Interview: Going Back To Oddworld
Dormant for five years, the Oddworld series of games just might be odd enough to find an audience in today's crowded video game market.
This month, UK-based Gravity Crash
developer Just Add Water
(JAW) announced that it is working closely
with American game designer Lorne Lanning's Oddworld Inhabitants on a remastered downloadable version of the quirky 2005 Xbox game Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath
, exclusively for PlayStation Network, due in 2011.
Since the debut of the original platform-puzzler Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee
on PlayStation in 1997, the series' "Oddworld" moniker has always been fitting -- the franchise wears its oddness like a badge of honor (Abe's flatulence even served as a notable game mechanic).
The fictional Oddworld and its inhabitants were more reminiscent of a DreamWorks film than a video game, and the unique universe attracted enough fans to warrant four installments over eight years.
But the franchise's appeal in today's market is an unknown. "Oh, a hell of a lot has changed," admits Stewart Gilray, CEO of JAW, which employs just six people. "That's part of the reason why we chose to make these digital release titles. A packaged or disc-based release is a much larger risk. Things have changed."
"Maybe the market [for Oddworld] isn't there anymore," he says. "So we didn't want to say, 'Here's a $50 or $60 game, go buy it.' That's something no one would buy because they want to spend $60 on something else like Modern Warfare 3
or whatever comes next."
Gilray met Lanning at Game Developers Conference 2009 last year in San Francisco through a mutual friend, and talks about bringing Oddworld back
began there. Gilray says a "symbiotic relationship" started and over the next several months, Oddworld and JAW talked about bringing multiple projects to multiple systems.
, the first project from the partnership, is a game that combines third-person action elements with first-person shooting. The titular character Stranger is a crossbow-sporting bounty hunter that is like a cross between Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and maybe an ape and a camel -- quite different from a bald space marine.
Gilray says that Oddworld and JAW decided to release Stranger
first for a few reasons: "One, it's the most up-to-date game out of the four. It'd be the quickest one to get to market." He explains that 2001's Xbox game Munch's Oddysey
was done with third-party Gamebryo middleware, for example, and would be a "whole can of worms" to remaster. Stranger
utilized a proprietary engine created by Oddworld, and JAW is able to have access to all of its tools, virtual assets and source code. "It seemed like the lesser of four evils, choosing Stranger
," he says.
That's not to mention that Stranger
, originally published by Electronic Arts, was well-received by critics, earning an 87 percent average on GameRankings.com. And the game's first-person shooter mechanics, Gilray believes, are more marketable and relatable to today's gamer, as opposed to the 2D platformer puzzle-solving gameplay of earlier Oddworld titles.
He also says that Oddworld and JAW could use Stranger
's market performance as a sort of a barometer for the series' commercial viability: "There's a whole bunch of genres out there [on PSN, XBLA and Steam] that have got some decent recognition and done very well for themselves. We think the Oddworld brand will do very well in that space."
Gilray says he'll be visiting Oddworld Inhabitants in October for a few days to work out what's next for the Oddworld series -- if all goes as planned, Stranger
won't be the last we'll see of the unique universe.
Apart from JAW's work on Stranger
and other unannounced projects, Oddworld is still working on converting all four Oddworld games to release on PC as a digital download package called "Oddbox," expected to launch this year (the first two games are already on Steam). And while he wouldn't confirm an Xbox Live Arcade version of Stranger
, Gilray only says "I can't discuss that yet."
And Abe, the "Mudokon" who helped start it all with Abe's Oddysee
, could make a return in a brand new game.
"Right now, I don't want to get too speculative about the relationship [between Oddworld and JAW]," he says, "but we all look at Abe as a sort of mascot for Oddworld. So to assume that we're going to do something new with Abe is probably a good idea. I can't wait to think about it. But have we thought that through completely yet? Not completely. So we'll see what happens."