“It felt like robbery”: Tomb Raider and the fall of Core Design
By Richard Moss (www.arstechnica.com)
The house that built Tomb Raider sat on top of the world in 1998. Fresh from two gang-busting chart toppers that eventually amassed roughly 15 million in sales between them, Core Design and its parent company Eidos prepared to release a third adventure for starlet Lara Croft—a video game character so immensely and immediately popular that she was a household name within a year of her introduction. Croft quickly became an icon not just of the burgeoning, maturing games industry, but also of popular culture. She was on the covers of magazines such as Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and Time. And she later found her way onto the silver screen, portrayed by Angelina Jolie in two blockbuster films. Ms. Croft seemed to be everywhere.
Tomb Raider developer Core Design appeared untouchable with Lara in tow, and it was thanks to the franchise's immense success that publisher Eidos had just been named the fastest-growing company in the world at the 1998 World Economic Forum. But the studio's creative origins clashed with the publicly traded Eidos' year-in, year-out reliance on the Tomb Raider brand as a money-making machine. By the end of 2003—the year that the disastrous, hellishly developed sixth Tomb Raider in seven years was forced out unfinished—they were laughing stocks of the entertainment world.
Embarrassed at losing face, Eidos put Core Design co-founder and CEO Jeremy Heath-Smith on gardening leave (suspension with pay) for a year and yanked the Tomb Raider franchise from its home. The British heroine was packed off to Legacy of Kain developer Crystal Dynamics in the US, where she has arguably flourished without the pressures of annualized sequels.
Core soon split in two, with Heath-Smith and his brother Adrian—who was second in command—taking around 30 employees with them to new venture Circle Studio. Eidos sent in its own people as interim management, and many wondered if the studio—its reputation in tatters and its identity lost—would live through another year.
But let's backpedal. How, in the space of just a few years, could a games development studio go from untouchable at the top of the world to bleeding out in the gutter? Where did it all go wrong for Core Design?
Modern perceptions aside, Core Design was never "the Tomb Raider studio." Founded in 1988 from the ashes of a Gremlin Graphics (later renamed Gremlin Interactive) Derby studio, it was originally a small and loosely organized outfit of artists and programmers who made games for the leading home computer platforms of the time—Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS.
One early highlight was Rick Dangerous, an Indiana Jones-styled platformer that could be seen as a forebear to both Tomb Raider and to Spelunky. Others included Chuck Rock, a side-scrolling platformer with a touch of British slapstick; AH-3 Thunderstrike (Thunderhawk outside North America), a highly rated combat helicopter sim; and Banshee, an alternate-history-themed arcade-style shoot-'em-up.
The studio was granted a license to develop Sega Genesis games before any other British developer, and in 1990 it set up its own publishing and distribution business. Core soon established itself as one of the stronger producers of Amiga and Sega CD games, which was no doubt a factor in its 1994 acquisition by CentreGold. Eidos then swooped in with a £17.6 million takeover of CentreGold in April 1996, six months before the release of the original Tomb Raider.
Core's organizational structure through all this time was fairly lax, and neither ownership change had any effect on the company's autonomy. "We had a lot of freedom," notes Roberto Cirillo, an artist who worked at Core from 1992 to the 2003 split (and one of the few staff who never worked on aTomb Raider game). "To me, it always really felt more like a place where talented people would come together to show off their ideas and skills in video-game development than an actual ‘work office.'"
Gavin Rummery, programmer at Core from 1995 and studio manager after the Smith brothers left, has similar recollections. The Smith brothers "just kind of left us to it," he says. "They'd had enough success [that] Jeremy knew if he got these crazy guys and wound us up and let us go [it'd all work out]."
The atmosphere within the studio seemed more akin to a collective of bedroom coders than a professional company with offices, and the building that they worked in only added to the feeling. "I've heard it described as a mansion," says Rummery. "It was a big Victorian house… and [it] had been converted into offices. It was really higgledy-piggledy inside. All the teams were in small little rooms, so we couldn't have fitted more than six people in our [Tomb Raider] room."
They didn't bother with design documents or any real planning, either, notes Nathan McCree, composer and sound designer at Core from 1993 to 1997 (and freelance composer on Tomb Raider III). "Everyone just chucked stuff in the game as fast as they could and somehow we made it all work," he says.
"There was no real hierarchy," says Andy Sandham, level designer and scriptwriter on Tomb Raiders III through V. Even testers could put in their ideas and be listened to; Sandham successfully pitched his idea for Blam! Machinehead during his job interview.
"A good example of the creative allowances they gave us was that I wrote the script where I killed Lara [in Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation]," says Sandham. "Effectively we came up with a script because we were getting very tired of doing Tomb Raider by Tomb Raider IV. So we decided to kill Lara.
"I don't know if we ever actually told Jeremy, but Jeremy was perfectly happy with it when he found out… It's just crazy that we were allowed so much freedom with such an iconic figure. They trusted us. They trusted our creativity."
While the atmosphere was often loose and casual, it could also be highly stressful. "I saw several people walking out of that building looking very grey from not having slept for 72 hours and feeling rather ill," McCree says. "There were camp beds in various places around the building where people would sleep. Many people were sleeping under their desks or in their chair.
"Even in a cupboard," he continues, laughing at the memory. "I found somebody asleep in a cupboard once."
Without much direct oversight, teams tended to fall into scheduling disarray. "What we would normally do on a project, is we would spend six months crunching 'til about two or three in the morning every night—and at that age we could still do it—and then we'd spend about four months pissing around [just relaxing and doing research for the next game]," recalls Sandham.
This approach didn't scale well during Core's rapid late '90s and early 2000s expansion. Bigger teams need structure and hierarchy because communication becomes less efficient as numbers go up. Cirillo wasn't happy with how growth was managed. He makes an analogy to raising a plant: "You know that generally plants need water and sun to grow, right? That doesn’t mean that if you inject the plant directly with water and leave it out all day in the sun it will grow stronger and faster; it will most likely dry, burn, and die."
"Teams got too big, too quickly, and too impersonally," he says.
McCree remembers a familial atmosphere that extended into the early Tomb Raider years that kept them all together, with 25 to 30 of them going on regular Thursday night pub crawls. But as the studio ballooned in numbers, outsiders shifted the balance. "We were hiring groups of people at a time, like three or four or five people would come from another company," McCree says. "And of course they would all be tasked to do something, and they would then form their own little pocket. And they didn't really sort of mix with the other crowd that had been there for a long time."
The happy family vibe began to disappear. "I think you could definitely feel a distinction between theTomb Raider team's treatment and any 'other' team's," recalls Cirillo when asked about tension and jealousy in the studio. "The Tomb Raider team—especially after the original creator Toby Gard left—quickly became a closed cast of the few 'elected.' As I remember it now I’m really not entirely sure which one of the 10 labors of Hercules a candidate would have been required to survive in order to enter the 'god' team."
McCree suggests that there was a tension almost right away when Tomb Raider's royalty checks started rolling in. "We were doing several projects at the time, and the guys that weren't on the Tomb Raider team were a little bit jealous and envious," he says. "The Tomb Raider team were getting quite big bonuses, so there was a lot of jealousy about that. And it caused a bit of unrest in the company. People were feeling a bit bitter because they weren't on the Tomb Raider project and so weren't earning as much money."
Where there's inequality, there's often discontent. And discontent within Core grew on both sides of the Tomb Raider fence.
Lara's arrival on the scene took the games industry by surprise and the world by storm. The relatively unknown British studio and its then-small-time publisher weren't exactly beavering away in secret, but there was next-to-no press interest for Tomb Raider until June 1996. Rummery remembers the moment that triggered the company's precipitous rise in fortunes: "We'd had 3Dfx come round with one of their graphics cards, and I got Tomb Raider working on it," he says. "So it was suddenly this thing that ran super slickly, amazing, and looked great."
They sent a demo of that to E3. "After that, all of the magazines wanted to talk to us," Rummery recalls. "Suddenly we were the hot thing."
Tomb Raider visionary Toby Gard—the animator who created Lara Croft and came up with the initial concept for the game—was unhappy. "The idea was to create a female character who was a heroine, you know, cool, collected, in control, that sort of thing," he told Gamasutra in 1998. But Eidos emphasized Lara's sex appeal in marketing, putting her in provocative poses and revealing outfits on posters and advertisements. She went beyond a simple comic-book-style caricature of an attractive woman to appear something more carnal and sleazy.
Marketing in those days was loud, laddish, and barely in touch with the video games it was tasked with selling. It was also detached from the processes within Core. "Marketing was seen as this invisible bunch of imbeciles that always kept asking these idiotic requests that we couldn't fulfill," recalls Sandham. "I don't think we ever met anybody from marketing. Marketing was this invisible thing that would just be there to irritate us when we were in the middle of a crunch."
Gard had his own visions for how Tomb Raider would be marketed. His idea for Lara, which he wanted to get across in movie-style posters and slick marketing material, was more sophisticated. "He presented these ideas to Eidos, and the Eidos marketing guys basically went, 'What? Go away, little man,'" says Rummery. "'We're not interested. What are you doing here? This is our job.' And he was so pissed off about that. He couldn't let that go."
Rummery describes a "poisonous atmosphere" in the room, with both Gard and programmer Paul Douglas in a bad mood all the time as they plotted their exit—both completely unwilling to work on the sequel Eidos had already announced.
After a couple of months, unable to cope with it any longer, Rummery picked up his computer and walked over to the Tomb Raider II team. "Toby came around a week or two later and collared me and Heather [Gibson] and went, 'Hey, I've got people talking to me. Are you interested in leaving?'"
They chose to stay, eager to see more of the "great big royalty checks" that were coming in every month and to fill the sequel with the many ideas they "didn't quite manage" to get into the originalTomb Raider. "So off he went," Rummery recalls. "A week later he and Paul [Douglas] have disappeared."
Tomb Raider's problems didn't end there. "By [the end of] Tomb Raider II we basically thought that's it. Finished," says Rummery. "We were a bit burned out." They felt that they'd done all they could with the existing engine, and their plan was to have Tomb Raider take a few years off from the spotlight while they worked on a PlayStation 2 sequel. The gods that be at Eidos decreed that there would be another Tomb Raider on the PS1, however, and it'd be out that year—made by another team at Core.
Blindsided, the primary team members of Tomb Raider II lost their passion for the series. They went off and did Project Eden, which was unsuccessful, while the new team got roped into doing threeTomb Raiders in as many years. Each of those games was criticized for a host of problems that were unavoidable in such tight turnarounds. Tomb Raider III was deemed too sprawling and too hard by an increasingly fickle press; Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation's focus on Egypt was too small of a step in the right direction; and Tomb Raider V: Chronicles was labelled a shallow, uninspired cash-in.
The Tomb Raider money machine survived all of this more or less completely intact, albeit with reduced profits as sales declined, but the studio making it was shaken to the core.
By the time Chronicles came out, another new team had spent a year working on a sixth Tomb Raider—this one finally making the leap to the PlayStation 2. The Angel of Darkness was a complete disaster, however, and not just because of problems with developing on the PS2.
"Because they'd got a PS2 dev kit the concept was effectively 'Lara visits every major city in the world that's built in GTA style,'" recalls Sandham, who left Core in 2001 just after the Chronicles team merged with the initial Angel of Darkness team. "When we looked at it, we were like, that can't possibly work. We need to immediately go in and cut 90 percent of that content out; otherwise, you're fucked."
The engine had to be thrown out and started again, while the story/concept was split up—The Angel of Darkness would be a series unto itself, complete with an offshoot series starring another character, Kurtis—and ultimately ravaged by massive slash-and-patch cuts that rolled through a final year of development that consumed almost the entire company.
Rummery and senior artist Adrian Smith—not to be confused with Jeremy Heath-Smith's brother of the same name—both recall how the fractured mess of a final game reflected the internal development environment. "It was 30 or 40 people," Rummery says. "It didn't have any organization to it. It wasn't clear who was in charge, who the leads were. There were lots of people with headphones on just all working on their bit and then one disaster after another as they realized things didn't tally up." Worse, explains Tomb Raider: Lara from L to A author Alexandre Serel (via translator Anaïs Orhant), "some developers arrived in the morning at work without knowing what to do for the rest of the day." (Serel's book is due for release under Pix'n Love Publishing in late summer.)
Smith notes that different hubs of people didn't want to talk to each other, and Jeremy Heath-Smith wasn't around enough to steer the ship back on course. "He was overseeing the new development projects that Eidos were picking up, so he was away quite a lot of the time from the actual company," Smith says. "I think he took his hand off the ball with Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness with having to go into that job role."
Long hours contributed to a demoralizing work atmosphere made worse by politics and uncertainty. Regular meetings of Jeremy and Adrian shouting put a cloud of depression over people's heads at the fear of losing their job, and Smith says that those in the trenches had little to no knowledge of the pressures being thrust on Core management. "I think they probably wanted to protect us from it," says Smith. "I think some of it they should have protected us from, but they should have used it also as a wake-up call to people to make sure they pulled their own weight."
It might not have mattered. The Angel of Darkness' two-and-a-bit-year development concluded after numerous delays, still several months before the game was ready. It had to hit an April 1 accounting deadline that an Edge Magazine Making Of article cites as having been crucial to Eidos' solvency.
Disjointedness and bugs aside, The Angel of Darkness still sold a respectable 2.5 million copies worldwide. But Eidos was fed up. Doing its best to distance the publisher from the poor reviews and negative public reaction, Eidos management ultimately decided that the best damage control move was to give the Tomb Raider franchise to one of its more reliable American studios, Crystal Dynamics. The team at Core was shocked.
"They just took it and ran," recalls Rummery. "It felt like a robbery, honestly. It felt like we'd been raided ourselves and the thing had been stolen."
Rummery had just returned to the studio after several months away, tasked with moving the company to a single unified technology instead of having a different engine for every game. He remembers the feeling across Core being one of relief at having the nightmare project out the door. They expected to be able to pick up the pieces, move on, and learn from the mistakes. But Eidos had other ideas.
"I think Jeremy had made enough enemies that the knives had been sharpened down at Eidos HQ," says Rummery. "They just booted him out." The company split in half, with the Smith brothers taking one half with them to Circle Studio while the other half stayed to see what happened next.
Great white hope
Core was reeling from the split. With management gone and Tomb Raider having shipped across the Atlantic, the remaining staff lacked direction.
Moreover, they were stunned. "It felt like we'd made one mistake, and [being gutted like that was] horrible for a company that had made one mistake," says Rummery. "It was such a shock that we weren't going to get a chance to do anything about it. We'd churned out these six massive games that had made so much money for Eidos and kept Eidos afloat, and the moment that we had the slightest slip-up, we were shot through the head, effectively."
Core had gone from untouchable to damaged goods in the space of developing one big game under difficult circumstances.
Andy Sandham, who left the company after Tomb Raider Chronicles and returned in 2005, believes the problem was that Core was now perceived as unreliable. The Angel of Darkness had been delayed multiple times and then missed some specific, important deliverables by a narrow margin, and the studio was consequently considered "trouble."
"We were seen as a kind of cowboy, renegade outfit, whereas the American studios like Epic, Electronic Arts, Crystal Dynamics, were the new model of professional," continues Sandham. He added that those developers had a reputation for delivering on time and on spec, with close collaboration with marketing. "Whereas we were still the sort of cowboys that were messing around with creativity, trying things out."
The future was corporate. It was hitting milestones and stretch goals that gelled with marketing plans and big franchises. And without a franchise, Core's days were numbered.
Rummery, who became studio manager in November 2004, had one last ace up his sleeve—a final big move that could have saved the studio. One day programmers Richard Morton and Phil Chapman showed him the engine for Freerunning, which was a running and jumping game then under development. The pair said that they could make another Tomb Raider with the tech. "I'd already been toying with the idea, thinking it's coming up to the 10th anniversary, Rummery says. He noted how well Capcom's 2002 remake of the original Resident Evil was received.
He put the pieces together in his head and pitched Eidos/SCi (SCi having taken over Eidos in 2005). They loved it, so a team of Tomb Raider veterans at Core set about remaking the original game in the new engine. It was going well, Rummery recalls—both looking and playing great. But Crystal Dynamics didn't want Core back in the picture, and the American studio built a rival demo.
"They convinced whatever the politics in SCi was like that it made more sense to just keep it all in one studio," says Rummery. "Keep the franchise in one place. And so ours was killed, and you'd have never heard if it hadn't been leaked by someone."
With the 10th anniversary edition squashed, Core languished in obscurity. The studio trundled along for a few more years, given nightmare projects they didn't want such as Shellshock 2 and later, after being sold from Eidos/SCi to Rebellion, Rogue Warrior. "It was clearly never going to work," says Rummery. "That was why, to be fair, the 10th anniversary was my great white hope."
99 problems but Lara ain't one
Rummery got out shortly after the Rebellion takeover, along with most of the remaining Core people from the old days. He'd had enough. "[It had] felt like trying to pilot a plane with its wings on fire or something," he says. "The best I could do was stop us crashing into the ground."
Rebellion Derby officially closed its doors in March 2010, at last bringing to an end one of the longest-running and most successful game studios in the world after several ruinous, soul-destroying years.
The story is hardly over, though. Core Design may be dead, but both Tomb Raider and the machinations that it set in motion continue to dominate the games industry today.
Tomb Raider was the testing ground for an approach to mass market game franchises that lives on to this day. It was where annualized sequels became de rigueur for big games owned by big publishers. And it shares more than a few parallels with the likes of Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and Halo, each of which have seen similar growing pains in the last few years.
The staggering amounts of money being spent on marketing and development in AAA game development makes it a risk-averse and hit-driven business on a colossal scale. "The AAAs now have got to fulfill delivery dates because of their marketing campaigns," says Sandham. "That started happening with us. But now with something like Assassin's Creed Unity there's something like 27 billion pounds spent on marketing, and so consequently they have to hit their delivery dates or their milestones or gold masters."
Marketing plans on AAA games are rigged down to the day and set up months or years in advance, so games that aren't finished on time ship with major bugs and flaws—as in the case of much talked-about trifecta Driveclub, Assassin's Creed: Unity, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Each was eviscerated by players and critics unwilling to accept their shaky launches.
Aggressive release schedules across multiple platforms are damaging to both developers and brands. If Core had been given room to breathe, Tomb Raider III would have been a PlayStation 2 exclusive launched alongside the system, and Tomb Raider VI would have likely not emerged until early in the PlayStation 3 era. Would it have kept Lara exciting and relevant, perhaps taking the wind out of Nathan Drake's sails? We'll never know because Eidos, much as the likes of Activision and Ubisoft are doing today, prioritized short-term profits over long-term resilience. Annualized sequels may seem safe, but Tomb Raider—or, if we look to Hollywood, the multitudes of Marvel/DC Comics films and Michael Bay's Transformers—is proof that they could be risky in the extreme.
And Sandham worries that Ubisoft in particular can no longer see the forest for the trees. "They're losing a sense of what made [Assassin's Creed] a fantastic franchise in the first place," he notes. "I think that's the problem: greed. It may not be one person's greed, but that's what started happening with Tomb Raider. Effectively we were pandering to deadlines that were based around hitting marketing milestones."
Richard Moss writes about emerging science and technology and shares untold or neglected stories about the people, ideas, cultures, histories, and communities behind video games. You can follow him on Twitter @MossRC.