Crystal Dynamics is performing a balancing act. It is making that first bold step into the next generation of console game development, and far earlier than most other triple-A studios. But at the same time, it's taking a more straightforward approach with an enhanced version of its 2013 release, Tomb Raider.
The big question is whether the update is enough to justify a purchase from those who bought the original, and whether the new version will tempt those who didn't play the 2013 reboot.
CVG recently met with Scot Amos, executive producer at Crystal Dynamics, to discuss what his studio's intentions were with Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. He explains what's new, how the project came about, and why he feels it's worth your time.
The Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition release date is January 28 on PS4 and Xbox One - the UK release date is on Friday January 31
What was the main motivation for developing Tomb Raider Definitive Edition? Did the idea originate from the developer or publisher side?
Scot Amos: It was certainly developer inspired. We had this laundry list of stuff that frankly, our tech guys were saying we didn't have the horsepower to pull off on those consoles because we were already pushing our engine to the max on 360 and PS3. So we had this left-over list of stuff that we wanted to do that we just couldn't get to or couldn't get to work in the engine itself.
So we were already saying, if only we had this next place we could do these things. Conversations had started with both Sony and Microsoft about their next-gen consoles, rumours were everywhere, and we had some insights here and there. We pitched the idea to first parties [internal studios] even before we went to Square Enix with it. We said, we know you have these consoles coming out, here's all the stuff we still think we can do to make a Definitive Edition of Tomb Raider.
It started that simply, and during one of our reviews about the 2013 game, and after we got the first steps going, we took the idea to Square. Square was absolutely on board. Everybody was very happy with how the game looked and played, and said this looks like a great place for us to go and update and try and improve the game and take it to its fullest vision possible.
From the publisher's side, Square Enix must have faith it can stimulate sales of a reboot that missed projections. Can you tell us about the level of time and investment that goes into a project like this, specifically how it compares to making a new game from scratch?
Scot Amos: The simplest way to answer that is it's not as difficult because we already have such a fantastic base to work from. We already have all the game mechanics and game control problems solved. We have the tuning and balancing solved, we have the storyline solved, so having that as a template really makes our lives easier when we take it and say, now we've got all this stuff, what are the things we can go back and enhance and what can we add on top of them.
We were also able to look at the new hardware platforms and their new features. We knew Kinect is in the box this time, we knew DualShock 4 had new features like the microphone and the light bar, so we started looking at all these things and what new features they'd enable us to add to the experience.
But as you know, Crystal Dynamics is up to other things like working on another Tomb Raider, which meant we had to go and get some extra manpower for this thing. So we looked at our partners at [outsource studio] Nixxies, who we've worked with since the Legacy of Kain days and who know our engines really well, and looked at a new partner in the form of United Front Games, which Square introduced us to. So that became a partnership opportunity for us to say, let's expand a little bit with other folks that we can work with and look at collaborating to make this thing.
So while we had a great base to start from, and all the technology that we had from that point, we still had two brand new platforms which the whole engine had to be upgraded to. The expectations that come with gameplay at 1080p, getting it on there and making it look as good as possible, that's a ton of extra work because we'd done everything we could to squeeze the game onto 360 and PS3. From effects to lighting, it was definitely a very significant undertaking that was the entire last year of 2013. Even before we completely finished the game for 360 and PS3, we actually started both the design and concepts of Tomb Raider Definitive Edition.
What do you feel are the key features that should tempt players to revisit the game if they have already played it on Xbox 360 or PS3 and feel unsure about paying a full $60 to experience it for a second time?
Scot Amos: I think that's such a valid question. For us, it's a pretty easy answer: we do this as a labour of love. We look at this and we say, what's the best way to take the game and express it with a new level of fidelity and realism? You have a whole new Lara Croft to look at, a new face, all the TressFX hair, the stuff we make a big deal of because we really do think it's a big deal, taking our character in a first step towards next-gen.
Clearly we'll keep iterating and making improvements to her as we go, but that is a big deal because when you start looking at them side-by-side and playing the new version, it's a different kind of take on that character and we want people to experience that.
"If you have your favourite movie on DVD, would you re-buy it on Blu-ray?"
And then from the world side, all those things we talk about from a visual storytelling perspective, you go back into the world and now you have more shadow casters, you now have dynamic particles, you now have all the new reflection maps, you have all the high resolution textures. It's a very simple analogy, but if you have you favourite movie on DVD, would you re-buy it on Blu-ray? There are a lot of people who would. I'm one of those guys who says I want the best quality, I want that bigger, richer experience. I want to be able to look at my new tech toys and show off the best that they have to offer.
If you're already a fan and you've already played the game, we're not trying to kid anybody, this is the story you've played, this is the gameplay you loved, the stuff that was critically acclaimed, so we're not trying to hook somebody by saying here's five deleted scenes. Instead, we're saying, this is the game you've already played, now expressed in the fullest vision and fidelity we can get to. We certainly think that, for people who haven't played it yet, this is the version to go get.
Did you ever consider adding any new gameplay elements to Definitive Edition?
Scot Amos: We did actually. One of the very first conversations we had, talking across the team, was whether to include stuff we'd actually designed for the 360 and PS3 versions which we changed or just didn't get round to at the end of the day for one reason or another. We looked at the possibility of adding more side tombs, adding a few extra pieces, and fleshing out any pieces of story we could go further on. There was a debate internally and ultimately we came to the conclusion that we already had the story we wanted to tell.
This is that Batman Begins kind of origins tale that was crafted and sculpted in a way that let us set up Lara and have her go through that arc and ascension from somebody who has just shown up on the island and is surviving to being a survivor. For us, all those elements were told and we didn't look at it and think we could add much more to the story. Instead, it started to feel like we were designing the next version of Tomb Raider, so we decided to put all of our efforts and energies into telling the next story.
So we took the story we were already really happy with, the one that already plays really well, and recreated it in a higher visual fidelity that gives us a great platform to play with on the next-gen consoles. So yeah, there was a discussion, but honestly it was a short-lived one because we really were happy with the game we'd already made, so it was a case of bringing that to the next-gen consoles.
Once the console version launches, will you reconsider the possibility of a PC release or is there little chance of that?
Scot Amos: There's no plan for it. We loved what we did with the PC at the time since that was kind of the starting point with the last-gen consoles, we said hey this is where we've gone to even with the PC version, now how do we take that as the beginning for next-gen versions and go further in terms of adding more content, adding more effects, rewriting the particle system and lighting system.
PC was a good starting point for us but it's that same kind of conversation of, when we took the actual guys, we took one of the rendering engineers who made the PC version as our rendering engineer for Xbox One and PS4, and said lets go forward instead of looking back, and that's one of the reasons we've done what we've done. We've kind of said, last-gen and PC are where they're at and they're great. Next-gen is really our focus right now for what we want to build.
Is there more room to experiment with launch-window games games on consoles? I'm wondering if, at this stage of the cycle, greater importance is attached to getting to grips with the new technology so that you can nail it on the second attempt when there's a bigger installed base.
Scot Amos: For us, we have two different things. We always look at the long-term. Crystal particularly has had its heydey of, way before I joined the company, take a franchise and just keep going at it, and then in the last few years it's been that reinvention of Lara Croft and of Crystal. We want to make this as a proud, iconic character that has been in the industry for such a long time, it's this person that we want to make an exemplary character that goes forward. So for us it's never about just getting in there and taking a loss leader, we want to make money, we're a business like anyone else but, to your point, we're realistic about the size of the industry.
We're not expecting there to be 50 million next-gen consoles sold in a two months. So we attempt to balance the books by examining what we think the market will look like, as well as the information we have from our own business intelligence guys and our first party partners. But that wasn't the motivating factor for us on this version of Tomb Raider, it was much more how do we take everything we love and take those first steps into next-gen, so we get to do a bit of that learning curve as Crystal, we also get to do that test-bed of all the technology and experimentation we want to do for our engine, we get to deliver something for the fans by bringing to fruition the vision that we originally had.
"Deus Ex, Hitman and Final Fantasy are franchises we're doubling down investing in, as is Tomb Raider"
Despite being critically acclaimed, Square Enix said it was disappointed with Tomb Raider's commercial performance. Was there ever a concern that you might not get another chance to make a sequel?
Scot Amos: Actually there was never any doubt. Certainly, while I know back in that time period, right around the GDC period, looking at the financials and the comments that had come out... at this point, what I know is we are in the black as far as hitting the numbers and being profitable on Tomb Raider is concerned, so we actually crossed those thresholds in the sales curves in the months after that story came out. And in terms of internal support, Square has been nothing but positive about Tomb Raider, saying we're one of those key franchises that Square has.
Looking at the likes of Deus Ex, Hitman, ourselves and Final Fantasy, these are the franchises we're doubling down investing in and Tomb Raider is one of them, so there was never any doubt. At the end of the day, we can proudly look back and say not only are we profitable, but now we're on a great path to next-gen, and there's no way we'd ever have started a sequel if Square wasn't fully on board, so we're very well aligned with the future of Tomb Raider as a strong franchise.
With Crystal Dynamics being a long-term custodian of a franchise, what do you view as the key hurdles to overcome in order to ensure a series doesn't become stale?
Scot Amos: Looking at our history of all the different games from Tomb Raider, all the different versions of the game, even Legend and Anniversary, looking far enough back to see what the game looked like and where its roots were, that was one of the biggest conversations at the beginning of even the 360 and PS3 version of the 2013 game.
We were saying, how do we take something that internally is not just Lara Croft done again, but looking towards what Hollywood did with Batman Begins, where you had this iconic character around for a very long time and was reinvented.
There's some great kind of competitive camaraderie between us and Naughty Dog; we're like whoa, who took the Indiana Jones myth first and turned it into Lara Croft, they stole this and we stole it back. It's really fun to look at the competitive nature of taking a certain type of adventure driven hero on a worldwide quest looking for treasure and icons and myths. When you look at Tomb Raider, what we've had to do - and this is for any game, not just our franchise - is update the style of gameplay, the style of storytelling, the richness of the world from what kind of game you may have had a few years ago to something now, with the tastes changing to grittier, more realism, feeling more grounded.
Slideshow: Tomb Raider Definitive Edition
There's been a lot of restructuring at Square Enix over the past couple of years. Is Crystal Dynamics still working on new IP or anything that's not a Tomb Raider game?
Scot Amos: I don't think I can mention anything we're working that hasn't been announced. We certainly have a lot of folks here, we definitely have a lot of stuff in the works, we're always experimenting, I can say it that way, but as far as official announcements, I can only talk about what we've already said in the press.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light recently was released for free to Xbox Live Gold subscribers as part of the Games with Gold promotion. Have there been discussions about making a follow-up or doing something similar at any point since its release in 2010? It was very well received.
Scot Amos: Guardian of Light was, before Tomb Raider 2013 came out, actually one of the highest rated Lara Croft games ever. For us, that was another labour of love, we love making great games that people play. The co-op nature of it was something that we wanted to experiment with, it was our first digital title, and we needed to learn that play space so, certainly we see the same things, part of it going out there free for Gold subscribers is fun for us to see what the fanbase reaction is and honestly, we listen to the fans very carefully, so the more ammunition they give us, the more opportunities it gives us to go and do things for them.
The Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition release date is January 28 on PS4 and Xbox One - the UK release date is on Friday January 31