On the verge of the HD release of quirky, Oddworld-based FPS, Stranger’s Wrath, we spoke to the UK developer responsible for the revival of videogames’ oddest franchise. Follow me.
It’s perhaps not a word that you would often associate with modern video game development. So business-like, cyclical and outright expensive has the creation process become, that it has as much in common with sprawling spreadsheets, ‘unique selling points’ and iterative, designed-by-committee game features as it does creative juices, inspirational brilliance and happy accidents.
However, when Just Add Water’s CEO and creative director, Stewart Gilray, tells the story of how his company came to be custodians of one of the medium’s most fiercely protected, adored and aesthetically unique franchises, serendipity is the word that springs to mind.
“I was introduced to [Oddworld Inhabitants co-founder] Lorne Lanning at GDC 2009 by a mutual friend,” Gilray told VG247 when we spoke to him recently.
“We had a five minute chat and that was pretty much that. Roll forward to June 2009 and I received an email from Lorne asking if we’d like to do some stuff for them, having been a fan of the Oddworld franchise for years we, naturally enough, said yes.
“We spent the next five months going through tens and tens of gigabytes of assets. That’s a massive amount of data for a game that was made in the mid-nineties; we experimented a bit with some iPhone apps but at that stage we weren’t really putting a massive amount of time or cost into it.
“Then, round about April 2010 I had another conversation with Lorne and then-president of Oddworld Inhabitants, Larry Shapiro. Larry asked if we’d help out with the PC version of Stranger’s Wrath because the people that had been working on it had let them down and so we took that on as our first proper Oddworld project.
“Four weeks before both Stranger’s Wrath and Munch’s Oddysee were due to launch on PC we also took over on Munch’s Oddysee, the development of which had become been a little troubled, shall we say, and we worked to get that to a releasable state. To be honest, we got a bit of stick from the PC gaming public for not delivering to them everything that had been promised and rightly so. So, we spent the first couple of months at the beginning of this year improving those titles, adding things like anti-aliasing and upping the frame rate.”
"To be honest, we got a bit of stick from the PC gaming public for not delivering to them everything that had been promised and rightly so"
It was during the development of the PC version of 2005’s quirky Xbox FPS Stranger’s Wrath that Gilray approached first Lanning and then Sony for permission to create an updated, HD version of the game for PS3. With the nod from Lanning and stage one approval granted by Sony, Gilray and his team went about updating the art assets, which included a makeover for the lead protagonist; upping his polygon count from 3,000 to 20,000.
Gilray acknowledged that this is far less than an entity such as Nathan Drake of Uncharted boasts – Drake weighs in at around 80,000 polygons – but it’s a number which Gilray feels is still “fairly substantial” and that has allowed the team to achieve a zero frames per second difference between the old assets and the shiny new updated ones.
Assuming all goes well over the next few weeks, it shouldn’t be too long before we see the fruits of Just Add Water’s labour.
“We’re at the point now where we’re around six to eight weeks from starting QA on Stranger’s Wrath,” Gilray told us. “So we should be looking at a late summer release.”
Livin’ la Vita loca
“At the same time, we’ve also announced that we’re doing Munch’s Oddysee HD for PS3 and both Munch’s Oddyssee and Stranger’s Wrath for Vita, too,” Gilray informed us.
”Sony spoke to us earlier this year about bringing those games to Vita so we’re working like lunatics to get those ready for Vita’s launch, whenever that may be! Oh, and we’re also working on rebooting the Abe games!
“On top of this we’ve spoken to Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna [Oddworld Inhabitants co-founders] about finishing the Oddworld quintology. It’s worth just clarifying what that actually entails because some people think it’s just adding one more game to the four already released to make five. The quitology is actually five ‘Oddysee’ games, and so far we’ve only had two of those: Abe’s and Munch’s Oddysee. The third game is Squeek’s Oddysee, Lorne and I have had brief chats about that already but I can’t say exactly how far away that it.”
All of the Oddworld games have maintained an endearing uniqueness and oddity about them that has won over many fans and stuck in gamers’ consciousness since Abe’s first foray out of Rupture Farms in 1997. Back then, the mischievous, downtrodden Mudokon with an adorable line in giggling, fart jokes and mighty effective pick-up lines – “Hello.” “Hello.” “Follow me.” “Okay.” – was a reminder that 2D could still hold its own when all around it were adorning themselves in fancy new 3D trappings.
Such was the quality of the art direction, game design and imagination of Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna’s creation that Abe’s Oddysee won an award for ‘Best Director CD ROM/Game Platform’ at the World Animation Festival in 1997. The 1998 follow up, Abe’s Exoddus, went on to be nominated for ‘Console Adventure Game of the Year’ by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences in 1999, eventually losing out to one of the most highly regarded and highly rated games of all time – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Abe also featured on the front cover of Nic Kelman’s 2005 illustrated tome Video Game Art, sharing the dual-layered holographic cover with Metal Gear’s Solid Snake, despite it being some seven years since Abe had last appeared in a videogame.
Spoil me rotten
It’s clear that the striking visuals of both Abe and Oddworld resonate with gamers and that’s something that, if it gets its way, Just Add Water hopes to indulge, with a special treat for fans.
“Going forward, all Oddworld games will be digital releases only,” Gilray explained. “There won’t be any boxed releases but, having said that, we know that a lot of fans would like something physical to go alongside their game.
“So, what we’re thinking about - and it is just at the idea stage because we’d have to speak to Sony about it - but what we’d like to do is emulate what some bands in the music industry have done recently. Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have released digital versions of their albums but alongside that they’ve also released deluxe box versions. We’d like to do something similar. Release special edition boxed versions of the games but with a download code, so there’s no actual physical media for the game but, ideally, you’d get a PS3-sized box with a really nice manual, art cards etc.
“This really depends on whether we can get permission to this, though. The ultimate plan is to provide those fans that want packaging, with packaging, but it’s up to the platform holders and whether they’ll allow us to do it.”
It’s interesting to note Gilray’s specific use of the term ‘platform holders’ when all the talk so far has been surrounding PS3 and PS Vita-only versions of Oddworld’s adventures. But, with such a rich vein of imagination to tap and upwards of half a dozen Oddworld titles in Just Add Water’s future, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the team is thinking long term when it comes to platforms and release windows.
“We have a brand and a franchise to work with and really the main factor dictating what we’re going to release and when is what platforms are going to be around in three, four or five years time,” Gilray explained. “This can also be applied in the shorter term to Stranger’s Wrath. If people are wondering why we’ve made it PlayStation exclusive: the truth is we haven’t.
“As far as Oddworld goes we’re a platform-agnostic set of companies and so the only thing stopping us releasing on other platforms is the platform holders. We’re in discussions with Microsoft to get Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath on 360 and, to be honest, those discussions are going better than they were at the end of last year, but until I have a signed piece of paper in front of me saying that we can do it, we’re not announcing anything about it.”
2D or not 2D. That is the question.
The answer is 2.5D, actually.
Updating a 2D side-scrolling platform game requires more effort than simply drenching everything in shiny HD paint. The gameplay also needs some minor tweaks to ensure consistency and to give the gameplay mechanics every chance to appeal to new players, as well as to those itching to dive back into Oddworld.
So, where Abe’s adventure was originally conceived as a series of discreet screens with flip transitioning, the HD update will feature a more seamless experience with scrolling replacing the individual screen structure.
“The paths through each level are going to be 2.5D with some push scrolling,” Gilray explained. “The biggest challenge we’ve had with this is in tweaking some of the puzzles to fit this structure, where previously they relied on the flip screen transition effect.
“So, near the beginning of the game there’s a puzzle where you run into the screen and there’s a sleeping Slig on the ground. If you accidentally wake him up you can go into the next screen and back again and he goes back to sleep straightaway.
“With the scrolling that we’re implementing, you can’t do that, so instead we’ve placed a barrel on a platform which you can hide behind, Metal Gear Solid-style, and if you wait there long enough the Slig gives up and goes back to sleep.
"It’s about making these little changes"
“It’s about making these little changes so that the puzzles, the game world and the AI are all consistent. Whereas before, some Sligs would chase you to the next screen and some wouldn’t so we’re making one of the Sligs’ behaviours that they’ll chase you until you’re able to lose them by hiding or whatnot and only then will they go back to their original position.”
A list as long as your arm
Time to take stock: in addition to Stranger’s Wrath and Munch’s Oddysee for PS3 and Vita, Just Add Water is also working on the HD update of Abe’s Oddysee, but that’s not all. Gilray told us that there’s also the possibility of an update of Abe’s Exoddus, along with plans for the previously-announced-but-never-developed Hand of Odd - which he described as being geared towards a more casual/social gaming scene and likely featuring “touch screen and or mouse control” for immediacy.
We might also get the chance to play as the part-organic, part-mechanised security henchmen ‘Sligs’, in a game Lanning originally envisioned as ‘Slig Storm’ and that Gilray and team are investigating the potential for. Plus, there’s a brief mention of The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot and of course the remaining three adventures in the original ‘quintology’ that the team are keen to tell the story of (though the correct name for five part series is actually a pentalogy, apparently).
Just Add Water will clearly be kept very busy and Gilray suggested that only 10% of the original Oddworld timeline has been covered by the four games so far released. It’s evident from speaking with Gilray that both he and his team are enthusiastic and respectful of the brand with which they’re set to be spending a lot of time with over the next few years.
Encouragingly, they are not the least bit daunted by the task ahead. This, in part, can be attributed to the wealth of available lore already created for the Oddworld universe, as well as the clarity of Lanning’s and McKenna’s original vision for the franchise. The rest can be chalked up to the depth of personality of both Oddworld and its inhabitants.
As Gilray succinctly sums up:
“It’s not just the characters that have character; the whole world has character.”
Stranger’s Wrath is will launch on PSN in the next couple of months. PS Vita versions of Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath are expected to accompany the console’s launch in late 2011 or early 2012. The HD update of Abe’s Oddysee is projected towards the end of 2012.