10 questions for Crystal Dynamic’s Noah Hughes – Tomb Raider’s creative director talks gaming & industry

Noah Hughes has been at Crystal Dynamics since 1993, when it was a fledgling studio focused on developing for the 3DO. There he worked with coding Hall Of Famer Mike Cerny, briefly left, then returned to work on the post-Core Design Tomb Raiders where he’s currently creative director.

1 What game from the past has had the biggest effect on the way you make games today?

I would have to say The Legend Of Zelda series probably influenced me most from a design perspective. I really love how it’s a celebration of gameplay systems built on player progression and a story that’s a universal version of the hero’s journey, and being able to feel that growth along with Link in the gameplay experience. It just felt like [there were] very universal themes, and it’s obviously very tightly designed, too. I love the player progression systems and the ability to fully explore a world.

PS4 Dualshock 4 controller2 We’ve had motion control, 3D, cameras… what do you think will be the next big innovation for games?

We still keep threatening to innovate from an interface perspective. I’m hoping at some point we see evolution in interface beyond the dual analogue [pad] but I don’t think we’ve necessarily found our final answer in that regard. It’s interesting territory for me. In some ways I think online play and connected play aren’t fully tapped, so I love the idea of continuing to see how we evolve gameplay [so] that we share or influence each other’s experiences, and play together co-operatively or competitively.

3 What have been the high and low points of your career so far?

Tomb Raider has maybe been both for me, in some ways. It’s certainly been the high point in the sense that I’m most proud of this game and have really enjoyed the process. But it’s been an extremely difficult journey, as well, just from the amount of work required and the amount of responsibility that we feel [in] taking such a well-known and well-loved character, and trying to play that balance between [making it] fresh and [keeping it] true to its DNA. I think we knew that there wasn’t one answer that was going to make everyone happy – abstractly we knew that was part of this journey. But in practice, my goal is to make a game that people enjoy, and in particular I feel a certain obligation to the fans to deliver a Tomb Raider they can still love and enjoy.

I hate to see any sort of disappointment surrounding any of our choices – we’ve done our best to be true to the franchise… when people second-guess our motivations in terms of [it being] designed in a boardroom in a soulless way, that’s not really how it was.

4 What matters more – review scores or sales?

Both are important to me. I guess what I’d like is for lots and lots of people to enjoy a game that we make, especially when we’re doing something like a Tomb Raider property. Sales are reflective of that, but for me it’s not really about stacking paper – it’s about making a game a lot of people can enjoy. Scores are important to me also, but I want to deliver a product for our audience, so I do want lots of people to enjoy it.

5 If you had to make one golden rule of game design, what would it be?

Game design’s very broad in its permutations, so it’s hard to apply a rule to all games – but specifically to the type of games that we make, I particularly believe in celebrating both narrative context and rich gameplay. I think the golden rule for me is about both coming together to deliver an experience. So an argument over ‘is design more important, or are character and story?’ is a false dichotomy. All of it has to come together to create an enjoyable experience.

half-life 26 If you were to work with a star developer from any team, who would it be and why?

There are quite a few. Valve jumps to mind. I’m a huge fan of the Half-Life series, so it would be a pleasure to work with those guys.

7 If you weren’t a games developer, what would you be doing instead?

Before I knew you could make a living making games, I was certainly attracted to film as an industry, because it shares a lot of the collaborative artistic process I really enjoy. But I’ve always enjoyed playing games more than I’ve enjoyed watching films, so it was an easy transition to realise that was the ultimate fulfillment of my ambitions.

8 What’s your top tip for someone who wants to pursue a career in games?

Maybe I’ll cheat and give two. One: don’t wait for a job to do it. There are plenty of level-building tools and game engines out there, and it goes a long way to a) put some things on your résumé, and b) show the passion that you’re willing to do it regardless of whether you’re being paid or not. My second suggestion would be to be willing to take a job in a game company that may not be your ideal job, because I think you’ll find that a lot of times once you get in there, there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done, and if you have ambition and talent you’ll make a name for yourself. Eventually end up where you want to be.

9 You’re working with an unlimited team, unlimited time and an unlimited budget – what game do you most want to work on?

[Laughs] What a terrifying prospect! A persistent world is very interesting, I guess, if you have that kind of budget. So something along the lines of an MMO, but with my personal experience being a little bit more in action/adventure than pure RPG, I guess I’d like to build a console action/adventure experience in a much larger, more shared world. I would look at that in the context of exploring interesting ways to interact together. I wouldn’t go straight to space, or orcs and goblins. It would really be more a matter of looking at it from a design perspective and saying, ‘Once we get people playing with these types of mechanics in a world together, what type of fiction is going to support the most interesting experiences we can create?’

10 What do you think it will take for games to be accepted as part of mainstream culture?

In some ways it’s just time, more than anything. As we have more and more people that grew up with games, you’ll see a greater saturation in acceptance that it’s not a lesser form of entertainment – just a different one.