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Interview: Crystal Dynamics Talks Lara's Trip To Digital Platforms

Interview: Crystal Dynamics Talks Lara's Trip To Digital Platforms Exclusive

August 18, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

The newest outing for Tomb Raider's heroine, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, launches today on downloadable platforms. The game, which focuses on co-op play in isometric 3D, is receiving a positive critical reception, and Crystal Dynamics has said it hopes the game will be just the first in an overall strategic initiative that focuses on digital titles.

Studio GM Darrell Gallagher tells Gamasutra that, to build a strong downloadable title, "First and foremost, we really looked at digital as a platform itself. We really saw this as being something that was emerging -- yeah, we'd love to have games like Trials HD or Shadow Complex and Trine, and other things that we admired. The digital platform is emerging as its own unique identity, so we really felt that with our franchise, one of the things we wanted to do... is really craft an experience that is much more directed toward the type of platform it's on."

So while Tomb Raider games have focused largely on the over-the-shoulder or close-range third-person, AAA action space, Gallagher says Crystal Dynamics looked at the platform first to find this new design path. Players can take the role of Lara on their own, or play in the co-op mode by a Mayan warrior named Totec, whose abilities can combine with Lara's to solve puzzles, but the team conceptualized the scale and aim of the project before the gameplay.

"Consumers are looking for something that really works well in that space," says Gallagher. "It's kind of bite-sized experiences that are highly rewarding -- we approached it like eating popcorn at a movie. We felt it would be good for us to do the equivalent of Pixar shorts for our studio. That's what's appealing to us about that space, where we could really see it as a more flexible medium."

One of the next goals the team had was to develop "true" co-op. "We really wanted two people on the couch to have to work together and communicate to actually get through the game," Gallagher explains. "Many co-op games don't take advantage of two players having the same experience; and when we designed it for single-player, it's a different experience. That was a really good choice for us as a development team."

Although an update in September will add online co-op, that local communication was something Crystal Dynamics wanted to be key to the game experience. "We designed the mechanics and the setups for gameplay with that in mind, and then the players are forced to communicate and play it through together," he said. "And then in terms of actually seeing it play out, we did a lot of focus testing along the way to help confirm our assumptions and fine-tune the decisions we were making for players and whether it was working in real time."

Another focus for the team was production values in the digital space -- the game uses the same engine as Tomb Raider: Underworld, the most recent next-gen console installment of the franchise. "We wanted to create something that had the production values of the box release," Gallagher explained. "We had the Underworld engine, we're really well-versed in next-gen development... and we really wanted to carry that across to the digital space."

But he cautions against thinking of the digital space as analogous to the next-gen console space: "Ultimately, if you try and create something that is held up against retail releases, it's going to be challenging," Gallagher says. "Box products are there, and they have their own emphasis. It's really not about trying to be a box AAA release in the digital space; it's really tailoring it specifically toward what that audience is looking for."

That audience, he elaborates, seeks pick-up-and-play above all traits. "We changed the camera perspective to simplify the controls; we really wanted short bursts of gaming with high reward," he says. "We wanted to focus on the core gameplay being fun... other things took a back seat."

Other things, perhaps, but not the traditional heroine: "We really wanted to make sure that Lara was up-front and center, so we kept cutscenes," he says. Despite the more distant isometric perspective, "we felt it was important to bring the camera close to Lara at certain points, to really make sure that she and Totec were coming in strongly. Those were some of the concessions we made to the isometric viewpoints that helped to bridge the gap of her being at a different vantage point on screen."

But that close look at Lara is not, as past generations of her adventures have prompted, an objectification of her iconic body. Lara's role in games has shifted over time, Gallagher suggests -- "and I agree with a lot of the observations there, but we never, in all of the games that we've done, we never really viewed her as a 'sex symbol'. That's not really something we place a lot of emphasis on," he says.

"We really place a lot of emphasis on her being an adventurer, a smart woman," he adds, "someone who is very capable, someone that solves her problems through brains over brawn in a lot of ways. The whole sex symbol part has not really been something that we pursued."

So the team hopes Lara will be known for her wit at solving environmental puzzles -- something the team took a new look at implementing with a pick-up-and-play game, whereas the heroine's outings in past Tomb Raider titles were intended to be more difficult. Crystal Dynamics found a challenge in implementing a new perspective and a "short burst" gameplay approach with the kinds of puzzles players are used to -- without sacrificing depth.

"Sometimes brain-twisting puzzles can be a barrier to entry, depending on who you are," Gallagher says. "So in terms of the design for this game, we actually designed it with secondary tiers, and secondary challenges for people that really want." These take the form of "challenge tombs" players can enter for steeper tasks -- "a real difficult skill test for people who want it, and they're non-gating... they're littered around the world and they're optional; they're not placed in people's personal space."

Thus far, Crystal Dynamics is very pleased with their first outing into the digital space. "I think that a lot of other publishers will be starting to take notice of what we've done with this particular product, especially as they have big IPs, or IPs they want to leverage in different ways," he suggests. "Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is being reviewed as the best Tomb Raider product since the original. We've taken these choices and they seem to be resonating really well; we hope other people will look at what we've done."

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