It is, unfortunately, still a very oddworld, as in Abe’s Oddworld, a fictional universe that birthed nine games across platforms from 1997 to next year. In that world, franchise creator Lorne Lanning tells Variety, the inhabitants are all witless, happy cogs in a corporate machine. Fed lies, they put the company first, themselves last and serves to sate corporate greed.
It’s an analogy that Lanning still thinks holds true today and one of the reasons he believes his franchise, now more than 20 years old, continues to enthrall players.
In a recent interview with Variety, Lanning talks about the upcoming 2020 release of “Oddworld: Soulstorm,” a remake and expansion of the original second game in the franchise “Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Lanning discusses the birth and growth of Oddworld, why Lanning decided to return to the franchise after a seven-year hiatus, how he still considers the property worthy of a movie, and why Nintendo Switch Oddworld fans are going to have such a great year.
What made you decide to return to the Oddworld franchise back in 2012?
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Our long-term ambitions had always been around the long tail potential of the IP, so throughout our history and its ups and downs we remained focused on every opportunity toward retaining or regaining the IP publishing rights. All for the long-term possibilities of where we eventually hoped to take things.
After we closed the development operation down in 2005, we waited for digital distribution to take off, so we could finally start independently distributing our own library.
This started to be possible around 2008 when Valve agreed to let us put our original Abe titles up on Steam just as Digital Distribution was beginning to take off. Finally, the IP began to become a viable source of ongoing revenue that was coming straight back to us. Then by 2011/2012, the barrier to entry for online storefront lowered to a point where millions of people had computers consoles that were powerful enough to download and play games, and internet speeds were fast enough to download large pieces of content such as games.
Ultimately the revenue from the classic titles enabled us to start releasing remastered games on Steam and consoles, but we didn’t initially know what to expect as far as revenue, yet we did know we would deliver high-quality AAA experiences on indie budgets and we believed in digital distribution as future revenue driver for the entire entertainment industry. But what did surprise us was that digital distribution dramatically increased the “shelf” life of games compared to the shorter lifespans we had experienced at traditional retail. This was a major turning factor in Oddworld’s history and future potential.
How did the development and release of “Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty” in 2014 influence your decision to create “Oddworld Soulstorm”?
The creation and development of Oddworld games are made possible by the support of our fans. The revenue from each game sold goes directly into the development of our next project. “New ‘n’ Tasty” did gangbusters and we, as we have down for years, reinvested that revenue back into our next project, which happened to be “Soulstorm.”
As we neared the completion of “New ‘n’ Tasty,” from both an emotional as well as a creative standpoint, we felt like it was finally time to dive back into our original idea for a five-game series that told the evolutionary story of Abe. And finally, we thought we would be able to afford taking on such an ambitious project with our own funding.
Do you think you’ll continue to rework your Oddworld games, continuing with “Munch’s Oddysee”?
If there is demand, we will remaster and improve upon games from our back catalog. You may even hear about something like that very soon. We have already announced “Stranger’s Wrath” coming to Switch and we will have a few more Switch related announcements to make after E3. One thing I can say right now, I believe Oddworld fans who own Switch will find 2019 to be a very Oddworld year.
How would you define an Oddworld game?
Oddworld games speak directly to how odd our real world can be, both bad and good. So, it was always inspired by history and the contemporary state of the dark side of globalization.
We feel that Abe is a true representation of every person, regardless of age, color, gender or sexual or political preference. Abe is someone who goes about their life, blind to what is happening around them, and then awakes to a deeper uncomfortable reality and becomes challenged to make a change. Abe may not want to be a hero, but there is some greatness in Abe. A greater purpose. A greater good. A greater possibility. All of which are going to get him into enormous amounts of trouble.
How does “Soulstorm” change the original “Exoddus”?
“Oddworld: Soulstorm” is the true sequel to “Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee.” When we originally released “Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee,” we were fortunate that other big games like “Doom 2,” “Unreal” and “Duke Nukem” slipped out of the holiday window. This left a hole in the marketplace, and we were fortunate enough to fill it. We were a holiday hit. But because of Abe’s success, we were asked to quickly create a second game and delivery it by the following holiday season. That wasn’t a timeframe we wanted or planned for, as our creative and dev process takes time to ferment into what we wanted the second quintology title to be. So, what happened was that “Exoddus” wound up being produced in nine months and was a much smaller undertaking to what we had wanted. Which meant the original more complicated idea was out the window for 1998. But we wanted to be a good partner, so we delivered “Exoddus,” but “Exoddus” was never the true sequel we had envisioned.
Meanwhile, “Soulstorm” is the sequel we always wanted to tell, and after the success of “New N Tasty” we felt it was our chance to set the original quintology vision back into full motion. Which meant “Soulstorm” would be complete re-take of what “Exoddus” was originally loosely based on and would be a brand-new game that would heavily evolve upon the Abe story and gameplay capabilities.
How do you think the themes and story of “Exoddus” fit into today’s society and political landscape? Is it still a relevant game?
It’s still relevant, as are all the Oddworld games, I suspect. As the entire story of Abe remains relevant, unfortunately for us earth inhabitants, and will probably always be relevant in that context.
When you consider how we first meet Abe, he was a happy cog in the corporate machine. Believing the noble lies he was fed to keep up the good work, much like how many millions and millions of people are today. Happy, because he didn’t know any better, but maybe “ignorant” is a better word. His only purpose was to serve corporate greed, and he had no idea that after his usefulness dried up it would consume him, quite literally, in the end.
In the process of creating contemporary myths … “Abe’s Oddysee/New ‘n’ Tasty,” has a moment where Abe’s experience that allows him to clearly see what is happening around him, not just what “big brother” tells him to see. And this changes his destiny, as it would for many of us.
When Abe no longer falls for the promotional lies, political deceptions, fake news, or other propaganda. Abe then breaks through into free thinking to then act as an individual, free of false influence. And while It would have been easier for him to just save himself, Abe is so empathetic he is compelled to save others, and ultimately his karmic score reflects this intention.
Abe wakes from corporate and political bind and false beliefs based on propaganda and truly sees the world for what it is, and doesn’t like it, wants to change it. Given what is going on the world today I think it’s getting easier for us to see a piece of ourselves in Abe, and I think Abe’s fans feel this connection.
How do you think these Oddworld remakes fit into the current landscape of video games?
Oddworld is very different in the type of titles, characters, craftsmanship, and stories we’ve offered.
We don’t make revolutionary games; we make evolutionary games about revolution. Games that stay true to what people loved about them as classics, and now we modernize upon their retro style but in aggressively creative ways. We’ve always been evolving upon retro since our beginning, and we have been fortunate that old and new Oddworld fans have proven that the brand can successfully co-exist in what is a contemporary albeit extremely cluttered landscape of fantastically expensive productions. In this landscape, titles need to have cut through power to succeed, and I think the balance of beauty, empathy, creativity, craftsmanship and relevant mythically proportion storytelling will continue to have a place in the increasingly expanding game space.
At the end of the day, these are still games and when we forget that we lose a lot of what makes gaming a great medium. So, it’s a balance to stay fresh, creative, relevant, inspiring, and most importantly … fun!!
How do you expect the latest generation of gamers to react to “Soulstorm”?
Frankly, I think we’ve never been more on time with synchronizing with where youth is at today, but marketing and gaining exposure are always challenging as well as critical to success. Hopefully, we’ll get enough spread from word of mouth as can continue to rely on social marketing for our own budgets, and generosity of stores doing promotions because we give them something unique and stand out to sell that is crafted with love at a high level of quality.
Do you have any interest in creating an entirely new Oddworld?
First, I hope we’re just able to finish creating the very large Oddworld of possibilities we’ve established to continue to build upon. The possibilities of Oddworld are like the possibilities of our own world. Virtually endless so long as they adhere to Oddworldian standards in storytelling, character development, unique mechanics, and the power of awe in beauty.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Oddworld or “Oddworld Soulstorm”?
With Oddworld, we’ve always envisioned it as games that would lead to linear mediums as well. A true transmedia property from its inception, but its yet to break out of the game space and into other mediums. With “Soulstorm” we chose to invest heavier in the character performances, database resolutions, and go toward a less direct “bang them over the head” style of storytelling that is more cinematic in narrative nature.
Hopefully, the combination of tricks in “Soulstorm,” and the quality of its delivery, proves compelling enough that we’ll finally see Abe make his way to the larger screens of Hollywood. It almost happened a few times, but the timings and such just didn’t work out at those times in our history. I am proud to say that JJ Abrahams and Bryan Burk wanted to make a movie out of Oddworld before they even created Felicity. Personally, I think they were onto something. Hopefully we’ll get to see something of that scope still happen with Oddworld, and hopefully, “Soulstorm” will open a lot more doors of interest in what the larger possibilities can be.