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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.