Q&A: Crystal Dynamics' LaMer On 10 Years Of Tomb Raiding
With Tomb Raider: Anniversary debuting for PlayStation 2, PSP, and PC next week, Gamasutra caught up with Lulu LaMer, the project's producer at Crystal Dynamics (Gex, Legacy Of Kain).
In the course of the interview about the enhanced remake of the first ever Tomb Raider, built to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Lara Croft, LaMer discusses topics including team organization, agile development, the co-development of the game with Buzz Monkey Software, and even the possibility of a return for Crystal Dynamics mascot Gex.
What's your background in the industry, and your role on this latest Tomb Raider title?
I was the producer on TR:A. My first project at Crystal Dynamics was Tomb Raider: Legend, where I was a producer for the design team. Prior to that, I worked on some other games, mainly sneaky ones, for Ion Storm Austin and Looking Glass Studios.
How is the team at Crystal Dynamics organized?
The TR:A team was pretty complicated; you don’t want to see the org chart spaghetti.
First, we had the core team - creative direction group - of about 15 artists, designers, junior programmers, and leads. Secondly, Crystal’s Creative Services department was the umbrella for all our cinematics work, animation, audio, concept art, and FX.
The CS group reported creatively to the TR:A leads, while their scheduling & management were negotiated between the CS producers and me.
The big wrinkle in team organization was that we co-developed the game with Buzz Monkey Software, a small company in Eugene. Their team had all our programmers, plus designers, artists, and producers. They were managed directly to the TR:A team at Crystal with support from their leads group.
Does Crystal Dynamics practice any agile development? In addition, how is iteration on gameplay mechanics done during the development of titles?
Yes, the TR:A team is very into agile and agile-like development processes (though we never called it that). It was a key goal of ours to get the entire game into a playable state as soon as possible and iterate from there rather than on paper. We also sought to minimize documentation in favor of prototyping and face-to-face (or phone) communication and negotiation.
We favor a merit-based democracy of ideas with the creative director & art director negotiating the few design/art conflicts we had and steering the decision-making toward our high-level goals. We had weekly reviews to provide a forum for feedback, and we kept the team sitting close together to maximize collaboration.
This worked brilliantly; I’ve never seen a more dedicated and invested team. However, I must say that the bigger and further spread out the team gets, the more necessary it is to create very specific expectations, processes, and scheduled review points.
What was the biggest challenge in revisiting the original Tomb Raider?
We all played and enjoyed Tomb Raider 1, but you can’t really get down to business if you’re overwhelmed by your sense of reverence for your subject. The challenge to TR:A was to create a game that triggered players’ memories of Tomb Raider while seeming fresh and different.
Tomb Raider gave us a starting point and the challenge of making a “remake” fresh and new gave us all the creative freedom we needed to go crazy with puzzles and movement challenges. I’m in favor of constraints in design, they can really force creativity.
Overall, we had a lot of creative freedom. We started with our hot list of important “nostalgia points” we needed to recreate, and we synched with Eidos early on to make sure all expectations were set appropriately. If you’re going to constrain design, it’s best to know what the constraints are before starting! There were very few times when we were at odds creatively with publishing.
Why exclude the Xbox 360 from the list of platforms planned for Tomb Raider: Anniversary?
Given the question, I guess you’d be surprised at how much more time making a 360 version on par with Legend would’ve taken. The engine was there, but the content doesn’t make itself. Why do you think team sizes are always expanding?
What is the biggest technical challenge or difficulty in developing for the PSP, which is obviously fairly powerful but somewhat constrained compared to even the PlayStation 2?
The Buzz Monkey team knew from doing Tomb Raider: Legend’s PSP conversion how best to build spaces that would work well on the PSP – smaller rooms, fewer CPU-intensive physics interactions. The problem was just that we were pushing the PS2 to its limits making massive, beautifully-detailed spaces with all the bells & whistles we could afford.
Those goals were strictly at odds with what we knew would work for PSP, but we decided that the impact of an all-out PS2 version was worth the pain of PSP conversion. Unfortunately, it was primarily a brute-force approach.
What lessons had the team learned in developing Tomb Raider: Legend that proved helpful on this project?
We had a leg up because our core team was so proficient in making games for the engine, so our pre-production time was really profitable - playing with tools that came in late on Legend and finding new ways to use our old tools. We managed to wow Legend’s tech leads that way, so that feels like an accomplishment.
As far as process goes, our development approach (get things playable, iterate, collaborate) was entirely based around what we learned worked (or didn’t work) on Legend. To be frank, the TR:A team is a bunch of opinionated, mouthy bastards, so it was a pleasure to get the opportunity to test our opinions. We had a good time doing it too!
Can you talk more about plans for the franchise after Tomb Raider: Anniversary?
I believe Jane Cavanagh announced several months ago that another Tomb Raider game was in development at Crystal Dynamics, so it’s no secret that we’re still pretty excited about TR.
How about original IP from Crystal Dynamics as a studio?
New IP is something that Crystal does consider when pitching new games and such. I think every publisher is after new IP, it’s just risky: we all know that.
Finally, whatever happened to [Crystal Dynamics mascot platform gecko] Gex? Will we ever see the lizard again?
Gex is currently residing in statue form outside one of our conference rooms, no doubt waiting to be someday dusted off. I haven’t really heard about a groundswell of passionate interest in Gex, but I’m sure nostalgia will grip someone’s heart enough to write a Gex pitch at some point.