Hey guys, welcome to the second part of my EXCLUSIVE Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath feature. I hope you enjoyed the hands on write up that I put up on the blog yesterday. If not, click here to read that first….it’ll make a bit more sense in the context of the interview.
So. Having had a couple of hours with the game and getting Stewart to flick through some of the later stages, I sat down with him to chew the fat, not just about the game, but about challenges making an HD remake, the future of the series, and why the hell isn’t it coming to the Xbox. I’ve basically just transcribed the interview as it was, so it’s in more of a “conversational” style…just imagine two people chatting away and you’re there. Stewart was friendly, candid and just very honest about all things from the development side of things, which I think will make for a great read. I was going to split it into two parts just down to the length of the interview, but sod it, it’s here in it’s entirety. So enjoy….
GFB- So Stewart, first things first, the game looks fantastic. How long exactly have you been working on it?
SG- We started doing the PC version in May of last year, and the intention was to finish it off by September, and then start the PS3 version in September looking for an April release. We didn’t get it finished on PC until literally just before Christmas. We made a few mistakes on it, which took around 4-6 weeks to get sorted, plus we also added some extra features that the community wanted us to do. We probably didn’t get started on programming the PS3 version until around March time. Our character art guy Antony Ward has been doing the character work since September of last year, and that’s finished now. We’re just doing some bug fixes and extra tidying up, some extra polish, so that was a year pretty much. The code didn’t start until around Easter this year, which was when it was originally scheduled for release, now we’ve done that. So yeah, it has been slightly hard going, but you know…. We’ve got there.
GFB- Excellent, and that kind of leads me on to the next question. So what’s the basic process with making an HD remake of a game? So you start with the original code and then….?
SG- Code wise, it’s more of a case of getting the code to work on the hardware, first of all. Getting it to run really. One of the biggest things we had to do was down to the original game running at 4:3 standard def TV’s, and we’re working on a HD game, we had to change some stuff to get it working in widescreen, for example the various HUD elements had to be moved to take advantage of the 16:9 screen layout. You’re taking a game that ran on the Xbox using one processor and taking it to another machine that has multiple processors. Because of the way the game was written we can’t just say “use this SPU for collision, or that SPU for rendering”, there has had to have been a load of optimisation, so right now we’re running at an almost constant 60 frames per second on the main PPU.
SG-Yeah, I mean as you have seen from the game running it’s more or less a constant 60 FPS, every so often it goes a bit crazy, but that’s down to an audio issue, which should be fixed in the next day or two.
GFB- So, do you kind of more or less have free reign to do whatever you want, or do you have a certain set of parameters you have to work in… for example, the border around the radar, health bars etc. Is that completely set in stone, or can you change them should you want to?
SG- What we did with the GUI is based on the original designs. We found high res versions of some of the source material which they never used as it was too high res for the XBox, so we went back to that as there were extra details on the graphics themselves. What we’ve actually done is gone back to what they originally wanted to do in regards to user interface design. Our version is as close to what the original vision was, but they just couldn’t do because of the limits of the original hardware. This has been good for us, because quite frankly it looks awesome! And I think it makes Lorne quite happy, he said to me a couple of weeks ago when we sent him the trailer to sign off, he literally said “yeah, that’s cool”. There was only one change he asked to make in the trailer itself and that was the end screen….he saw the trailer and he said “it makes me want to play the game again” and I can’t see a better endorsement than that!
GFB- Absolutely, I can remember when I met you at the gamecity nights event in Nottingham and you had the big Oddworld bible there…
SG- The “hand of Odd”….yeah…
GFB-That’s the one…I just asked that question really to see how much flexibility you have in regards to making changes.
SG- Yeah, I mean, we’ve done what we have wanted to do. The thing about us is that we are Oddworld fans. We have two employees that came to us because they are Oddworld fans, and I think because we are fans of the games first and foremost that it kind of helps…
SG- Yeah, like this would be a little bit better if we did it like this, and we can do that, and in some cases we have done that…like the bug that I mentioned earlier, one of the characters in the original game was throwing out the wrong kind of critter, you know…a two-legged Sleg instead of a two-legged Slog, we’ve fixed things like that, little bits and bobs. We found a couple of audio lines that were triggered at the wrong place in the game, and we found that originally they trigger instructions were put in the wrong order, so it would say in the game “oh, you have so and so now” but you’d actually bountied another character, so we’ve fixed little things like that. So it’s been kind of cool in that way, tweaking bits and bobs that they (the original team) knew were problems and the fans knew were problems and some of the things that we’ve put in, as one guy here says we’ve done some “fangasm” things, we’ve made some things that maybe the fans aren’t expecting, some easter eggs.
GFB- That’s excellent news…fangasm…I like it. So how’s the build been coming, has there been anything overly technical that you’ve struggled with? Like one big thing, or has it been more like lots of little things to deal with?
SG- lots and lots of little things, I don’t think there has been one big major thing, other than getting the thing to work at a decent speed. (thinks)…mmm, no, there’s not been one thing that’s been a particular pain in the arse, well actually, one thing. The original data was stored in a particular format, PC and Xbox 1 centric…and as it stands, PS Vita centric. But PS3 and 360 store the data another way round, so we’ve had to go through the entire game, anywhere it loads data, change routines to swap data as it loads it, which has been a pain in the backside, especially when you play the game and you think “hold on, why is that colour blue instead of red?”, so we’ve had to go through and sort things like that. So we went through, did all the swaps and then it was a case of “yay, this thing has started to work now”.
GFB- he he. Well, just going back to what you said a moment ago, you’re all big fans of the franchise, has there maybe been a little bit of pressure, working on the game knowing that it’s a really big cult classic with a rabid fanbase?
SG- The only pressure we have, and it’s not about Oddworld, it’s because it’s a game in general. We all take great pride in what we work on and we don’t want to let ourselves down, or let anyone else down. So it’s been a case of getting it right for ourselves, not just for the game, or the fans or anything else. As you say, the game has a huge following…the game came out 6 years ago, almost 7 years ago…so yes, we have this huge following, but we’ll also have a new audience as well, so it’s down to polish…that’s where we are now, polishing things off. You’ve seen on the menu, the button positions aren’t right….3 of them are in the right place, one isn’t, so we’re changing things like that because we can’t just leave it as it is, it’s rubbish, so we’re getting the whole thing tidied up.
SG- Yeah, I mean, we’ve had a lot of people who, when the trailer came out said “oh, it looks exactly the same as the Xbox” and you know, we’re going to do some comparison shots in the next 2-3 weeks to show it off….
GFB- Well, I can say right now from playing the game and seeing the later levels running…it’s really nothing like the original version. What I mean is, the heart of the game is exactly the same, but…you know what I mean…
SG- yeah, it’s been polished…i mean, it’s the things like the crossbow, what you see on screen now, you can see the amount of extra detail that’s gone into it, the dials are round now, no flat edges in sight.
GFB- Agreed, just the look of the dimpled metal on the crossbow, it looks great.
SG- Well, we’ve gone a little overboard on the normal mapping stuff on some things. We haven’t done any normal maps on the environments because…well, they did such a good job with the texturing anyway on the original game that it just didn’t seem like it was the right thing to do so go in to the game and go crazy….”yeah, let’s make everything bumpy” so we have left it to stuff that the player sees all the time, like the characters, like the crossbow, like the critters on the crossbow, it just looks better.
GFB- I guess the thing is as well, I mean, I guess frustrating isn’t the right word, but when you get feedback from the trailer and people say it just looks like the Xbox version when they have just seen the footage running on a tiny window in Youtube or whatever…
SG- yeah, and another thing is the footage we recorded for the trailer was all at 30 frames per second, where as the game is 60 FPS…if we did a 60 FPS trailer it would take longer to edit as we would need more storage space, a more powerful machine to edit and render it out to a final version, and the trailer as it is was 205 megs, it would have been over 400 if we would have done it at 60 FPS. So yes, you can’t tell from a trailer that it looks as good as it looks, but my hope is that people just play it and say “yes, now this is what i’m talking about”. We did a comparison for Digital Foundry, and they said that they could see where we had gone to town, they could tell that it isn’t a 3-months of coding and that’s it, you know, porting the code to a new machine and keeping the same assets, We’ve gone in and…I mean, there’s very little that we haven’t updated. A lot of the environment textures we’ve updated, environment models have been updated, pipes are now round as opposed to hexagons, foliage we’ve doubled the resolution of the textures, we’ve remodelled some of the trees, they now have rounded trunks when they were slightly square before, so we have done a fair few changes and updates. And to be honest, I think if you are doing an HD update you have to do that kind of stuff, if you’re not then you need a slap. You’re not doing any fan service, you’re just doing it to line your own coffers, like “oh, this game did 2 million on PS2, let’s stick it on PS3 for £12”….£17 in some cases, let’s not mention who did that…(laughs)….and give zero updates to the game…I mean…why?
GFB- Yep. I mean, case in point, we have Resident Evil 4 HD out now and they have added absolutely nothing to the game…it’ll sell just fine though, but it’s just lazy. A bit more time and fan service and i’d buy it, but i’m not going to.
SG- Yeah, I think the ones that they are doing really well are the Team Ico games, you know…Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Metal Gear….it looks phenomenal. The God of War games look phenomenal…then, you know…the Ubisoft ones….not so much. That’s a problem I think, I mean, people expected a lot from Beyond good and evil HD and I played it and I was like “this is not the game I remember”, you know?
GFB- Yeah, I’ll move on as I could talk for an age about the whole cheap HD ports…he he. So just to change subject, what’s Lorne has to say about the game?
SG- well, he’s not even seen it yet. He’s seen the trailer, he’s seen the renders that we have done and he went “yeah…cool” But he’s so busy with what he’s doing now that…you know…it’s quite funny, now, whenever I send something to them they just come back and say “whatever you think is good Just go with it” and i’m like “ok” (laughs)
GFB- Well, I guess it’s a great feeling that they have so much trust in you really?
SG- well that’s the thing, I spent 3-4 days with them last year at their house in Berkeley and I came away from that with the feeling that, well, that they felt, knew , the game and the brand were in the right hands. I mean, they have been approached over the years to sell the brand and stuff and they haven’t done it. We haven’t bought it from them, oh god, we’re working with them, it’s just they never felt enough trust or…faith…in anyone to actually do it right. They have worked with people in the past and they are like “yeah, well we will do 5-6 new Oddworld games” and they (Lorne) are like “No”. You know, because we are doing this digitally we don’t have this massive pressure of having to sell 3-4 million units to break even…our break even figure is a lot lower than disc based stuff, a lot lower. So we can do a decent job on the games, we can take a bit more time than some other guys would do.
We’re just a small team, not a massive company, and because of what we do we don’t need a team of 20 artists, 20 coders…you know…I think it’s because we care for the brand, it’s not like we are just “let’s make a new Oddworld game…You know…something with Abe in it….that’ll do”. If we were like that we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on regarding the franchise, but because i’ve spoken to them long and hard, pushing Lorne on what i’d like to do with this stuff they are like “yeah man…that’s the way…do it”. And because i’ve made some decisions that has already done us quite well, and done them quite well, things we didn’t even think about until the chance came along, we tried it and it was a case of “yeah, that really worked”.
GFB- And I’m guessing then that when Lorne sees you doing this things and having ideas he knows you’re not just sitting around going “ah well…maybe we could try this, or whatever…”
SG- It’s the nature of the beast, and it is a business as far as i’m concerned. It is about…I wouldn’t say it’s about making massive profit, it’s about making enough money so we can make the next Oddworld game, you know…so we’re not interested in just a one off deal where we just make a game, make shit-loads of cash and then just bugger off…none of us are about that…Lorne, Sherry, we’re not about that…
GFB- So we’re not going to see “Abe goes to Hollywood” any time soon then…?
SG- (laughs) Somebody did propose that years ago actually. The things that we have looked at, and are doing…..yeah, we can spend six months updating a game and that’s it. We want to spend between 12-15 months on new stuff. What we’re thinking now isn’t what we are going to do next, it’s what platform are we going to do it on next, you know? The next thing that’s going to stop us is when PS4…or, you know….Xbox 720 or whatever it’s going to be comes out, and then what’s after that? Is it browser based gaming? Right now there’s nothing to stop us from keeping going and finishing the quintology off, that’s what Lorne and I want to do, finish the Oddworld quintology off. We’ve spoken a little bit about Squeaks Oddysee, but nothing beyond what is Squeak, what do we have to do…blah blah blah blah! So the plan currently, is get Strangers HD and Munch HD out there. Do the Abe game, which isn’t just a remake of Oddysee….we’re not 100% what we’re going to be doing with it yet, all we done know is that we are starting from scratch, in some respects, We’re not just taking Oddysee and making it higher res, the backdrops are now going to be full 3D environments, but the gameplay is still going to be 100% 2-deminsional. It’s going to be the game that Abe was originally, same sound, it’s going to look the same but more. So like, the environments will be living, not just like in the old games where you had an occasional background animation of a barrel going by or whatever.
GFB- Yeah, I mean one of my favourite things about the original game that impressed me at the time was when you got so far through a level and then you had like, the level turn into full motion video that moved you on to the next stage or whatever, like going in a lift, just a seamless transition into another stage which for the time was amazing. I mean, I think the only other game around at the time that was doing that kind of effect was Final Fantasy 7.
SG- Yeah, and what we’re going to do in that area is that we’re actually going to…we’ll be running those in real-time, we’re not going to be jumping into a pre-rendered movie to get to those transitions, we’re going to be doing them using the in game engine, using the assets, so, they will still be loading data at those points, but not in a way that the original game did. We’re going to be running it all in real time. The nice thing is that we have all of the original animations and assets, so we’re using those as a base effectively.
GFB- That’s awesome. Now, erm, I don’t know actually how much you can say about this subject, but i’ll ask anyway. What’s the deal with Microsoft? I know that there is the petition going around…
SG- Which, i’ll just say, wasn’t ours, we just forwarded that on. I have to say that, because people keep putting it out onto the internet and blogs that Just Add Water have put out a petition to get it on the Xbox 360…it’s not our petition, we just promoted it. Look…We would love to get on the platform. There are various things blocking us at the minute, we are in discussions, myself and Lorne are talking to Microsoft regularly, although it’s been handed to me to hit them with a big stick at the minute as Lorne is in lockdown working on his new stuff. But yeah, we want to be there, so all this stuff about us wanting to be Playstation exclusive is rubbish….We’ll be on any platform. We don’t favour one platform over any other. As far as we’re concerned anything’s a go! But we are literally just waiting now for Microsoft to grow a set, effectively. Just to say “yes, we will commit to this”. No money, just commit to a publishing slot so we can say we are getting it out there on their platform. So right now the only thing that is stopping us is Microsoft themselves. If Microsoft say yes, we can publish, we’ll quite happily do an Xbox 360 version of the games. When we do Abe, quite literally, we’re looking at doing it on the Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Vita….and maybe Mac, other platforms. We’re not saying “Yeah, it’s PS3 only”. As far as we’re concerned the game is multi-platform, and whatever that happens to be we’ll go from there.
GFB- Brilliant stuff, and that just nicely leads me onto the last thing I want to ask really, which is, what’s the future for the series? Is there any news you can let me in on, maybe a little exclusive for the fans? We’ve discussed the HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee…
SG- Well it’s not a remake of Abe’s Oddysee, it’s Abe’s Oddysee with other stuff…but we can’t talk about that…
SG- (laughs) well…Strangers Wrath finished, should be done in 3 weeks, Then art and design will move on to Abe. In late October/November time we’ll start to work on the technology, we’ll probably licence an engine for the Abe game. Then when we’re developing Abe….the thing with Abe is it’s a game which can be led from design rather than being led by code. So once the initial project is set up the coders can just move onto something else. And that is we’re going to take the Strangers Wrath engine and make…well… originally the engine was not multi-platform in the slightest, it was Xbox 1 only, end of. So the guys are going to start to re-write it to be a multi-platform engine. Yes, it’s old tech but there are some phenomenally nice things in there. Our tech guys worked at various places and they have their own systems as well so we’re going to build up a new engine and then we’re looking to do one or two different games which we have not talked about yet in the Oddworld universe with that engine and the new technology.
One game we have already got around 10% finished because it’s something that they were already working on previously so we’re going to continue with that project at some point. We might just do that as a tech experiment along the side of finishing off Abe. Then At the same time we’re doing that we’re going to be doing the Hand of Odd, which again is a bit more of an experiment…we’re going back to the original design of that and trying to make it….more….(pause)….the problem I see with command and conquer-style games today is it’s one of those kind of games where you need direct input…mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen if you’re using a touch screen device. It’s not something that leads well, I don’t think, to a joypad, you know, with your curser flying all over the screen, I don’t think it works fluidly enough. So we’re going to go back to the drawing board with that and kind of redress it to be more…i’m not going to use the word Zynga style game but a more modern, social game. Not like an MMO, but something more open world where you can interact with other players in the real world, not just NPC’s or characters. As well as having the hand of odd they also had some early stuff to do with Hand of Odd 2, so we’re going to go back to all of that. Re-use those designs and ideas to make Hand of Odd. Some of the design things originally are, well, it wasn’t going to be an isometric game or 2D-esq game, it was going to be a 3D game with 3D models and animations, so we’re still going to go with all that. If we did an iPad game for example, the majority of these kinds of games on there are fixed pixel sprite graphics, where we are going to do 3D, so it’s going to look a lot nicer.
Basically we want to follow, with Hand of Odd, we want to follow the original thought process and design goals that they had in mind and continue with that. And then after that, or at the same time we’ll do Squeaks Oddysee and then whatever else, you know. So right now there is no end in sight. Our limit is what we do and when we do it, not…
GFB- And I suppose that is also a testament to the whole universe that Lorne and the guys created, that essentially within the universe you’ll never run out of ideas….it’s almost endless…
SG- Yes. There’s a timeline of Oddworld document that covers around 2-3 thousand years of Oddworld time, and the games so far have covered two, maybe three hundred years, so you know, there’s around two and a half thousand years left to explore…
SG- Yeah, you know…you play Strangers Wrath and you get to later on in the game, the Mungo Valley area, and there are roads there that have been demolished…where did they come from? All that kind of stuff, so you have to think, the Strangers Wrath version of Oddworld is like the second age effectively, in some respects. And again, Oddworld is an entire planet. The games so far have been based in two different parts of one continent of that planet, so there are other continents on Oddworld, other civilisations and stuff, there is stuff designed and written down, other characters created I mean, we found a document the other day that had, they aimed to have 300 different species. When Strangers Wrath came out they had a list of forty five species, Hand of Odd was ninety five species, so we have all of these species, well, not all of them, but most already designed and written. Yeah, you have Slogs, Slegs, Sligs, Baby slogs, so that’s four species there straight off. It’s all there! It’s this massive wonderful universe to work within. Some might say it doesn’t leave a lot of room to be creative, but I say that it’s easier to start off with a chessboard and design new pieces, than to start off with a blank board and have to design a game from the start. So yes, we have a whole universe that we get to play in.
GFB- That’s amazing Stewart. I’m now officially excited for the future games you’ll be putting out there. Even more so knowing that the games are in the hands of a bunch of people such as yourselves. Well, i’ll leave it at that then sir. I’d just like to say thank you so much for your time, and thanks for letting me get my hands on the game too.
SG- No problem. Thank you.
So…I hope you enjoyed the interview. It’s very eye-opening from a developers point of view, and it’s GREAT to hear that we have years of Oddworld games to come. I’d just like to thank Stewart and the team at Just Add Water for giving me the time and opportunity, and of course, all of you for reading my blurb!
Stay tuned guys. More developer interviews to come.