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Interview: Ian Livingstone on Tomb Raider, India and next-gen

Ian Livingstone is a name that may not ring a bell with many new gamers, but he has been instrumental in the creation of the Tomb Raider franchise. Since its acquisition by Square Enix, he has taken up an ambassadorial role as the life president of Eidos and was in India recently to promote the new Tomb Raider reboot. Naturally, we just had to have a word with him and here’s what went down.

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Why reboot Tomb Raider in the first place?

Tomb Raider has survived the test of time. Lara Croft, like James Bond, has had a long and successful career dating back to the nineties, but you can’t keep doing sequels forever. You have to look at the market today and see if this franchise is relevant for the new audiences that are likely to play such a game.

Why not let the audience find out how Lara Croft became a tomb raider?

Crystal Dynamics, the game’s developer, has complete creative control of the franchise. They had seen what happened with Batman and James Bond (the movies), and they thought it would be appropriate to reboot the franchise at this moment in time. So rather than making a sequel, why not churn out a prequel? And why not let the audience find out how Lara Croft became a tomb raider?

Why make it this violent? Aren’t you alienating the younger fans with an 18+ rating?

The three core pillars of the franchise are action, adventure and exploration. Combat in the Tomb Raider games hasn’t been as good as it should have been, compared to exploration and puzzle solving. This time round, Crystal Dynamics was determined to make the combat of equal importance. And present day games have become very cinematic, so if you’re going to make combat realistic, you’re going to have to make it mature.

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This game is about action and survival, and it was going to thrust Lara into a very intense and threatening environment, reaching a state where it’s kill or be killed. In a way, it is what has made her this strong, independent archaeologist.

If you’re going for gritty realism, the combat would have to be violent and Lara was going to have to suffer visually.

Also in the past, Lara Croft has been armour-plated, and the decision was to make this game realistic, so if you’re going for gritty realism, the combat would have to be violent and Lara was going to have to suffer visually. This resulted in the 18+ rating.

Going forward, will all Tomb Raider games from now be this violent?

It’s entirely upon the creative team at Crystal Dynamics to take that call. That being said, my personal opinion is that it is likely to go in that direction, because if you’ve seen the previews, they’ve largely been positive. That’s a strong indication that it’s going down well with the people who’ve played the game so far.

What do you have to say to those “die hard” fans that are upset with the new direction Tomb Raider has gone with?

(Smiles). Well, you can’t please everyone all the time. You try to please most of the people, most of the time, but I think when the skeptics play it, they will be so delighted with the experience of this particular game, they’ll soon forget their pre-judgment.

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Fair enough. But we have to ask you something that’s been on our minds for a long time now. Why introduce multiplayer in a Tomb Raider game, since it’s always been about the single-player experience?

Clearly the history and legacy of Tomb Raider is the single-player experience, and the single-player this time around is fantastic, but at the same time, we listened to the audience who were very vocal about wanting a multiplayer option. Having enjoyed Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light (the two player, isometric co-operative Tomb Raider title), it seemed like the logical step to integrate multiplayer into the franchise.

Moving on from Ms Croft now, Hitman: Absolution went down well with critics and consumers. Does this mean IO Interactive will be forced to churn out yearly iterations?

I’m not in a position to comment on that, but the way I see it, there was a significant amount of time between Hitman: Blood Money and Hitman: Absolution. The market today is polarising where only the best sells, because customers have been spoilt for choice. So unless your game is of the best quality, it likely will not succeed. And we always make games the best they can possibly be, so there’s never really been a desire to have a new Hitman or Tomb Raider game every year.

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How did Sleeping Dogs happen?

It’s not usually the business policy of the company, but when you see an opportunity like what we had with Sleeping Dogs, you’ll be foolish not to take it. Eidos has the legacy of creating stellar IP and Square Enix also shares that philosophy, so Sleeping Dogs felt like a natural choice. And while I’m there, I’ll always lobby for original content because you build real value for your company with original IP.

What are your thoughts on the next-generation of consoles?

Well, the horsepower promises many things, but at the same time, cost of production will go up so we have to make sure that there is a market to pay for that. At the same time, the whole console market has consolidated and there are a number of publishers struggling, like THQ. It also comes down to the number of big players and how they’re going to adapt to this new opportunity.

Do you think digital distribution will be a huge part of next-gen?

I think both Sony and Microsoft would have liked to go in for the digital only route, but the timing isn’t right.

I think the next generation is going to be a halfway house. The global bandwidth is not consistent enough to make these consoles digital-only. I think both Sony and Microsoft would have liked to go in for the digital only route, but the timing isn’t right. I would suspect the generation after the next one will be digital only. We may not even have a console; it could boil down to software being embedded in a smart TV.

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You travel to India pretty often. Have you seen any significant changes in the Indian gaming industry?

It seems to me that the development community in India is being viewed as an outsource hub by Western publishers, and as far as production goes, it seems to target only the domestic market. Having a population of 1.2 billion people is quite a large domestic market, but they’re not all connected online, nor do they all have smartphones. I think Indian game developers will not be known on a global basis until they start making content that targets global audiences.

Thank you for your time.

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