Square Enix studio Crystal Dynamics is taking on the task of rebooting the Tomb Raider franchise once again. In the PlayStation era, it was among the most popular series around -- but though it's been refreshed a few times since then, those heights of success have proved unattainable.
Can a brand director help?
Karl Stewart has joined Crystal Dynamics as its brand director. A classically trained animator with a head for business, and experience as a creative director who worked for Eidos on Kane and Lynch and marketing on Batman: Arkham Asylum, he's had his fingers in a lot of different aspects of what it takes to make a franchise successful.
"My background has been working on basically brand and understanding how we need to flip the tables on franchises," he says.
He even directed the slightly controversial E3 debut trailer for the reboot, which played during Microsoft's press conference.
"This is about looking to the future and making sure that this delivers so that there's structure for that future," says Stewart of the team's approach to re-envisioning the franchise. "We're wiping the slate clean."
Comparing the strategy to what happened with the Batman and James Bond film franchises with Batman Begins and Casino Royale, respectively, he says that the team is also "very conscious about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
A brand director at a game studio, though? "I think people underestimate the power of what brand does. People just see it as a role where you're just marketing many different games. We treat it very seriously."
"Let's face it. Treat brands with a lot of depth, really making sure you put your stake in the ground and you keep consistency in messaging. That, no matter where you see it around the world, you're seeing the same experience. You're making sure that it's very uniquely drawn."
He has assembled all of the Tomb Raider leads at Crystal Dynamics into a cohesive team to carefully plan the future of the entire franchise. "By having the key people in the studio making those decisions... we're saying, 'Let's put our best foot forward. Let's make sure we do it right.'"
For his part, he says, "it's making sure that, as Crystal Dynamics steps up to the plate to say, 'We can deliver a new experience, a visual experience for Tomb Raider,' we also want to be able to do that in whatever that next new IP is, so we have to start thinking about that early."
How It Works
"Basically, my responsibility is coming in at the early stages and redefining and re-imagining, sort of getting Lara back to where we needed to be on all fronts. From game, to obviously content, to how we position into the market," Stewart says.
And as brand director, his responsibility extends to "Making sure that our game is consistently communicated in all franchises, from games, to movies -- all the way through," as Hollywood does with its properties, he says.
"This is the very first time that we've actually taken a studio approach, a studio model, and put a team of people into the studio that all they do is look at this one franchise. They work, eat, sleep and breathe Tomb Raider," he says.
"We look at the bigger picture of where we need to go and we mold out the entire franchise. It's not just about one game. I think this is what's key to us is that it's not the game will ship and then we'll move on the next game. Every single thing that we do is about making sure that there's consistency in all of our mastery and thinking for the next five to 10 years."
This is, unsurprisingly, a meeting-driven process. "You have from art directors, to creative directors, to game designers, and myself. We sit in a room and we have those discussions. We work very, very closely together. We're all in the same boat really. That's one of the big differences is that you take the different teams and bring them all together in one place. They all bring their experiences and their unique takes on how to re-imagine this idea," he says.
"We're building it, we're emotionally attached to it, and we can bring the passion and the emotion to that in a way in which we've never seen before."
The goal is defining "what we need to communicate" with the franchise. "We need to show people that it's a character arc. That there's real growth," says Stewart.
"We've had a lot of people asking about the fact that it's been re-imagined or it's been sort of recreated so many times," Stewart admits. Angel of Darkness, the Core Design-developed PlayStation 2 exclusive, was the first and most disastrous attempt. Since Crystal Dynamics took over the franchise, with 2006's Tomb Raider Legend, it has steered the series creatively -- but not outright started over, as this game will.
"It's never been told how Lara became Lara. We thought in doing so, that there was a great opportunity to re-imagine the franchise to a broader audience, and bring a different character to the audience," says Stewart.
In the 1990s, Lara Croft was a pop culture phenomenon as a character -- instantly recognizable and borderline ubiquitous. She's fallen far. "But people never really understand who she was. They never really had an attachment to her," says Stewart. "How can we have people go, 'I feel for Lara Croft. I want to play her'? We've never done that before."
He wants to bring the franchise's glory days back -- but in a new way. "There was a point in time when Lara was mainstream, broad audience. It was on the tip of everybody's tongue."
Building A Better Lara
"It's not about graphical quality. Everybody can make explosions look beautiful on a screen, and everybody can make the worlds. We want to be able to take a character -- she's iconic," says Stewart.
Iconic, yes, but not currently. The creative talent at Crystal Dynamics is thinking hard about how to bring her back. "For us as a studio, we've looked at where we've been, and we felt, well, now is a chance as a studio to put out a definition of our character and help evolve it, make it culturally relevant for today."
And that means that the series has to be rewound to before Lara Croft became the competent, sarcastic adventurer we all know. "Lara came off the stage 10 years ago guns-a-blazing. Now we want to show you how she becomes this person, so that when we move the rest of the franchise, you understand the difference in the ground rules," he says.
"We've moved to look at brand as a very different thing to the perception people have of looking after the marketing... But ultimately, we have to look at the brand as a bigger picture. We have to look at the future of where we're going over the next couple of years," says Stewart.
"How do we take the essence of what it is to be Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, keep the core pillars, but make them relevant to the audience of today, in a very unique and visceral, dynamic way?"