Lorne Lanning, co-founder of Oddworld Inhabitants, recently caused a few ripples in the video game industry when The Hollywood Reporter wrote that he was quitting the games biz. But that’s not exactly true. Although the company’s studio in San Luis Obispo has been disbanded, Lanning and partner Sherry McKenna are actually repositioning Oddworld Inhabitants as a total multi-media company, packaging movies/videogames/TV shows around their ideas. One of those ideas is an Oddworld CG movie, which in turn would spur an Oddworld game--with hopefully better promotion than Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath received. In this interview, Lanning talks about Oddworld’s new model for developing properties, and the growing synergy between the creative people behind games and movies.
According to some media reports, you’ve closed the door on games development. Is that true?
We’re not shutting down the corporation of Oddworld, but we are shutting down the in-house game production operation in San Luis Obispo. The primary reason is that game production today is absolutely all-consuming if you’re running that internally. There’s sort of a broken model of what exists between third-party independent developers and publishers. It just is what it is—we’re not complaining about it, we’re just looking at the world and going: “And what else is happening?”
If you’re a designer who understands interactive technology, computer graphics, storytelling, character development, and all that, what does the world look like today? There’s a lot of very interesting things happening out there on various fronts. Motion pictures are one of them, and television series using game technology is a whole other unexplored revolution waiting to happen. And there are new types of games to be built. But under the current model, our entire focus would be devoted to only game production, and we wouldn’t be able to pursue a lot of these interesting things that are emerging, and we wouldn’t be able to have a lot of the potential multi-party relationships that are shaping up world-wide. So many times over the past five years we've answered the phone, and Sherry McKenna and I heard about something really interesting and had to say, “We can’t pursue that, we can’t work with you on that, we’re just strapped with game production.”
We’ve always wanted to make the Abe film, and we’ve always had a lot of interest in getting that film made in Hollywood, but we’ve never been able to pursue it because every time we sort of light the sparks, we don’t have the time to sit there and nurture a fire. We get sucked back into the game productions.
Is your decision to shut the studio down based on any frustrations you feel with the game industry?
I have read a number of reinterpretations in some of the articles we’ve done recently, and they made us sound very bitter and emotional about this, and that’s not the case at all. The game industry is what it is. It’s been good to us. We can’t complain. It’s a big, exciting world for digital media today, and we’re choosing to pursue a wider range of interests and a wider realm of possibilities than what you’re able to pursue if you just keep running an in-house, independent developer.
Do you come to this realization gradually, or was it sparked by a specific event?
We’ve always been careful to describe Oddworld from day one as a property development company. I and Sherry McKenna had both come from the film and television industries, in visual effects. So we had always been a property development company, and we’ve reached a point now where game budgets are continuing to climb, but it’s not really adding up in content value. Just because a game will cost more than twice as much in the next generation (of consoles), does not mean you’re going to get a better story because it’s largely a technology hurdle. We understand technology; we’ve built all of the engines that we’ve used. But we’ve never considered ourselves a “technology company.” So moving forward, rather than us investing all of our time into designing new engines to run on the next-generation consoles, there are other people in the world who’ll do that better than we will. Yet they’re going to have challenges doing what we do really well. So there are a lot of synergistic possibilities that can take place, and by not having the hungry beast to feed, it enables us to have more time and freedom to pursue those other interests that right now are really exciting.
Since if you no longer have a full-time studio, how will you execute a big project like, say, a new Oddworld game?
It would be more like a contemporary film model. Sherry and I wouldn’t put together the studio, because then it would absorb all of our attention, and we wouldn’t be able to do a good job on that movie. That’s a fact—game production is that demanding. If our films got green-lit, the likelihood is that the game would be green-lit at the same time. What we would do is work with studios that are building great technology, that have the capability to make a great game, and then we would help shepherd that game through the production process without being concerned with every person who’s quitting, or HR issues, or health insurance—everything you’re dealing with running an independent company.
So there’ll be no new Oddworld games unless there’s an Oddworld movie?
If we were going to pursue a new Oddworld game right now, that would be because the motion picture has been green-lit. Right now it’s not our intent to go around and pitch publishers, which are the only people paying for video games, on why a new Oddworld game is gonna be great. However, if the motion picture is green-lit first—and that’s going to be with major, world-wide distribution—then it’s very easy to come back to the game industry and say, “Look, this is the motion picture; this is the date of release; this is the marketing and advertising budget. So if you can get a game done in this amount of time that follows these constraints, then we can have a synergistic release.” Which is where the whole industry is headed, both games and film. They’re all looking for simultaneous releases, and the reason is so that everyone can ride the tails off of the others’ marketing campaigns. THQ, for instance, has the Pixar licenses. What are they trying to do? They’re trying to come out with that game the day that movie hits the screens, or the day that DVD release hits Blockbuster, because if they can do that—regardless of the quality of the game, and I’m only using THQ as an example—they’re going to ride on a $45 million marketing campaign. They don’t have to educate the world on “here’s this new story with these new characters,” and invest all that money into trying to (establish) a new brand that they’re releasing as a game first. Instead, they’re going to ride of someone else’s marketing that’s saying, “This is who Shrek is.” So then all the game publisher really needs to do is say, “And get the game here.” They’re riding off of all that other exposure. This is the synergy that we see all the media big companies talk about all the time.How is working in the film industry different from working in the game industry?
It has a whole different set of probabilities and entirely different terms. Whereas you’re trying to say, “Hey game industry: Why don’t you try to sell this new idea?” What the game industry is really saying is, “You know, the world doesn’t really want new ideas. It just wants the other idea. It feels safe with that idea, and we’d like to just see that with a 5 percent improvement.” Well, creatively speaking, that’s not the holy grail of creative opportunities. But the motion picture industry assumes that people want to see different things. Now, they have their own sets of problems, but you couldn’t launch Finding Nemo as a game (first) and have anywhere near the success if you tried to turn it into a movie later, because the game industry wouldn’t acclimate to it the way it would once it sees it on the big screen. Let’s look at what the game industry is doing: The game industry is headed towards human characters that look more realistic, wielding weapons—aside from sports and stuff like that. That’s not a criticism, that’s just looking at the shelf, the lineup of stuff being sold and financed.
The game industry has a very hard time selling new, creative IPs (intellectual properties), especially if they’re quirky. So Shrek, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Cars—these would not have birthed with success as games first. But because they birthed as movies first, and it was about the stories and the characters and the entertainment value, they’ll sell well as games as long as an adequate game representing that brand hits the shelf at the right time to ride off of all that marketing.
So as we move forward, we’re designing is what I call “MMMP:” massively multi-media properties. An example of that is how we set out with Oddworld from the beginning, with a Star Wars-like flavor: ideas that can make great movies, great games, and great television. Great multimedia. And if you can do that, and get the bigger-picture ones green-lit first, then the rest of media formats fall into place more easily. So when Sherry and I show big Hollywood directors the new IP stuff, they want to direct it as live-action motion pictures. They get really excited. The game industry will look at that exact same idea and say, “I’m not sure why it’s relevant.”
So you think you’ll have a warmer reception in the film industry to your ideas?
Track records are everything in the entertainment business. But it’s not going to be easy for you. I was having a talk with one of the most successful producers in Hollywood the other day, and I said, “You’re on the top of your game.” And he said, “Yeah, but it’s still not easy to sell a new idea.” So we have no illusions that TV is easy, or the film industry is easy. We come from these places; we get it. But those markets are more open to the type of content that’s coming out of CG movies, and enabling them to have life. The game industry is not as open to that type of content today.
How are you going to take something like Oddworld and make it suitable for all of these different types of media?
The interesting thing about Oddworld is that we designed these as linear entertainment first. I didn’t sit down with a game idea and go, “Oh, I know—we’re gonna have these guys talk to each other and one’ll fart.” It was about, “Here’s a story that I think would make a really great movie, and I think it’s really relevant to our times in a modern mythological sort of way. And I believe this whole universe can be exploited on the theme of the dark side of globalization, saturated with satire.” And that’s really what Oddworld is: the dark side of globalization as seen from the little schmuck’s point of view. I conceived and wrote these concepts in three-act structures that fit the film format, and then when we came out with Abe’s Odyssey, some people saw it as a fusion of filmmaking tightly integrated to interactive, and that was our goal. So for us, it’s easier because we think of the character development, the heart and soul and what their journey is, first—and then we’ve been applying that to gameplay. So when you look properties like Mario as an example, it doesn’t translate into a motion picture well because what you’re trying to do is take a round peg and fit in a square hole. It wasn’t conceived as a character on a journey with a mission and an arc, who was going to tug at your heartstrings because of what he was dealing with. And even if you hire Bob Hoskins, it doesn’t work as a movie.
But if you know how to build games, and if you know how to tell stories and understand linear production as well, you may be able to do something that people haven’t done yet. And that’s the territory we’re excited about.