From inception to their first release, explore the history of Oddworld in the words of those that made it.
The Oddworld series is one that’s close to my heart, much as it is to millions of others out there. It’s a series I’ve grown up alongside, maturing as the series matured, seeing the games from new perspectives as I’ve grown wiser and more able to comprehend the underlying themes. From Abe’s Oddysee, playing with my entire family huddled around a TV, passing the PS1 controller each time Abe perished (or taking the controller from my younger brother who spent 10 minutes making Abe fart repeatedly before giggling uncontrollably) to seeing that spark of passion for the series ignite in my son when he got his hands on Strangers Wrath on the Switch at EGX, it’s a series that’s been a part of my gaming life for as long as I’ve been playing. What’s most impressive about Oddworld is that it’s now 21 years old and is still a household name among gamers and creatives. And to think, it almost didn’t happen…
Oddworld Inhabitants, the studio behind Oddworld, was formed by Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna in 1994. The pair were both working at the visual effects and animation company Rhythm and Hues when they met but both had taken very different paths through the film business. McKenna had a much more traditional path into the industry, earning visual effects credits on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Last Starfighter and 2010 among others. Lanning initially directed Engineering Visualisation in the aerospace industry for TRW Aerospace before using his BFA in Character Animation to make the jump to Hollywood. The pair were working together on a Japanese movie when Lanning pitched the idea of moving film quality 3D visuals into the video game space – but McKenna wasn’t initially sold on the idea.
Speaking in 1997 with Prima, who created the official strategy guide for Abe’s Oddysee, McKenna said “Lorne kept trying to tell me that we should be doing games. As you know, I didn’t like them, don’t understand them, etc. […] I kept blowing him off. The thought of giving up my career to do games was an insult. I did high‐end special computer graphics. […] One day, Lorne told me a story. I love stories, and he spent a few hours telling me the whole thing. I was enthralled, and immediately saw the possibilities. I wanted to make a movie out of his story. He said, ‘No. We’re going to make five games.’ I was deflated and furious! I hate games—they’re awful, they appeal to 12‐year‐old boys. They reward the player for being a villain. You get rewarded for killing, shooting, for being the bad guy. So we looked at several games. I’m embarrassed to say I got flustered and confused by them. I couldn’t handle menus, inventories, etc. It was difficult for me to maneuver around. […] I was horrified by the graphics in games. People critique movies when the small details aren’t right in the computer graphic special effects, but they take off their critic hats, come home, and play these awful‐looking games and never complain.”
McKenna had a point. At the time, video gaming had only recently started to find its feet with 3D visuals. While the very first 3D games traced back to the 1970’s with the likes of Maze War and Spasim, pseudo-3D graphics (visuals on a 2D plane positioned in such a way as to give the illusion of 3D graphics) were still the industries standard until the early 90’s and the release of Wolfenstein 3D (1992). Even then, 3D video game visuals paled in comparison to those that Hollywood were creating with the likes of Jurassic Park (1993).
Undeterred though, Lanning spent 2 years, from 1992 to 1994, trying to convince McKenna to begin the Oddworld game series with him. “Lorne said, ‘How about if I guarantee you that the graphics we do in a game would be of film quality?’ I said, ‘Sure, right.’ That didn’t seem likely, so my career wasn’t at stake. But he guaranteed it.” McKenna recounts, insisting that he find funding.
It was the combined experience of Lanning and McKenna that enticed investors to their idea once they started to pitch it. A filmic approach from their experience in Hollywood, a fresh, character driven pitch to the gaming landscape that allowed them “to get away with a story that otherwise wouldn’t have been accepted” and Lannings’s previous 3D visual experience In the aerospace industry, a rarity in the gaming landscape, was enough to attract $3.5m in investment. And so, in September 2014, in San Luis Obispo, Oddworld Inhabitants was born.
After finalising the concept and recruiting to their team, McKenna and Lanning set about creating the first of 5 planned games, code name Soul Storm. Development was initially slow however, with the pair’s relative naivety to the gaming market meaning they had to seek help to get things moving, as remembered in 2013 by Lanning: “We didn’t really know anything about building games, so we get the money and now we’re trying to figure it out. We didn’t know that you had to have licenses to develop on the PlayStation, that you basically needed approval of your concept by Sony to even have access to the, at the time it was $18,000 or something like that, per development station, per person working on the game, to even be able to work on that equipment to make your game. So it wasn’t like you could just go and buy hardware and start making something then see if someone liked it, you were supposed to have all that shit signed off before you even ever got access to development stations and we had none of that. So we actually, eventually did the deal with GT Interactive, the title was on PC and PlayStation, so we did get our license and all that stuff out of the way”
After the UK based company GT Interactive acquired the publishing rights to the game in 1995, the name was changed to “Oddworld Inhabitants: Epic 1 Starring Abe” then eventually the name we’d all come to recognise, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee.
The game’s narrative was the one element that had already been laid out however, taking inspiration from a moment of Lanning’s past and expanding on the concept; “I used to work in the South Bronx, in the fruit and produce terminal for the entire New York tri‐state area. I was paid to load and unload trucks, with forklifts, etc. It was like the third world, in some ways, because I drove through the city, or took the subway, and there were hungry people everywhere. we had to dump 27 tons of cantaloupe off the edge of the dock. This kind of thing was routine. It was because of some business practices and legislation about what were acceptable methods of dealing with excess. I would watch cantaloupe juice run through parking lots, inches thick, and be hit by the irony that people we starving right outside the gate. And we couldn’t give all this food to them! It really bothered me. Because we live in such a complex society, we’re caught up in our jobs. We’re a logger, cutting down ancient redwoods, but we’re really just trying to feed our kids. McDonald’s hamburgers are destroying the rain forest. We’re all guilty in a little way, and we’re all innocent in a little way, too. Abe is just a guy doing his job. Chopping up Paramites and Scrabs. Oh well. At least he’s fed … The issue is, as we’re approaching the next millennium, with our population about the double, we’re really invested in our own destruction, as cogs in the larger system—until conditions get so harsh and overwhelming that we can’t deal with the system or buy into it anymore.”
By all reports, the game had a smooth development cycle internally with the studio leads playing a hands on role, despite some content being cut (including the Meeches species and a CG sequence depicting asteroids forming the shape of Abe’s hand on the moon) due to a lack of disk space on one of the game’s targeted platform, the PlayStation.
Externally though, Oddworld Inhabitants met some resistance from an industry that was attempting to mature – one example being a GT Interactive executive who disliked Abe’s Oddysee, attempted to sabotage it by showing it to others, but inadvertently provided the project with more funding, as told by Lanning in 2011; “As much as an industry is an industry, people are people. And in the game business at the time, the executive class who were in their middle age, they weren’t really proud of being in the game business. If they went to a party in Silicon Valley or in Hollywood, the people would be like ‘Games? You make toys…’. They weren’t taken too seriously. At the time, games like Quake and Murder Death Kill were coming out and the developers were just trying to put in more blood. The girls were given huge breasts and all the games were about murder and death and big tits. They were happy to make a living, but they weren’t necessarily going out and bragging about it. So we played off of that; we can make good part of this medium, we can make people feel better rather than just feel like they won. Now, some people were like ‘Fuck that, I just want to see more blood!’ and we were the antithesis to that. When you’re a publisher, there’s only so much money for the games, so you’ve got to have different people fighting for the project they want. So you’ve got one guy who has a shooter and then he’s told he has to take Oddworld. He hates it, so he tries to sabotage it and tries to get some other support to sabotage it and then he finds out that they’ve become bigger supporters and he’s screwed.”
3 years of development and two successful E3 showings later and Abe’s Oddysee was ready for release. Landing on September 19, 1997, it was critically praised for its puzzles, platforming, graphics, innovative “game speak” and narrative. Financially though, Lanning was feeling the pressure (from 2012); “You know, the amount of money we borrowed to make Abe’s Oddysee – he had to succeed,” Lanning recalled, “He had to sell millions of units. He just had to man. I had to convince people that it would before I got the money, and then I actually had to deliver. […] Abe is something that resonated so well, and for so long that to-date, there may be about five-plus million units sold. That’s not phenomenal by today’s standards, but by rock n’ roll standards, that is huge.”
The game went on to sell a combined 3.5 million units on its initial release on PlayStation and PC and continued to sell well long afterwards.