At Square Enix's pre-E3 event yesterday, we got a chance to talk with Karl Stewart, global brand director for Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics. We asked him about the reorganization inside the developer (which lead directly to the development of the already impressive Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light), its new approach to managing the Tomb Raider brand and how its new focus is affecting the way other Eidos studios work. We also got a taste of just how outside-the-box its new "experimental team" can go.
Joystiq: This reorganization all happened after the Square Enix acquisition?
Karl Stewart: We had actually been going through the shakeup at the studio prior to it, and really we had already presented that we knew we needed to make a drastic change for the studio and that continuing down the same path wasn't really going to cut it any longer. So Darrell Gallagher had taken over the studio at that time and he had some great ideas about how to sort of retool the studio, and it was around then that Square Enix came aboard, purchased us, so we presented our vision for it and they thought it was the right way to go. And as a result, we continued down that path.
This was after the release of Underworld?
Yeah, this was. Underworld had shipped, the DLC for 360 had already shipped and we just realized that when we started looking at our next game we knew that we needed to take a step back and build the next big title and it wasn't going to come year after year. That's been one of our frustrations: seeing the titles come out year after year after year, so we decided that was the end of that.
So this idea of having these three separate groups: you said there's the Pillar team, which is working on the next Tomb Raider or whatever's next, and then you have this experimental team, obviously a smaller team?
It's a much smaller team. It's kind of a mid-size team. We don't go into the makeup of the team or how big it is just yet, because it's still a huge learning curve for us. Obviously, with having a bigger team we're able to pilfer some of those guys when we get into some technical difficulties, or we get some ideas and we need additional help so we can them for a short period of time and then put them back on the big team. So the team has grown and contracted ...
There's some malleability there?
Yeah. The team were all excited, first and foremost. As soon as we pitched the idea, that was the first studio I've been in where guys have actively put their hands up and said, "I want to be a part of this. This sounds really really cool."
Can you tell us about other prototypes on the experimental team? Kart racing? What else did you guys come up with?
Actually, I made a comment yesterday to Eurogamer – I said there's always somebody smoking crack. In a design room with 25 guys, all of them coming up with phenomenal ideas, there was one or two that were just completely hair-brained.
"In a design room with 25 guys, all of them coming up with phenomenal ideas, there was one or two that were just completely hair-brained."
We have them locked in a drawer, because a lot of them are – maybe in two years time – they won't be crazy anymore. Because everyone sits there with their realistic head on thinking, "Where's the market gonna go?" and "How do we need to improve things?" So there's a number of them that just got locked in a drawer, so we said, "You know what? We'll revisit them when the time is right." But for now, I think we made the right decision.
Which ones got laughed out of the room?
The bad ones have to be: taking a certain character into space. We won't say who, but ...
Lara Craft Online is in a drawer, right? The Facebook game?
No, but it is now. [laughs]
The brand team is the other team, right?
Yeah, so the brand team is something that we took very, very seriously. When Square Enix made the purchase...obviously the big IPs they've got – Final Fantasy across the board...we see a huge potential in Tomb Raider and Lara Croft in the future. And we really need to get a grip of making sure that everything is managed in one central location. Up until now, it's kind of been diluted. Many people have had their say in the IP over the years and we've seen it go in different directions, and we needed to make sure that going forward that was all brought together. Decisions that were being made by the dev side when making the game were then being conveyed through a brand way as well. So it's a big deal for us, because we've built – instead of just saying it's a brand team, I'll mention there's a whole marketing department, a PR department, community. Community's in-house now for the first time ever. We have over 300K community members, so it's great to have this person in-house. Then we have our own creative departments, so we've basically taken everything you normally find in a publishing house where, normally, you're about six months before your game comes out and we've built that department now to support that game from two to three years out.
Did this require a lot of hiring? These wouldn't be positions Crystal Dynamics already had on staff.
We've built the team from scratch. I did Batman: Arkham Asylum last year and as part of Batman: Arkham Asylum I saw this huge potential of starting early. Getting into the studio as early as possible and making those big, critical decisions. So when I finished that, they asked me to go upstairs and start building that department. So I've got to make sure of people who've been in the industry for a few years as well as just fresh people who've come from outside of our studio, who bring phenomenal ideas.
"The experimental team is basically just looking at the IP going forward and how we can take Lara to new and exciting places."
The way in which we've done it is that everything is based on pillar release. So the vision that we have for the series and for the character and for the studio, ultimately everything has to roll under that. So everybody has to sit at the table but ultimately we've already put the stick in the ground and said, "Going forward, here's the consistency we need to see and here's the management we have to have with the brand."
You'd come over from working on Batman: Arkham Asylum – how much of this type of strategy applies to any other Eidos studio, in terms of protecting those brands?
As a company, we've moved to a studio-led model so we have the exact same thing in Montreal and we have the exact same thing in IO. So it's a new thing for us to be able to get closer to our products and make sure that ultimately when territories get the products, a couple of months or a year before it comes out, we already have certain things already in play. So we've been thinking long in advance of pre-order programs; we've been thinking long in advance of all the assets that will be needed in order to support a campaign.
So with a team like this and a product like this, that's going to ship late summer, what's next after that? Does this group get absorbed into the "pillar team"? Do they start working on the next downloadable title?
We'll see. We've kept the teams very separate. This team is basically just looking at the IP going forward and how we can take Lara to new and exciting places.
So, a Facebook game then?
I told you, I'm going to put that one in the drawer. Yeah, for us, if this is successful then it goes without saying. The development times on this are far shorter than a disc-based release or retail release, so you're able to do maybe a year-on-year title for something like this which isn't this big and still keep consistency. Obviously, this is our first one and our goal is to make sure that we do it right, so online and co-op is a first for us. So we've done a lot of focus testing on it. We've brought in whole new mechanics for Lara as well, a new vision for the camera. So if we see this doing really really well, then of course we'll look into the potential of bringing out more digital downloads.
Your technology – it's really impressive you were able to shoehorn the existing engine into something that's going to be a downloadable title. Is that a technology that you guys share with other Eidos studios?
Our CDC engine is being used by other studios. Deus Ex is being built off of our CDC engine. Basically, we know the technology inside and out. We built it from the ground up. So for us, when all the ideas came out of the team, we basically got the tech guys in to ask them if it was possible. It didn't take them long, a couple weeks of them getting under the skin of the engine to come back and say, "It's perfectly acceptable, it can be done." And if anything, having it isometric saves you on a couple different things like memory, so you can put more characters on the screen, and you can have a little bit more fun.
"Having it isometric saves you on a couple different things like memory, so you can put more characters on the screen, and you can have a little bit more fun."
Well, we're limited by what first-party will allow, so 2GBs is the maximum amount that they allow you to download, and right now we're at 2GBs.
Actually, it's 2.1 something so we've got a bit of work to do. Yeah, we want to push it as much as possible. Being given 2 gigs and giving up 150, it's a bit of a disappointment to us. If you're given 2 gigs, use it to the best effect.
With this shuffle after Underworld came out and knowing that you did hire new people for the brand team, is Crystal Dynamics larger overall now?
So we did a lot of scaling, as you know, you read in the press. We went through a lot of restructuring and a number of people, including Toby Gard, moved on. We were left with a much, much smaller team at the end of it. And it gave us the opportunity, especially Darryl, to get out there and look at all those titles that we felt were hugely competitive. Who did the camera work? Who did co-op? Who did online? And we basically just began to just say, retool our studio with those type of people.
So you trimmed down, reoriented yourselves, and then built back up with a new focus?
Yeah, I think "a new focus" is the best way to put it. We realized that if we continued doing what we do, then we're just going to continue to dilute the IP and soon enough it will become irrelevant. So now seems a better time than ever to be able to be bold, take some new risks, and try new things.
Thanks so much!