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How digital distribution saved Oddworld and didn’t fund Ferraris

Submitted by on Sunday, 7 October 2012No Comment

At Eurogamer Expo last week, we got our first glimpse of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee New ‘n’ Tasty.  This new game is an HD remake of the PSone classic from 1997 that was first announced in January 2011. It is not simply a slightly sharper version of the original, as series creator Lorne Lanning confirmed, “it’s a whole rebirth from ground zero: Abe in 3D.”

The game now features living 3D environments, offering greater depth and a better sense of place. It looked fresh and modern, certainly not 15-years old. But rest assured it’s still a 2D side-scrolling puzzle-platformer and it is still completely faithful to the original game.

The New ‘n’ Tasty footage was the most fan-pleasing moment of the session, but it only amounted to a small section. Instead the focus was on discussing the legacy of Oddworld, where it is, why it got there and where it’s going next – and more importantly, how it’s going to get there. Or, as Lanning put it: “I personally am talking less as a developer and more as a micro-publisher.”

“We haven’t been dealing with the traditional models”, he said.  Instead all of the products released in recent years have been self-financed. The change came in 2005 when Lanning and co-founder Sherry McKenna closed the Oddworld Inhabitants studio but kept the Oddworld brand. They wanted to step away from the old model.

He compared the old model to Solomon’s Baby, where everyone would get a cut and be happy “except the baby and the real mother”:

“When we distributed a box product – when you buy a box product – there are costs. The manufacturing costs and the licensing fees to every DVD, right. So we’re paying them maybe $7 for every DVD to be pressed… Then with ultimately you the gamer absorbing the cost, paying for the fuel of the trucks to cross the country, the fuel in the ships, in the plane, at the retail – the air conditioning for the store, the shelf space, the salespeople, the marketing. All of those costs are enormous, and not one of those costs goes into making a better experience for you, the end user. It’s just enabling it to get into your hand.”

Don’t worry, Abe still farts

Digital distribution excites Lanning because it cuts out these extraneous costs, allowing more money to go back into making better games. He gave an example:

“When we sold Abe’s Oddysee, we had a 20% royalty, and out of that we had to earn back the $4m-ish that it cost to build it in the first place. And if it were still $59.99 on the shelf by the time it hit the market… [out of] $60 for you, we the developers – the band making the music – would get $7 per unit. On the digitally distributed landscape, with the same product at $9.99, how much comes back to us the developer? $7 per unit.”

Digital distribution cuts the number of middle men, allowing independent studios to be financed directly from the people who buy the games. This is a game changer, because it allows these studios to become masters of their own destiny.

Lanning credits Valve for bringing about this digital revolution through their Steam platform. He said the Valve team and its CEO, Gabe Newell, are some of the smartest people in the industry. But Lanning also praised Sony for starting its PSone Classics programme.  He said: “That was really revolutionary, because it wasn’t in the mind-set before.”

So, thanks to the rise of digital distribution, Oddworld Inhabitants has been able to bring its old PSone classics to new audiences to raise money to fund new projects.

The company has formed a partnership with the Yorkshire-based studio Just Add Water to make these games. The relationship sees all incoming money go back into development to make better games. Lanning said: “It does not get spent elsewhere – Ferraris, plane gas, wherever it’s going for other people. It’s not going to buy those things, we don’t care about those things – it’s going to build more games.”

The end goal is to get back up to AAA development so they can finish the Oddworld Quintology, but they’re only going to do that if they can pay for it themselves – “because then we get to make the music we want.”

Stranger’s Wrath is due out mid-November on PS Vita.

The strategy was explained in more detail by JAW CEO Stewart Gilray: “To do that [get back to AAA] we are taking risks, one little bit at a time and getting bigger and bigger with each risk.”

It began with the digital re-releases of the PSone classics Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exodus. These games have shifted over 750,000 digital units combined in the last three years across the PC, PS3, PSP and PS Vita platforms.

They then followed up by bringing Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD to PS3 and PC. That came out just before Christmas following 10 months of development time, and the studio made its return in just four weeks. Over 250,000 digital units have been shifted thus far, and a PS Vita version will be available around mid-November.

Next up is Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee HD, which will arrive later this year on PS3, PS Vita and PC. This one has taken 16 months to develop. The longer development cycle is due to the game originally being designed using older technology.

Abe’s Oddysee New ‘n’ Tasty will arrive next autumn, and it’s being developed by a team twice the size of the Stranger’s Wrath HD team and is using twice the budget. It’s an example of the greater risks the company is taking with each new project. We’re unlikely to see more of this until E3 next year.

Thereafter, maybe we will finally see the Oddworld Quintology completed. I asked after the session if crowd-funding through Kickstarter would be an option, and Gilray confirmed that he and Lanning have discussed it and think it’s a real possibility if they can iron out some problems.

The bleak days of 2005 seem a long time ago with the future now looks bright for the company. It’s certainly a more preferable situation for Lanning, a self-confessed anti-capitalist. He says, “I’ve always hated capitalism because I saw what it did to the little guy”.

Let’s just hope this new sense of independence doesn’t affect his work too much. The Oddworld games have always been about the little guys fighting against an oppressive system, after all. That’s part of the reason why they’re still loved 15 years on and why they will continue to be loved for many years into the future.