Oddworld – 1997 Developer Interview

Oddworld – 1997 Developer Interview

This short Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee interview from 1997, with American creators Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, was originally featured in The Playstation magazine. It mainly discusses the design inspiration behind Abe, as well as the way the character and game have been received by Japanese audiences. Alongside the Sine Mora and Jamestown, it's one of a few non-Japanese developer pieces we've done.

Sherry McKenna – Producer 
Lorne Lanning – Director

—Abe is quite a striking character with a unique, unforgettable design. Were there any motifs or models you based him on?

Sherry: Not particularly, no.


Sherry: Yeah. That’s because we very much wanted to make a kind of character that no one had ever seen before.

—Wow, you really didn’t model him on anything? How did you create him, then?

Lorne: In many video games, the main character is designed with a very strong, heroic image. We wanted to try and go in an entirely different direction with Abe, however. We also wanted to do something that, visually, looked very quirky and unusual. So in the end we didn’t use any motifs, models, or anything like that. There were some conceptual jumping off points, though…

—Ah, such as?

Lorne: Conceptually speaking, we wanted to try making a character who looked a little oppressed and downtrodden. You know, when you’re kind of depressed about something… a character whose personality evoked that feeling.

—Were you trying to represent something about the times we find ourselves in today, in the real world?

Sherry: To be sure, there are many people today who carry those feelings around inside them, hidden. That’s why I think Abe is a such a relatable character for people, regardless of nationality.  

McKenna and Lanning circa 1997.

—Turning to the gameplay systems now, where did the idea for the GameSpeak action system come from?

Lorne: The GameSpeak interactions came from us trying to figure out what kind of actions or movements Abe could have that would be funny, humorous, or kind of suggest to players that he was this weird guy, in a light-hearted way. How could we make players feel more intimately connected with the world and characters? GameSpeak was our answer to that. When players see other characters talking with Abe and interacting with him, it provokes a feeling of cuteness and affection for those characters, and the player then empathizes more closely with what’s happening on-screen. It helps bring them to life as characters, you could say.

—It’s a really fresh concept. I don’t think it’s something we’ve seen very often in games up to now.

Sherry: Well, that was our goal! (laughs)

—The graphics, too, are especially pretty. What were some of the challenges you faced there?

Sherry: Thankfully, for the graphics, I’ve had many years of experience working in Hollywood. I would actually say we’re something of graphic specialists, so that aspect of the development didn’t feel particularly challenging.

—How many people worked on Abe’s Odyssey?

Lorne: We had four graphic artists, and then a number of game designers and other technically-minded people from the game industry helping out, so about 25 people in total, I believe.

—That’s a surprisingly small number.

Sherry: Video games really require a lot of graphical assets and data to be created. In that sense, I guess the sheer volume of it was challenging, to go back to your earlier question. And especially for a staff this size. Anyway, we were deadset on delivering movie-quality graphics in a computer game format, and we wanted to push the Playstation to its limit, to show players the absolute highest level of quality in a Playstation game.

—I was playing it all day yesterday. The quality of the graphics really amazed me. Of all the Playstation games on sale now, I think it’s right in the top tier, visually.

Sherry: Thank you. Do you mind if I ask you a question, actually? Did you find Abe’s face to be a little ugly? We’ve been worried about that a bit.

—Hmm, you know, I think it would probably vary from person to person, but at first glance most people probably would think that he was a monster, or an alien, or some weirdo. But I imagine there are people out there who’d find him cute, too? I bet he’d be a hit with young girls today. With his unique hairstyle and all, they might be really into it.

Lorne: It’s funny you say that, because making sure the game appealed to female gamers was a very important point for us during the development. Since Abe is totally different from the typical anime characters you find in Japan, we were a little afraid that Japanese players would be turned off or repulsed by him at first glance.

The Japanese opening cutscene for Abe a Gogo, the localized title for Japan. They really doubled down on the stereotypically “alien” voice for him.

—Ah, I see now. I think he’s a character that younger people can relate to quite easily, though.

Sherry: On top of that, Abe’s Odyssey doesn’t really demand fine motor controls or dexterity as the game progresses; it’s more a game where we wanted players to use their heads.

—How long did the actual development take, then?

Lorne: About 2 years.

—Is it only being sold in Japan?

Lorne: No, it’s also on sale in Europe and the United States right now. We released it in Australia, too, but I’m not sure how well it’s doing there.

—Nowadays in Japan, it’s incredibly difficult for a video game to sell more than 500,000 copies. Changing the subject here, but I thought the camerawork in Abe’s Odyssey was excellent too.

Lorne: Thank you.

—The speed and seamlessness with which it switches between action scenes, to CG scenes, to action back again, is quite impressive.

Sherry: Smooth, smooth, smooth! That was our mantra when working on those transitions.

—It’s very aggravating for players when that isn’t done well.

Lorne: I agree. We also wanted the movements of the characters in-game and in the movie scenes to be as identical as possible.

—I could feel that, very much so. Did you use motion capture for the character animation?

Sherry: No, it’s standard, original animation. The most important thing for us was making it feel like the characters lived in and inhabited that world. It wasn’t about showing off the latest in fancy technologies or anything.

—Finally, tell us what aspects of Abe’s Odyssey you’re most excited about players experiencing.

Sherry: I just want players to enjoy the whole game. Just have fun with it. And, of course, buy it! We want people to actually buy it. (laughs) If people enjoy the game, how ever that may be, that’s good enough for me. If players can give it a chance and learn what’s fun about it, I think that will naturally lead them to want to purchase it.

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