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Interview: Crystal Dynamics Studio Head Talks Change, Evolution

Interview: Crystal Dynamics Studio Head Talks Change, Evolution

March 2, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

When one publisher acquires another, it means changes for all the studios involved in the acquisition. But since Eidos was bought by Square Enix, it's meant a year of change especially for longtime Tomb Raider house Crystal Dynamics -- itself no doubt one of the most important factors in the deal.

Much of the evolution that's taken place at Crystal Dynamics was underway on its own, however. At the beginning of last year, the team had brought closure to what it views as a trilogy in the history of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend, Anniversary and Underworld. As 2009 was beginning, the studio's art director Darrell Gallagher was asked to step up as head of studio, and he saw his first task as making sure Crystal Dynamics was correctly positioned to be competitive for the year ahead.

"Our approach is like a startup mentality," Gallagher tells Gamasutra. "We started re-establishing our values as a studio, took a look at our identity -- a good, honest look at our strengths and our weaknesses. We got really got great feedback from the staff... From that, we started moving forward, placing an emphasis on creative thinking, ownership, independence.... to look beyond this console generation and into the next."

No sooner was Crystal Dynamics' new "startup" process underway than Square Enix came into the picture. "We'd already started down this path, and when they came in they spoke to us about what we wanted to achieve at the studio," Gallagher reflects.

But rather than disrupt the process: "They believed in what we were doing," says Gallagher. "From our perspective, they have given me and the studio a great amount of support."

Although Gallagher can't reveal specific details of what the studio is working on, he says it's now fully staffed for two projects, after it pared down in mid-2009 to focus, as it said at the time, more directly on Tomb Raider. The biggest evolution for the staff is they now specifically aim for a culture of experimentation and ambition, he says.

"For us it's important that we take risks as we innovate," he says. "We've been wanting to create an environment where innovation and risks are approached. Personally, I think the way to push that benchmark is have the belief and the conviction and ambition to achieve that goal. We have a clear vision of where we want to go, and we're really pushing some bold decisions in terms of taking those next steps."

And how does a new parent and a new publisher affect those risk-taking goals? "Obviously we're not independent," says Gallagher. "But we're very much partnered with Square Enix, and they are very much embracing us as part of their culture as much as we're part of their culture."

"Essentially it's a partnership," he asserts. "We're working really together with our parent company to make sure we're achieving our collective goals."

In buying Eidos, Square Enix gained a major Western foothold, with a view toward becoming a global publisher. To Gallagher, being a global company goes beyond who the parent is. "It means a great opportunity to share and collaborate," he says.

"First and foremost, there's a tremendous heritage and a tremendous amount of history on both sides," he says. "It's a great opportunity to... look at our experiences and bring them together to shape a new vision."

And there are, of course, opportunities for concrete sharing: Technology, best practices, and "some brands" -- but don't look necessarily for IP crossover projects. "That's not what I mean by sharing," says Gallagher. "It's the key learnings on building brands." Crossovers are "not something we're actively doing between brands."

Speaking of brands, Gallagher says one unique change that's happened at the studio over the last year is that a major brand-building team headed by a brand director is now in-house, integrated with the studio and working directly alongside the developers.

"It makes us quite unique," he says. "It's something I feel is just an awesome opportunity to work closely with the brand manager and brand director to make sure we're bringing our products out... in lockstep with development."

He adds: "Branding, community, public relations, creative and research [are] all integrated into the studio, and it's kind of a big shift for a studio. It's a really great step forward for us."

Currently, Crystal Dynamic's approach to development mixes agile, light development and a case-by-case approach focused on problem-solving. "It's a mix," Gallagher says. All the studio's tech is in-house, and there is also a lot of collaboration with other studios on the technology base.

When asked what platforms the team is focused on or whether they've begun to develop games for the motion control input devices Sony and Microsoft will launch later this year, "I can't speak to what we are or aren't doing for specific platforms," Gallagher replies. But whatever they do work on is specific to an individual platform, he maintains.

"It's important that we look at tailoring and targeting a specific platform in a unique way rather than just taking the approach of porting across a multitude of different platform," he says. "It's about looking at what we want to create with our franchises moving forward, and really specifically targeting the experience around the hardware rather than have one that runs across five different platforms."

The "right" platform depends on the franchise, the studio team, and the audience, Gallagher adds. The increasingly divergent focus of current-generation platforms "is a great array of opportunities," he says. "We have an opportunity to tailor our games toward a particular experience or particular consumer. For us, we really need to ensure that we pick the right opportunities for our franchises."

Although it's developed numerous titles and brands over the years, Tomb Raider remains far and away its biggest. "What I can say is Tomb Raider, as a franchise, is absolutely part of the Crystal fabric," he says. "It's a key franchise and awesome to be part of... we're excited about what we've been exploring, and we're excited to share it with the fans at some point."

Gallagher says the team looks forward to sharing a little more about their plans in a couple of months.

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