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Odd Man Out

Part 1 - Lorne Lanning lets loose on the problems of the games business.

After taking a well-publicised break from videogame development following the release of Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Lorne Lanning and his team re-emerged last month with details of a new creative property - Citizen Siege.

GamesIndustry.biz recently took the opportunity to sit down with the president of Oddworld Inhabitants to discuss what he sees as the sticking points that are holding back the cultural evolution of the games industry, and why he's been willing to rethink his company's entire strategy to make the games he really wants to make.

Read on for part one of our interview - part two will be published on GamesIndustry.biz tomorrow.

GamesIndustry.biz: You recently spoke at the GameCity event in Nottingham, and expressed your concern that videogames are not influential in a wider cultural medium in the same way as music and movies can be. Why do you think that is?

Lorne Lanning: If you go to hear a movie director talk about his film he's not talking about how many scenes there are in his movie. What you'll hear is what inspired the movie - what inspires him as a film maker, as a story-teller and a director.

In the games industry we have a lot of speeches and talks that go into the granular details of how we build games and what we do with them, but usually we're talking about them in the context of how to be more successful.

Certainly, we need those talks because it's an industry. But at the same time we're over-looking a lot of things. When I look at the history of other mediums I think, where's our Birth of a Nation? Where's our Pink Floyd's The Wall? Where's our Bob Dylan or Star Wars?

What we have is some really great games, but how many people are walking away from our games and never forgetting them for the rest of their lives because it showed them something that wouldn't get elsewhere? Something that influenced lives the way that Apocalypse Now shows what might have really happened in Vietnam, but was being eclipsed at that time by the media.

We want games to be about more than making things that are fun, we always have. That's was the inspiration behind founding Oddworld. The pieces of entertainment that blew my mind and changed my perception of the world - not one of those was a game, except in terms of technical abilities.

What are we doing to give people the inspiration for the world we'd rather live in, what are we doing as a culture that's in to games, to actually have more influence and not just be playing and paying?

Can you think of any games or game-related concepts that have the potential to influence culture?

Lord David Puttnam put it very well at a speech during GameCity. He said, âWe have enough things in the world that desensitise. But when something sensitises it's all the more potent.â

This is the director who gave us The Killing Fields and Chariots of Fire. The Killing Fields was something that looked back after the cameras had stopped rolling and the news reports stopped coming in.

We weren't brought that insight through the news, we were brought it by entertainment. Entertainment has the possibility of enriching our lives, and as news becomes more infotainment rather than information, then we have to rely on entertainment to actually start giving us more of what we're looking for in life and giving us more direction.

There's an interesting movement that's recently started by the Entertainment Software Association - The Videogame Voters Network. We're constantly under attack in the industry by politicians looking for cheap headlines, which is a very easy target. But all of a sudden we have the Videogame Voters Network which starts up and the politicians see that when they attack games they get hundreds of thousands of emails letting them know they're being watched. Here's a sector of the populations that has a lot of strong feelings, but for the most part the games medium isn't reflecting any of that.

For the most part, what's popular in the game medium is just reflecting the propaganda line - âThese are the bad terrorists, go kill them! There are the drug barons, go and blow the shit out of them!â

I have a great time with some of those games too, but what's that doing? Are we adding to the desensitisation or doing something similar to The Killing Fields to sensitise and issue and make the experience richer and give it more meaning. To me, that's what it is all about, it's not just about making money.

How have we ended up as an industry with creative game makers and passionate consumers, yet we still make these superficial games?

In a nutshell, it's cost and conditions. The costs are rising largely because of the development environments. And these environments are not at all what the development community is looking for. The costs are inflating and the innovation possibilities are going down because instead of focusing on the content, every five years' we're focusing on the tools again.

And we don't really get to inherit much of what we built the last time. So for example, with Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, we invested a lot of time, blood sweat and tears into that - but we saw that the Xbox isn't really being supported at all. It was discarded by Microsoft who has its own strategy, so for developers that built great toolsets for that, they've been discarded.

We should be in an evolutionary model. I think Nintendo is showing some real intelligence and sensitivity in that respect because if you've developed on GameCube it's a pretty straightforward transition onto 'Nintendo next-gen' because the Wii is very similar but with more power. We could argue about whether it's enough power, but that's not the point. The point is that it should be an evolutionary process.

The audience isn't aware that you're rewriting all your tools, they just know that when they buy a 360 game it's similar to the last Xbox but with better graphics. The reason isn't because the industry is a void of creative people, the reason is that the barrier to entry is so high, and the price to develop those new tools, as well as a title in the first quarter for release on a new platform is so risky.

If you've built a good shooter then you're in pretty good shape. And if you've added that online element with some good performance tracking you'll probably stay in business. But if you really step out there on a limb you'll get into trouble. My favourite games are not the most perfect games, and you can't expect innovation in the first months following a console launch because it's too risky.

We need to be in a position where we're evolving our tool base and not having to discard it. What would have happened if the 360 was designed as a much more powerful Xbox? Not as a new platform with multiprocessing and different configurations et cetera. With something like Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath we could have gone straight in there and used the new computing power, all of our existing AI and graphics, all of which can come over, and we begin adding the new features and then we focus on the content and not on the reconstruction of tools.

That is a massive prohibiter to the types of entertainment we could be seeing on videogame systems. As long as that continues there will be a risk averse and innovative shy business that is trying to sustain itself between every five year hardware transition.

So, we're too busy chasing technology? We make the technology function really but the games lack a soul or the content that that makes players feel something truly different...

As a developer you have to think, 'are we running a content company or are we running a technology company?' That's why just over a year ago we decided to look at digital story-telling possibilities. Other company's are going to be making great technology, so it's silly that we should all be doing the same thing.

The idea of middleware is a good one, but talk to those that use it and they'll give you their own impressions of how far they can expand their innovation when they're using someone else's' core technology. In that respect we'd rather be creating the content and having creative influence over those that know how to build the best technology.

How has this thinking influenced Oddworld Inhabitants over the past twelve months?

One of our main priorities was to develop the new property which we could take out and shop around, as well as our existing properties which we wanted to shop around too, because we still to this day retain the ownership of everything we've created at Oddworld - stories, characters, everything.

At the same time as what's been happening in the games industry, the quality of computer graphics has gone way up and the cost has become relativity cheaper. And audiences tastes are changing, largely influenced by the games industry. So we've watched the movies in the Warhammer games and we're thinking, 'Where's that motion picture?'. It's not out there yet because CG animated films are all in 'plush toy' reality, unless a company blows tons of money like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within did.

There's a lot of talk at big media companies about the synergy between the movie and game mediums, but it isn't really happening. Making the game of Spider-Man 3 isn't at its core an original property. It's derivative of a property that's already doing something and developers are thinking, 'How much of the property can we get in the game?'.

With our new project, Citizen Siege, we've had the chance to create original property that was designed as a film and as a game experience simultaneously. So the two influence one another as they grow.

This is the idea of what's being talked about, but for the most part, isn't really happening yet, and we saw that we were uniquely positioned to capture that. But it was a big risk and we had to be willing to take that risk, and afford ourselves the time to really go for it.

Lorne Lanning is the president of Oddworld Inhabitants. Interview by Matt Martin. Visit GamesIndustry.biz tomorrow to read the second part of this interview.

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Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.