Q&A: Oddworld's exit from games?
Lorne Lanning explains how his quirky, creative, and somewhat elusive development studio is refocusing on computer animation for TV and film.
When people talk talent in the game industry, the name of Lorne Lanning inevitably comes up. His company, the 10-year-old Oddworld Inhabitants, was created with the intent of delivering on a unique promise: bringing a five-part opus of games to consumers on numerous platforms over many years.
With that promise only partially realized, it seems as if Lanning is changing the rules--with many observers speculating he is leaving the world of game creation behind forever.
Last month, in an online interview that appeared with little fanfare, Lanning announced he was relocating his company from San Luis Obispo to the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the weekend, the Hollywood Reporter further elaborated on the upcoming plans of Lanning and Oddworld.
To some, the article suggested he was getting out of the game business altogether--"not the idea," Lanning told GameSpot yesterday. The Reporter's take outlined how the Oddworld Inhabitants game studio had been disbanded, and how Lanning was planning on focusing on using game technology to develop computer animation projects for film and TV.
However, some confusion remained as to whether Lanning was out of the game industry for good. "We're just not retaining an internal production capacity," Lanning said, again, to address numerous reports he had 86'd game development from the Oddworld agenda.
GameSpot spoke with Lanning in hopes of understanding more about his long-term plans--something the famously silver-tongued entrepreneur was all too happy to do.
GameSpot: Lorne, can you end the confusion as to the immediate and long-term status of Oddworld Inhabitants as a game studio? Has the business model of it being a game-creation studio been abandoned? If so, for all time or temporarily?
Lorne Lanning: We announced in April that we were shutting down the internal game-production operation in San Luis Obispo. We chose to move forward with a focus on new production paradigms that are beyond the traditional developer/publisher arrangements. It's an exciting landscape for digital media and we decided that the time is right to pursue new models and relationships that focus toward property development across multiple forms of media (i.e. games/tv/film). If we continued to run the internal game-production operation, we felt we would not have the bandwidth to pursue as many of the additional opportunities, yet these opportunities have always been a part of Oddworld's long-term strategy. Whatever negativity is being associated with our departure from internal game development...it's not true.
GS: Can you boil down the new focus of Oddworld Inhabitants for game enthusiasts as well as the industry...if you are no longer entirely about making games, what are you about?
LL: Oddworld has always been a property-development company. Period. It's also true that we birthed our Oddworld property in the games arena first and we're forever grateful that we did. However, looking forward, you can see that game costs are continuing to rise while CG film and television costs are continuing to drop. The future is all about what we call MMMP (Massively Multi-Media Properties). These are the properties that will make great games as well as great movies and television series. The more these properties can be designed as MMMP from their conception, the more viability they can have across multiple forms of media. This model also opens us up to be able to look at more viable outsourcing models as well as working with a larger talent pool.
GS: What skill sets will you be looking for to fund the new Emeryville-based studio staff with?
LL: We're not looking to create a large, fully staffed studio. We're looking at an above-the-line model that is more closely akin to a film director/producer production company--in that you scale as is required for each independent production and utilize the best of existing companies to form coproduction relationships on a per-production basis.
GS: In your interview with the Hollywood Reporter, there was some apparent scorn and near finger-wagging directed at the Electronic Arts model that restricts appropriate marketing dollars for anything less than an all-platforms product. Is that an Electronic Arts-specific perspective or something that permeates the entire industry?
LL: What happened with Electronic Arts and Stranger's Wrath is very simple. They decided to cut the advertising and marketing budget when they didn't pull the PS2 version together. It was their business decision and they had the right to do it. We're not bitter about it, it's just what happened and it's reflective of the limited outlets that video games have to generate revenue. You've got one shot at retail and if your publisher is not supporting the title with the marketing bucks at launch, then you're not going to see the sales. This isn't blamestorming, it's simply what happened. It is not the reason we chose to make our recent decisions.
GS: Speaking of the significance of a publishing partner--maybe more so when the attendant muscle of such a partner fails to appear--does the time when a fatter pipeline to consumers (higher penetration of broadband access) will afford creators of digital content greater control and the ability to distribute content on their own? Is there any substantive benefit that may afford Oddworld greater leeway some day?
LL: Sure, fatter bandwidth to consumers is what we're all looking forward to. When that happens, there will be many new opportunities that will enable content creators to go directly to the consumer. In the meantime, companies like Valve have initiated similar models using their Steam technology, which I believe is working out quite well for them. In my opinion, it's a very exciting model for the future that will change a lot of the fundamental distribution assumptions of today, but that additional bandwidth still looks to be a few years away.
GS: You talk about CG movies made at a fraction of their current cost (by using game engines, rather than conventional CG-creation tools). How big of a market is there for CG movies? What's your opinion of why the Final Fantasy movie of a few years back tanked?
LL: Actually, I have never talked about game technology being used to make cheaper films today. I have talked about the dropping costs of CG film production, but movies made cheaper by utilizing game technology is still a ways off. In the meantime, game technology can be used to make cheaper yet high quality television and even HD-res television (or direct to DVD/Video). We believe the scale of the CG movie market is directly related to the quality of the stories and the quality of the productions. In our eyes, CG movies are limited by the imagination of the creators, not by a medium-specific means of production or perceived market niches. If it's a great story that is compelling to an audience, then they'll want to see it. If it's not, then it's likely it won't succeed.
GS: As a property-development company, have you decided yet to use only the existing characters that have already surfaced (Abe, Munch, Stranger, etc.) or are there other worlds, other characters to create?
LL: We'll continue to develop aspects of the Oddworld universe while also focusing on the creation of entirely new properties.
GS: Does the new operation retain the Oddworld name?
LL: The San Luis Obispo studio is in the process of shutting down, but Oddworld Corp. is not going away.
GS: When you talk about "property development across multiple forms of media (i.e. games/tv/film)," is there a way to rank those different media in terms of which you gravitate toward first?
LL: CG movies are certainly at an exciting place today, but each form of media has its own possibilities and its own set of challenges.
GS: Do you have an idea where you will start first--by creating a TV product, a film product, or a game? Or is the answer--all three simultaneously--implied?
LL: We do have an idea, but we won't be talking about them publicly until they are done deals.
GS: What are you most looking forward to from the new Northern California location? Culturally, it's a million miles away from the laid-back surf culture of San Luis Obispo.
LL: All the great places to eat! Also, the progressive and artistic culture of the Bay Area will be a much welcomed breath of fresh air.
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