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Focus On: Circle Studio's Adrian Smith

The fact that Tomb Raider: Angel Of Darkness was such a disappointment was enough of a shock for long term followers of Lara Croft. The fact that the brand was then taken away from its originators Core Design was an even bigger one - and led to many of the firm's staff upping sticks and starting all over again a mere quarter of a mile across Derby's Pride Park.

With money in the bank, it would have been relatively easy for Jeremy Heath Smith and brother Adrian Smith to have licked their wounds, bought an island in the sun and lived out their days sipping cocktails and living the high life. But to their credit they took the hurt and public humiliation squarely on the chin, formed Circle Studios, re-hired the best talent they could and set about applying the lessons of the past and building a positive future.

And here we are: 18 months down the line Circle is well and truly back, having sufficiently impressed Capcom to tempt the Japanese publisher into signing its first ever European-developed game, titled Without Warning.

We took a trip up the M1 to talk to development director Adrian Smith to find out the full fascinating account of how Core imploded, life after Lara Croft, and how Without Warning was born.

Inevitably we have to ask you about the demise of Core and the start of Circle Studios: presumably you're well versed in talking about this?

No, not really. I think the end of Core was reasonably well documented from one perspective - certainly not ours, I think more the Eidos side, and there's still a lot we're bound and gagged not to talk about. But it wasn't great at the end and I think fundamentally we made mistakes, and we were probably big enough to put our hands up and accept those mistakes.

Was it absolutely necessary to get out of Core to be able to do what you're doing now?

Ultimately Jeremy (Heath Smith) had no choice because he was officially put on gardening leave, and I think at the same time we'd probably lost a lot of what this industry was about and I'm not so sure it is about now, but we'd certainly lost a lot of the fun side, a lot of creativity we felt was being sucked away.

How did you feel about having to leave behind Lara?

Tomb Raider was a fantastic thing to be involved with and a fantastic thing to have ownership of, and it's also a massive weight around your neck, like you had to do a game every nine months for the best part of five years and that was really hard work to be honest. We wanted time to do different things, and the level of importance to Eidos of Tomb Raider as we all know was massive.

Do you think Eidos was right to remove the franchise away from the people responsible for it?

In a way, yes. We'd had a good run at it. I think we needed a change in direction and we needed to do things differently. So I think, yeah, take it away and give it to someone with a new perspective; let's see what they bring. I'd like to think it was something new and fresh and innovative, [but] I'm not so sure.

Did you see it coming?

It was still a shock, purely because I think that we did what we had to do for five or six years; we had to get a game out for that period of time and we got a game out, and just to be told 'Oh, great, thanks', it felt very much like it didn't account for a great deal. I think that's probably the thing that hurt more than anything.

Was it for the best, with hindsight?

Yeah, if I'm honest I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened because it gave us the opportunity to leave, to take the people that we wanted, to start afresh, to move a quarter of a mile away. We took 35 people, and now we're up to 52 people. Actually, I asked 35 to come and 33 came.

So how many did that leave back over at Core at the time?

There were about 70 originally, and they got rid of the test department which was about 12 people, so there were probably about 30 left. It was sad. I stopped off for about six weeks after it was fairly public just to make sure that royalties came in for Tomb Raider and things like that. I was probably the hardest six weeks I've ever done. It was not nice, because it was a company that we built, I guess. It was a building we built and one day I just walked out, shut the door, got in my car and drove out. It was bizarre.

Leaving Core after all that time must have been emotional?

No, there was no emotion - that was the bizarre thing. But we were really positive for the future in that we got out the people we wanted, we had all the disciplines covered off, and the first three months of coming here we basically sat down and said let's just do what we've been asking to do for a long time; let's look at the industry. What's working, what's not working? Let's look at what's been successful for us in the past and what hasn't and why, and we did just literally sit for about three months pushing bits of paper around, speaking with the teams and put together a Circle Studios procedure document/ bible.

And what's in this Circle 'bible'?

In essence we tried to get 15 years of our history good and bad down on a piece of paper. It was quite scary because you think you know it all and then you put it down on paper and go 'f***! Actually it doesn't work! There are holes in it'. That document still exists today, it's still revisited, and 15 months on we've revisited it a couple of times and looked at the structure, and the structure has changed a little bit. Our statement to everybody was we're never going to go through what we've been through over the last 18 months because the end of Tomb Raider was a grueller, and people did go beyond the call of duty; work [long] hours and everything, and were fantastic. For the end result to be what it was was disappointing for everybody.

You usually had three or more games on the go at once at Core, so presumably there were other games in development when you left?

There were. One was in full production and another was about to be kicked off. They were just left with no management of any form. [Mentions that Core is still working on two unrelated projects with Eidos] So yeah, it's interesting. They're down the road, we've bumped into people in Sainsbury's, and we're all chirpy because we're happy...

So, suddenly Derby is suddenly a centre of game development!

[Laughs] Yes it is; a hotbed! So, yeah, it brought us to Circle, what happens with Tomb Raider? I dunno. What happens with Core. I donât know. We have very little to do with it. We're 52 people and that's it.

But what did you feel about Toby Gard coming back on board with Tomb Raider over at Crystal Dynamics?

Great! Fantastic!

Did you see that coming?

Errr, yeah. Yeah to be honest. Yeah I did. Galleon, I don't know...bless 'im, that must have been the single biggest labour of love ever. We always kept in contact with Toby; he was always invited to Tomb Raider events, movie events and things, and certainly between us and Toby there was no problem at all. We never said Toby had nothing to with it, we were always very open about that, and we had a good relationship with him. At the end of Galleon I guess [Eidos] made contact and he went over to Crystal.

Coming back to Circle: did you always decide all along that you've got to keep going or did you ever think 'stuff this, let's bank our winnings and sod off'?

Sometime before the demise we thought maybe being a development studio is not a bad thing, but we believed too much in the people that we'd got and what we'd built, and we just though there was a lot that could be put right and could be put right relatively easily, and we really wanted to do it again. There was never any doubt that we wouldn't do it, literally from the first day that Jeremy walked out of the building it was a go from there on in.

Are you still fulfilling the same brief, the same roles?

Yes, basically. We've added Martin Carr - who used to be from Hothouse - as business development director. He's out there a little bit more. That's certainly an area we didn't have to do much of at Core - as in going and getting the product out and [touting it] around. There are other products semi-live in the building that Martin is out talking about with publishers about. Apart from that, Jeremy does the London thing, has the relationship with Capcom and so on.

How did you get the game signed to Capcom in the first place? This is a pretty unique position for a European developer...

Yeah, very much so. It is the first European product signed with them, which is probably why it took so long!

Did you have lots of other publishers interested in signing Without Warning?

We did, yes, we did really well, and I guess there's a Tomb Raider element to that and a general interest in what we were doing, and at the end of the day I do think that what we've done is brave. I don't know if brave is the right word, but we set up 35, up to 50 people over a 12 month period; it's quite aggressive in an industry which is pretty bloody hard. I mean we all know it's hard - we're not going to say it's fantastic out there. It is hard at the moment, but we havenât really skimped, and we've made sure everybody has got what they want, and we self funded it and said "look, we've developed something that we believe in as a company and a product and we'll take it to a point that we're happy. We're not just going to do a few months R&D and go and tout it around.

At what stage did you start showing off Without Warning?

We went out to E3 [last year] and had a few meeting, but probably around about June, July time in anger. We were probably six, seven months in. We were quite a way down the line. We didn't approach it that we were going to do some high concept and go out and see what the level of interest was and then come back and design the game. We did go out with a game and say "look, this is the game, this is what it's going to be" and it still is that today.

Do you find publishers less receptive to new ideas at a time when it's all about sequels and established IP?

I wouldn't say less, because we managed to balance Without Warning between an established genre. If it was a Herdy Gerdy with little pink fluffy things running round we'd have probably shut the doors by now! [laughs].

Whose idea was Without Warning to begin with?

I don't know who we can actually pin it on. It started something a little bit more humble than it is today, and we always knew that we had to find a hook. I think our intention was to bring something to market that wasn't massively innovative in so far as it wasn't going to be pink fluffy things wandering around. It was something that we understood; I think our unique side is we've got a perspective on what the publishers are looking for as well from the Eidos days.

You've obviously had a lot of those kinds of conversations over the years, so you can second guess them...

Yeah, we've sat on the other side of the table with people pitching product at us, so that was quite interesting. So we went for something that was, I would have to say, had a certain known value to it, and we always knew that we needed a hook, and I think initially when we started it, we didnât want to go in loads of different locations - we wanted it quite focused around an event or a single location, and initially with just a single character in there.

So what is Without Warning's hook?

We looked at the game mechanics of that and began to say "well hang on, we're doing something that's not massively unique in its original form; there are other games out there like this; how are we going to differentiate it? So then we started to kick the idea around a bit about Without Warning was going to be. And from being a single playable character based on having to get rid of terrorists where you're some sort of muscle bound Arnold Schwarzenegger type character that runs in guns blazing, we then really started to look at that and thought: 'hang on, what would be great is if we could play scenarios and then go back and replay them but actually know what was going to happen', so you know, ten guys would burst through that door and start shooting, and our original idea was to play it and see how well you do, and almost go back like a chapter of a book and re-read the chapter, but maybe plant some grenades on that handle so that when the door swings open they'll blow up and die.

And then we got into this whole argument about that, and really it was like, well, 'that's great, but itâs time travel', and the last thing we wanted to go near was a reality based, real threat-based game that has a time travel element, so we blew that whole concept out of the water.

But we really liked that idea and we kept talking about it, and we kept re-twisting it, and it always kept coming back to being time travel, until Chris Long came along and said 'let's make it about the event, and let's make it have a time element in there, but letâs make it like a movie. Let's make it based on a time line where the game starts and finishes in this time line, and let's see this event from all these different people's perspectives. For example when something blows up you get to see it from the perspectives of three civilian and three military type characters who have all ultimately got their own agendas'.

You said that the main area you tripped up on with Angel Of Darkness was with the controls and that you learned the lesson that it was too animation based. This time, are you going to make it much more about the controls?

Yes, we based Angel Of Darkness around Lara's animations I guess, which was something that came out of much discussion with various people who said that's what they wanted, and it actually just hindered the game. As a player I think you were fighting the game the whole time.

So how did you approach it this time?

This time we went in and just said yeah, it might not be right but it works for the game. And we've gone through probably three iterations of what we originally thought for the game for very obvious reasons. We always wanted it to be third person, and the character does have a level of interaction with the environment, but we wanted it to feel like a first person, we wanted it to not have that frustration of third person locking onto the character mechanism.

We actually originally started off with [a] third person [camera system] moving around the environment, and then when [the player] went into a combat situation, you clicked to fire your gun and the camera moved into an almost over the shoulder perspective, a sort of Splinter Cell type view.

At the same time we changed the control mechanism from turning to actually strafing left and right so it was a very intuitive system. But we found that people would just play the game in that view. There was no reason for them to come out or to maybe click out and get onto a ladder, so it was like, what we doing here is a first person, when we go up a ladder we'll just click to a third person view, and that wasn't what we wanted so we dropped that zoomed cam over the shoulder dynamic, and then we came up with a great system that works really well, and from there we've just been honing that.

So are you working just on Without Warning at the moment?

No, we've got another couple of games going on at the moment, which are very much internal. One is kind of high concept idea being kicked around and another is a little bit further into production, which is great. And we were afforded that a high percentage of the programmers are finished, so we were adamant that they weren't developing technology for Without Warning, they were developing a Circle engine and so that whole department just sort of split down the middle.

We've got tools guys that are on a next gen path, and we've got another side of it which is the game guys that are always working on specific games seeing how it feels. And we've got some of the core guys which are doing the core engine, the system, and what we're missing.

The whole difference with Circle is we viewed it that games today and in the future are very much about content. If you put content into something, it doesn't matter what that something is as long as it supports it well.

Do you see yourself as very much a multiplatform developer throughout?

Yes, very much so.

But once upon a time you had a very special relationship with Sony which in a way shafted you.

I wouldnât say that, Christ! [laughs]. It made it hard; I think we learned a lot from it.

I seem to remember you got access to the PS2 technology very early on and it became a nightmare [because Sony kept changing it resulting in the team having to relearn everything].

Yes it did become a nightmare and we learned a lot from that, and I think the industry should learn a lot from that. The PlayStation 2's going to be around a lot longer than people think, and there's still going to be a market for PS2 when PS3 becomes available, and I think the transition's going to be an interesting one. We've got next gen ideas and methodology and we've been working on those for four to six months.

But itâs not so much about what the engine can do because again, we'll probably pick up on middleware for that, it's more about how the company's structured to supply that demand.

So just how long will PS2 continue to be a commercially viable platform to develop for?

I think a good nine to 12 months window after the launch of the PS3. There will still be games that haven't burned through.

So assuming PS3 launches towards the end of 2006, we can expect new PS2 games launching in Christmas 2007?

Q3 2006? Really? [laughs] It's probably stretching it a bit to start developing a game then, but to release one, yes.

With such a climate of risk adverse publishers shying away from new IP, when's the right time to launch new ideas?

I think the opportunity comes again at the beginning of new hardware cycles. We know there's going to be the suite of EA games, fighting games, and a whole glut of first person games, but I do think there are areas in the launch of the new hardware when you can establish a new franchise and be a little bit more creative.

Have you set the business up as a kind of two pronged attack, hitting the best of both worlds between doing commercial games and more creative stuff?

Pretty much so, yeah. Without Warning had to be - in some elements safe, a known quantity and had to be what it said on the tin. But there is a creative element in there, undoubtedly we're not lacking that and want to make it something different, but something different that fits in a sort of established genre, and then with the next gen stuff there is a little bit more freedom in there, and you can be a little bit more out there, you can do things that hopefully excites people.

Adrian Smith is the development director of Circle Studio. Interview by Kristan Reed.

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Kristan Reed


Kristan is a former editor of Eurogamer, dad, Stone Roses bore and Norwich City supporter who sometimes mutters optimistically about Team Silent getting back together.