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Monday, July 18, 2005
Video Games--- I had the opportunity to interview a lot of executives and developers in the video game industry during the time in which I ran Master Gamer as an active web site, and my interviews with Oddworld Inhabitants president and co-founder Lorne Lanning were among most newsworthy of any interview that I conducted.

Though informal rumblings of Oddworld Inhabitants' displeasure with the PlayStation 2 were widespread at the time, it was in the following interview that Lorne Lanning first expressed his displeasure with the PlayStation 2 as a platform on which to create video games. At the time that this interview was conducted in January 2001, the PlayStation 2 had recently been released in North America, while the launch of the Xbox wasn't scheduled to take place until late 2001.

In this interview, Lanning was the first of what would eventually become a long list of developers who had problems with the PlayStation 2 and chose to speak about those problems in a public setting. Prior to Lanning's comments, the development community mostly grumbled amongst themselves, and always remained "politically correct" in public interviews to avoid upsetting Sony.

In retrospect, the final question of the interview, and in particular Lanning's answer to that question, would prove to be prophetic years later in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time.

Lanning's comments about Nintendo only wanting to be "a toy company" and not a top contender in the video game console business would also prove to be quite prophetic. That was considered by many to be a blasphemous statement in 2001, and is now just an accepted fact of the video game industry in 2005.

Lanning still maintained in the interview that the Oddworld's first "next-generation" game, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, was going to be released for the PlayStation 2 in June of 2001. However, there were strong hints that Oddworld Inhabitants as a company was considering the prospect of leaving the PlayStation 2 behind and eventually focusing on the Xbox instead.

One week after this interview was published, I wrote an editorial on Master Gamer (also re-published below) in response to the massive outpouring of emotions from the video game community about what Lanning said in the interview. Little did I know at the time of the editorial's publication that at some point in the week between the interview being published and the follow-up editorial being published, Lorne Lanning and Oddworld Inhabitants made the decision to completely abandon the PlayStation 2.

Oddworld's decision was announced two days after the publication of the editorial that you'll find below. Munch's Oddysee was turned into an Xbox game, and would ultimately be released as a critically-acclaimed Xbox launch game in November of 2001.

Interview with Oddworld Inhabitants
Originally Published in January 2001 on Master Gamer

Ivan Trembow: Since the last time I interviewed you about a year ago, what have been the biggest accomplishments in the development of Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee?

Lorne Lanning: It would probably have to be the AI system that we've developed. It's very exciting and extremely powerful. We've been aiming for a convincing sense of life for our characters and simulations. It's taken a lot of planning and problem-solving, but we've got it up and running and it's awesome.

Ivan: What have been the biggest pitfalls in Munch's development from a game design standpoint?

Lorne: The actual game design was well established on this project a long time ago. The thing that's been difficult is getting all the tools written for the game designers to use. Game design is often at the mercy of programming because the designers can't fully lay-out or build scenarios unless the game mechanics have already been programmed. And of course, the game mechanics are never fully programmed until near the end of the project. This is always a challenging reality of game design that we have to deal with.

Ivan: Is Munch's June 2001 release date pretty much set in stone, or is that a tentative release date?

Lorne: That is the delivery date for the PlayStation 2 version.

Ivan: It's been no secret that Oddworld Inhabitants has encountered a multitude of shortcomings in the PlayStation 2's hardware. What specifically have been the problems, and how have you been able to work past them?

Lorne: Well, the more ambitious you're trying to be and the higher your standards are with a game, the more potholes you're going to find in the system. When we found these potholes in the PS2, some of them caused design changes because the system wasn't delivering what we thought it could. Other problems were solvable, but we had to invest time and money in areas that completely surprised us. All of the surprise costs or diversions ultimately came out of the game's budget. Some of these were projected and expected because it's a new system, and others were more debatable. As a developer, I'd rather be putting money into the game rather than hardware quirks.

Ivan: Would do you think might have been Sony's rationale behind such technical choices as only giving the system four megabytes of video RAM?

Lorne: I have no idea. If the hardware designers [at Sony] had asked good game developers, "What kind of system would you like to have?" it's hard to believe that we'd still be looking at the same configuration of hardware.

Ivan: Has it ever popped into your mind while struggling with the PS2's hardware that you could abandon the PS2 for the seemingly greener pastures of the Xbox?

Lorne: Yes, but who's going to pay the bills while waiting for the Xbox?

Ivan: Regardless of your long-term PS2 plans, do you plan on making games for the Xbox at some point?

Lorne: The Xbox looks extremely exciting and it's our desire to take full advantage of it.

Ivan: Are you aiming to give [the gameplay in] Munch's Oddysee a higher or lower level of difficulty than Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exoddus, or will it be about the same in terms of difficulty?

Lorne: In the past, our games have been more difficult than we would have liked them to be. With Munch's Oddysee, we're striving for a balance that increases the immersion and fun factor while reducing the frustration factor. The menu screen will have multiple difficulty levels, and the controls have been simplified greatly while giving the player more abilities at the same time. The characters move around more smoothly and feel more intuitive to control. We've spent a lot of time insuring that Munch's Oddysee doesn't let you get caught in conditions that leave you stranded or stuck just because you don't have the twitch ability for some particular challenge. If you encounter something that seems too difficult, there are always going to be ways around it, ways to avoid it, or alternative solutions.

Ivan: You told me in our last interview that The Hand of Odd would probably be released six to nine months after Munch's Oddysee. Has development on The Hand of Odd stopped or at least slowed down so that you can focus on finishing Munch, or are you still working on both games simultaneously?

Lorne: Both games have the same core of technology. Munch is the title that proves this technology, and Hand of Odd is the title that will take it further into the multi-player zone. The problem is that the infrastructure for online console games has yet to reveal itself with solid clarity, so until it does, we're going to be focusing on Munch's Oddysee and Munch's Exoddus much more than The Hand of Odd. As soon as we have a solid online model for a particular console system that works for us, then we'll be putting efforts right back into Hand of Odd.

Ivan: The last time we talked, you spoke as if The Hand of Odd was a definite PlayStation 2 game. Is there now a possibility that it will be released for other systems instead?

Lorne: Yes. Hand of Odd will be released, but what system it will be on is currently undecided.

Ivan: I remember hearing a couple of years ago that Oddworld was working on a full-length feature film set in the Oddworld universe, but I haven't heard anything on it since. Is it still in the works?

Lorne: We have been and continue to be in talks discussing the Oddworld movie, but nothing has officially started yet. We're not in a big hurry. We have serious ambitions when it comes to what Oddworld should be when it's on the big screen.

Ivan: Do you find that it's a delicate balance to release info on Munch to keep the press interested while still saving surprises for gamers to experience on their own? What do you think is the best way to maintain that balance?

Lorne: The balance is in not giving it all away. With a deep, rich, and new type of game like Munch's Oddysee, it's a lot better to surprise gamers when they actually play it, even if you told them a lot about the game leading up to its release.

Ivan: Shortly before the Nintendo GameCube was announced, you told Hyper Magazine, "Nintendo has made it clear that they are a toy company only and have no interest in being a true media entertainment company." What specifically makes you have these opinions about Nintendo?

Lorne: Well, when you're a hardware manufacturer and you keep on hinting at unique, hybrid storage devices for your new system, I wonder where your interests are coming from. One example is that developers shouldn't be negotiating how much memory their game can have in it like developers did in the SNES era and still do with the N64, only to be blind-sided by games like Star Fox and Zelda 64 that have special technology packed into the cartridge. This is technology embedded into the cartridge that third-party developers aren't given access to. This type of business model has served Nintendo well in giving some of its own games advantages over third-party games that are competing in the same marketplace. One company shouldn't be able to one-up the delivery system for its products, while other companies are forced to adhere to a status quo standard. This isn't the business model of an entertainment company, this is the model of a consumer electronics or toy company. No real entertainment medium is dictated by a hardware company that much. Think about it. That's like Panavision telling a major film studio to cut out certain parts of a
movie. It's like Kodak making the rules as to what can be shot on their film.

Ivan: How has Oddworld been affected by Infogrames' buy-out of GT Interactive?

Lorne: Very little. Our relationship with GT was good, and our relationship with Infogrames is good.

Ivan: Most games that combine multiple genres are decent in all genres and great in none. With all the talk of genre-merging in Munch's Oddysee and Hand of Odd, do you think that's a risky move to make? How have you managed to juggle the strengths and weaknesses of combining multiple genres into one game?

Lorne: Basically, all of that comes down to creative design and smart implementation. I don't feel that this has been a risky move for us from a design standpoint. If the chemistry of the genre-merging is done well, then each genre is distilled to simple essences and the overall experience is heightened. This has been a risky move for us from a financial standpoint, though, because it takes a lot more work and money to pull off this type of challenge.

Ivan: Will Oddworld be one of the initial pioneers in online console gaming, or will you wait several years until it's firmly established before jumping into the fray?

Lorne: We have been designing for online console gaming for some time now and are extremely confident that we have feasible and awesome content, but we're not going to rush into releasing our first online console game. We'll watch and when the time is right, we'll hit the market full force. We will release pioneering games, but we don't want to be one of those premature pioneers who end up with arrows in their backs.

Ivan: What are your thoughts on the Dreamcast? Do you think that it realistically has a chance over the long run?

Lorne: It's hard to imagine that it's going to hold up against the new consoles that are coming out in the next year.

Ivan: Is there any chance that Oddworld Inhabitants will ever make a Dreamcast game?

Lorne: It could happen, but it's highly unlikely that we would develop it internally. Our own sweat and blood is focused on more powerful systems that will handle more ambitious games.

Ivan: You have said in the past that Peter Molyneux is the person you admire most in the gaming industry because of his work on Black & White. Who are the next few people on the list after Peter Molyneux?

Lorne: [Shigeru] Miyamoto wears the crown to date for console games, but not for games that I really enjoy playing personally. Being a 35-year-old male and not caring about rescuing princess Zelda, I would have to say the crew at Blizzard. They build consistently solid games that are always fun and challenging. I also think that Ensemble Studios is a force to watch in the coming years. Richard Garriott also gets big kudos for Ultima Online. Even though stronger online games have come along since then, Ultima Online broke the online mold.

Ivan: You have also said in the past that Black & White is "dabbling with several concepts similar to Munch." What in particular do you see as concepts that the two games share?

Lorne: I think it's the elements of being in a persistent universe that focuses on a few central characters. These characters are shaped by the gamer in many ways, which in turn influences the behavior of the greater majority of the population on the landscape. Also, both games take into account the moral behavior of the gamer and allow the gamer to watch their moral decisions manifest in different responses from the game world. These kinds of ideas are going to help define the games of the future.

Ivan: On the surface, it seems that the power of the next-generation systems allows developers to focus on more creative details rather than technical details because the hardware is so powerful that there aren't as many limits. But would it also be accurate to say that because any half-decent company will be able to pump out a game with awesome graphics, they won't feel a need to focus on gameplay as much? Or that companies will have to spend so much time dealing with all of the PS2's technical problems that they won't have enough time to focus on gameplay?

Lorne: If you're dealing with a system like the PS2 where a lot of infrastructure code needs to be written, then you're right. It will be a while before you start getting to the really cool, creative stuff. But with a system like the Xbox that uses DirectX, you will get to the creative stuff much sooner. Unfortunately, I think we're going to see a lot of disappointing games that suffer from the pressure of needing to be released before they've been able to pull themselves together. This next generation of consoles is going to reveal much bigger gaps between developers who can handle the pressure and those who just can't cut it.

Oddworld Editorial
by Ivan Trembow
Originally Published in January 2001 on Master Gamer

In the week since the publication of my newest interview with Oddworld Inhabitants, the outpouring of reader response has been immense. These letters range from "I agree with every last word that Lorne Lanning said" to "Lorne Lanning has no idea what he's talking about" and everything in between. Overall, there have been more letters disagreeing with Lanning than there have been agreeing with him. In this feature, I will provide my own personal take on what Lanning said, focusing on his controversial comments about the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

If you're one of the PlayStation 2 fans who wrote to me expressing disgust with Lanning's statements, I do understand where you're coming from, but I also hope that you understand where Lanning is coming from. He said in the interview that he doesn't expect any development environment to be perfect, and that there are always problems with any system.

However, the PlayStation 2's problems go above and beyond what is to be expected from a new system. Simply put, it's a hard-to-work-with mess that makes writing good code the equivalent of (to steal a line from Jerry Seinfeld) plowing a farmer's field with a couple of pool cues. It's not just Lorne Lanning who has that opinion, it's a large percentage of the third-party development community.

The difference between Lanning and the rest is that Lanning has the guts to stand up and say on the record, "It's a pain in the ass" while not using those exact words. Meanwhile, the rest of the development community grumbles quietly and bickers amongst themselves. Personally, I think it takes a lot more guts for a developer to stand up and let his voice be heard than it does to be politically correct and keep his mouth shut to avoid upsetting Sony.

Another thing to keep in mind that is that Oddworld Inhabitants is a relatively small developer that doesn't have $500 million to throw around whenever there's a technical problem. Lanning said in the interview that Oddworld is taking a big financial risk just to be developing a game as ambitious as Munch's Oddysee in the first place. Combine that with Sony's poorly-put-together PS2 development kits, and I can understand Lanning's frustration.

Still, I have to question the logic behind Oddworld's decision to not "give into temptation" and abandon the PS2 altogether. The Xbox is going to give developers much better results for a lot less money (and time), especially in the case of a smaller developer like Oddworld. Lanning's argument against this was, "Who's going to pay the bills until the Xbox arrives?" That would have been a very valid argument if Munch's Oddysee had been ready as a PlayStation 2 launch game, and we would be talking about a delay of a full year.

But Munch's PS2 release date is June 2001, which is just 3-6 months before the release of the Xbox. You mean to tell me that with a game like Munch's Oddysee that has a three-year development cycle, an extra 3-6 months is going to kill the project? I don't believe that to be true, but if it is true, then Munch's publisher (Infogrames) needs to re-think its entire strategy for the video game industry.

Overall, I disagree with most of the inflammatory statements I have received from readers about Lorne Lanning, but I do agree that Oddworld should cut its PS2 losses and move on to the Xbox.

Note: Two days after this editorial was originally published, Oddworld Inhabitants announced that it was abandoning the PlayStation 2 in order to focus exclusively on Xbox development.