Stranger finds a home with Electronic Arts

EA confirms that it will publish the next Oddworld title; game is bound for PS2 and Xbox gamers sometime in 2005. Oddworld cofounder Lorne Lanning takes us behind the scenes.

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Developer Oddworld Inhabitants' next game is now officially attached to a publisher. Referred to informally as "Stranger," the game is set in the Oddworld universe but isn't actually a part of the studio's notorious quintology. The game will be published worldwide by Electronic Arts Partners (EAP), a business unit of Electronic Arts.

Oddworld had previously partnered with Microsoft and developed its last game, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, exclusively for the Xbox, but the two parties long ago went their separate ways. In addition, Atari recently announced that in late 2003, it relinquished the stake in Oddworld Inhabitants it had held since 1996. Those two moves opened up the way for Oddworld to freely shop Stranger.

In a statement to be released later today, Oddworld Inhabitants president Lorne Lanning said of the deal: “Partnering with EA is a major win for us." For its part, EA also expressed high hopes that the arrangement would net a solid game and a solid performer at retail. "Over the past 10 years, Oddworld has consistently elevated the creative bar in each of their titles," Greg Richardson, general manager of EA Partners said. "Oddworld Inhabitants represent the type of high-quality developer with which we're seeking to partner moving forward." Other EAP developer partners include Digital Illusions, Castaway Entertainment, Gas Powered Games, and Lionhead Studios.

EA isn't revealing much about the Oddworld title save for the fact that the game's lead character, Stranger, is a "Western-style bounty hunter who chases outlaws throughout [a] new frontier of the Oddworld universe." But EA is clear about reminding the industry that leading up to this announcement, Oddworld has sold a slew of products: The Oddworld titles have moved close to 5 million copies worldwide, have picked up 100-plus industry awards, and have--in one form or another--graced more than 50 magazine covers, according to EA.

GameSpot spoke with Oddworld cofounder Lorne Lanning about the upcoming game--how it differs from earlier Oddworld titles, a thing or two he learned from Munch, and what the sport of fly-fishing has to do with game design.

GameSpot: From your perspective, in what ways does Stranger signal progress on your part as a game designer?

Lorne Lanning: I have to say that Stranger is the first game that has been an enjoyable experience for me to work on throughout the entire production, which in itself is a huge statement towards progress. The credit goes to having an amazingly talented team that is intensely passionate about breaking some new ground and doing it to the best of their ability. I've never seen a crew work so hard or be so committed. This has enabled me to wear less hats and delegate more while seeing stronger results overall. I'm really proud to be working with this crew.

GS: What are some of the personal and professional lessons that have come from the development process?

LL: A big lesson was in trying to do less, but trying to do it better. Historically, I have been too ambitious and thus have compromised some of the macro design objectives. On Stranger, though challenging due to experimentations with new play styles, our code base was incredibly strong and this reduced a lot of the typical anxieties that one might encounter in an innovative game venture. In the past, our efforts have been challenging to code and design as we've always tried to inject strong puzzle-oriented play styles mixed with light action. This has proven somewhat successful, but puzzle play is difficult to ramp successfully without getting repetitive. This time we went for a much heavier action mix with a "puzzle lite" weave. The results have retained the Oddworld sense of wit while also blazing a lot of new ground for us. My personal lesson is to keep a continued focus on "less equals more."

GS: How do you believe that progress will be perceived by gamers?

LL: I think gamers are going to be very surprised by Stranger, and surprised that Oddworld built a game like this. We have no doubts that a lot of people who didn't attract to the previous Oddworld games will be attracted to Stranger. Stranger is also our first hero that is quite strong and possesses prowess. For those fans that have had early peeks at the project, they were really excited by the new play style and the new cast, and yet also thrilled to see that we retained and evolved upon the humor, sarcastic wit sensibilities, and character depth that they always felt made Oddworld uniquely entertaining.

GS: Can you tell me about the references and real-world points of view you referred to in order to create the Oddworld characters and storyline in Stranger?

LL: My first love is fly-fishing, and as a fly-fisherman I've been close to observing how the construction of dams often causes turmoil to the communities of people and ecosystems that live downstream. This was the inspirational kernel for Stranger's plot, while the character of Stranger was inspired by those who look out for themselves when confronted by racist cultures.

Stranger makes his way as a bounty hunter, which means he's a loner with no shortage of resentful enemies. This lays a nice groundwork for heavy action as well as an unfolding epic. From there, this game had a much greater team participation to the creative process than our previous titles, which set the stage for a lot of happy surprises.

GS: Over the years, Oddworld Inhabitants has had publisher relationships with GT Interactive, Microsoft, and now Electronic Arts. What has the impact of the publisher relationship been on the creative process?

LL: We've always been fortunate in that we've been able to sustain control over our creative ambitions, regardless of who our publisher was. Yet, having been with several publishers has given us more perspective on how the industry as a whole finances product and makes decisions about the marketplace. It's been very insightful to witness how various publishers operate and what makes them tick. What turns them on and off, what trends do they see coming, how are they utilizing testing...all of these things help us to learn and shape our projects into something that we feel will be more widely received by the audience.

GS: What lessons do you bring from having been part of the Xbox launch effort (with Munch's Oddysee) to the current arrangement with Electronic Arts?

LL: I suspect that the lessons learned from the Xbox launch come down to trusting, or not trusting, focus testing. You've got to be extremely careful with how you use this data and how much of it you can trust. On Munch, we were too trusting of the focus-testing data and not trusting enough of our own critical analysis. Making sure you meet launch as a first priority is not always the best thing for the box or the game.

Microsoft was a great partner and we have no doubts that they will continue to be very successful in the game business. With Electronic Arts, one of the things that you immediately notice is just how tightly buttoned up they are. These people really know how to build multiplatform games and how to get them to market successfully.

GS: Tell me as much as you can about Stranger. What are your goals with the game, and what gameplay elements did you emphasize?

LL: From the start, we had hoped to achieve the following response from gamers: "Wow, I never thought Oddworld would have created a game like this, yet it only could have come from Oddworld!" We wanted to give gamers something new, something fresh, but something that evolved upon the most popular gameplay styles that they love today. We wanted to show that we're far more than the "Abe and Munch puzzle-platformer company." To be pigeonholed like that concerned us, and we wanted to give ourselves more flexibility and opportunity to break out from those perceptions. Hence, the creation of Stranger.

GS: What attributes of the modern-day game character did you choose to imbue Stranger's character with? And how does he differ from previous Oddworld characters?

LL: He's a much more powerful yet mysterious hero who embraces shooting and melee capabilities...yet with several unique twists that add greater options for gamers to enjoy entirely different play styles and strategies. It was an important design goal that this game retain open-ended play options. Some may approach it completely stealth, some will charge into it completely balls out, and others will find a balance somewhere in between. Regardless, all approaches were to be rewarding, and I feel we've accomplished that.

GS: How does Stranger and its world relate to the Oddworld universe established by the studio's first three titles?

LL: Stranger's world takes place beyond the boundaries of our previous Oddworld territories. It's on the same planet, yet in a different locale. This enabled us to retain some consistency per the divisions between the rich and the poor, the dark side of globalization, etc....but also gave us the freedom to create an entirely new cast and gameplay style, without being hampered by what boundaries fans might have thought the old cast should adhere to.

GS: What, in your opinion, contributes most to a good, significant game-creation process today?

LL: $10 to $15 million bucks and a great team!

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