Lara Croft Go dev: Remake how you felt playing a classic game, not the game itself

Lara Croft Go dev Antoine Routon describes how he and his team tried to recreate what they remember it feeling like to play the earliest Tomb Raider games, rather than the games themselves.

Let's say you’re going to develop a new game based on an old favorite. Is it better to remake that classic game as it actually was, or make something fresh that recreates the way you remember that classic game feeling when you played it, all those years ago?

That's a quandary developers at Square Enix Montreal faced while making Lara Croft Go, which garnered a fair bit of critical acclaim when it launched on various app stores last month. More interesting, at least from a design perspective, were the questions it raised about what, exactly, connotes a Go game and how developers might tackle the challenge of adapting classic game concepts to modern platforms.

Like its predecessor Hitman Go, Lara Croft Go is a turn-based mobile game based on a popular Eidos franchise. Both games had roughly a year-long development cycle; both were built in Unity by a small team, and sold for $5 with the option to pay in-game for extra hints.

But when it comes to core design, the games stand apart: Hitman Go levels play out more like mechanized puzzle boards where enemies and assassination targets move when the player does, while Lara Croft Go levels feel more like sliding block puzzles -- players often have to carefully slide Lara through a level to pull the right switches and climb the right walls without running afoul of environmental hazards.

By releasing the game Square Enix Montreal has effectively created its own Go franchise of classic games reimagined for mobile devices, and Lara Croft Go technical director Antoine Routon says the studio, originally founded to make big-budget Hitman games, has come to embrace the idea of making mobile games by “distilling” game design to its minimum viable parts.

Distilling game design, like liquor, to create a stronger product

"We're trying to make games that make you feel, now, the way you remember feeling while playing those old games."

“A Go game is a process of trying to boil down those old games,” he tells me over the phone. “I like to imagine it as like, you’ve got this big engine, and you just split it apart, put all the pieces on a workbench, and try to rebuild the leanest engine you can out of them. In a way, designing a Go game is actually a puzzle in itself.”

In the case of Lara Croft Go, that puzzle manifested as an office wall covered in Post-It notes, each sporting a memorable mechanic or moment from old Tomb Raider games jotted down by a developer. Over the course of the game’s development cycle everything that wasn’t feasible from a production standpoint (the team started with 5 people and never grew larger than 15) was dumped (well, stuck) in a Post-It note graveyard, and the surviving ideas -- ancient traps, for example -- were adapted to fit a turn-based mobile game framework.

“So in Hitman Go, we had all these human characters. But when you think of the first Tomb Raider games, Lara wasn't killing hordes of faceless henchmen,” says Routon. “She was an adventurer in a hostile environment, so her opponents were usually animals and the world. So for our mechanics we used animals and traps, and traps are both very iconic and at the same time very easy to produce because there's no crazy animation or anything. That's an example of an idea that made it into the game because it just meshed well with our production needs.”

That production process probably sounds familiar to many mobile game makers, but the design philosophy underlying it -- this goal of developing a game that conveys what you remember it feeling like to play a classic game, rather than remaking the classic game itself for a modern platform -- seems notable to me.

An increasing number of classic games are being ported to mobile as smartphones and tablets grow ever more powerful (think Final Fantasy, Baldur’s Gate, Max Payne et al)  but they’re typically just reskinned versions adapted for mobile device interfaces.

The Go games seem different. The earliest Tomb Raider games on PlayStation come up multiple times during my brief conversation with Routon, and each time his speech quickens with excitement. Those old games seem important to him, but when I ask about the lessons he learned from going back to study them for this project he claims that to do so would ruin the design process.

“I didn't replay those old games because I feel the best version of the first Tomb Raider is in my heart,” says Routon. Maybe that's cheesy, but so often if you go back and look at a game you loved so much that's twenty years old, and you play sucks. I didn't want to have that feeling, you know? I just didn't even want to check. So I keep the version I have in my memory, and tried to design a game around that.”

There were other influences too, of course. The Lara Croft Go team took art design cues from Eric Chahi’s seminal adventure game Another World, as well as the Tintin adventure comics created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. But Routon says the team returned again and again to the idea of trying to recreate how it felt to play those classic Tomb Raider games.

“It's almost like Impressionism. Not in terms of like the craft, using little dots of paint, but moreso....instead of literally copying reality, just trying to capture the essence of something,” says Routon. “We're trying to make games that make you feel, now, the way you remember feeling while playing those old games.”

Lara Croft Go was almost an Impressionist version of the old Tomb Raider games; we really tried to capture the impression, the memory, of playing them. All those memories, that’s what we really tried to transcribe into this game.”

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