It's been the subject of intense speculation for a few days now, but an enlightening Gamespot interview with Oddworld Inhabitants' main man Lorne Lanning reveals the first nuggets of information about the game unofficially known as 'Stranger'.
According to Lanning, Stranger is "the first game that has been an enjoyable experience for me to work on throughout the entire production", and was full of praise for his "committed" team, which he describes as "amazingly talented" and "intensely passionate about breaking some new ground and doing it to the best of their ability". The game, the Oddworld chief says is about a Stranger who makes his way around as a bounty hunter.
"He's a loner with no shortage of resentful enemies. This lays a nice groundwork for heavy action as well as an unfolding epic. From there, this game had a much greater team participation to the creative process than our previous titles, which set the stage for a lot of happy surprises," he says.
Pleasant surprise is something Lanning is convinced we will all be feeling when we see the game "I think gamers are going to be very surprised by Stranger, and surprised that Oddworld built a game like this. We have no doubts that a lot of people who didn't attract to the previous Oddworld games will be attracted to Stranger."
Lanning admits that Oddworld maybe relied too heavily on the puzzle element in its previous titles and seems determined to redress the balance: "Puzzle play is difficult to ramp successfully without getting repetitive," he admits. "This time we went for a much heavier action mix with a 'puzzle lite' weave".
But he insist the trademark humour would still remain: "We [have] retained and evolved upon the humour, sarcastic wit sensibilities, and character depth that they always felt made Oddworld uniquely entertaining...while also blazing a lot of new ground for us. My personal lesson is to keep a continued focus on less equals more."
A man with prowess
However, the usual goofy, slightly retarded nature of previous lead characters is no more. Inspired by "those who look out for themselves when confronted by racist cultures" he says that "Stranger is our first hero that is quite strong and possesses prowess," Lanning says, determined to shake off accusations of making cutesy platform puzzlers.
"We wanted to show that we're far more than the Abe and Munch puzzle-platformer company. To be pigeon-holed like that concerned us and we wanted to give ourselves more flexibility and opportunity to break out from those perceptions. Hence, the creation of Stranger," the Oddworld chief asserts.
Lanning claims in the interview that Stranger is "a much more powerful yet mysterious hero who embraces shooting and melee capabilities" and promises "several unique twists that add greater options for gamers to enjoy entirely different play styles and strategies".
An end to open
And Lanning presses home the point that an open ended gameplay style was "an important design goal" with players able to play the game via stealth, "balls out" or maybe a mixture of the two. "All approaches were to be rewarding, and I feel we've accomplished that".
Anyone fearing that Stranger is a major departure from the Oddworld 'universe' will be relieved to learn that although it's "beyond the boundaries of previous Oddworld territories, it's on the same planet, yet in a different locale". "This enabled us to retain some consistency per the divisions between the rich and the poor, the dark side of globalization, etc... but also gave us the freedom to create an entirely new cast and gameplay style, without being hampered by what boundaries fans might have thought the old cast should adhere to," he says.
Quizzed on his thoughts about its previous Xbox-only title, Lanning admits he regrets listening to the focus testing on Munch's Oddysee. "I suspect that the lessons learned from the Xbox launch come down to trusting, or not trusting, focus testing. You've got to be extremely careful with how you use this data and how much of it you can trust. On Munch, we were too trusting of the focus testing data, and not trusting enough of our own critical analysis."
In a further admission on the relative commercial disappointment of Munch's Oddysee, he says: "Making sure you meet launch as a first priority is not always the best thing for the box or the game," which to us, at least, implies he was not entirely happy with the game being rushed out before it was ready in order to meet the Xbox launch - and his comments regarding focus testing are the clearest indication yet that he believes it wasn't a match made in heaven.
But careful to maintain a dignified air, Lanning says "Microsoft was a great partner and we have no doubts that they will continue to be very successful in the game business." On the other hand his delight to be working with EA was uncontained: "With Electronic Arts, one of the things that you immediately notice is just how tightly buttoned up they are. These people really know how to build multi-platform games and how to get them to market successfully."
For the full interview see Gamespot's transcript.