Lorne Lanning, founder of development studio Oddworld Inhabitants and creator of the Oddworld franchise that famously critiqued capitalism, is convinced that the games industry is stuck in a vicious cycle that promotes profits and crushes creativity. Lanning made the comments in an interview with industry site gamesindustry.biz.
It’s been almost two decades since Oddworld Inhabitants released Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, and since then the climate in which games are made has completely changed. In many ways Abe’s Oddysee predicted how cutthroat the industry that created it would become. AAA games budgets have soared, something which leads to a great deal more pressure being placed on development teams to meet potentially unreasonable targets and deadlines set by publishers. There’s no room for the old adage of “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” – you either meet those expectations, or you pack up and go home.
The interview from Lanning comes alongside the release of Oddworld New ‘n’ Tasty on Xbox One, an HD remake of Playstation classic Abe’s Oddysee. With this HD remake, developer Just Add Water – under the careful gaze of Lanning – lovingly rebuilt the original game from scratch on a new engine, in order to draw in old and new fans alike. The release has been exclusively digital, as Lanning sees hope in this method for selling games, as it allows the studio to move away from the growth structure that so many publishers follow: a structure that is very much a construct of capitalism, Lanning argues, referring to it as a “capitalism trend” that leads to public companies demanding constant growth.
As the prominence of capitalism in the games industry has increased, Lanning believes that developers have been getting shafted. “The terms got worse for developers”, Lanning says in the interview. “So the budget’s going up, and now [publishers are] saying, ‘Now we’re spending $20 million on a title and not $5 million, and at $20 million, we need better terms. You’re going to do 10 times the work, but you’re going to get a fifth of the backside because we’re risking all this money’.”
Rather than following this trend, Lanning has more faith in the indie model for games development. The benefits for developers working within the indie scene is that they’re able to make money without requiring publishers to pour millions into their projects. This means that they don’t have the huge pressure of meeting high sales targets and they have the chance to potentially double their money if sales go well, leading to a much more comfortable working environment as well as a sustainable business in which the employees have job security. “So what is a sustainable model? Well, don’t have investors. Don’t have an IPO. Don’t go public. Then maybe there might be a sustainable model.”
The margins for indie development are also far better. Lanning used to make $7 from a $60 game but he now makes $7 from a $10 game. These niches in the indie market are only able to be profitable due to digital distribution though. Rather than retailers worrying about products languishing in their stores it is now able to remain on a database only taking up a little spec of data. “So all of a sudden, you can start seeing niches that retailers would never focus on because they were too small. And as a result, that cash starts coming in, you start being able to do it.” For this reason Lanning still has faith in the games industry and with potentially moving forward with a brand new Oddworld IP sometime in the future.
However, he still believes that the current state of the AAA games industry is far too intertwined with the dog eat dog capitalist principles that he sees as a destructive force. This means that many developers in the industry are getting little to no money for the great deal of work they put into creating their games. Lanning extends this critique of the gaming industry to the world as a whole – arguing that capitalism is poisonous to everything it touches. “I think it’s killing the world. I think by any measure of scientific reason it’s a provable fact.”