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Gamescom 2012: Exclusive Tomb Raider interview with Crystal Dynamics’ Karl Stewart

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Tomb Raider is shaping up to be mighty indeed, not only can you expect a more gritty and brutal experience than you’ve ever seen in the Tomb Raider series before, but the game will evoke an emotional response that will leave you slightly breathless.

Tomb Raider Banner Image

The game is a reboot to the series, and stars a 21 year old Lara Croft who is shipwrecked on a perilous island off the coast of Japan. Over the past few months we’ve been taken on a journey to understand just how far Lara is willing to go in order to stay alive, and given a glimpse of how she will react as her survival instincts kick in. But the reality is that we have only begun to scratch the surface of how she became to be the hardened Tomb Raider that we know today. There’s so much more to discover, there’s so much that lies buried and remains a mystery:

We sat down with Karl Stewart, Global Brand Director for Crystal Dynamics, at gamescom 2012, and peeled back a few more layers of Tomb Raider. Read our interview below to find out more about the skill point system, new weapons, exploring environments and motion capture techniques.


Crystal Dynamic's Karl Stewart

To start off we chatted a bit about the Tomb Raider community event from the previous night. Karl was happy to hear that I had enjoyed the event, and explained a little bit more about how the branded water bottles that we had been given had come into existence.

“I’m known for this, I live with this in my hands as I travel around the world. The teams have actually started carrying water bottles, and they keep saying to me ‘you drink like eight of those a day to keep hydrated.’ So when we were talking about gifts it made sense to give everyone water bottles, as I like Camelbak, and now everyone is laughing as we have our own water bottles. So when people are hydrated it’s because of me!”

We then moved on to a more serious discussion, which you can delve into below:

El33tonline:

The sound effects and music in Tomb Raider really add to the immersive experience ‒ what inspired the music for the game and how important was it to make this deepen the player’s experience.

Karl Stewart:

“So music to us as a studio is very important and we have a great team of guys. Given that it is our engine we are able to go in and tweak our engine to the maximum to be able to get the most out of it, and we have sound engineers, audio engineers, we have tech guys, we have all these guys and then we bring in an external. We haven’t announced the external so I have to be careful that I don’t drop that. We brought in a very talented composer and we searched high and low to find the right person.
We set out from day one to make sure that not only do we immerse people through the narrative, but we immerse people in the world when you are not listening to the story and you are just walking around and listening to things running around behind you. It’s very important to us that this is one of the senses that helps bring the game to life. I’m glad that you noticed it because you know the amount of time I sit at home playing it with lights off, headphones on and even I run around in places and I’m like “woah, they even thought about the water!” So we spent a lot of time on it.

I actually think it dates back to when we created our first vertical slice. We basically set the standard at every single stage of the process, we don’t ever want any one thing to be below shipping quality. So when we build that vertical slice we basically said from a graphics standpoint, from a story standpoint, from an audio standpoint, we want to be able to play a segment of our game even in the early stages and feel like this could be the end product and we could ship this. As a result of that mantra all the way through the development process, the guys have spent a little bit longer each time making sure that we bring it to life.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 3

El33tonline:

In the gameplay sequence we played, resources like food and arrows are plentiful. Will this change during the game to make finding resources more challenging?

Karl Stewart:

“At the early stages, what you are trying to achieve in that tutorial level is to make it accessible and make people feel “I’m still having fun even though you are teaching me something.” There is a point in time when of course we pull back on that. We spare them, we give them at the right place and at the right time, and we put it in context. So it’s not literally that you will turn a corner and find a weapons cache, you have to go and find a corpse or go and find some other gear. At the early stages you try to make sure that there is enough so that the player doesn’t feel like they are abandoned.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 1

El33tonline:

When looking for salvage to upgrade your axe there are more than the required number of salvage to upgrade it. This serves a dual purpose of providing extra for new players and more to find for experienced players ‒ will this trend continue in the game?

Karl Stewart:

“You know there are two sides to this. One is when you are playing the game you are at the early stages of the game, so therefore you are giving the player the opportunity to pick multiple paths. So as quick as they get five they can come back, so you don’t want to hide them that randomly that they feel like “I just want to keep the story going.” Again what you are trying to do is teach the player. We are demonstrating the game in 30 minute segments so far apart, you know we did one last year, we did another one this year, we will do another one before the game ships. We want to make sure that we give you as much of a range of “you can go this way and be attacked by the wolves” or “you can go this way.”

So depending on the demo we play the demo in different ways, so if you go to the right hand side you can jump over and see the statue and the ruins and there is a different way she talks. Versus if I go left there is a hidden area with a challenge to it with a marking on the wall. So there are ways in which we demonstrate it, but it’s also the fun of “I can go and find as many boxes as I want.” As you get deeper into the game salvaging becomes more of a challenge in itself. You are wanting to upgrade so therefore we have taught you the necessity, but now you want to do it so therefore its go and explore. If you want to salvage you’ve got to explore, it’s not that we are going to put crates all over the place, you have got to go and do it yourself.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 1

El33tonline:

If players don’t spend their skill points at basecamp will they still be able to finish the game without upgrading her survival skills and combat?

Karl Stewart:

“We have got a baseline of saying from start to finish this a particular playstyle and path that you will take. We just know that when we focus test it and as we are building it as a team, you want to add that other layer. I’ve recently played it from start to finish without doing any of that, because I was actually playing the game at the time to see something different that we put in. When I get my builds from the guys and they are like we just did this last week and its working. I’m like “okay I want to play the game and see that.” So when I’m playing it and I’m doing just a straight play through, I realise “wow I played it differently last night because I upgraded this and this time I didn’t upgrade,” but it still gave me the same ending, it’s just I had a different experience.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 2

El33tonline:

In the beginning I was nervous and reluctant to shoot the deer, but by the end of playing the demo I was not only shooting the first deer, but shooting more and then harvesting the deer and wolves to earn extra XP. This almost takes players on the same journey as Lara Croft is going on to become more battle hardened. Was this something that you were trying to achieve?

Karl Stewart:

“It certainly was! And you can see the stages right. Just like trying to tell the story of Lara Croft as a character in evolution, we just didn’t want to say “here is a girl with two guns, go try to get off the island.” It would make no sense, as much as saying she has to kill somebody for the first time, you know the first thing she does can’t be killing someone for the first time. You have to get the bow, and you have to kill the deer because its necessity. Then you have to kill animals because they are trying to attack you, and then you go to the next stage of killing a human.

Tomb Raider Screenshot 6

You are being drawn on this emotional curve, that in some ways yes you are desensitised in that you are going around killing animals, but then all of a sudden an animal is attacking you and you have to kill the animal, and if you miss they rip your throat out. So when you get to the human side of it you feel more confident, but it’s actually more traumatic, because when you do kill that guy you watch the character go through this emotional journey of “you made me do, that I had to kill you because you were going to kill me.”

So to us its building up the stages, it’s like building blocks and we want to get to the point in time when the player feels like “I’m now Lara Croft.” And actually of late I’ve been saying that in the beginning of the game she is only Lara Croft by name, that’s all. She is not Lara Croft in any way, shape or form, and we want you to go through that journey where at the end of it Lara Croft means something. You feel like there is this action adventure hero who I’ve gone through those experiences with her and been to the other side and now I understand her more than I’ve ever done before.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 6

El33tonline:

We know Lara’s first weapon will be the bow. Any other new weapons you can reveal to us?

Karl Stewart:

“There will be other weapons. She will get the pistol, and the demonstration we did at Microsoft we showed the shotgun. There will be a couple of base weapons that she will get, and over the course of the game you will upgrade those weapons. It’s important to us that as a girl on this journey it wasn’t a case of overloading her with this massive arsenal:like she’s got nine different shotguns and four different weapons to choose from. The idea is that we give her the base equipment and that through salvaging you can upgrade that one thing. So we’ll have an array of equipment that feels natural and is the right amount for her to have, and over time you will just improve their ability. Rather than saying go in to the D-pad and choose from 10 different things.

We took inspiration from watching the movie The Book of Eli, you know where Denzil Washington’s character has a crossbow and you see him at the beginning and he takes the crossbow and he kills the cat. Then all of the sudden he takes the rope off of the crossbow and he’s hanging a canteen over the fire. Then he takes the rope off and he strangles somebody with it. And you’re like, that was like one crossbow and he was able to do five different things with it. If you take a bow and like what you can do with a bow and when you start the creative process and when you play the game there is actually quite a lot you can do with a bow. There are a number of different things that you can do that you know it’s a projectile device and you add in all these fun elements to it, which is what will happen with the gear.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 5

El33tonline:

The forests are large areas, and the vista of the bay is also expansive. It’s obvious that a lot of attention has been given to create living, breathing environments. How important was it to create environments that players could explore extensively should they choose to.

Karl Stewart:

“We start the process by making sure we weren’t building an open world game, we are building this narrative driven experience. It’s funny actually that when you come out on that vista, we talked about it a little bit and we certainly showed it at the Microsoft demo, most of the time when you can see it you can play it. It’s just as part of the story will take you there, for instance when you get to the beach and you look down we want to bring you to the beach, we want you to be able to experience that because it looks awesome.

We did a demonstration last year where we showed the night hub for the first time, and the hubs are important to us because if you have this island, this massive island, we want these hub systems set up all around the island. So that you come in here and you play in this space, and then you’ll come out here and you come into the next one, and through fast travel you come back and re-explore. One of these hubs in particular is actually bigger than all of Tomb Raider Underworld put together. So the idea is that you can come into these spaces and you can re-traverse them and re-explore them and have fun in them numerous times over. But when you come into these hubs you can see spaces, so there is the night hub for instance where we showed in the distance you can see the radio tower and in the distance there is the big statue.

Literally over time you will climb all of those spaces to get there. And that’s where we have a thing call Gear Dating, where the gear that you get at its base level allows you to do so much, as you improve that gear it expands your ability. So what happens is when you come into this hub you get a climbing axe for instance, and you go “well the climbing axes allows me to get from here to here.” Then I leave that level and now all of a sudden I improve that, and I go now that’s that is improved if I go back into this hub there are two or three areas I couldn’t get to and now I can get to there because I’ve improved the ability of the tool. So we have a Gear Dating which allows you to re-explore areas and expand your knowledge of the story that is going on.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 4

El33tonline:

Lara’s movement changes a lot depending on her situation. For example, when she is wounded, walking through water or her hands are tied behind her back. How did motion capture help to make sure this movement looks as realistic as it does?

Karl Stewart:

“We did a dual process, we did one motion capture for cinematics, so when you see the big moments, you know when you see the first kill for instance, all these different scenes that are really brought to life, tremendously brought to life, we did motion capture. Now performance capture is where we did the suit, the mask, we captured her voice whilst recording her face for lip syncing, we did all of that to be able to bring those scenes to life. But then, when you are doing things like walking wounded, that’s all hand animated inside the game and we have one of the most talented animators in the business Brandon Fernandez who is tremendous. the guy is an amazing study of human movement, and when you see her perform certain things he has painstakingly sat there and gone “how would a human anatomy move and bend.”

One thing plays off another, once you have the look of the character, you think “okay well that character is moving and walking and talking like a human. Then you have the designers going in and saying now “that you have her looking so real, let me make it feel real.” So adding in the injury movement or resistance in certain areas, or even just climbing or hanging, one thing spurs another and so I would say it’s one of the most talented teams I’ve worked with.”

Tomb Raider Screenshot 2

El33tonline:

We already know of the combat and ingenuity of the Survival skills ‒ will there be other skills Lara can acquire and can you give us any examples?

Karl Stewart:

“At this stage, you can see a list of some of them, like bone collector and so on. The idea is we give different types of players the opportunity to be able to upgrade, so there is probably a third of those are ones that you will naturally do. The other two thirds are ones that you may go and grind and build up your skill points to be able to do. The idea is that we will give you the option to be able to play it a bit differently each time. For instance, in that first one I can choose arrow retrieval or I can choose health from the plants, so I have a choice to say at this moment in time are arrows that sparse that I have to go back and retrieve them, or am I in a position where somebody is trying to kill me and I’m losing energy and I need to be able to get my health back so therefore I’m want to be able do this thing better. They are just choices that the player can have, so it’s important to us that we give a broad range and there is quite a lot you can see even that in just the first tier of skills. When you actually start getting deeper and deeper and deeper, you almost forget and it becomes natural because once you have got it and you start getting used to it, you don’t remember that you actually created it.”

Thanks to Karl Stewart for taking the time to answer our questions, and for making us even more excited for Tomb Raider’s release for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on March 5th 2013.

Browse through El33tonline’s previous coverage for screenshots, trailers and more information about the game. You can also read our preview and interview with Crystal Dynamics Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg from E3, and look forward to our hands-on preview from gamescom this week!


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