20 years of Tomb Raider – Anniversary Celebration

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Developers from the Tomb Raider series piece together Lara Croft’s life and legacy

When Tomb Raider made its debut on the Sega Saturn back in 1996, the first thing that many people noticed was the box art. With her gun-toting arms straight, her body turned slightly to one side, staring down the viewer, daring them to make a move. “Who is she?” gasped those drawn to the image. The answer was at the bottom. “Featuring Lara Croft,” it said. “Who?” came the reply.

Today, we know exactly who: Lara Croft. And we can trot out some of the many things that everyone thinks of when they discuss the first lady of videogames: her appearances in the Sunday supplements, her place on the cover of influential magazine The Face, the real-life models and her forays, thanks to actor Angelina Jolie, in a couple of hit (but perhaps critically miss) movies. The digital Lara once strode out on a 7,000-square-foot screen with singer Bono during the U2 Popmart tour. And, oh yes, she starred in some games too.

Lara burst into the consciousness of gamers thanks to Toby Gard, who was in his early 20s when he began to lay down plans for a new, adventurous character. He had been toying with the idea for a new game for a while and had been given the go-ahead shortly after former Gremlin Graphics sales director Jeremy Heath-Smith (who created Core in 1988) began looking for killer ideas for the emerging 32-bit consoles.

At first, Lara was going to be a man but there were fears that the game would end up aping Indiana Jones, plunging Core Design into legal hot water with LucasArts. But while this reluctance perhaps seems odd given Core created the Raiders Of The Lost Ark-inspired Rick Dangerous in 1989, it gave Gard the opportunity to try something bold. As Tomb Raider programmer Gavin Rummery, says: “Lara was a female Indiana Jones. That is basically who she was.” Yet the gaming world had never seen anything like what was about to be unleashed.

Gard’s vision was for a lush wide-open 3D adventure infused with action and puzzles, and he proved very much the auteur, developing a strong idea for how the game should be developed and played and how his character should act and look (“Someone in combat trousers was what he was after,” said Rummery). There was a single-minded determination to make the game a massive success. “He was so focused early on,” said Heather Gibson, the level designer for the first two games. But then he’d invested so much time into it before a single line of code had been written.

“Toby had drawings of the outfit hanging around for a while and he’d show them to us and we’d say that’s cool,” added artist Stuart Atkinson, who also worked the first and second Tomb Raiders. As time went on, Lara fast became Gard’s baby, albeit one that had flown through childhood, the difficult teenage years and most of her 20s. Born on 14 February 1967, his creation was supposedly 29 years old. Yet more importantly she was going to take the world by storm.

Developing Lara

The debut Tomb Raider was initially created by half a dozen people – Gard, Gibson and Rummery as well as level designer Neal Boyd, and coders Paul Douglas and Jason Gosling – in a ramshackle converted Victorian house at 55 Ashbourne Road in Derby. Gard wanted Lara moving with flexibility and poise as she scaled walls and pulled up on ledges, drawing her guns when threatened and engaging in exhausting battles against the beasties.

Gibson saw the potential early on when Gard created a tomb scene in a graphics program called 3D Studio 4. “It was beautifully rendered,” she explained. “You’d got the dust cloud and you’d feel the heat from the screen, and he did a camera pan down it. I’d seen some of his 2D work similar to Prince Of Persia but I clicked what he was trying to do with this 3D world of adventure.”

To get from that stage to a fully realised game, Rummery created a level editor while the game engine evolved rapidly as the small team gave feedback and came up with ideas for what they wanted to see. The bosses trusted them to get on with the task. “Jeremy just left us to it,” said Rummery,  “and we had so much creative input.” But it wasn’t an easy feat and the developers spent days and nights hunched over their computers in what seemed to be a perpetual crunch.

Even so, they enjoyed it immensely and there was a great focus. “I could go to Nathan McCree (Tomb Raider’s musician) and say I need to add a nice creaky door sound or I could say I had a really lovely idea for a room,” said Gibson, “and he would say he could make a great soundtrack or a movie score for when she enters that room to trigger it all up. We were all working together and bouncing off each other.”

In fact, even though the team was up against it, the enthusiasm for Tomb Raider was so great that they would go above and beyond what was expected as they looked to create surprises for the player. “Toby built a T-Rex before I arrived,” Rummery recalled. “But it had no meaning because it was never going to be in the story. So we got a bit later on and I said, ‘What are we doing with this T-Rex?’ We put it in and made it run out in just that one bit. The fact that it scared people and they remember it ensured it was a big scene.”

It was clear Core Design was creating a monster, and even though the deadline moved forward six weeks when Heath-Smith struck a deal with Sega and needed the game to come out on the Saturn first, they continued to play around. “If something didn’t work, we would fix and change it and do it quickly,” said McCree. “That wouldn’t have been possible with a larger team.” The work paid off and the debut game would go on to sell 7.5 million copies. It was something to raise a drink to, for sure. A good job, then, that Lara was able to provide that too.

Promoting Lara

“We used to get big crates of Lucozade in the office,” recalled Andy Sandham, who worked on the third, fourth and fifth games in this long-running series. ‘Larazade’ was actually what it said on the bottle and yet Gard would not have approved of this. He didn’t like the way Lara was being marketed and it was leading to frequent clashes with others involved with the burgeoning brand.

“When the game got its PlayStation launch and release, the hype started to pick up,” said Stevens. “[Publisher] Eidos was aware it had a seller on its hands and it was aware journalists who were visiting the building right to the end of the game loved it. Money started getting thrown at it when we were in production of Tomb Raider II. Lara as an icon became foremost with the marketing. It wasn’t a game any more. She was the star then.”

Gard hated having no say in how the game should be marketed. He believed Lara was being over-sexualised and that the focus on her was overshadowing the actual game. Lara as a sex symbol didn’t fit well with Gard’s vision since Tomb Raider wasn’t a sexy game despite Lara’s perceived sex appeal. So when he finished making the first game, Gard, together with Douglas, told Heath-Smith they were leaving.

“They were having secret meetings in the United States,” said Atkinson. “Shiny Entertainment seduced them, paid for them to go to America, paid for a helicopter to transfer them from the airport to their headquarters to wow them and promised them lots of money.” In the end, they remained in the UK and worked at Core for bit longer. “There were a couple of toxic months with lots of whinging daily,” said Rummery. It didn’t stop the way Lara was marketed, though. After all, Tomb Raider was now a major cash cow.

The success of the debut game led to five more games being released between Christmas 1997 and 2003, but it got harder and harder to make each subsequent game. “We used our best locations in Tomb Raider I,” said Rummery. The demand for Lara meant speed was of the essence, though, and it meant the second game was produced in just eight months, burning out the original team. They got six weeks off as a reward and took a lot from the game: “I loved the puzzle in the speedboat in Venice,” said McCree, “that was a James Bond moment.” But although they began to work on Tomb Raider III, they resigned en masse. They just didn’t want to do it and yet by this point Lara was a true media star.

“When Lara appeared on the cover of The Face, it became this thing – the changing point – and the media became interested in Lara,” said Rummery. “I found I was talking to people, and they would say, ‘What do you do for a living,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh well, I worked on Tomb Raider,’ and they would say, ‘What?’ and I’d reply, ‘Lara Croft,’ and they’d say, ‘Ooooh’.” But the pressure to keep standards high had taken its toll.

The team was persuaded to stay, on the promise they could work on a different, new game. The third Tomb Raider was handed to another, larger crew, which began to enjoy the riches Lara brought. “Other teams in the building wanted to kill us,” said Sandham, who was a level designer on the third game. “They despised us and we used to take the piss because we were doing Tomb Raider and Core needed it. It’d be like, ‘Oh, have you seen what I bought this week with the money we’re making.’ That didn’t go down too well.”

But Tomb Raider had become vitally important. It led to a backlash – TV presenter Violet Berlin, who fronted the ITV videogame show Bad Influence, told Radio 5’s The Big Byte in 1997: “The character you control is a Seventies throwback to the days when pouting lovelies were always to be found propped up against any consumer icon advertised for men.” Yet the series was keeping Core and Eidos afloat. “We were generating 90 per cent of Core’s cash,” said Atkinson. The series had to go on.

Fall and Rise

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was the title of the fourth game, and Sandham said it brought the series back into focus. “Four rebooted to Egypt and it was great because we were going nuts, sticking things in London in three and Jez was saying, ‘That’s not fucking Tomb Raider’ and he was right.” As before, the team was able to get hands on. “Every level had a personal touch because one person did a whole level,” said Andy, who helped to come up with the original story while working on the script and level design. “You see something like Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed and there’s no real character to the areas. They look beautiful and they play amazingly but you don’t get a personal vision.”

Despite the game selling 5 million copies, the team didn’t want to make the fifth game. “We effectively refused to do it and they gave us some sweeteners,” said Sandham. “Obviously we were the only team that could push it out in a year but it was kind of getting ridiculous. We hated Lara by this point and we kept trying to kill her.”

Indeed, Andy created a full motion video in The Last Revelation where a temple collapses and Lara falls off a ledge and looks to have died. Heath-Smith wasn’t happy and he ensured Lara went on to live again. By the time Angel Of Darkness arrived, gamers were wishing she hadn’t. The sixth game was a major flop critically and commercially (it sold 2.5 million copies). “Angel Of Darkness had the biggest team ever and it tried to use the model that we had when we were sat in a little room,” said Rummery. It didn’t work. Core struggled to make the transition to the PlayStation 2 and the resulting title had clumsy controls and multiple bugs.

It was so bad that Murti Schofield, the lead writer and casting for the game, said his favourite memory was “turning it off” (although he added: “When I was down in the London studios for the dialogue, to hear the voices going down was a powerful moment. It was the last Tomb Raider game Core Design made and the reins were handed to California-based Crystal Dynamics.

This reinvigorated the franchise. Lara was given a much-needed three-year break and she returned in 2006 with a fresh look in Legend. Herlook was changed a little (to some controversy) but it sold well enough to spark two further titles including the re-made first game Anniversary in 2007 and Underworld in 2008. The games represented Lara’s middle years since the series was rebooted again in 2013 with the simply titled Tomb Raider. That game went back to Gard’s original plan for a less sexed-up Lara and it became the fastest-selling Tomb Raider game with 3.4 million shifted in the first month.

This was a Lara for the 21st Century, built from the same guiding principles that had made her such a powerful heroic force in the first place. It is this Lara that we saw in 2015’s Rise Of The Tomb Raider, and she continues to inspire new generations of gamers with her incredible adventures.

Legacy of Lara

And inspire she has. “There are some amazing life-changing stories from fans who have done amazing things because of Lara Croft,” said McCree, who composed for the first three Tomb Raider games. “From a musical point of view, there have been people who have started studying music because they heard Tomb Raider, and people who became graphic artists because they have loved playing the game and looking at how it’s built and stuff. People have changed their careers and started new careers because of Tomb Raider.”

Indeed, some of those people may well have been in the audience when eight of the developers of the Tomb Raider series took to the stage at Play Expo in Manchester in October 2016. The developers walked out to ecstatic whistles, whoops, cheers and claps. “It felt like we were famous,” said McCree. “I was humbled by it.” So what has been the secret?

McCree likens the production of the game to inventing James Bond, while Gibson reckoned that, “It’s not a recipe you can repeat.” Gavin Rummery, one of the key programmers for Tomb Raider, said: “It’s like rolling dice and always coming up with six.”

But they were all in agreement that it was time for them to be recognised. “The round of applause we got at the end wasn’t just a thanks,” said Atkinson, of the talk. “There was a lot of enthusiasm.” It was certainly a far better reaction than the one they got at the 2001 movie premiere of the Simon West directed film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

That, as Gibson said, was “almost a taste of fame” but nobody knew who they were. “I remember at the end when the actors got up at the front of the cinema and thanked everyone down to their dog shampooist but they didn’t mention the game or anyone to do with it,” said Rummery, the disappointment stark in his voice.

“We were waiting, weren’t we, Gav?” asked Gibson. “I’ve never sat through the credits so long in my life.” Now, 20 years on from that first release, they feel that the character they helped develop has rewarded them with more than just money.

And there’s much to be proud of. Lara Croft and Tomb Raider became so big that there is a road named after her in Derby – Lara Croft Way – and she’s appeared on the cover of more than 1,000 magazines. The games were the biggest-selling action-adventures on the PSOne and, with overall sales of 36.88 million, Tomb Raider is the biggest-selling game franchise with a female lead. To create such a well-known, enduring character is worthy of the highest prize and there is a personal love and affection among the original developers that will never disappear. “For me, the highlight of Tomb Raider was working on a great project with nice people and having a really good laugh,” said Gibson. The others nodded in agreement.

Read more about why Lara Croft is one of the legends of gaming along with our other picks for Hall Of Fame characters in our special issue, available now