• CGNetworks Studio Profile
    Oddworld Games & Characters

    Barbara Robertson, 11 March 2005

    Oddworld Inhabitants founders Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning brand a first person shooter with the company’s signature humor and storytelling skills and move games closer to cinematic realism.

    In ancient game history, about eight years ago, puzzles were priorities for game developers. And for years, the prince of puzzle games was an unlikely character named Abe. Created by Oddworld Inhabitants, the adventure games Abe’s Oddysee, Abe’s Exoddus, and later, Munch’s Oddysee introduced people to an unusual combination of gritty graphics, quirky humor, masterful character animation, storytelling and compelling game play.

    But, the world changed. Puzzles became so last year. To stay alive, Oddworld’s inhabitants had to mutate.
    “It’s show business,” says McKenna. “You’ve got to sell units. It was clear after Munch that Grand Theft Auto had changed everything. It became apparent that the games that people were willing to buy were action games.”

    The market wasn’t the only driving force, however. “We see ourselves as an IP [intellectual property] creation company,” says Lanning. “We didn’t want to leverage all our weight on one character; we wanted to show our diversity in terms of design, style and game play.”

    So, Oddworld left the pacifist Abe’s dank universe behind and created the Stranger, a bounty hunter in the American Old West. Since its release in January, the new game, Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath for Xbox, published by Electronic Arts, is receiving rave reviews from critics and from game players for its as-expected excellent graphics and oddball humor, but also for a surprising and smooth blend of game playing styles.

    “We blended three game styles,” says Lanning. “FPS [first person shooter], RPG [role playing game] and adventure platforming, but let me call it third person adventure not platforming. The innovation was letting the player change from first person perspective to third person. It has been done before but not as fluidly or as deeply. And, we designed it so there were benefits from either perspective.”
    For example, in first person mode the shooter can shoot, but he can run only 15mph. In third person mode, he can speed up to 55mph and attack things physically – ram into them. The opportunity to switch between first and third person had a second impact as well, one a bit more subtle: It changes, in effect, the camera view. Sometimes you look at scenes as if through the character’s eyes; sometimes you see the Stranger acting in the world. And that makes the game more cinematic.

    “Having first and third person perspective helps make it feel like a filmic experience when you’re playing it,” Lanning says. “And it helps break the pacing. We’re going to see more of that. The more that experiences start to emulate the feeling we get from motion pictures and TV shows, the easier they are to connect to. The more they look like games of the past as we identify with them, the less people will be emotionally engaged in them. And of course, you need story and character.”

  • Character Ammunition - Cont'd

    Given their backgrounds, it’s no surprise that for Lanning and McKenna, story and character animation are at the heart of gaming. McKenna produced effects for feature films, motion base ride films and commercials for twenty years before co-founding Oddworld Inhabitants in 1994, winning 20 Clios and 40 film and television awards along the way. She was a vice president at Robert Abel & Associates and at Digital Productions, two studios that pioneered the use of computer graphics in film and television, as well as vice president and executive producer at the visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues.

    Lanning studied art at the School for Visual Arts in NYC and animation at the California Institute of Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, CA, before working at Rhythm & Hues as a technical director, art director, creative director and visual effects supervisor. There was no question but that the Oddworld team would find a way to give their shooter a tale.

    “If a game is just about blowing stuff up, we’re not that interested,” says Lanning.
    What is interesting are the ways in which they fiddled with the FPS genre make it, well, odd – beyond adding the first-to-third person perspective changes. Take the shooter himself. He doesn’t just shoot, he has a character arc.

    “The Western theme was the perfect setting to have a character find himself and in doing so come to the aid of people in the food chain, and then discover he’s the moose in disguise and it’s always hunting season,” says Lanning.

    “We looked at the hero’s emotional arc in what is largely a three-act structure,” he adds, “and used cinematics where the arc is most critical for main plot points. When we look at these pre-rendered, higher resolution versions of the characters used in the cinematics, we aren’t looking at game databases; we are looking at living, breathing creatures. If they don’t have expressions and subtlety in animation, they’re not as emotionally engaging. It requires a certain degree of realism.”

    To create that realism, the textures and the backgrounds all have the signature Oddworld grittiness. “Textural grit feels like the real world although this world clearly is not real,” says Lanning. “I look at ways to make the air between you and the world feel thick. We did this by layering physical effects and particle effects on top of highly stylized yet richly textured creatures.”
    Lanning adds, “In my last traditional job in effects, I was the visual effects supervisor at Rhythm & Hues for Seafari. Our aim was to get the water to be the fourth character in the film – the particulate matter, the bubbles, the murk. I believed that if we could get the atmosphere to feel richer, the whole world would be more convincing. So, I carried that idea into ‘Strangers’. If a character is running, leaves move, dust rises, and there are bugs in the air.”

    Also, matte paintings helped add texture to the backgrounds. “We’ve been using matte paintings since the beginning, at least in the movies,” Lanning says. “’Strangers’ uses a lot 2D and 3D matte painting. We’re projecting textures in many layers.”

    Using similarly detailed textures for the characters helped plant them in the detailed world. For efficiency, production designers Raymond Swanland and Silvio Aebischer painted high-resolution textures in PhotoShop for the pre-rendered CG characters. Those textures were then given to the real-time artists who scaled them down and created derivatives.

    “Once the standard is set, the 3D artists are empowered to create as many textures as they see fit to bring the job home”, says Lanning.

    And that includes texturing the ammunition as well. Oddworld games always place more value on capturing than killing. But, who other than an animator would have thought of turning live ammunition into characters?

    “We asked ourselves how we could bring something original to shooting, and came up with the idea that the Stranger would hunt critters, stun them, and use the critters themselves as ammunition,” says Lanning. “It’s not only a new twist on shooting, but deepens the strategy.”

    Although based on real animals, the critters were realized in quirky Oddworld style. Spider-like Bolamites, for example, tie up enemies like damsels in distress, Fuzzles, which resemble rabid rats, are living landmines, Thudslugs are medicine balls, Stingbees are intelligent machine guns, Boombats act like grenades, and Chippunkz can control the enemy’s direction. “They say, ‘Hey! You, ugly! Over here,’” says Lanning.

    “It’s really important to us to keep the humor,” says McKenna. “I think the live ammo is funny, and the talking chickens crack me up.”

    One reason the critters work, Lanning believes, is that they have logical connections to the real world. “In the interactive world, the more you innovate, the more dangerous the territory. If it’s too foreign people will put it down. So we draw from the real world in many ways.”

    “It’s hard,” he adds. “Inside the game, the texture resolution and limited memory are really hard to manage. And while the 3D tools have matured beautifully, we’re still using home-brewed engines. It’s like we don’t have DOS yet – a bit of an over-statement, but not that far from the truth.”

    McKenna agrees. “It reminds me of when I started in CG in the early 80’s. When I was at Digital Production, we all had our own software. In the game industry, we have Maya and 3ds max to create CG, and some middleware that makes the job easier, but it has to be customized and every three or four years there’s a new engine and no middleware. It’s looney tunes. It’s frustrating when you’re concentrating more on what the technology can do rather than the story and what the characters can do.”

    Even so, Oddworld has done what few other game developers have been able to do: add story, character arcs, and cinematic camera moves to a shooter.

    “Stranger has way more action that our earlier games but it’s the kind of action that has a message in it as well,” adds McKenna. “We’re not going to make Twinkies because the audience wants to eat Twinkies. But we know they’re not going to eat broccoli. So we made a game that doesn’t look like it came from Oddworld, but could only have come from Oddworld.”

    Related links:
    Oddworld Inhabitants
    The Art of Oddworld Inhabitants - The First Ten Years (1994-2004)
    Creation of the Intro Movie for Stranger's Wrath

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