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Joystiq interview: Crystal Dynamics' Lindstrom talks Tomb Raider: Underworld

Jason Dobson

There are not many developers who can boast having given rise to both a vampiric anti-hero and an anthropomorphic lizard, but over the last three years San Francisco-based developer Crystal Dynamics has become more well known as the studio that single-handedly breathed new life into the dying franchise that was Tomb Raider and its top-heavy icon Lara Croft.

2006's Tomb Raider: Legend took the series that Core Design had unceremoniously driven into the ground and reminded us all why we fell in love with the franchise a decade prior. And for those still left unconvinced, Crystal Dynamics revisited the 1996 original a year later with Tomb Raider: Anniversary, demonstrating that anything Core could do, they could do better.

Now the studio is at it again, this time taking Lara Croft on a new adventure in Tomb Raider: Underworld. Currently in development for multiple platforms, the game marks the eighth outing for the series, and while the game was recently pushed out from its previously expected third quarter 2008 release until the following quarter, creative director Eric Lindstrom told us that when it comes to this project -- "quality" is the team's ultimate deadline. We recently spoke with Lindstrom on the game, and he opened up to us about the project, how he feels it measures up to Naughty Dog's Uncharted, and why he finds next-gen development troubling.

Hit the jump for the complete interview.

Gallery: Tomb Raider Underworld | 19 Photos

So you all went with Underworld as the subtitle for this latest entry in Lara Croft's adventures. Are we to take from this that she's staying underground, or is she taking on a den of thieves or something?

This new adventure takes gamers around the globe to discover and explore a number of mythological underworlds. The game pretty much named itself.

Eidos parent SCi recently announced that Tomb Raider: Underworld would not be making it onto retail shelves until fourth quarter 2008. We know that developers have to deal with delays of one sort or another all the time, but with the team having been working towards one deadline, how does a move like this impact the development process?

Quality is our deadline, so there has been little impact. The announcement was less of an unexpected schedule change and more a reflection of the development path that's best for the game.

What changes are the team making to Lara herself this time out? Chest, hips, stomach, hips – what's being enhanced or tucked?

To match the lush environments she explores, she now has an unprecedented degree of detail and fidelity in her skin, hair, and clothes – and how they all get wet, dirty, and muddy. Measuring tape wasn't necessary because it's all about making her credible in her environment, not more realistic. Lara and her world continue to be larger-than-life in all the ways that make Tomb Raider games unique and exciting.

Word on the street is that you are taking Underworld in a different direction than previous games, making it non-linear. True, not true? And if so, how will this work since it would mean for quite a different experience?

The environments and challenges offer more flexibility in terms of how the player can solve problems and progress, so there are non-linear elements within each ancient site. Just as important, however, is the strong narrative thread that Tomb Raider adventures are known for, that propels players from ruin to ruin in a dramatic and emotionally satisfying adventure.

Naughty Dog's Uncharted has been compared by many to the Tomb Raider series. What do you think that game did right, and what did it do wrong for this genre?

Uncharted was a lot of fun. The care and attention they put into crafting an exciting thrill ride made for a polished experience. But rather than say what they did wrong for the genre, it's more accurate to say what they did differently, because Uncharted and Tomb Raider aren't the same genre. Uncharted focused on combat along a beautiful corridor, with some light exploration and puzzle solving along the way.

The adventure that Tomb Raider: Underworld provides is about discovering amazing places, interacting with them in a wide variety of ways – climbing, solving large-scale puzzles, making sense of the world and using it dynamically to your advantage, fighting enemies natural and unnatural – and solving a great mystery about the ancient world.

Would you ever consider a joint project partnering Lara Croft with Uncharted's Nathan Drake?

Drake's a nice guy, but Lara works alone. Also Drake's an Everyman, but Lara is one-of-a-kind.

Can you speak to Underworld's combat mechanics? Anniversary probably featured the series' best combat system, but this only came about after your team pushed it down to a minimum and made it super efficient with one-shot kills.

Anniversary offered a preview of our combat system, but we will be offering more weapon types, use of melee, and more aggressive and numerous enemies, all with the amount of care that made Anniversary's circle of combat mechanics work.

With two Tomb Raider gamers under your belt, what lessons has the team learned from creating both Legend and Anniversary that helped in putting together Underworld?

For some games, artists make modules and designers use them like building blocks, while for other games designers make the rough world and artists come along and dress it up. Tomb Raider games present a unique challenge where artists and designers must work together from start to finish to make such an interact-able, dramatic world. We've learned a lot about effective ways to collaborate, without which Tomb Raider: Underworld wouldn't be possible.

After Underworld, is Crystal Dynamics also keeping its ear to the ground for original IP?

Keeping one's ear to the ground is too passive. There are groups in the studio that are actively working on developing new IP even now.

Something we've been curious about are those initial screens you all sent out from the game. Why do we see Lara doing handstands on what we assume to be slippery rocks in the rain over impossible heights in these early screens? Is she just showing off?

Lara never shows off, but being fearless often looks that way to the rest of us. But why is she performing needlessly dangerous gymnastics? You'll have to ask whoever is holding the controller.

Onto a non-Tomb Raider topic, Crystal Dynamic's Riley Cooper recently made some comments about the state of digital delivery for consoles, noting in particular that the PlayStation Network offers greater flexibility for developers than Xbox Live, chiefly because of the size constraints Microsoft places on games delivered over its service. Do you as a developer feel that Sony's model is the blueprint for the future console-based electronic game and content delivery?

Opinions are like fingerprints, so you'd have to ask Riley for more details about his opinion. The studio as a whole is still open to any and all successful blueprints.

What do you think is the most troubling thing, be it a trend or specific practice, that you find most troubling about the game industry today?

Next-generation development requires more labor, skills, and capital investment than ever, and this restricts innovation because game companies generally are growing less willing to take creative risks when so much more is at stake per title. And gamers are also risk-adverse when it comes to plunking down $60 on a game that they aren't sure they're going to like.

Until we all forge a new model of production, marketing, and distribution that doesn't have such a tight margin for error, we will continue to see less innovation in all genres of games.

Not to be a total downer, what excites you about the state of today's video game industry?

Crystal Dynamics has always valued the roles that drama and emotional context play in a gaming experience, even back when "story" was a bad word. Games are now increasingly driven by, and praised for, strong narrative environments, and succeeding in this realm is one of the last hurdles that has kept video games on the periphery of modern entertainment. As games continue to improve their ability to make emotional connections with a casual audience, they are entering the mainstream more fully, and that's very exciting.

Finally, last year I was talking with Lulu LaMer, and brought up the topic of Gex, and how much a lot of us would love to see the lizard return on current-gen platforms. Has the mascot made his way into a pitch meeting lately?

We recently saw someone matching his description in the hallway, but we couldn't be sure who it was because he was wearing sunglasses.

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