Lorne Lanning interview : Sustainable game, at a cost

This interview was conducted with Oddworld visionary Lorne Lanning thru email around January 2014, before Oddworld New’Tasty was released. Always available for deep cultural and political conversations even when promoting a new game, Lorne Lanning accepted to cover some ground from Hollywood to the game industry, thru Youtube policies  up to capitalism. A french edit is accessible here and here. This is the full, almost raw, unedited original english conversation.

Sherry MCKenna, Oddworld’s CEO and long time partner of Lorne Lanning also accepted to answer a few questions about their new status as real independent developers.

Bliss : You said at some point that, in memories of previous experiences, you would be carefull not to communicate too early about your next projects, but, when you keep up with the news, it’s feels already like a long time we’re waiting for New’N Tasty, Abe HD remake. What’s taking so long? Do you have to have a firm release date? Or not.

Lorne Lanning : For the record; the latest title IS NOT an HD remake.  It is a 100% ground up redux of the original game,  based on the original story, design and layout, translating from high res assets we had archived, to now be delivered in real time 3D in our first effort on Unity. Regarding release dates… of course there are internal completion dates that the team is stringently aiming for, but we are not announcing a release date until we are confident that our product is of the quality that we are committed to and our audience has come to expect from us.  The audience will forgive us for delaying or being fuzzy on a release date.  They won’t forgive us for a delivery that is sub par to their expectations.
Putting this project and its history into a timeline perspective… Initially, less than two years ago, we starting polling our fan base on what titles they would most appreciate based on the limited resources available to us as a self-published indie with us initiating this conversation with our community before development actually started.  We then formally announced New N Tasty after we determined a goal and the ability to finance it. That was over a year ago and it has been the JAW and extended teams focus ever since then.
Now, obviously, we would always prefer to release sooner than later, but as a self published indy we are not penalized by retail or publisher conditions if it takes us longer to insure that our quality is up to snuff before releasing it into the audience.  Time does cost us more, and that’s something that is always a reality we have to face and have to be realistic about.

Bliss : Between Oddworld in California and Jaw in UK who’s doing what exactly in Abe HD? How many people are working on the project in both companies for instance? To have a sense of scale : how many people did you employ at the most when making Oddworld games in the 90’s-2000’s?

Lorne Lanning : JAW is the developer that is producing this game with just under 20 talents in the studio dedicated full time to the project.  Other talents have been contracted to supplement the development team in specific areas, which I will let the developer diaries discuss and identify on the OWI site.  The extended team has included folks like Raymond Swanland  and Mauricio Hoffman, both former Oddworld team members now each with independent businesses.  Muaricio’s team was handling a lot of the animation and choreography work for the cinematics. All total there are likely around 40 people employed in some capacity throughout this project; not including the communities contribution and those  individual content contributors from the community…. Which is ongoing and still tbd. At Oddworld back in San Luis Obispo we employed just under 80 at our max.

Bliss : What is your direct contribution in Abe New ‘n’ Tasty? Are you recording yourself new voices/dialogues for instance?

Lorne Lanning : I’m on Skype with the team a few times a week.  So mine is more of a Creative Exec Director role while doing our best as the client to empower the team to deliver their best. When it comes to hands on… I am recording most of the voices while also lending art direction and design feedback throughout the development.  As we get closer to the end, my role in feedback to the team increases.

Bliss : Since you are, I’m guessing, supervising yourself all HD release in all territories (Abeboxx…) your role might have shifted from less creative to more managerial position. Isn’t that the price to pay for self publishing?

Lorne Lanning : Again, it’s not an HD remake… Being self published, yes, there are a number of things that we need to do that extend far beyond the creative effort, and as this is a redux the creative demand is not as great as a new IP project would have been, but it has always been this way for me.  I wasn’t employed at a game company, I had to raise the money to build a game company with my partner, Sherry McKenna (see itw bellow).  That meant 50/50 creative/management throughout the history of Oddworld.

Bliss : You embraced the online community that seems to help shapping Abe’s return. Some fans are also contributing directly to the project (music, illustrations ?) but, as we understand, they offer for free their contributions for a product that will be sold. How fair is it?

Lorne Lanning : We have been encouraging fans to participate in the project.  But If there is an impression that we’re saving costs or taking advantage of fans that would not be true. There are two kinds of of fan participation that we’ve reached out for. The first was that we wanted to give fans an opportunity to have something that they created be in the released game. This wasn’t a cheap skating production cost saving measure, this was a reward.  It wasn’t something that we needed done, it was something that we felt would be cool to offer. If someone in the community could do great Oddworld character voices, then our promise was that we’d figure out a way to include them in the game.  In return we will include them in the credits and promote their story to the larger audience of gamers and industry whenever we have the opportunity to. But understand, at Oddworld the voices always came from the development team itself.  We never hired voices.  Any voices that we couldn’t get someone on the team to step up to do, I would wind up doing myself. Everyone who ever did this with us always had fun and always got credit.  It’s a tradition for the brand.  None of us ever got paid for voices.  It was something we did because we had a lot of fun doing it and we wanted to keep it in-house.  On New N Tasty we had the opportunity to extend this tradition into the fan community and asked if they wanted to participate.  To reach out to fans and give them an opportunity to actually have them in the released game, that was something that excited us and excited fans in the community.  It’s cool to do.

The second kind of content participation is fan art or fan music that I encountered already made that was posted on Facebook. Off hand there was Alex Konstad who had created an acrylic painting of Abe and when I saw it I thought we should ask him if we could use it in the box art of our game.  We liked it that much and we want to promote fan passions, so this seemed perfect.  We do what we can to offer a compensation for a licensing usage on the painting, but the creator retains their rights and ownership to their work.  It’s a usage, not a lock up.  They only gain, they don’t lose.

Another case is Elodie Adams, a singer songwriter out of Australia.  She posted some music she had made on FB and showed interest in wanting to do something for us.  I heard the song and while we didn’t have the budget to start new compositions out of the blue, we still thought it would be perfect to include her song for our end credit sequence.  She’s got an amazing voice and if we could do something to bring her any additional exposure, which is difficult to get these days, then we would want to help her get it.  She retains her rights and ownership of her music, just as Alex does on his painting.

But make no mistake, the effort and resources that it takes to manage community and include them in all ways that we are able… is not a cost saving measure.  It actually increases our overhead to manage the process. We don’t even  know or have any indication that this policy would increase the core value proposition to the wider audience or have any effect on sales.  What we did believe was that it would be cool to bring attention to such emerging talents and help promote them to a wider audience.

Ultimately, this gives the opportunity for some fans to say, « hey, I’m in that game! »  We think thats cool, but if anybody feels they are being taken advantage of, then they simply shouldn’t participate.

Bliss : If we are to believe some of your posts here and there, you’re not happy with Obama’s policies and administration… Why not? Is it in the details of his (non) achievements) or in general? Can or could anybody do better in this kind of democracy?

Lorne Lanning : Your suggestion that the US is operating as a democracy indicates we are viewing wildly different perspectives on what constitutes reality.  If you have your eyes half open and avoid the misinforming mainstream media, it becomes clear that we are not living in a democracy and haven’t really been for quite some time.  We are living the perpetuated illusion of a democracy that, fortunately, greater numbers of people are coming to see thru and comprehend that something else is in play.  The school book version of democracy and the version that the mainstream media and politicians keep trying to convince us still exists… simple does not stand up to rational, obejctive scrutiny.

But first, you need to understand the multiple layers of how corporate media works.  There are many books on this subject and a good one to start with is Noam Chomsky’s « Manufacturing Consent » which is a good initial dive into the rabbit hole, but just the beginning.

Regarding Obama, we see a branding and a manufacturing of a politician to serve a special agenda.  Who the man is very hard to determine.  His image and role  just a new branding on a perpetual policy. Anyone who still sincerely believes that our two party system is actually looking out of the better health and well being of the population, is severely out of touch and serves as a good indicator that they are a mainstream media consumer.  Meaning, they are still under the spell being perpetuated by 5 financial multi-national interests that control the over 5000 media outlets in the US alone.

But you can research this on your own.  I don’t need to spell it out. Overall it’s quite simple. If someone promises something then does the exact opposite, then how can you trust them for anything they say?  Some people pay attention to « the news ». I pay attention to the whistleblowers and have for three decades now. Listening to whistleblowers causes mainstream media/ political spell’s authenticity to deteriorate rapidly.

We do not live in a democracy. It’s not an opinion, its a provable fact.  It’s also a fact that it is not reported this way by government or mainstream media. That concept and practice of democracy in the US has been undermined and taken from us.  We now live in something else, but the web will enable people who unplug from the mainstream matrix to learn for themselves what is more likely going on.

Bliss : Regarding YouTube’s recent claims, you made it clear that all Youtubers may use Oddworld’s images and sounds without any worries. It’s seems odd for a company as yours which was very vocal about keeping it’s properties close to the chest, not selling it off to any entity… What’s wrong with trying to give back the money to the real owners of any IP?

Lorne Lanning : One needs to understand the policies to understand the ramifications. You also need to understand the legal issues around usage of trademarked material to better understand why letting you tubers « monetize through advertising » does not allow usage to « use images and sounds without any worries », but I don’t want to get into the minutia on this stuff as there’s a world of information out there to research if seeking a better understanding of the basics on trademarks and IP protections.

Meanwhile, our message to the youtube community is that we will continue to enable them to use our footage in ways that does not conflict with our trademarks and obvious legal conflicts. This is what has been happening on Youtube for years now, and we see no legal IP conflicts in the way our IP has been used by youtubers. When we do see conflicts, there is an immediate « cease and desist » letter sent to the offender.

Allowing people to do walk throughs and game reviews is not encouraging people to sell our IP.  There is an enormous difference between the two usages and while we are still a legally protected, copyrighted and trademarked brand in a wide variety of territories, we do not want youtubers to have to change their ways when they have not been in violation of our brands legal protections.  We want to support youtuber practices and enable them to continue what they have built their income on, which is advertising rates based on views they get. This is NOT a usage where youtubers are selling our content.

Put simply, the reason larger publishing entities are pressuring youtube into creating tighter policies around this issue, is due to those entities wanting all the views of their content to be directed to THEIR sites for viewing, NOT youtuber channels. This is to increase the traffic to their site only and increase their sites visit/view numbers, etc. There are multiple reasons they want this, but we see this as a practice of control that worked for the 20th century, but is outdated as an approach in the 21st century.

Being what it is… we issued a statement with our position to make clear that we have and will continue to support their usage in what they have been doing and we’ll support it into the future by NOT aligning with the policies of larger publishing companies that are pressuring google/youtube to tighten down on video proliferation so they can benefit from those eyeballs being directed only to their owned outlets.

It’s a complex issue that is not immediately apparent on the surface. But there in no way there should be any confusion around letting youtubers continue their reasonable ways versus putting your content out as public domain. These are very different issues and shouldn’t be blurred.

Bliss : In the 90’s you left Hollywood because you felt that you would have more room to express yourself in the videogame industry. Then, you’ve quit the videogame business for, it seems, about the same reasons that the movie business. Are you playing Don Quichotte? Don’t you feel like you are chasing some windmills that cannot be conquered?

Lorne Lanning : We left hollywood so that we could create and control our own IP.  This was pretty much impossible in the hollywood landscape of Film/TV.  We now own IP and control its destiny.  We were forward thinking and secured these rights when few understood their value in the gaming space. When the game business grew to the point where budgets were so high that publishers wanted to own you and your IP or not fund you any longer, it was time to wait for better conditions for independence.
Now with the proliferation of digitally distributed networks its possible to reach an audience without publishing partners.  This is game changing, and in the game we’ve been playing… We’re still sailing in the same direction and we are not sailing in circles.

In the Silicon Valley startup vernacular its called « pivoting », which means the landscape around you changes and if you’re paying attention you pivot to adjust course to better sail. There will be a lot more pivoting in our future, but it will be based on the conditions at those future moments, which are not predictable but must be responded to when they arise.

Personally, I believe our best years are ahead of us. Meanwhile, the business of Oddworld is growing steadily as an independent entity. With continued good luck and community support we’re aiming to be self funding new IP in the not too distant future. How long I can’t say, as it depends on sales and the success of New N Tasty is a major factor that determines our abilities to get there.  In the meantime, we are avoiding the old school funding conditions that come with all the embedded hooks that conflict with much of the purpose as to why developers started their companies in the first place.

Bliss : Obviously, Abe, Stranger and you are fighting about the same war. That’s where we, the audience, know, you are an original author and not just some random script writer. But, around 20 years later, this feeling of « Me against the world » is still a reality for you? Is Abe’s Oddysee theme still relevant in 2014?

Lorne Lanning : Well, how’s the world looking to you now?  Twenty years ago educated people would call me a conspiracy theorist if I said fast food companies where destroying our rain forests.  While some had ivy league educations, it didn’t keep them from being ignorant to what was happening in the world. Those and many other practices that inspired Oddworld continue to this day. For example, the human slavery figures are higher today than ever before in the history of civilization. Fortunately the ignorance factor is lessening as the public wakes up, and this is largely due to alternative media access via the internet, it is not due to mainstream media doing a better job informing people, quite the contrary.  So I think now more then ever its critical for us not to be complacent and to seek alternative views than those heavily sponsored and shaped for us, and to ultimately do our best to shed our ignorance.

Bliss : In your 2013 D.I.C.E. keynote (Properties for The Apocalypse) you talked about the creative properties borned in the 70s or 80s, but now, most of them are under the Disney brand (Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, Indiana Jones lately). What do you think about having all those pop cultural icones under one big corporation? Everybody is dreading Google or Facebook, but as pop culture influence goes, isn’t Disney the real new big Brother?

Lorne Lanning : I think its pretty clear as a critical analysis, that the nature of our dysfunctional capitalist system inevitably allows the biggest to get bigger which enables them the power acquire smaller players in the same arena.  This is a fundamental problem at a higher level than any one goliath company. The model of capitalism is only emulated in biology by… cancer.  Growth for growth sake… is a cancer.  Until we realize that we’re on a crash course as a civilization, we are treading extremely dangerous and highly volatile waters.

At DICE I proposed that we look at the larger influence properties have on the health of a culture and specifically how SOP licensing practices are in conflict with the health of our youth and are thus negative for the future health of our species and the coming generations. Poor health is a genetic decline. In the United States overall health and overall IQ levels are dropping. This is not an opinion, these are facts.

When we look at corporations and institutions that are employing practices that aren’t serving the planets people or environments well, we need to explore, and their leaders should explore, how to retool toward healthier more sustainable practices.  It’s not about destroying those corporations, but how to retool them into a critically needed 21st century wisdom that looks at the facts, the science, the impacts… and adjusts practices for a wiser tomorrow.

I personally believe that Disney could change the world overnight if they initiated a policy that stated, « Here ye, here ye!  From this day forth, we recognize that childhood obesity and childhood diabetes are integrally linked to poor nutritional habits traditionally promoted by our brand. Going forward, we are only allowing the licensing of our characters and IP to be awarded to companies that are practicing sustainable manufacturing methods aligned with strong nutritional content in our commitment to form responsible partnerships with families in promoting a better lifestyle and healthier eating habits for our world’s youth and we aim to be leaders in blazing the way for practices that all families will all benefit from.  While we expect to lose a few billion dollars over the next couple of years in this transition, we have the resources to absorb the short term loss for what we have confidence will be a long term gain for us all. »

I think as public awareness rises and health and environmental conditions continue to deteriorate that corporations not engaging better practices will eventually be faced with this challenge by their audience.

Bliss : In 2014 Oddworld will clock 20 years. What are Oddworld next big steps? More remakes, brand new original games? Where do you see Oddworld in 5, 10, 20 years? Do you dream of an Oddworld Attraction Parc?

Lorne Lanning : We hope that Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty will see the success that allows us the means to develop new content, new stories, and new experiences.  The audience has already voted that they would like to see Abe’s Exoddus go thru the same redux as Abe’s Oddysee is going thru, and we hope to be able to deliver that now that we’ve got the engine on Unity and the team familiar with the tools and pipeline.  Success will enable us larger risks, and so we do our best, cross our fingers and hope for results that keep people employeed and empower us forward.  If we do well, we’ll be scaling into new stories and characters. Themeparks have not been on the dream’s list.

Sherry McKenna, CEO Oddworld

Bliss : Since Oddworld left the videogame industry, you tried very hard to make one or several CGI movies within the Oddworld universe. You already had experiences with movie studios and you came (back) with a potentially great new IP, so what went wrong (besides the general economy)?

Sherry McKenna : You know, I should have known better. It is hard enough for the known directors to get their movies made, let alone some newbie’s that have a brand new idea that has not really been done before. So when we saw that the compromises would be too great, we pulled out.
We need to hook up with folks that really understand what we are trying to accomplish and want to partner with us to make it happen. If it is all about nickel and diming us, just for more profit, it most likely is not a good fit. So we shall continue to look and always keep it on the back burner.

Bliss : What are your responsibilities in Oddworld affaires now that the company is sailing as an independant self publisher? How easier is it compared to the time you were working under the likes of GT Interactive or Microsoft?

Sherry McKenna : There are no words to describe what it is like to be responsible for your own decisions. It is like working on an indie movie and not having to take notes from the studio execs. It is freeing and lovely. If you screw up, you have no one to blame but yourself. No finger pointing. But if you do well then you can feel really good about your choices. I am doing most of the same things I did in the past…finance, legal, negotiations etc. What I am not doing is day to day which is a huge relief. I have been a producer for far too long and since I have a reputation as being the Queen of Delegation, I am thrilled to DELEGATE that part of my past job.

Bliss : Did you know that you would eventually come back to the videogame industry when Oddworld threw in the towel? And how do you shake the feeling that, maybe, coming back to the games biz might sound like a back-up plan? Is there more hope for the videogame industry nowadays?

Sherry McKenna : I always knew that we would never abandon Oddworld. There is so much more of the story to tell that to me it would be a shame if we never were allowed to tell it. I guess I never thought of it as a back- up plan so there was no feeling to shake.
Lorne is a story teller and his stories are about what is happening to our planet that we are not always aware of. I don’t think I could work on a game if it offered no nutritious value.
So I am not sure what you mean when you ask is there hope for the videogame industry nowadays. The game industry has gone mainstream and is now influenced by the publishers so they will make games that make their shareholders profits because that’s what capitalism requires. And the game industry seems to be doing quite fine on their own, with their own share of billionaires. They are giving the public what they want and making money doing that and while that may not be my goal it is certainly working for them.

Bliss : Do you find more games that can you play now that you could 15-10 years ago?

Sherry McKenna : I never was a gamer and still am not. I guess I am one of those old fogies who requires a strong story and great characters and I have not been able to find but a handful of the games that appeal to me.

Interview conducted by François Bliss de la Boissière

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