Crystal Dynamics: “Playing original Tomb Raider allowed us to understand the franchise enough to take the step we’re taking now”

Tomb Raider PS3 screens

We spoke recently to Crystal Dynamics creative director Noah Hughes about Tomb Raider. Here he talks about how playing the first game helped the team shape the latest and why there aren’t any dinosaurs this time.

OPM What’s the team focussing on at the moment? 

Noah hughesNoah Hughes We’re really in the final stretch here. Fixing bugs, polishing, sweetening and tuning and balancing. We do a lot of playtesting and making sure things are as intuitive as possible and what people feel they should be able to do they can. In the context of polishing it’s lighting, effects, making sure the performance is what we need it to be, good control. Even voice acting, I’ve been down to LA down to the last minute to try to make sure all of the big performances are as strong and plausible as possible.

OPMI‘ve noticed a few changes as the game’s been showed – did Matthias pull a gun on Lara before, for example ? Why are you making these small tweaks? 

NH Yep, spot the differences – you’re good at this game. Mystery is an important part of that early story for us, and we really want you to unravel it one beat at a time and I feel that that one rushed things a bit too much. We wanted to keep a bit of mystery surrounding Sam’s disappearance. I wanted some of the lines that were placed in there as well were just covering the mythology of the island. We wanted to make sure that since we’re dealing with mythology that’s not as well-known, we wanted to make sure people had exposure to that starting point. Obviously we take some creative liberties as we expand upon that starting point, but it was important that we had that Google-able point of departure. So if people wanted to find out more about what we’re inspired by, there’s plenty of information out there.

OPM Can you explain more about the collectibles in the game? 

NH We have the relics themselves, physical objects and Lara now comments on each of those. And some of them have details, you can rotate it around. That’s delivering on the archaeological feel, experiencing that with Lara. The documents are a little bit more narrative-oriented. They flesh out the backstory and history of the island, for those that like to flesh that out. And the GPS caches are just the incidental collectibles which have a little bit of mystery which will unfold. There’s even challenges in some of the spaces. And not all of those are available when you first pass through the hub. In this snippet you didn’t get that first cycle but you’d come back to that night hub and you’d have different gear and be able to get to areas that you couldn’t get to before and it’d be a different time of day. We tried to do some state changes in the hub, which is exciting. You’ll be able to [fast travel] between camp sites. The final thing is the hidden tombs. The goal there is to allow player discovery. So often games force you into your discovery and we wanted things on the island that you could feel like you found on your own. But the fast travel system lets you go back to those spaces that have that type of gameplay so if you want to do it as you’re going along you can, but if you feel pulled forward by the narrative or just your gameplay desires you can always go back to those spaces and collect more.

OPM I initially missed both optional tombs in the area I had a hands-on with – does it make you sad to think of people missing content you spent days and weeks on?

NH My hope is – and we actually have some mechanics, some maps that we’ll reveal later on… we try to expose you to some of that information. But part of the trade-off is if you want a player to find something that someone else didn’t find then that is the risk is that some people won’t find them all. But my guess is that most people will find a lot of them and they’ll be able to choose whether they want to do that or not.

Tomb Raider PS3 screensOPM Classic Tomb Raider had a much slower pace, much more silence and time figuring out puzzles – is the non-linear, hub system in this game a chance to give that slower paced experience for those who want it? 

NH I think that is one of the key goals, to cater to a variety of player types. If you want something new and exciting happening every 20 minutes, we try to make it relatively straightforward to make your way through the narrative but that idea that you really can play at your own pace. Even this piece of code, some people spent an hour and a half blazing through it, and some spent three to four hours on it.

OPM You worked on Tomb Raider Anniversary, how did revisiting the first game shape this game’s development?

NH When Crystal first had the opportunity to do a Tomb Raider it was naturally going to be different than the Core games, because we had our own engine and technology, and expertise and sensibilities. But we really just tried to deliver [with] our version a continuation of what Core had established. And I think one of the things that Anniversary did for us as a studio is made us become intimate. We all played the original Tomb Raider obviously and enjoyed it, but that allowed us to really dig in and feel like we understood the franchise enough to take the step that we’re taking now.

OPM When I think Tomb Riader I always think ‘dinosaurs’. Anything this time?

NH Without getting specific, we want to make it feel real. We want it to be believable, we want it to be grounded. But that’s different than reality. It’s still a Tomb Raider game, and what I love about Tomb Raider games is that you’re taken on adventures that are unbelievable in a way. The hope is that if you create a world and characters that people can almost lose themselves in an illusion and believe it’s real then it’s not much more amazing when you take them to places that couldn’t exist.

OPM The horse’s been mentioned as one of Tomb Raiders dropped ideas, anything that got cut? 

People bring up that one a lot. We went through just one slice of so many explorations. We were committed this time around to doing something different and we took our time really trying to understand what that right direction was. We actually had a young girl in the game at that point, a character who would adventure with Lara on the island.