Oddworld would return to games years later, but it was no longer in the business of AAA system-selling exclusives.
"The ambition of what you needed to get a project greenlit and funded from publishers was getting to be a really difficult bar to reach in the Xbox 360/PS3 generation"
"What I saw happening in the industry was the ambition of what you needed to get a project greenlit and funded from publishers was getting to be a really difficult bar to reach in the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation," Lanning says. "Things were starting to look better and people were realizing art assets cost a lot more, animation fidelity had to be better, lighting had to be better, they had to bring in Hollywood art directors, screenwriters... everything got more complicated. Everything got more expensive.
"For the developer, the incentives became less because it didn't mean everyone was selling a lot more units; it just meant games were more expensive, the market's more cluttered, your chances of success were lower, it would cost you more time, more energy, and you're going to get less of a deal on your end because it's a higher risk for the investor. That's just capitalism."
In large part because of that hostile environment for creators, the company has slowly built its way back up to the point where it could self-finance Soulstorm, porting its catalog of games to new platforms and partnering with Just Add Water to develop 2014's Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty, a modern remake of the studio's first game.
"We're small. We're lean, we're mean," Terry says of the studio, but he adds that the company is still striving for a "near-Pixar level of quality" on a budget. That's where the studio's partnership with Unity comes in, as Terry says the engine maker has been "absolutely instrumental" in guiding the developers to best take advantage of what the engine can do.
The "near-Pixar" quality goal is only possible because the quality of real-time rendering has closed the gap with pre-rendered computer graphics, Lanning says, and the big quality benefits now come not from rapid iterations. Real-time graphics might not be as technically impressive as something pre-rendered, but he says whatever shortfall there is can be more than offset by being able to tweak and revamp things again and again, rather than making a change and having to wait overnight for it to render to see what impact it had.
"The efficiency of the models and computing is such that when we're working on our cinematics now and show them to someone, they think it was probably done in Maya," Lanning says, "But they're not. They're rendered in real-time in Unity. And in doing that, we're able to adjust lights on the set in real-time, adjust performances in real-time. We're able to play with all kinds of things that would have taken longer with a different mindset. If you're pre-rendering movies, you don't mind waiting until tomorrow to see the shot. But we don't have the time and efficiency for that."
He recalls a joke about Stanley Kubrick: "On the seventh day, God said, 'Let's rest.' And on the eight day, Kubrick sent it back for changes."
"I'm not calling myself a perfectionist, but that's the nature of a perfectionist," Lanning says. "They just want to keep tweaking and tweaking it. The faster they can make those tweaks, the better the quality you're going to get, provided the horsepower is under the hood to get there."
Lanning says real-time rendering is now at the point where it's possible to create movies and TV shows using virtually the same assets as a game project. For Soulstorm, the models and rigging in the cinematics are essentially the same as what players see during gameplay; the game just uses higher resolution texture maps for cutscenes. Lanning says that having such unified data sets gives game developers tremendous business opportunities to take their creations into other media.
"One of the reasons we overinvested in this project is because we still share that dream that databases can cross-pollinate into different verticals for media"
"If we look at TV series, real-time is perfect for episodic series because the database is continuous," Lanning says. "I have Abe, I bring him in to the next shot, I tell him to run and I'm not re-animating anything… But for Hollywood, if we were to make a pilot, the pilot is the cheap thing. If it's greenlit, then you can get into the real costs. The problem with the real-time capability is that the pilot's the most expensive thing. You have to build real-time databases that have all this knowledge and logic built in that have to be smarter than the film databases."
In that sense, making a game like Oddworld: Soulstorm is in essence like making a pilot for a future TV series.
"One of the reasons we overinvested in this project is because we still share that dream that databases can cross-pollinate into different verticals for media. In order to get there, you have to somehow be able to have the opportunity to go past the cost of that initial high-priced pilot... Then if we're talking to someone who's interested in a linear series of the IP, we can say this is going to carry over. We can make that pilot."
This is not a new goal for Lanning, as he's never been quiet about his transmedia aspirations. And while he's seen skepticism from the film and TV industries about the potential advantages of re-using assets from games to linear media, Lanning's insistence in the idea's merits is unwavering.
"George Lucas understood this by saving every model from Star Wars and amortizing it into Empire Strikes Back," Lanning says. "You can bet every little TIE Fighter that was built got amortized. He saved all that stuff because he saw the benefit of having one IP that continued over time, and how you could re-use things. Hanna Barbara figured this out where Fred and Barnie were running across the same seamless painting in the background 10,000 times because they were doing a cheaper Disney that was more economical. But the barrier has to be broken. Someone has to prove it where it doesn't look like low-budget CG."
Lanning believes game technology is finally at the point where it could produce real-time CG TV shows that look a step up from Saturday morning cartoon fare. While that could help developers like Oddworld build a viable business, Lanning doesn't believe all the efficiency and rapid iteration can do anything to reverse the escalating cost of competing in the AAA market, or even hold it in check.
"The creativity to push it further to that next level always takes more time and energy, resources and money, because your talent needs to push the tool"
Bennie Terry III
"If you're striving for the top, no. [It doesn't get cheaper] because someone's always going to want something better, faster," Lanning says. "And even if we reached the point where everyone who's capable can do magnificent, then the arms race is about who can do magnificent cheaper and faster again. So in that respect, speed will always be an issue. The creation of databases, the creation of rigging, there are all these areas that can be more highly optimized and smarter."
Terry adds, "In the arms race itself, there are elements that lend themselves to becoming less expensive because it's easier and more democratizing technology."
He points to his own stint at Rhythm & Hues in the 2000s, when someone needed to understand how light behaves at a very deep level in order to work with it in computer graphics.
"We were trying to pierce through an uncanny valley using decades of experience to pull off mind-bending tricks in the engine," Terry says, "where now I can get to that quality by hitting a few buttons and executing it without having to be a graphics engineer... But the creativity to push it further to that next level always takes more time and energy, resources and money, because your talent needs to push the tool."
The talent obviously makes a huge difference in any project. For Oddworld: Soulstorm, Lanning says it helped create a game that should realistically have cost a lot more than its actual development budget.
"We just have a lot of history, we do it a certain way, we're deeply involved, and we get no sleep," he says.
That leads into the second part of our interview, in which Lanning discusses his views on crunch and unionization. It should run later this week.