‘Oddworld: Soulstorm’ creators on crunch in the games industry: “Greed at the top of the ladder rarely trickles down”

Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, whose video game franchise has raged against the machine since 1997, tackle the issue of crunch and tease what an ending for ‘Oddworld’ may look like

In the Oddworld universe, factory work isn’t just rough – it’s brutal. So much so that the reluctant hero of its first two games, Abe, is forced to lead a labour uprising and guide his many beleaguered Mudokon co-workers to salvation through a complex web of stealth- and item-based puzzles. But while there are menacing corporate overlords – beings called Glukkons – the core antagonists in Oddworld have always been anti-worker industrialisation, anti-environmentalist policies and abject, capitalistic greed.

The latest release in the franchise, Oddworld: Soulstorm – a loose re-imaging of the series’ second entry, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus – takes that exploitation to the next level: workers are meant to brew an energy drink made out of their own species. It’s only natural that the Mudokons would want not just freedom, but revenge. Step up, Abe.

This hard-driving political and philosophical core is what makes the Oddworld franchise so unique and enduring. The brainchild of Oddworld Inhabitants’ Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, the series made its debut in 1997 with the PSX title Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Its creators had imagined the debut title to be the first in a five-game ‘quintology’, but cool reception to the 2001 Xbox launch game Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee put paid to that.

13 years later, in 2014, the team remade its first game as Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, which gave them the confidence to continue to expand the series. And now with Soulstorm, Lanning and McKenna are hoping the quintology plans are back on track.

We asked the pair about those plans, almost making an Oddworld film with J.J. Abrams, a changing video games industry and how Oddworld’s themes relate to the ‘crunch’ culture that’s allegedly pervading the industry.

Lorne Lanning
Lorne Lanning

Crunch is a huge issue in gaming that’s been getting a lot of attention recently. It, of course, relates heavily to the themes in the Oddworld series. How do you feel about the issue?

Sherry: I’m sure everybody already knows what I’m gonna say but it’s not just the crunch in the video games industry – it’s in the animation industry, too. I’ve been doing games since 1994. But before then, I did movies and effects.

I care about the quality of the work; that’s really important to me. And while you can put out a lot of C-grade work without crunch, I have never produced one thing in my life that was of [a high] quality that didn’t [involve] crunch. I think if you want a nine-to-five job, just don’t go into the entertainment industry.

Lorne: I think you’re asking a question about what crunch means in the ‘public company’ sense. Like your big publisher. These are public companies that become huge ventures the way a blockbuster film becomes a huge venture: they’re going to spend a few 100 million dollars in development. That’s the GDP of a nation.

I think the trap is: once [the company] starts to look like they’re going to miss that Christmas [launch], they know that if they deliver in January, they’re going to make 30 to 40 per cent less on that opening. And they’ve got stock evaluation, or projections, that are based on when they’re going to deliver and when that income is going to come in.

And I think what happens to the big companies is that they really are pressured from shareholders down [to] hit those dates. They say, “Look, we have a choice. Either everyone’s gonna help us deliver this thing and it makes a billion dollars, or we can just work the weekdays, nine to five, and it’ll deliver four months late, and we lose $100 million.”

There’s not an investor in Silicon Valley that’s going to touch you if ‘quality of life’ is the most important to [a company]. What investors want to hear is that making them money is what’s most important. If someone can figure out how to [prioritise ‘quality of life’] and stay competitive, more power to them. I haven’t figured it out. I just find that as kind of little guys, you got to pump a lot more in.

And just like indie filmmaking or a new tech venture startup, at the end of a big project, usually, something extraordinary has to happen to make it deliver. And, ideally, as a small group, you’re trying to attract similar-minded spirits that care more about the quality of the work that they deliver; they’re willing to put in extra, so you don’t have to ask people if they’re in a crunch.

It’s complicated. Personally, I don’t believe that people should be forced to have to do that [crunch]. And I think that’s where it really became a big issue. And then the greed at the top of the ladder, which is [usually about bonuses] is usually layered up at the top. It rarely trickles down.

Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus
Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. Credit: Oddworld Inhabitants

Are we ever going to see the complete quintology?

Lorne: Part of it is going to depend on the success [of Soulstorm]. [On Oddworld New ‘n’ Tasty] we had a lot more success than we expected. And that made us a little more ambitious on this one. We were building the business the old-fashioned way, which is: you actually make money and then you reinvest it.

So let’s plant the seeds. And let’s revisit that idea of a big five-part series. And if people really like Soulstorm, then it should create a demand for [parts] three, four and five. But the idea [for Soulstorm] was to put the extra effort in the CG cinematics. That required more complicated rigging and stuff like that. So we upgraded the resolution of characters to go there. And, in a sense, we over invested in the cinematic aspect to try and validate that it could be good linear media as well.

So when making Soulstorm, we were like, if we can really do a good job on this, then maybe it lights the path for us to continue with the quintology. Maybe get it done before I’m dead.

You mentioned linear media. So what really happened with J.J. Abrams almost making an Oddworld film?

Lorne: There was a point where Microsoft was ready to buy the other half of the company that was owned by Infogrames, which had taken over GT Interactive [the publisher of Oddworld]. And [Microsoft] came to us and they said, “We’re going to be building a new box, and we want to do a deal. And we want to be partners.”

And so we were going to start on Xbox at launch. As we’re going over to Microsoft, this young producer, who wasn’t established, was contacting Sherry. His name was Bryan. And he was saying, “You know, myself and a partner of mine – he’s a director – we love Oddworld, and we’d like to make it into a motion picture. We’d like to be able to shop it, and we’d like to direct and produce it.” Then they wrote a treatment.

And this is how messed up the game industry is with crunch mode: I didn’t even have time to read the treatment, what with how much of a crisis to meet day one of the Xbox launch with a bug-free product. It was brutal. And so I didn’t even get to read the treatment. And in hindsight, there were J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk. They had not yet made Felicity.

Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee
Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee. Credit: Oddworld Inhabitants

Abe is known for being kind of a pacifist, but in Soulstorm, he has the ability to make Sligs explode themselves – can he truly be a pacifist then?

Lorne: There was always a creative license there, ethically. There were a lot of arguments in development because I didn’t want Abe to have a gun. I knew that once he had it, that’s how he had to solve all his problems.

Sherry: I don’t want to come off as a pacifist, either, because the fact of the matter is there’s definitely violence in the real world. This is such a cliché, what I’m going to say: violence for violence’s sake doesn’t work for me. Abe has got to be a believable character that you empathise with, and that you understand. I don’t have a problem with Abe exploding slugs. These are bad guys. I don’t have a problem with bad guys. But I do have a problem with anybody just shooting and killing anyone.

How do you see the series ending?

Lorne: The idea was the first two games in the story would be taking place in the third world, and then he’s finally going to punch through into the second world. And then eventually he winds up in downtown Tokyo- or New York City-type of scenarios.

We would start with something really endearing, and then Abe would be faced with all the challenges of those he had freed by suggesting different forms of government. You’ll have communists and capitalists and egalitarians, and all the models would just be fucked up. This would be a comedy and a reflection of what we’re dealing with in our own world.

Oddworld has been around for well over two decades now. How different was it to produce and distribute a game in the 90s compared to today?

Lorne: Back then, a million dollars was a huge amount of money that someone might spend on a game. We went out and we said, “Well, we want to deliver a game and start a company, and we want three and a half million dollars.”

They were like, “Do you realise you need to sell a million units to [make a profit]?

We were like, “Yeah, of course. That’s why we’re asking for the money.” If we didn’t think we could, we wouldn’t be asking.

We came wanting to establish a kind of classic film sensibility. And what happened was that business turned into a business monetisation engine. So the industry today, I think, [should credit] the Koreans and the Chinese for figuring out a brilliant solution, which was server-based and free.

The Koreans and the Chinese were having problems getting games in their countries because piracy was so bad. But there’s no point in pirating a game that you had to be on a server to play – there’s tollbooths and security.

Tencent was one of those people who figured it out in the very beginning. And then they became enormous, and I think the way that they did it was brilliant. But it’s a science that I can’t say I understand very well. It’s not what I’ve spent my life on: how to monetise the next dopamine [hit] of someone’s impulse buy, which is where a lot of this [industry] has gone.

Why is it that the ‘free’ game is costing people thousands of dollars a year? So that, I think, is where the lion’s share of money is coming in today.

‘Oddworld: Soulstorm’ is out now on PS4/5 and PC.

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