A few weeks ago, CEO of Just Add Water Ltd (developers of the recent Stranger's Wrath HD upgrade and upcoming title Abe: New 'n' Tasty) Stewart Gilray was kind enough to answer a few questions about their work with the Oddworld series and where the games could potentially be headed next. Also giving some insight was Oddworld Inhabitants founder and creator of Abe, Lorne Lanning.
The questions cover how the two companies began to get involved, as well as some details on the ports, Oddworld Inhabitants history, and a tiny glimpse of what may be on the horizon (they haven't forgotten about Fangus Klot!)
Firstly, Stranger's Wrath is one of the best and most meticulous HD upscales I have played. What kind of difficulties did you face maintaining the level of quality in the port to the Vita platform, and how easy is it to develop for the handheld?
Stewart Gilray: To be honest the hardest part was in making sure the frame rate was good enough, even then that wasn’t a massive undertaking. We are using the SAME assets as the PS3 version, and we’re at 30fps most of the time, with a drop to around 20 towards the end of the game in one specific place. The handheld is relatively easy to develop for. Sony have learnt a lot from developer feedback over the past few years and that really shows.
In this FAQ http://www.oddworld.com/about/faq/ it says that once the Stranger's Wrath and Munch's Oddysee HD remakes are complete, work will start on 2 new projects, one of them being Abe HD which has already been shown at last year's Eurogamer Expo. The other is the RTS Hand of Odd - any news on that?
SJG: Hand of Odd is a fantastic concept and brings lots of the “Oddworld” species together in something that promised to be truly epic. Now, whether we retain those original ideas or use the project to champion something new who knows, but it’s something we are committed to bringing to life.
The passion that JAW have for the Oddworld titles is obvious in the attention to detail and care the team have handled Stranger's Wrath HD with, and more Oddworld titles are in the works. How did this relationship between Oddworld Inhabitants and Just Add Water come about?
SJG: I met Lorne via a mutual friend at GDC 2009. Later that year we got talking via email about doing something together, that then morphed into creating a PC port of Stranger’s Wrath. Out of that I said we’d do it at cost price if we were allowed to create a PS3 HD version, and the rest as they say is history.
The overall theme of industry destroying nature runs through most, if not all of the Oddworld titles (the dam in Stranger's Wrath, the enslavement of Abe's species in Abe's Oddysee); is this an issue you personally feel strongly about?
SJG: Environmental issues are the mainstay behind the Oddworld universe and stories the original team created, and it is certainly true it’s something that we think about here at JAW also. As developers we’ve seen over the years smaller companies being bought by the large corporations, having their IP stretched and milked for all it’s worth then seeing the developer shuttered is horrible, so this also parallels the environmental issues within the Oddworld canon.
Oddworld Inhabitants had a kind of a hiatus from video games between the release of the original Stranger's Wrath and this flurry of HD remakes. Why was the decision to leave the gaming business taken, and why have you returned to it now?
Lorne Lanning: We didn't really see a viable path to self-sustainability back in 2005, and we were in bed with a partner that their very own division founder kindly referred to as "a soulless organization."
So we knew that any deeper relationship with the entity would inevitably lead to the doom of our independent studio and the eventual loss of our property. Meanwhile our faith in the traditional publisher /developer model was entirely eroded at that point, and as big corporate publishers were (and still are) the only ones funding AAA console games, it left us with a tough choice and one were we didn't have a lot of time or options to decide on.
So we could either sell the studio to an organization we had zero trust, faith, or confidence in, and who was in fact ABSOLUTELY "seeking a path to acquisition." (their words, not mine, and a historic factual truth directly opposite the cleverly crafted character attack recently issued by their VP of PR, who was quick to contradict this historical fact with a "no one here remembers" misdirect in attempting to discredit the messenger, which would be me.) This further demonstrated the kind of callousness, incompetence, and bullying behavior we'd come to expect from the brand. So we decided to mothball the studio and wait for digital distribution viability to emerge, and we waited for the rights to some of the games to revert back to us.
In 2007 we started getting our Abe games up on Steam, and since then we've been getting the rest of our humble Oddworld library compatible with various platforms, upgrading them to HD while adding other improvements, and getting them out there in a way that lets us get more directly connected to our audience.
This "think big in a small way" approach has been working for us, and now we're able to self-finance more aggressively into newer content. Our model is simple. If we continue to put the love and care and deeper meaning into our products that fans have come to expect, then we believe we'll be able to grow our audience while retaining a signature of poignancy, creativity, and quality that has helped our previous efforts hold up to the tests of time.
From the few snippets of info about the film Oddworld Inhabitants worked on during that time, Citizen Siege, it seems a promising project - why was it never released?
LL: We never moved beyond actual development on this project into production. It was ‘back-burner’ed due primarily to financing issues related around the 2008 financial meltdown. Being an all CG film designed to be Rated R, this made the risk assessment very high at a time when we were all getting hammered by Wall Street's "business as usual" shenanigans. So it was largely a timing issue that kept it from getting the production green light.
The alpha footage of Abe HD looks very exciting - why did you make the decision to revamp entire parts of the game rather than just upscale everything to HD as was the case with Stranger's Wrath?
SJG: Mainly because of me, and this is something I’d always felt even when I played the original games back in the 90s. The environments & backgrounds could be so much more; seeing them move and come to life is what I always wanted to do, so to now go back to Abe and be able to do that is not only my career highlight (so far) but just exciting on many levels. The other reason we couldn’t just “upscale” is the original game was 2D rendered sprites and backgrounds. Most of those original assets don’t exist in a usable form anymore, which is a shame, as we still have them but there’s just no tools that will load them fully anymore.
And finally, I know you probably can't reveal too much about the future of the Oddworld games, but is the plan still to let fans experience the Ballad of Fangus Klot or is there something else on the horizon?
SJG: Personally I’d love to do something with Fangus, but again, time will tell.
LL: I would still love to see Fangus happen. I think it would be a blast to delve into this story and design challenge and I believe it would make for an extremely unique and more darkly intense action hero on Oddworld. Quite a bit darker and heavier hearted than our previous titles... Which is why it would be taking place on a different continent on Oddworld (than previous titles).
So there you have it - perhaps nothing concrete about the future of Oddworld, but certainly some general feeling about where the series might be headed. It's nice to hear that Fangus Klot is still being talked about (and has clearly already undergone quite a bit of planning) and the Hand of Odd is something Stewart is certainly keen on. We'll have to wait to see what surprises Oddworld has in store after Abe: New 'n' Tasty is released.