Q&A: Ian Livingstone on 10 years of Lara
Eidos' product acquisition director thinks the Tomb Raider series can continue "for many years to come" and predicts the next-gen console war's winners.
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Ian Livingstone has had a long and varied career in gaming--he founded the role-playing game company Games Workshop with roommate Steve Jackson in 1975, and began distributing Dungeons & Dragons exclusively in Europe. In 1981, the two friends started a series of role-playing game books called the Fighting Fantasy series.
In 1993 he became an investor and board member of Domark--a game company that was taken over by Eidos in 1995. When Eidos itself was taken over by SCi in 2005, Livingstone was then the only former board member to be asked back. He is now working for Eidos again as product acquisition director--"which basically means I have my fingers in everybody else's pies," said Livingstone. He was also awarded an Order of the British Empire in last year's New Years Honours List for "Services to the Computer Games Industry."
Eidos' most famous character is Lara Croft, who is also the first successful female game protagonist. After breaking out of the game industry to acheive mainstream notoriety with the Tomb Raider games and a pair of big-budget feature films, Lara Croft hit on hard times with 2003's critical and commercial flop, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. This year has seen a revitalization of the Lara Croft character, with the franchise being moved from original developer Core Design to Crystal Dynamics for the well-received Tomb Raider: Legend. It's also Lara's 10-year anniversary, and development is under way on Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a reworked version of the original Tomb Raider due in 2007. GameSpot caught up with Livingstone at the London Science Museum's Game On exhibit to talk about his company's past, present, and future.
GameSpot: How did you ensure there was a smooth transition from Core to Crystal Dynamics for the development of the Tomb Raider series?
Ian Livingstone: Well, first of all, Crystal Dynamics isn't made up of some Johnny-come-latelys--they are a very well-run studio. They had technologies that absolutely suited the game and we employed some very clever people to ensure that [everything] was correct. We also bought back Toby Gard [Lara's original creator]. He had previously left the series, because he was a little concerned that Lara had become a little bit too successful, but we managed to convince him that there was nothing wrong with success, and he came back for Legend as the designer.
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness wasn't the best game. I think a lot of the team at Core Design were exhausted and they were struggling with the [PlayStation 2] tools, so we made the decision to move to Crystal Dynamics. It was a really tough decision. But, I think they did brilliantly and I think we vindicated ourselves with Legend.
GS: What's next for Lara?
IL: Obviously the brand and franchise will continue. We feel she's good to be adored by the public for many years to come, much like James Bond. James Bond has managed 40 years in cinema, and Lara 10 years in the computer gaming industry, which is amazing.
There's going to be a celebration [game] called Tomb Raider: Anniversary coming up next year. I'm not really allowed to talk about it, but, and I'm not saying this will be in the game or not, but can you imagine if that wonderful moment when she met T. Rex for the first time will be in it? Tomb Raider 8 is also in development at Crystal Dynamics, but again, I can't say anything about that right now.
GS: Any plans for a third movie?
IL: There may be a third movie--a lot of it depends on Angelina's availability, now she's all loved up with Brad [laughs]... We're talking to [the movie studios]--they're at the stage where a scriptwriter has been brought in, but as you probably know, that's a long way from the movie being green-lit.
GS: So no plans to kill her off anytime soon?
IL: Well I think that's the same as someone in the film industry saying that James Bond should be retired soon. As long as she's got an adoring audience, what's the point in doing that? If the world loves Lara, why deny the world Lara? She has millions and millions of fans round the world, and that would be a crazy thing to do. She has survived the test of time--10 years is a long time in games--but she's definitely one of the most famous digital icons of the gaming world. Lara is recognised everywhere--she has truly gone beyond the gaming niche. There was a Time survey of recognisable characters a few years back, and she actually scored higher than the pope! In short, I think it would be sheer stupidity to do that.
GS: Are merchandising and spin-offs or games more important to Eidos right now?
IL: Games are the fundamental business. It's about not diluting the intellectual property of Lara through too many articles. As a gamer myself, the most important thing is the gameplay. Ninety-nine percent of [Eidos'] business activities are dedicated to making the ultimate game. Merchandising, movies, and the rest is exposure for Lara.
GS: You say you turn down a big number of merchandising proposals for Lara, can you give me an example of something that sticks in your mind?
IL: There was one for, popsicles, is that what you call them? Anyway, whatever they're called, there was a proposal for something called Lick A Lara Lolly.
GS: So why did you turn that down?
IL: I wonder...
GS: What do you think it is about Lara that makes her so popular?
IL: When they first came out, games were bought by children, but they didn't stop playing games when they got older. What would a teenager rather look at? A hedgehog, a plumber, or Lara Croft's butt?
There are other great characters, but they're all aimed at a younger audience--Zelda, Sonic, Mario--there have been none that have been aimed at the more mature consumer. If you think of other successful games, you don't always remember the characters.
Women don't object to Lara because she's strong, independent, intelligent, athletic, sexy, and essentially she doesn't need men. And of course, men wouldn't object to [her] for the same reasons... And, as she's virtual, she can be anything to anyone.
GS: Why do you think there have been no other hugely successful female lead game characters?
IL: There have been cases of lead female characters, but they just haven't been very memorable games. It's not just about the character. The fact is that Tomb Raider was an extraordinarily good game--bar the wobble with Angel of Darkness, they all have innovative gameplay and great graphics. That's the thing with Tomb Raider, it was a great character and a great game.
GS: The hot topic of the moment seems to be the next-gen console wars. How do you think it will play out?
IL: The first two rounds of console hardware wars were won quite easily by Sony. This time it's very much a changed landscape and it's a three-horse race and--I know it's a cliche--too close to call. The Wii will definitely win in Japan, and I think the Xbox 360 will probably win in the US... Sony could possibly win in Europe because of the historical success of PlayStation in Europe.
However, overall, there's a lot of hot money on the Wii to win the total number of units sold. There are a number of reasons for that, [like] the innovation of gameplay offered by Wii. And they're not going into the same market as Sony and Microsoft, who are sort of arms racing in graphical experience, and therefore to my mind, people are likely to buy a 360 and a Wii, or a PS3 and a Wii, but they're not going to buy a PS3 and a 360, so Wii... I think it will probably win this time around.
But, never write off Sony. You do so at your peril, because, at the end of the day, software drives hardware sales, and Sony has always been brilliant at having software exclusive to their format. Tomb Raider drove the sales of the PlayStation, Grand Theft Auto drove the sales of the PlayStation 2, and no doubt Sony will have some wonderful IP or new games...that will drive the sales of the PS3. Obviously they don't relish the fact that they're going to be third to market with the most expensive console of the three, but there's a sort of historical inevitability that you can't discount Sony--at the end of the day they are the best consumer electronics brand in the world, so they will make it happen. Whether they'll win though, is not so clear this time.
GS: As a veteran role-player, how do you feel about the rise in popularity of massively multiplayer online role-playing games and the shift away from single-player, turn-based, more "traditional" games?
IL: I think it's just another experience, which is to be welcomed. The fact that games are moving through all sorts of different platforms to all sorts of new audiences can only be a good thing for the world and for content holders and owners. It used to be just PCs and then it became PCs and consoles and now you've got mobile phones, you've got handhelds like the PSP and DS, and of course you've got PC casual games, and now MMOs and persistent worlds and for me, it's a good thing. I don't think anything is going to particularly dominate, I think the world likes being united via the Web. To play people from different parts of the world either with them or against them is quite an exciting prospect, and a very enjoyable one. But I don't think other types of games are going to go away, I think just the whole market is getting bigger as more and more people in society play games in whatever form they enjoy the most.
GS: With Lara 8 in the works, what do you think about the amount of sequels in games right now?
IL: If you take on a licence, it mitigates the risk. For me, at Eidos, we've always created original content--Tomb Raider, Hitman, Just Cause, for example--they were all original IP. And it's much more of a risk, but if you execute that well, then in the end it's much better and you can reap the benefits.
GS: Where have all the great British game companies gone?
IL: To me, it's no coincidence we're great at making games... It's no fluke that games like Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider originated in the UK... We are one of the most creative countries in the world. In the '80s, Sinclair gave us the Spectrum and made home computing affordable to all. It started off as a cottage industry and grew. We started off great, and then we didn't realise how to expand from there, and compete with other countries--we kind of were a little fast past the first post. It seems to get to a point where [British companies] don't want to get any bigger or partner and merge with other companies. Creative people need to partner with other companies to run the business side of things, so they can get on with being creative. It makes me sad that a lot of the big [UK gaming] companies are now owned by other companies in other countries. People in the US and Japan take a long-term view on investing in people and technology, and we need to do that.
GS: Thanks for your time.
IL: My pleasure.