Oddworld Inhabitants released Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath on January 25th, 2005. Despite critical acclaim, the game fell flat in sales. The failure of Stranger's Wrath led to the once acclaimed Oddworld Inhabitants removed from the gaming scene for at least the next seven years. But what happened? Who killed Oddworld? But before that, learn the history of a once monolithic company.
Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna
Oddworld Inhabitants was formed by special effects and computer animation veterans Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning in 1994. Lorne Lanning was originally a painter, owning his own company, but when Lanning was exposed to 3D computer graphics in the 1980s he found a new love and immediately set out to enter this budding industry. After studying at New York's School of Visual Arts and the California Institute of arts (often known as CalArts), Lanning eventually used his BFA in Character Animation to secure a job at award-winning visual effects studio Rhythm and Hues. There he met Sherry McKenna, who Lanning described as "the 'goto' person for computer graphics."
The two worked on many projects together, and in 1992 Lanning pitched the idea of Oddworld Inhabitants, combining McKenna's skills in business and the film industry with his knowledge in computer graphics animation, predicting that advancements in video game technology would integrate hollywood storytelling and techniques into the medium with the release of the Playstation.
[The original purpose] was to create properties by launching them as games, and then eventually make the movies of these properties —Lorne Lanning
McKenna was unreceptive at first, finding video games to be "ugly and confusing," but told Lanning if he could raise the money to start-up the company, she was on-board. Lanning devised and presented the idea behind Abe's Oddysee to investors, pushing the movie-style storytelling as the game's selling point. Investors liked it, and with half a million in borrowed money, the two moved to San Luis Obispo in September 1994 and birthed Oddworld Inhabitants.
... what I did is I created the company, with my partner Sherry McKenna, on the idea that we would be creating a universe the way that Jim Henson built a universe, the way that George Lucas built a universe, the way that Walt Disney built one, the way that Warner Bros. built a universe. —Lorne Lanning, Metro
Abe's Oddysee and Exodus
Most people recognize Oddworld through Abe, the klutzy Mudokon slave and titular character of 1997's Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee. Abe and his species were enslaved at RuptureFarms, a twisted meat packaging factory where all species were treated as ingredients for their mass-marketed goodies, such as Scrab Cakes and Paramite Pies. Once these species begin to die out from over-consumption, the Glukkons, a species representing a dark reflection of capitalism and big business, turn towards their Mudokon slaves to make something "New 'n' Tasty": Mudokon Pops. Abe discovers this plot and begins his adventure to free his fellows from RuptureFarms.
Described as "mysticism versus consumerism with a mega dose of twisted humor," Abe's Oddysee tackled themes such as racism and genocide to create an experience that was mostly untouched territory in gaming. On top of that, Abe's Oddysee took a different approach to game development, valuing character interaction and helping rather than hurting others.
Aggression over time equals rewards. It doesn't matter if you're shooting anything or bouncing on their heads, it's all the same concept. And so we thought, if we could change the paradigm to be empathy equals rewards over time, but still not sacrifice the things that are fun about action and adventure, then we could start to get a little more heart going, and that might start to do things like pick up on the female demographic, get more women interested in games. But it meant evolving the video game character. What does a classic entertainment character do and what does a video game character do? Classic characters talk, and they listen, and they communicate and have relationships with other characters. —Lorne Lanning, GDC 2000
In order to free the Mudokons, Abe would need to lead his comically dimwitted brethren past turrets, guard dogs, and other obstacles in scenarios that combined the most challenging parts of Lemmings and escort missions. Saving Mudokons fed into a karma meter. More saved, better karma, different endings. Abe's Oddysee encouraged players to think about others over themselves.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZnBd-POmtM
Abe's Oddysee won multiple awards including "E3 Showstopper 1997" from GamePro in August 1997. Abe's popularity would rival that of other Playstation originals like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, and served to make Oddworld Inhabitants a top company of interest in gaming.
Next would come Abe's Exodus, a mere nine months after Abe's Oddysee, following Abe's efforts to once again save his people, this time from becoming a brew called SoulStorm. Abe's Exodus was cited by many reviewers as "more of the same" but more of a good thing. An added element to the game was the Mudokons' state of mind would reflect how they acted and responded to Abe's commands. Mudokons who saw too many of their own die may become depressed and kill themselves, and angry Mudokons would hurt others and snap at Abe. This mechanic made the Mudokons feel more like characters than NPCs, and Exodus was heavily praised, achieving a similar success to Abe's Oddysee.
Together these games would make up the first part of the imagined Oddworld Quintology, a series of five stories introducing a new protagonist in each, leading to a game where all characters meet as revolution fighters. Sadly, this would never be.
The true second installment of the Quintology was Munch's Oddysee. Players were put in control of Abe and Munch, an aquatic gabbit looking to save his species from being harvested and turned into a caviar cleverly named "Gabbiar." The two characters start separately but eventually meet up and can be switched on the fly and would have to work in unison to save the various captive species.
Munch's Oddysee brought many changes in both gameplay and Oddworld Inhabitants. Oddworld's home console moved from Playstation to Xbox and publishers moved from GT Interactive to Microsoft. This also marked the first 3D Oddworld game, keeping the gameplay aspects mostly true to the previous titles while giving players a more open environment to traverse.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWAVNht3J3Q
While the game was well-received, Munch's Oddysee failed to attract the same level of success as the previous Oddworld titles. Rushed development and technical limitations meant Munch's Oddysee wasn't quite the game Oddworld Inhabitants wanted; Lanning still believed the market was ready to see other sides of Oddworld.
Fun Fact: Microsoft intended to change the title of the game to "Abe and Munch's Fun Adventures," so that it might appeal to the more casual gamers.
Stranger's Wrath was a complete departure from anything Oddworld Inhabitants had done before. Stranger's Wrath followed the appropriately named Stranger, a mysterious bounty hunter trying to raise money for an operation.
I need this ... to survive. —Stranger
Gone was the meek protagonist and the black and white themes of good and evil. Stranger's Wrath had more in common with the wild west, complete with a Clint Eastwood-inspired protagonist and hordes of outlaws looking to shoot, electrocute, and blow him up. The Stranger used live critters, such as the familiar fuzzles, as ammo for his arm mounted crossbows—fuzzles could be placed as traps to attack enemies as they came close, Bolamites would wrap them in webs for the Stranger to capture alive for a higher bounty. The game was wholly unique and in my opinion was one of the Xbox's best games, and one of the best of the 6th gen.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1tXI87j-50
Despite a lot of praise, Stranger's Wrath was a financial failure. It's unclear exactly when things started going wrong in development, but in 2011 Lanning said in an interview with Eurogamer that EA, the publisher of Stranger's Wrath, sabotaged the game:
When you see a big game coming out, just ask what the marketing budget is. If you decide as a publisher not to give it a marketing budget, you decide its fate.
As soon as we understood there was no marketing budget, we had zero expectations. We had zero incentive to build another game for them, either. —Lorne Lanning, Eurogamer
Some reasons cited to why EA gave the $15 million game little to no advertising budget was Oddworld Inhabitants' refusal to port the game to the PS2 because the console lacked Anti-Aliasing and would've underperformed on the system, and EA believed an exclusive wouldn't be worthwhile to promote. Another is that EA chose to promote James Bond 007: From Russia With Love instead. A darker accusation from Lanning himself suggested EA tried to sink the company to corner it into a buyout situation so EA could scoop up the rights to the Oddworld series.
EA itself has a tarnished reputation among the gaming community. EA was voted to be America's worst company two years in a row for such debacles as the completely broken release of Simcity 2013, using the Child's Play charity to promote Mass Effect DLC ,and a plethora of other reasons. While dropping a game's advertising budget due to exclusivity doesn't seem outside the realm of EA's potential, the majority of information around this subject came out of Lanning and hearsay. EA's only response to the subject was from corporate spokesman Jeff Brown.
Nobody here remembers a jet, a Ferrari or an offer to buy his company. We wish Lorne luck on the game and recommend Lithium for the paranoia and Tourette's Syndrome. —Jeff Brown, EA Corporate spokesperson.
Due to the failure of Stranger's Wrath, Oddworld Inhabitants was reportedly forced to cut a majority of its staff leading to very rough times for the company.
Fangus Klot and Citizen Siege
About a year before the release of Stranger's Wrath, Lanning proposed to EA the idea of a sequel titled The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. The proposed game would have followed Fangus, a Shepard from Fangustan (based on Afghanistan) who is enslaved by the Vamps, a race of feline-like mafia creatures, as a pitfighter. One of the creatures Fangus fights gives him a form of rabies, giving him the rabid strength to destroy the arena. Fangus would use his similarly infected flock to free Fangustan from the Vamps.
Fangus Klot was intended to be much darker and more politically shocking, aiming for a Mature rating. Oddworld Inhabitants settled on Majesco as their next publisher and work began. The game was announced in the April 2005 issue of Game Informer, but by then the studio was already shutting down their game development side.
The other project was Citizen Siege, a planned CGI feature film revolving around political and social themes familiar to Lanning's work about an ex‐patriot who finds himself ensnared in a nightmarish credit racket that leaves him "repossesed." Work with John Williams and Vanguard animation studio was announced in 2006. Two games were meant to coincide with Citizen Siege: Wage Wars, set to come out before Citizen Siege and an unannounced game. Wage Wars was rumored to be an online game and Lanning announced he was beginning production of Wage Wars in 2007. Citizen Siege itself was slated for a 2008 release, but the financing for the project was scrapped due to the economic downturn of the year.
A few other projects that weren't nearly as far along are listed here.
Audits, Royalty Checks, and Buybacks
Despite all the strings of bad luck and missed opportunities, Oddworld Inhabitants came back due to an audit.
Millions and millions of dollars of error not in our favour. Now fortunately someone told us to do that, and did the same thing, and that’s ultimately how we got the company back. Because when we were able to prove that things were not what they should be then it was ‘pay us or give us the company back’, very simple. And so that’s how we got the company back, 100 per cent. —Lorne Lanning, Metro
Getting back the company, Oddworld Inhabitants decided not to jump right back into continuing the Oddworld Quintology, but sought to re-release their old games. Partnering with UK development team Just Add Water, Oddworld Inhabitants re-released HD versions of all their games and created Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty, a remake of Abe's Oddysee from the ground up. Planned next is a remake of Abe's Exodus, but if things go well for the now Triple-A indie company, we might see the completion of the Oddworld Quintology.
Why the hell did I read all this?
So I misled you in the beginning. Oddworld Inhabitants isn't dead ... anymore. It wasn't struck down by a malevolent killer and all in all this supposed murder story has an uplifting ending. The point of this article is to understand that the path and experiences of Oddworld Inhabitants is not new or even unique. In Lanning's own words, many of these practices have become commonplace. Companies take anything unique and of moderate success and attempt to turn them into franchises that can be pumped out on yearly. And those that don't want to play ball end up snubbed and left out to dry.
The true killer of Oddworld is the nature of the gaming industry (and pretty much EA), which has gone from an industry looking to create unique worlds to play in to an asse mbly line pouring hundreds of millions into games that cost over $100 to get the complete game, which ends up being either the same game as last year with slightly better graphics, an interactive movie disguised as a game, or just plain broken as hell. It's good to see Oddworld back on its feet, though it took an audit to make that happen. But with the industry the way it is now I feel that Lanning will have an even harder time trying to get Oddworld back up and running when there are household powerhouses like Call of Duty and Halo to contend against, though their retro cred and focus of high quality storytelling might make a splash with the indie crowd.