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Lara Croft's Legacy: Moving Tomb Raider Forward

Crystal Dynamics creative director Eric Lindstrom talks the challenges and joys of designing Lara's next steps forward in Tomb Raider: Underworld -- part renewal, part return to form?

The Tomb Raider series was one of the most relevant of the PlayStation generation, but quickly became swamped by its inability to live up to the purity and focus of the original installments. Features, settings, and characters which had no purpose in the games began to overwhelm the simple and engaging tale of its adventurous heroine Lara Croft.

Eventually, the series was placed with Crystal Dynamics for a successful reboot; Tomb Raider: Legend saw forward motion for the first time in years, as the game was brought back to what made it famous in the first place: exploration and combat in a series of ruins, focused around its athletic and iconic heroine.

Here, Eric Lindstrom, creative director of the upcoming Tomb Raider: Underworld discusses the processes by which the creative team at Crystal Dynamics stays on track with its latest iteration of the franchise, the first to be specifically created for the current generation of consoles.

He also talks about the team's reliance on its own technology, and how his background as a fan for the series has led to insights which help maintain the vision the series needs to remain vital and appealing to its fan base.

So this is being handled at Crystal Dynamics once again.

Eric Lindstrom: Yes it is.

Tomb Raider: Legend was kind of a reboot, really -- of the series as a whole. So where do you go from a reboot?

EL: You go forward. (laughter) We did a lot for Legend. It brought her back to the tombs, updated the gameplay, and we're very proud of what we did, but we had to stretch on a lot of things to get Legend to market.

One of the things that I was very aware of in the final year of Legend was how much we were not going to be able to leverage in the game itself, because it was late with features, and tech that was coming on, enough to make the game really good, but we could leverage it much further than they were able to.


Eidos/Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider: Legend

So already I was making a list of what we could do with the existing tech, and we could concentrate on building a render engine and retooling for the current-generation platforms. So the game is showing so much, and bringing so much more than the previous two games, partly because of our ability to capitalize on the existing toolset plus all the additions we had made since then.

Underworld is being pitched as the first game in the series designed for the current gen consoles. Do you view it that way?

EL: Oh, absolutely. We were proud of the Xbox 360 version of Legend. In fact, Rob Pavey is the lead engineer for Underworld, and he was the one that brought it on to the 360. We did more than just port it over.

We up-rez-ed it, and used some shader and lighting techniques that we were pretty proud of. But in terms of what we're doing now with our render engine and our new code, it's totally next generation now, like never before.

I know that there was some trepidation when the series was first given to Crystal, about working on such an established series that had these expectations and had also kind of gone down a path that was not the best. What is the feeling now about the series?

EL: We're still enthusiastic as ever. It was something we were very excited to get at the time. I actually joined Crystal shortly after the Tomb Raider team started.

I was referring to a comment that was made in the postmortem that we ran, wherein they said there was some angst in the team at the time.

EL: I remember at the time telling Riley [Cooper, Legend lead designer] that I didn't envy him. (laughter) The pressure that he was going to be under. And I was thinking more in terms of publishing at that point, because Lara Croft and Tomb Raider are a big deal, and it was something that was very important to all of us, not just the publisher.

That was going to be a pressure cooker for him, but at the same time, it was an enviable position. I've always been a Tomb Raider fan, so I was very happy to carry on with Underworld after Legend.

In a way, it seems like a good place to be, because you weren't taking on a series that had extremely high expectations at the time, so the bar to excel was perhaps not as intimidating. I don't know if that's the case.

EL: We had very high expectations, because people wanted a lot out of Lara in her next adventure. We had a lot of skeptical eyes on us, because people felt that the game and the genre was something that had more to prove than a lot of other games. Aside from that, it was something we took on gladly and energetically from day one and continued to this day.

Do you feel at all constrained by tradition, or can you push it in different directions?

EL: That's a good question. I feel constrained by tradition as much myself as I'm thinking of the fans. I remember playing Tomb Raider 1 myself and how I felt about it, and a lot of what I think the hardcore fans want is that experience they had in classic Tomb Raider -- that exploration, that discovery, and that sense of place and context. A lot of what video games have transformed into over the last ten years is at odds with some of those goals.

I think that it's a fine line between observing the traditions and evolving the gameplay, and the way we tackle that problem is boiling down Tomb Raider to its true essence, which isn't about making blind jumps and falls to death and tractor controls.

Those are just tools to get the experience into the gamer's mind. By concentrating on exploration and discovery and emotional payoff, those are the things people are really going to remember about Tomb Raider. By sticking to those, we can evolve continuously as the game industry develops.


How do you foster that sense of exploration? I can think of things -- like coming out from an enclosed area into a stunning vista, or something like that -- but do you plan for these kind of moments and areas of discovery in the exploration? How do you make that happen?

EL: I'm a senior designer at Crystal. I've been a lead designer and game designer for a long time and my role on Tomb Raider as creative director was heavily design-oriented. I'm a designer, but my job is really to be the advocate and caretaker of the experience as a whole.

That sense of discovery, those vistas that you find, that feeling of freedom and constraint... because Tomb Raider is as much about where you can't climb as it is where you can climb to figure out how to make sense of your environment. That was very important to guard and to promote that experiential goal set.

So we wanted to start the game in a place that would really drive that home, so the beginning of the game starts with her on her yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea -- not a stone wall to be seen -- and the player is told, "There's a ruin down on the sea floor somewhere. Go find it."

Does that mean they can swim all the way to Italy? No. But there's a feeling of openness. There's a feeling of epic exploration that is very much Lara Croft's realm, but is a fresh, new, exciting feeling.

How do you create that illusion of freedom without letting the player feel like, "Oh, this is like GTA -- I can just go off and do whatever," while still keeping their eye on a goal and keeping them focused? Letting them feel free, while following the cues that you want them to follow...

EL: We often use the words "exploration" and "discovery" than "freedom," because it's not an open world in the sense that people mean "open world." When you go into a new exploration space, we don't have dot-to-dot paths that the player can follow. There's just an exploration space, multiple connected areas, and multiple puzzle and combat elements that are used like ingredients in a larger recipe.

What players feel when they go into that space is very important, so making them feel like they're driving the experience... that they're the ones determining what they want to explore, and the reason why is that it feels free, even though you're not in a wide-open city with the ability to go anywhere you want.

There are a lot of logical boundaries. You want to open this ancient door that's not been opened for two thousand years, and once you solve these puzzles, you open it, and you go on to the next area, and there are more challenges there. So there are logical constraints that drive it forward, but people still feel free, because they're the ones determining how they go forward.

For me, I've liked the exploration and wished that I could be in the space without combat. Do you think you could ever make a combat-less Tomb Raider? It'd be more like Ico or something like that.

EL: It's funny you should mention that, because there's a feature in the game called Player Tailoring that we haven't talked about a lot yet. It's exactly what you're talking about for which this feature was created. It's not about difficulty. It's about people having different ideas about what they want exploration and discovery to be.

So for the players that really like the hard-driving action Hollywood experience, there's a help on demand feature where you can ask Lara, "How do I solve this puzzle?" And she'll tell you, because you don't want to spend 20 minutes or an hour trying to figure out this puzzle.

You just ask her and she tells you, and you can do it and get on to the next thing. There are basic difficulty levels that people can choose from, but they can access the help on demand if they really want the action and excitement and don't want to butt their head against the puzzles.

Conversely, for people who really want there to be a puzzle experience and, "I really don't want to spend so much time fighting these predators and these enemies," you can actually turn that down. We don't have the ability to turn it off completely, because we think those punctuation points are important for the overall pacing. But people can de-emphasize them to give them more of the overall exploration that they're looking for.

How do you feel about the sex appeal issue? It seems to me that the critical tide has turned somewhat against "sexy lady in video games," these days. I think perhaps the fan base and consumer still demands a bit of that sexy stuff, but how do you feel about that?

EL: Well, she is definitely a sexy woman, and if you put her in a lineup with other female video game characters, you can see that she is one of the least sexed-up of the whole lot.

Even though sex appeal is a part of her character, it is not a part of her personal essence. It's not a part of her motivation. We have very simple rules about how we portray her and how we dress her.

She's sexy because people think strong, independent, attractive women dressed well are sexy, and we don't have to add anything on top of that to go over the top, which I think is the mistake that other characters make.

The game is obviously called Tomb Raider and not Lara Croft, but obviously she's the focus. Do you think you could make a Tomb Raider game that didn't star her? Or would it just be a totally different game?

EL: I think you could make a game that satisfies a lot of what people want when they go to a Tomb Raider experience. I don't think it would be a Tomb Raider game without Lara Croft, but I think there are ways to enter Lara Croft's tomb raiding world without her necessarily being a prime focus. It's something that we should look at going forward, but I for one am very glad that Tomb Raider: Underworld is a Lara experience.


What tech are you guys using right now? I can't remember if Crystal is still using its own engine.

EL: Definitely. We couldn't be showing the good stuff we're showing if it wasn't a combination of the engine that we built for Legend -- or that we had since before Legend -- and retooled for the next generation stuff with the new render engine and the new physics engine.

We've refactored a lot of the code and added a whole bunch of new layers onto it. It was a combination of both our legacy code and all the work we put into our proprietary engine that lets us show as good as we can.

There is a big debate right now, I would say, between licensing tech and rolling your own. A lot of people feel that if you license, you can get to prototyping right away, but a lot of other people feel like, "Well, why would we pay someone else to do something that we can do better and tailor for our game?" Where do you feel you are on that line?

EL: It's different every time. What's really important is for you to sit down and determine what's valuable early on in your preproduction. There are certain types of gameplay that you really need to prototype early, and you're going to be able to get that in an engine which you can get off the shelf.

In fact, you can even pursue a strategy of both, because a lot of times you're prototyping gameplay on the screen and not the code itself. So making an internal engine is a huge undertaking, and is very difficult to do in parallel with game development. So it really has pros and cons both ways. You just need to establish what you need to do and follow that course.

But for you guys, you seem pretty committed to doing your own right now. I've been very interested to see those companies that feel that way. Insomniac is another. It's a bit more of the old guard "can do" attitude, in a way. Do you see that being how you're going to do it, going forward? Your own tech, that is?

EL: We're building up a codebase and have been building up a codebase that we intend to go forward for a long time throughout the organization. We've actually broadened the penetration of our codebase into all of the studios of the organization.

The more that we do that, the better off we are, because we have put so much functionality into this code as it stands, and we have a greater understanding of it because it's internally generated.

We're in a really good position now. Starting that effort today? It's pretty daunting. I might have a different answer if you asked me if I would like to start that, than I am now saying we're already at the part where we can pull the fruit off the tree now.

You're doing content sharing within the Eidos studios? Are you getting stuff back from other groups as well?

EL: We're doing code sharing. We're starting up content sharing, but we're early on, so we're probably going to be providing more than we're receiving at this point.

Do you have to have a dedicated team dealing with that?

EL: Oh yeah. We have a huge technology group in the building that is dedicated to this engine.

I've seen them. Would you ever consider licensing it?

EL: I would! (laughter) I don't know if we currently have plans for that. I would doubt it, but you never know.

It seems to be an intriguing side business for many of the people that are going that route these days. But then there are people like Insomniac that are trying to do some free kinds of sharing. I don't know how you feel about that sort of stuff. It feels like a lot of people don't have the time to do that sort of real, free, creative tech side collaboration, but it would be really great if someday we could get to a place where all the tools were really similar. With a movie editing suite, you know what to expect.

EL: Absolutely. The day we get plug-and-play in each others' tech and toolsets, we will be able to turn around games faster or make them better without all of the ramp-up time. That'll be huge.

That's the day creativity will rule.

EL: Yes.


Eidos/Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider Underworld

With a game like this, there's so much fan expectation. How do you measure that against what you really want to do creatively with the series?

EL: Luckily, I'm one of those fans, so I don't have to worry about coming in cold and not understanding the values of the franchise. So all of the fans want to protect elements that they love, and I'm right there with them.

I want to protect those things too, but things have to evolve, and that's why we really did the analysis of "What does everyone like about tomb raiding? What do they like about Lara Croft adventures?"

It's not in the details. It's in the feelings. And by bringing modern gameplay to generate those feelings, it makes me happy, and it makes a lot of the fans happy from what we've seen so far on the forums.

Figuring out what people want from the experience, is that where that sliding scale of combat versus exploration came from?

EL: It is. That was one of our riskier propositions going in, because it could very easily lead to kitchen sink design, if you're not careful. People are not in the business of designing games. They're in the business of playing games. We're in the business of designing games.

But I believe that there should be the latitude for people to be able to personalize it and emphasize the type of play that they wanted.

That will appeal to more fans, because there are plenty of fans out there who have very strong feelings about the combat versus the exploration. To give them the ability to tailor that experience is a part of making people happy with the Tomb Raider game in ways that they couldn't before.

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