The new Tomb Raider is a hugely important project for Crystal Dynamics as a studio. For the company, it's all about living up to the promise of the purchase by Square Enix, and perhaps more importantly, living up the grand legacy that Tomb Raider carries as a brand in the games business.
Taking apart an icon so that she can be rebuilt is a dangerous task. It could easily backfire on Crystal Dynamics, but based on our conversation and what we saw at E3, the studio appears more than confident in overhauling the franchise. GamesIndustry International caught up Crystal Dynamics' global brand director, Karl Stewart, to talk about the challenge of remaking Lara and what else we can expect from Crystal Dynamics in the future.
Q: Do you feel that this reinvention of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider is the most important project that Crystal Dynamics has ever undertaken?
Karl Stewart: Most definitely. It is definitely one of the most important and also one of the most challenging projects we've ever taken on. To take a franchise that has been around so long, that has such a big following... many gamers today will look back and remember fondly Tomb Raider as being one of the first games they played. The lore that they created, to try and reimagine that is the same as having to redo a James Bond or a Batman.
When we first brought it up at the studio, Darrell Gallagher had sort of the first idea as art director on Anniversary and Underworld that he really wanted to take Tomb Raider into a new place. It was a challenge because people really didn't know where that would be. There was a lot of research to understand about the franchise more than we ever had because you can't break it and put it back together without really knowing what you've got. It was a big challenge obviously as the franchise has been around for a long time; it had been very successful and sometimes you don't want to rock the boat. I think we realized that it was a great challenge and there was a big reward at the end of it if we could make it right.
Q: Lara looks more like a modern woman now. There aren't many strong female leads in gaming these days. What was the thinking on how to redesign Lara's character?
"Square Enix, when they purchased Eidos, saw this title as one of the major reasons why that acquisition happened. We have to make sure we deliver on the promise we made"
Karl Stewart: It was very important to us that when we started to rebuild Lara that she wasn't the character that we knew before. The experience we are trying to portray in this game is that it needed believability; it needs people to feel like they are close, that they are in this situation. When she kills for the first time or hunts for the first time, you have to feel like there is nothing extracting you from that. It is very important that even down to this day and age where you recognize the voices - and the voices are attached to more than the game - it takes you out of that world, out of that situation. That was dangerous for us; in reimagining Lara we wanted to move into the M-rated space and have survival as the theme. When she kills for the first time, we have to have your hair stand up on the back of your neck.
With that in mind, we looked at the new vision for Lara and asked what resonated more with the character. They want to feel more about the character. She's still beautiful, she's still sexy, but not in a gratuitous way. We're not doing this just for the sake of doing this. We're looking at her and make her act like a real human being. To do that you have to have physique and the look of a real human being, so it was very important to us that we came up with the Lara that looks like this, rather than the caricature.
Q: What do you think of the parallels with Uncharted? Obviously Tomb Raider has been around a lot longer, but with the new title there seem to be a few cues taken from Uncharted, whether it's looking to make us care about Lara, the use of mo-cap and having actors doing scenes together, etc. That's similar to what Naughty Dog has done as well.
Karl Stewart: There are a lot of parallels. The key thing for us, obviously Tomb Raider has been around and has a formula that is very successful. It stood the test of time. I looked at what Naughty Dog has done and they've managed to keep the third-person, single-player action/adventure titles alive, even raised the bar. Rather successfully, really. For us, going back and re-imagining Tomb Raider, it is not necessarily about doing mo-cap because they have. A lot of studios are doing mo-cap. It is more about the experience and the emotion you are trying to portray... For us, building this division for Tomb Raider is delivering on a promise and expectation on rebuilding a character in a way we haven't done before. I think, to us, we've taken inspiration from a lot more than just video games. We've looked at the TV side, the movies. We want to make sure that we create a structure that will stand the test of time and not just another trilogy like we did with Anniversary or Underworld.
We want to say 'here is another character you will play for a long time and never tire of because you were there from the beginning.' So I think gaming has come on a lot; we've seen it on a lot of the games announced lately. It really is immersing you and bringing you personality and things you've never really had before. Heavy Rain was really one of the first games that made you cry because it touched you in ways you never really thought it could. Our goal is to take this Tomb Raider and bring you something much closer, bring you experiences that you may not have had before. So there are comparisons with many video games. Of course Uncharted; they took a formula that works very well and turned it into Nathan Drake and it worked out very well for them. They raised the bar with performance capture, but what we're trying to achieve is a step above that by bringing new experiences to the screen.
Q: Your'e bringing it to PS3, 360 and PC, but why no Wii U?
Karl Stewart: What we said this as a studio mantra is that when we start building a game we want to make sure that it is built for the platform and the experiences the platform can deliver. We don't want to go down the path where we've been and others have been. We don't want to port it across; the experience gets diluted. By diluting it, it doesn't help anyone.
For us right now, we had already gone down that path so far and we were far enough along that we wanted to continue developing, keeping our focus on these three platforms. If we were ever to go to the Wii U, we would want to build from the ground up and make sure that the experience is tailored to the platform.
Q:What was your impression from the Nintendo E3 conference?
Karl Stewart: I think it's great. As with any platform, the people that make it are the ones who know it best. They have gone a long way to bring in partners to go to make sure that things complement, as well as their own titles to make sure that things work really, really well. I would hate see the unnatural port go across on that; I think with any platform it has to have games that really bring in an audience and justify it. I think it is very important that people like Nintendo or any other platform or console holder sticks to saying that the console works and that they aren't taking games because there are brands. Anyone can do that. It's good on them. Wii U is a very unique thing. With everything, it takes time. When they announced the Wii people didn't automatically go "that's going to sell 30-40 million units." People went "okay, well that's kind of cool."
Q:So is Crystal Dynamics a one-game-at-a-time studio for now, or does it work on multiple titles at the same time?
Karl Stewart: Well we announced probably a year ago - he's been with us a year now - Scott Amos who was executive producer of Dead Space and Simpsons, joined us to work on an original IP. We have other stuff in the works, but have been keeping pretty quiet about it. We announced he was here, we brought key members onto the team and they are working away. The goal is to keep it focused on Tomb Raider while we are working on other things as well. We don't want to be seen as that 'one-hit' studio. We do have other ideas, we're very creative and we have a great team. I don't know what the plan is right now when we'll be talking about it, but if I talked about it now I'd probably be shot.
"We don't want to be seen as that 'one-hit' studio. We do have other ideas, we're very creative and we have a great team"
Q: You have Tomb Raider and this original IP. Will there ever be a future for Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver? Amy Hennig is with Naughty Dog and can't help out, but it is a fantastic franchise. Will we see anything?
Karl Stewart: No, at this time we're on Tomb Raider. We as a studio don't have plans right now to look at that franchise. I get a lot of fans who hit me up on Twitter and our Facebook page asking me to look at that franchise. We looked long and hard at Tomb Raider and made the decision that it was where we wanted to go. Once we began that is when got to talking about a new IP. But who knows what the future holds? Right now our focus is on Tomb Raider and creating something new and unique.
Q:What is scarier for the studio, reinventing Tomb Raider or launching a new IP in a market that is so risk averse, where this costs millions and millions?
Karl Stewart: To be honest, I think Tomb Raider. It has such as a history and has been around for so long with such an avid following. We see this title as our baby. Square Enix, when they purchased Eidos, saw this title as one of the major reasons why that acquisition happened. We have to make sure we deliver on the promise we made. I think the challenge that we had in the early stages, which is starting to come to fruition now, was that you can be really creative on a new IP, but I think when you are looking at a franchise that has been around as long as Tomb Raider has that a lot more is at stake right now.
Q: Since you're in marketing, can you tell me if there's a plan to branch out the story being told in this game with other media such as comics or web videos and other brand building opportunities?
Karl Stewart: As a studio, we have a group of people, including myself, who literally sit and pull apart where we are going to go with the franchise. Of course there are other mediums that naturally allow us to continue to tell the story and those fans want to read and see. For us, we have a list of partners we'll be announcing after E3. One of our plans is to bring the world to life. We've created this Pandora's Box of an island, which you can see from playing the demo. There is a lot going on; a lot of mystery and a lot of question. Let's just say, watch this space. We're going to have some really cool announcements. We've got some great experiences. Tomb Raider has had a rich history of working with the right people. We want to make sure we continue that.
[Editor's note: Since conducting this interview, Crystal Dynamics has launched a series of documentary videos.]
Q: I'm assuming you'll be leveraging DLC extensively too?
Karl Stewart: We announced at the Microsoft press event that we have a timed exclusive on Xbox. There are plans for DLC. Right now is pretty early. We haven't really gotten into the nuts and bolts of what that means overall. We have a very clear plan and we're acting against it. I look forward to getting out and talking about what that means going forward.
Q: Finally, what is your take on SmartGlass? Think you can work something out that works as a Tomb Raider application for SmartGlass?
Karl Stewart: I love SmartGlass; it is a really cool way to be able to connect your devices to your Xbox. In a way, that is what the future holds for us. I can't say we're working on something with SmartGlass; it is a very new technology for everyone. We've had the opportunity to work on it earlier, but we love it. It is a really cool, innovative way to take gamers and immerse them to a whole different level. I love Game of Thrones and watched the demo going on and I will be the first if I can to download it and get it on my systems.