These blogs were written by various members of Crystal Dynamics in 2008 and they appeared on the official website.
Hello and welcome to the Official Tomb Raider Development Blog!
~ Keir Edmonds - June 10th 2008 - Link
Over the next few weeks and months, we’ll be updating you on all the development news from Tomb Raider: Underworld and beyond. You’ll get the inside line on all the latest on Lara’s latest adventure, as well as behind the scenes info from Crystal Dynamics and the people that bring Lara to life. We’ll be covering every aspect of the day to day development of Underworld; from level design, how the music was made, to how they’ve made Lara more realistic than ever and you now have the chance to comment on the blogs, ask the Crystal team your questions and pass on your suggestions.
We’ll also be running some exclusive competitions with some great prizes, just for members of the official Tomb Raider community! Stay tuned!
~ Eric Lindstrom - June 20th 2008 - Link
I’m happy to report that after spending years in the shadows, I can finally answer the question I’m asked most often: “What’s the story about?”
Well, no one really wants to know too much – that would spoil it – but here’s what we call the log line:
For generations, stories have been told of the fearsome weapon of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Legend holds that Thor’s hammer had the power to smash mountains into valleys and to destroy even the gods. For more than a thousand years it has existed only as a myth...until now.
In an ancient ruin on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, Lara Croft uncovers proof of the Norse underworld and the mythical hammer. As she attempts to unravel the secrets behind these myths, Lara’s perilous journey leads her toward a forgotten power that, if unleashed, could lay waste to all civilization.
Hero or antihero? Fans of Tomb Raider games are well aware that Lara Croft is not in the business of saving the world. Occasionally we all benefit from her expeditions – like when she defeated the plans of Natla, the immortal queen of Atlantis, in the original Tomb Raider – but altruism is not what motivates her. She is driven to solve archeological mysteries by uncovering the primordial truths that evolved over time to become mythology. Often this relates to extremely ancient artifacts with inexplicable powers that inspired myths in later cultures.
In Tomb Raider: Underworld, the danger to the world comes from Lara herself, because the answers she’s looking for are locked in a ruin that also contains a dormant force which, if disturbed, could destroy everything. Knowing this, Lara stubbornly continues her quest anyway, dragging the world toward the abyss with her because she is willing to risk everything and everyone to solve the mysteries that vex her.
Crazy? Absolutely. But we’ve always known that Lara Croft is a little bit crazy. You’d have to be to do what she does. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
I hope that answers that question. Watch this space for updates of all sorts in the coming weeks.
Unlocking the Secrets of the Game Wall
~ Eric Lindstrom - July 8th 2008 - Link
Because a game is greater than the sum of its parts, it's important to put a lot of effort into creating the best assembly and ordering of parts possible. A lot of elements are going to be a part of the recipe for Tomb Raider: Underworld -- exciting story developments, new game mechanics, incredible discoveries, epic reveals, dangerous new enemies, amazing and varied locales, and more. We needed a way to organize all this into a well-paced experience.
So from the first day, I wanted to storyboard the game. Not just the cut scenes, not just concept art for key rooms, but the entire game experience in rough sketch form. For a movie, especially animated films, you storyboard the whole movie front to back, and you can even play an animated movie in storyboard form early on before you've started coloring in between the lines. You can't do that with interactive experiences, but all games have linear progressions, be they cut scenes, mechanics ramps, abilities scaling, etc., so experience storyboards can be a very important tool for interactive as well.
Once we had worked out the basic parts list -- which took a lot of juggling to get the mix right -- I worked with an artist, David Reyes, to storyboard the entire game. These storyboards are all up on a wall (we saved our creativity for the game and called this the "Game Wall") and form the road map for Tomb Raider: Underworld. Posted alongside are a few frames for the Mediterranean Sea section we've been talking about most recently.
Some weeks ago we had the pleasure of showing the game to some of our European colleagues -- these weren't executives, but development people like us -- and after a lot of ooohs and ahhhs, one of them asked me, "Wow, how much more is there?" I laughed and told him we weren't halfway through yet, and he was blown away. He wasn't talking about minutes of gameplay, which he had no means of judging by the way we were flying through the game (here in the building, Lara can fly, but before anyone gets too excited by that, it's a cheat we can't ship because unless used correctly it crashes the system). He was talking about the sheer number and variety of amazing moments he'd seen. By the time we reached the final fade out, he told us what we already know, that we truly have something amazing here.
So I'm adding all the Game Wall storyboards to the unlockables list for Tomb Raider: Underworld. It's pretty cool as a glimpse into how we can make an epic experience from beginning to end -- not just putting all the goodness in the first half, like some game developers do -- so I think I'll make players beat the game on the hardest settings to unlock them.
That, or you can wait a week or two after the game ships and find them somewhere on the internet.
P.S. Yes, the weapon on Lara's back last week is her tranquilizer gun.
Crystal Dynamics at E3
~ Eric Lindstrom - July 16th 2008 - Link
The only thing more exciting and exhausting than a press demo is dozens of them, back to back, solid for three days. That's E3 in a nutshell. Every presentation, every interview, every conversation is different, but at the end of the first day, it's all a blur and I can only hope I didn't say anything I wasn't supposed to reveal until next month. I talked to more people than I could count, ran through half a deck of business cards, tried not to make eye contact with the video cameras during interviews, and then went to the 1UP party and just listened for awhile, happy to let everyone else do the talking.
What I remember most are the gasps, the eyebrows going up, the scribbling in notebooks, and going the entire day without eating, except for the chocolate chip cookie I had for lunch. I also remember the unfairness of giving on-camera interviews where if I screw up or mumble it stays in, but if the interviewer flubs they get to do it again. But everyone was very excited about what we were showing, even stone-faced journalists who remained inscrutable to the end and only then cracked a smile and said the game looked fantastic, that they couldn't wait to play it, and when is Tomb Raider: Underworld shipping again? November.
Tomorrow will be an even longer day, with more demos and interviews than today, including two going out live, one in the morning and one in the evening. And damnit, once again I'm showing parts of the game that already look and play better back in the office than they do in the presentations now, because every week more goodness gets dialed in and polished. Oh, well, as problems go, it's a good one to have, for all of us.
Look for the teaser coming out this week -- it's amazing and a guaranteed conversation starter. I'm glad it's coming out after I've left E3, though, because it's hard to refuse to answer questions, and after the teaser airs, there will be plenty of questions that will not be answered until people play the game for themselves.
To Spoil or Not To Spoil
~ Eric Lindstrom - August 8th 2008 - Link
I’ve been accused by some fans of giving vague descriptions and evasive answers to questions about Tomb Raider: Underworld, and all I can say is yes, guilty as charged. But for good reasons. From the beginning I’ve been asked, “Are we going to see Croft Manor?” To that question I’ve always answered a simple yes. What else could I say, knowing what I knew about the trailer we would eventually release but didn’t want spoiled? My half-answers and evasions are often protecting what fans really don’t want to know before they play the game, or features that are intentionally being kept flexible until the end because the overall quality and taste of the final soup is more important that any one ingredient that goes into it.
When it comes to specific features, a lot of what makes this game so exciting comes down to details; lots and lots of details. Some features that people talk about the most, or have the biggest impact – and I’m not only talking about Tomb Raider games here – are details that occurred to someone late one night and two days later were in the game. But just as often a feature can be planned from the very beginning, and then late in development it needs to be cut because for whatever reason it just doesn’t contribute properly, or it can’t be debugged. This flexibility is very important, and so when someone asks a simple question like “How is health going to work?” I don’t answer definitively, because until we ship, such a sensitive and influential system for a game like this can’t be locked down. If we’re not happy with how players are responding to the experience as a whole – if the soup doesn’t taste great yet – we need to be able to make easy but significant changes to ingredients right until the end.
This also stops me from shouting out some of the really cool details we have now, and continue to add each week as we polish the game from top to bottom. Things like how Lara puts her hands up to protect her face from the heat when she gets close to fire. Or the way you can grab a cliff edge, and if you press the ledge-up button at the right time, she can seamlessly loft herself up to stand atop the cliff edge. Or how Lara presses her lips together when she’s holding her breath underwater. Or any number of details we’ve put in which might not stay in for some reason, including the things I recklessly revealed just now.
I do hope to be able to give more details about Tomb Raider: Underworld in the coming weeks, but when I give slippery answers, please believe that I really do want you all to know everything about the game, but by experiencing it yourself more than by hearing me explain it. Having said that, be on the lookout for more information about Lara’s expedition to Thailand, coming out in magazines any day now, and online in a week or so. There was no way to show off Thailand without including what many fans will consider spoilers, but to make you feel better, the giant statues that Lara interacts with are part of a puzzle much more elaborate and multi-staged than the media will reveal – it’s the nexus point of many related challenges and puzzles that must be overcome to progress.
In the meantime, here's some exclusive concept art to give you an idea of what to expect.
A Day in the Life - Kathryn Clements
~ Kathryn Clements - August 15th 2008 - Link
There is never, ever a typical day when you’re a Brand Manager for Tomb Raider. It's part of the reason why I love it so much, keeps you on your toes. Plus it's very gratifying seeing a such a brilliant vision and character coming to life.
Really though, you don’t want to hear about what a day in my life is really about.. I know the scoop, this needs to be a thinly disguised way of telling you loads of juicy, secret stuff about what’s coming up and how our Lara is faring in Tomb Raider: Underworld. So, let’s see what happened today…
First up, my Blackberry is my alarm clock. People call me Blackberry Kat at work as it’s permanently attached to my fingers. Crack-berry, smack-berry it’s all the same. Being a Brit and being based Stateside means I’m hyper aware of what happens over night in Europe so I’m straight on it in the morning answering my Euro colleagues’ emails whilst I’m still in my pyjamas, I doubt I make any sense. So this morning, hot topics were; the international synchronisation of the first Tomb Raider: Underworld gameplay video and some rather lovely Tomb Raider: Underworld Collector edition packs and merchandise that are in the works (give us a month and Keir will have all the details).
Did you know we were releasing the first Tomb Raider gameplay trailer today? You are so in for a treat.. there’s been a question buzzing around the forums on the story and you’ll find the answer once and for all today…
Let’s scoot through the day… 9 am – 11 am. Call UK about Tomb Raider packaging, confirm that the back of box design is finalised, talk about what the special edition pack will contain and how it will look. Then speak to Kerrin who looks after PR for all the PAL countries that don’t have Eidos offices. Discussed what we will show at Leipzig and how we will get lots and lots of covers for magazines in the countries he looks after (basically we’ll give the journalists hands on previews of three levels) and when those previews should come out (mid September). Following that walked straight into a meeting to learn all about a Canadian exhibition and some very interesting opportunities that were available to Tomb Raider.
11am – 1pm. Ran around, lay on floor, made sure everyone was synched up for the launch of the trailer. Check out Gamespot at 4pm PDT. Reviewed and discussed a video that shows the very special Alison Carroll becoming Lara Croft. (It’s coming soon, next week hopefully) I’m in it – wish I’d brushed my hair beforehand… hindsight is a beautiful thing. It’s been a crazy week for Alison. I spoke with her on Tuesday. She is a wonderful, warm and very beautiful person (in every sense of the word) and is so proud of being the face of Lara. Personally I love her. What a woman!! She can do three back flips in a row without breaking sweat (in a very small space) and still has a smile afterwards. We wanted her so badly as the next Lara and have being training her hard. And she put Tomb Raider in the news … we made the BBC, ITN and Channel 5 news in the UK plus so many papers. She’s great.
2pm – 4pm. We always have a ‘synch’ meeting on a Thursday at 2 (such corporate speak, I know). There’s a group of us. Mike Cala (Sr Designer – makes all the ads, packaging – very talented, has a certificate for boxing – don’t mess). Seamus (responsible for all the renders, very ,very good artist, likes spam, funny, I have a badge with his head on it if anyone wants it), Rose (singer and dancer and producer, very organised and calming) Matt Knoles (Marketing Mgr in the US, broke his foot playing football and has bionic powers now) Darrell Gallagher (Creative Director for Crystal, a fellow Brit, with an incredible eye for detail and brilliant imagination) Estuardo (captures all our videos, great man, has a problem with biscuits but knows how to make Lara move) and Jae (does all the screens and so much more, an absolute rock and diamond, brings in brownies – what’s not to love?). The meet is all about making sure we’re on track and delivering everything that’s needed. Today we talked mainly about the trailer (out today – shameless plug) and the next ‘Beneath the Surface’ video which features Toby Gard and Eric talking all about the Tomb Raider: Underworld story… it’s just been completed. Keir will have to tell you later when it’s coming, we couldn't decide in the meet.
That actually took us up to 3pm. Can’t say what happened after, it was a meeting but what we talked about is all top secret…
The rest of the afternoon / evening is a blur. Caught up with Eric on some presentations he was doing the next day, answered emails, looked at the latest version of the game (Thailand level – I didn’t know that Lara could rappel and shoot until today). And annoyed people generally as is my job, us Brand people we always want stuff.
So that’s it. That was my Tomb Raider day. I am now going to sign off, fall into bed (it's late) and send this to Keir so that you can have this for tomorrow.
Thank you very much for having me as a guest on the forum. Enjoy the trailer and all the news about the Thailand level that's going to start emerging online.
Let Keir know if you want anything (that's also part of my job :))
~ Eric Lindstrom - September 9th 2008 - Link
Some people in the office suggested that my next blog should be about how a simple conversation with Toby Gard resulted in a torn ligament, a splint on my left hand for three weeks, and ongoing physical therapy probably until we’re done with the game. But seeing as I can’t explain the cinematic I was acting out without spoiling the story, not to mention that the explanation makes me look pretty stupid, and you really just want to hear about the game and not my work-related injuries anyway, I’ll instead talk about one of our new features: Player Tailoring.
There are three aspects of Player Tailoring, as follows:
The first aspect is about immersion. You can separately choose to display or hide the following types of meta-information: whether reticules appear on enemies during combat, whether helper buttons appear when interacts are possible, and whether training panels appear telling you how to perform new mechanics. Some people like having meta-information displayed to keep things moving along, and some people dislike the intrusion these meta-displays represent. Both types of players can have what they want.
The second aspect is about physical challenges. Rather than having a single difficulty setting (though the game does start out with one that you can fine tune later) there are multiple settings to tailor the action elements of the game. You can set how healthy enemies are (how much damage kills them), how healthy Lara is (how much damage it takes to kill her), how much ammunition you can carry, and how quickly you have to react to saving grabs when you lose your grip.
The reason these are broken out separately is because players define challenge differently, and everyone is interested in different types of play. For example, some players love puzzles but don’t like fighting so much, so now they can turn down the health of enemies, not because they aren’t up to the challenge of stronger enemies, but because they want to de-emphasize the role of combat in the experience and blow through it more quickly – just a burst of excitement and then back to the exploration and puzzles. But those people who want less life-threatening combat don’t necessarily want an easy time exploring so they don’t want a free pass with respect to making saving grabs or taking falling damage. By adjusting these four settings independently, players can adjust their experience with respect to action and danger to their taste.
The third aspect is about mental challenges. At any point a player can call up Field Assistance and hear Lara give a hint or a task. A hint tells you, among all the different things in front of you, which would be a fruitful area to focus on. A task is something you can do that will advance you some amount. There is no concept of “When will my next hint be available?” because anytime you ask for assistance, Lara will always tell you to do something you haven’t yet done.
Why is this feature important? Just like I talked about for combat, people define and seek out challenges differently. Some people like exploring and fighting and puzzles, but if they're struggling with a puzzle, they’re ready to get the answer from a FAQ file on the Internet and get moving again. Why not make that feature available in an intelligent way, in the game fiction, where you don’t have to worry about reading a bunch of other spoilers while looking for the one you want? Not only does this feature support people who want the Tomb Raider experience but light on the puzzles, it’s good for the puzzle hounds because if it weren’t for Field Assistance, there’s no way we could have included so many elaborate and complex puzzles.
So by giving players the ability to control the display of meta-information, change the difficultly of individual game elements and not the game as a whole, and to access puzzle help when they wish without penalty, a whole lot of people will have a lot more fun, without anyone’s choices affecting the experiences of other players. That’s what Player Tailoring is about, and why it’s the way of the future.
Oh, the one thing the game will not tell you is how to get anywhere. Field Assistance will tell you what to do but not where to go or how to climb there. That’s up to you. Good thing Lara has a sonar device in her PDA, which you can use to map out the ruins in detail and help you navigate.
That is, if you want to. :)
Health System Explained
~ Eric Lindstrom - October 17th 2008 - Link
Tomb Raider: Underworld is in submission! For those who don't know, that means we have submitted final code for approval. Once granted, we're done!
If you don't believe it, take this as proof. I immediately fell ill and have been home sick for over two weeks. First time I've been sick in five years, because this is the first time I could afford to be. A body knows things like this.
I'm in the UK for the official press launch, but because of lead times I don't think anyone will see the results of that right away. So for now, I'll answer a question a lot of people have been asking for a long time: how will the health System work?
You arrive at each new location with full health and no health packs. Each location has health packs you can find -- ancient remedies still lying around (that your mother would never approve of you consuming) or first aid packs in the few places where people are nearby. If you get extremely hurt and don't use a health pack, however, Lara regenerates health slowly on her own till she reaches around 25%. It's frustrating to be so close to death if you have no health packs such that even a stumble can kill you, so in line with What Could Lara Do, if she's strong enough to run and jump, she's strong enough not to die upon stumbling.
Hidden in each location is a hard-to-find Relic. Finding one extends your total health bar by about 17%. Finding all six in the game doubles Lara's max health. Health is displayed in the upper left corner in two ways. A silhouette of Lara is filled with color: green is perfectly health, with yellow, orange, and red for increasing injury. For people who don't perceive color variation well, there is also a vertical bar alongside that shows Lara's health. When you find Relics and increase Lara's total health, a second vertical bar is added and instead of green meaning full health, Lara goes farther into the rainbow toward blue.
There you go. I'll come back in the weeks ahead and answer other questions I've been holding back on till we finished the game.
Tomb Raider: Underworld Demo
~ Eric Lindstrom - October 24th 2008 - Link
So it's official…the Xbox 360 demo for Tomb Raider: Underworld will be released on October 28th! It was a real struggle to pick a location -- they're all so different and cool -- for a number of reasons. We didn’t want to show something too far into the game, both for spoilers and because of the training ramp. We also wanted to provide an area that maximized opportunities to do everything that's new throughout the game, but no single early location could do that. We also wanted to show an area that was unusual for Tomb Raider games, but in the end the Thailand expedition is just so beautiful and full of play opportunities that it really was the only choice. And despite the fact that the demo ends basically at the doorstep of the big central puzzle complex, it still provides more gameplay opportunities and minutes than most other game demos I’ve played.
It starts on the coast, and you get to climb up the cliff face to move inland, but don’t hurry! There are numerous nooks and secret cave areas to discover and spiders to stomp (they're very nasty -- don’t let them jump on you). And here’s a tip: the sharks you'll see aren’t very hungry, so they generally won’t attack you if you don't hurt them first. Try swimming with them as if they were dolphins -- it’s very cool.
Further inland are some pretty aggressive Bengal tigers, and don't forget, if you don't want to kill them, use the tranq gun. While they are sleeping you can watch them breathe, but don't linger too long -- they wake up relatively quickly and not in a good mood. Even further in, observant players will get a glimpse of some of our crypid enemies keeping an eye on you and waiting for the right moment to attack…but you'll have to play the full game to get into that battle. And it's very exciting with them chasing you up the walls and running along the ceiling after you!
The puzzles in the demo are lightweight but show off some of our basic gameplay -- we really couldn’t put in larger puzzles without giving away too much of the game…this is just supposed to be a taste.
Early reviews are just starting to come in, and we've heard from numerous people in the media that this is best Tomb Raider game ever. Check out the demo for Xbox 360 on October 28th, and we're convinced you'll like what you see. But you'll have to play the full game when it comes out in November to get the full Tomb Raider experience, and finally you'll get to see for yourself that this adventure is truly…well, you know what I’m going to say.
Creating the Environment Artwork for “Coastal Thailand”
~ Patrick Sirk - Friday, October 17th, 2008 - LINK
From my Backyard to Bangkok: Creating the Environment Artwork for “Coastal Thailand”, Tomb Raider Underworld
Hello readers! I was recently asked to write a brief article describing my experience as the Environment Art Director for Underworld. The timing is good because with the intensity of production finally at an end, I have had time to relax and reflect upon the past two years.
With the release of our downloadable demo, “Coastal Thailand”, I thought I’d share our philosophy, goals, experience and adventures while creating the artwork for this beautiful level.
At the outset, I wanted the environments to have a foundation of visual realism. All the details needed to be believable. This meant the architecture, the lighting, the texturing; even the species of plants had to be chosen for their realism. My philosophy is that since many fantastical things are portrayed in Tomb Raider and if those elements of fantasy are represented against a backdrop of realism; then the player’s experience will be more engrossing; the fantasy becomes real.
So, what did this mean for production? An incredible pain in the neck, but well worth it.
I jumped on a plane, digital camera and tripod in hand and off I went. I know what you’re thinking, “this guy has one of the best jobs in the world”. Well that trip turned out to be one of the most grueling 7 days in my life.
The trip started with a malfunctioning computer chip on the plane out of San Francisco. This caused a 6 hour delay in taking off and they had to switch planes with a layover in Tokyo instead of Bangkok. Finally I arrive in Cambodia (where the best ruins are) and with only 3 hours sleep, I meet my guide and off we drive to the fist site. I step out of the air conditioned car into the 105 degree incredibly humid climate and unpack the camera. Of course, heavy condensation immediately forms over the camera body and lens and my heart sinks.
I thought that I had just fried the electronics because the condensation was so extreme. But with some lens wipes, I’m good to go. FYI: trick to preventing this from happening is to keep the camera in a zip lock bag. When the temperature equalizes, unzip the bag and you’ll be fine.
The next 5 days are productive, about 1000 shots a day centered in and around the Angkor Wat complex. But I experienced really bad problems with the heat. I could not drink enough water and I was constantly exhausted. It didn’t help that my internal clock never had a chance to adjust to the 12 hour time difference. But overall, I would do another trip like this in a heartbeat. The results we got from high end photography are evident in the Thailand level. Not only did the artists have excellent reference for the architecture but they created virtually every texture directly from the photographs.
It must be said that all of my effort pales in comparison to the skill and talent of the two primary artists on the Thailand Level; Matt Abbott and Jacob Tai. It was these two that really brought the level to life. I just supplied some ingredients.
After a few months of hard work, the artists had built their geometry and applied the textures and things were looking quite nice, except one primary element was missing: the foliage.
We had always planned on the Thailand level as our deep, lush exotic jungle experience. The artists had built many beautiful plants and we began to populate the environment with literally thousands of plants. And then the frame rate plummeted. This was one of the most frustrating problems encountered while developing Tomb Raider: Underworld.
Were we drawing too many polygons? Were the materials too complex? Were the textures too large? Was our draw distance too far? The engineers could not identify a singular issue that was causing the massive hit in frame rate. We ran tests with a million poly’s and our frame rate was fine. We experimented with overloading the scene with complex materials and still the frame rate was ok. It seemed that a combination of everything was the culprit.
So this meant that we would have to reduce everything and that was not acceptable for me. We wanted hundreds of plants and we could only afford a few. After some experimentation, I found a trick to better use shadow casting. Our performance shot back up and we could include everything I wanted in the scene. That we found a way to keep everything the artists had worked so long and hard on was a huge win and a massive relief.
I hope you enjoy playing Underworld as much as we enjoyed making it.
Cheers for now,
How To Survive A Sinking Ship
~ Simon Craghead - November 7th 2008 - LINK
How To Survive A Sinking Ship
As an environment artist at Crystal Dynamics, my job is to build the world that the player explores and interacts with. There are many considerations that go into creating a fun video game environment. Some of the them are technical, some are more artistic, while others focus on the game play or the story. All of these elements are vital to the player's enjoyment of the finished game, which is why game development is a very collaborative process.
One of the fun aspects of working in the games industry is that things are changing all the time. Technology and tools are constantly evolving and so are the expectations of gamers. Often, we set creative goals at the beginning of a project, not knowing exactly how, or even if, we can achieve them. This is a really exciting element of making games. On Tomb Raider: Underworld, one of these challenges involved a sequence where Lara escapes from a sinking ship.
The creative brief was something like this: after rescuing her friends from a burning mansion, battling the kraken (a giant octopus,) and narrowly escaping a watery grave, Lara finds herself surrounded by lethal mercenaries on a freighter in the middle of the Mediterranean. Pursuing a relic stolen from her earlier in the level, she blasts her way to the lower decks of the ship where she meets some familiar faces and has a few shocking revelations. Oh... and the ship sinks.
Basically, at the end of level one we wanted to put Lara in an exciting “action movie” situation where things keep progressing from bad to worse, forcing the player to be creative and to use the environment in unexpected ways. Escaping from a sinking ship was a fun way to do this and while putting Lara in a new setting for a Tomb Raider game.
Although the team was excited about the concept for this sequence, it was almost cut from the game several times because no one was actually sure if we could technically pull it off.
A big part of the challenge was that our game engine had never really been used to do something like this. To make it work, we would need to turn a large section of the ship interior into a dynamic object and fill it with smaller objects that would tumble around as the ship starts sinking.
We’d had large moving objects in our environments before, but never a large moving object that actually was the environment. From a technical standpoint, the biggest hurdle would be ensuring that the player model and the game camera played nicely with the environment as it moved around. To the average game player, this may not sound like a big deal, but I assure you, in "game engine" world, this is the kind of technical challenge that keeps programmers and producers awake at night.
From a design and art standpoint, there were additional challenges. This ship sinking madness happens early in the game, so, while we had to make sure that the excitement factor was high, we also had to ensure that the difficulty level wasn't punishing for a novice player.
The sequence was meant to be fast paced, which meant we would need to quickly establish consistent ways for Lara to climb through vertical spaces in the ship which made clear visual sense to the player.
To help solve this, we used lighting and materials to give the player visual cues about where to go next. We also employed bundles of round pipes as a kind of "visual language" to guide the player.
How obvious should a path be before it becomes boring, and how challenging should a puzzle be before it's totally frustrating? These are questions we're constantly asking ourselves. As artists and designers it’s vital to the players’ enjoyment that we strike a healthy balance between design clarity, game play challenge, and visual realism.
Of course, if we do our jobs well, the player should never even think about any of this. The game should be so engaging that all of our hard work just blends seamlessly together into an exciting, fun player experience, which is something that I feel we've achieved in Tomb Raider: Underworld.
Thanks for reading! I hope you've enjoyed this brief look at some of the challenges that we faced making the latest Lara Croft adventure. Tomb Raider: Underworld has been a huge team effort over several years and the result is a game that I think we're all very proud of.
Creating the Environment Artwork for “Mexico”
~ Patrick Sirk - November 7th 2008 - Link
Creating the Environment Artwork for “Mexico”, Tomb Raider Underworld
The Mexico level in Tomb Raider: Underworld was our test bed scenario. In preproduction, we built a medium sized area that was to include dense jungle and overgrown ruins, next gen material and lighting techniques, combat, motorcycle gameplay and of course, Lara’s fluid movement over a variety of surfaces.
The pre production exercise was good and we proved out much of our production technique however, as the environment art lead, I quickly realized that to reconstruct the Mayan ruins themselves, we would have to travel to Mexico and do extensive reference photography.
My purpose was twofold; first I wanted the player to feel like they were really in Southern Mexico, exploring a believable “lost Mayan temple”. To achieve this, attention to architectural accuracy was key. The Mayan world has become somewhat iconic and we have all seen countless images of their civilization in the media. I felt that if we did not represent the Mayan world accurately, our audience could feel cheated.
Second, I wanted to provide the artists with a vast array of digital photographs that they could manipulate in photoshop to create textures for the game. We shot in two styles. The first was wide angle, establishing shots. The second was up close detail of the Mayan stonework and carvings. All told, we returned with 10,000 hi resolution images from the Yucatan Peninsula. The actual game level takes place further south but the condition of the ruins in the Yucatan is much better. Our strategy was to build the ruins fairly clean and then decay them through next gen material techniques. This way, the realism of the architecture could always be recognized under the layers of dirt, moss and vegetation.
So, I and fellow artist, Scott Anderson, flew down to Mexico for 12 days. We arrived in Merida and then headed south in a little rented car. I expected a nice, Toyota Landcruiser but it seems that the production department felt that we should go more economically. I immediately felt cheated but now I realize that they were just looking out for us. Had I had the Landcruiser, I would have tried to take it to the most remote, extreme areas of the Yucatan. In fact, I still dream of doing this some day. I really fell in love with this part of the world, especially the remote interior. There is a certain old world simplicity and charm that immediately seduces you.
In any case, our first site was Uxmal (pronounced, ooshmal). I highly recommend visiting this ancient city. Some fantastic pyramids and courtyards will provide a great day of leisure exploration.
We tried to enter the site with our tripods but were immediately stopped by guards. Turns out we needed a tripod permit for about $3,000. Sheesh! So for the remainder of the trip, we shot at a high f-stop and bumped up the “ISO” value when needed. The pictures turned out just fine. When playing Mexico, look for the large temple with the broken “windows” facade. This temple is based specifically on architecture found at Uxmal.
We spent about 4 days exploring the ruins around Uxmal and on the 4th day, we decided to become adventurous. A remote ruin shown on the map deep in the heart of the Yucatan piqued our interest. It was about 100 miles distant and the map showed roads leading to it so what the heck, off we went.
The trip began fairly well but every time we arrived at a little village, we became lost and stress levels climbed because it was extremely difficult to find your way back on to the main road. You would figure that a main street would just flow through the town but not a chance. I must have looked like the ultimate gringo tourist. Twice I drove down a street and I did not need to speak Spanish to clearly understand what was being shouted at me, “YOU’RE DRIVING THE WRONG WAY!”
The stress levels immediately dropped once we were back in the countryside. The lush greens and warm humid air gave us courage for the next village. At last we arrived at the remote ruins, high in the hill country of the Yucatan. Not a soul around, not even a caretaker! But clearly a sign stated, “No entrance past 5” and it was 5:30 and still plenty of daylight. Although I had visions of Federales hauling us off for “looting”, we just could not help ourselves. To have the entire site to ourselves was just too good to pass up so in we went.
The site provided some excellent images of unrestored Mayan architecture. The late afternoon sun made some of the shots almost magical. We poked around a bit and then we noticed on a jungled hillside nearby, a Mayan Temple poking out. It looked so exotic, as if discovered for the first time. Both of us were enthralled. We had to make it up there. A really rough dirt road seemed to lead in that direction and throwing reason aside, we climbed into the Ford Escort and began the ascent.
Within minutes, I became stuck and now my priority was getting the car the hell out before a park official would bust us. And then we heard it. A motorcycle was approaching! You could just imagine the scenarios I was painting in my mind (Midnight Express, Papillion, to name a few).
Around the bend rode a man. Scott yelled “GUN!” and I whispered, “Holy shit”. This guy had a huge rifle strapped to his back. He approached on the bike, looked at us briefly and continued on down the road, his son riding on the back.
Scott and I laughed, got the car unstuck and drove back. On the way down, we noticed many men hiking towards the hills with rifles on their backs. We both agreed; it was awesome that there were still places in the world where men would go hunting in the evening to feed their families. The rest of the Mexico trip went without a hitch but nothing was really as memorable as this day.
Only Days To Go!
~ Eric Lindstrom - November 14th 2008 - Link
It’s great to see so much excitement out there over the demo we released for Tomb Raider: Underworld. So many positive posts everywhere, and this is only a teaser! It’s also good to hear people saying that it’s taking them anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours to finish, to varying degrees of completeness. This is what I was trying to say before when asked how long the game would be. I sometimes get busted for dodging answers, but often it’s because there is no simple answer. With a stretch of demo gameplay that’s just a taste in the grand scheme of the game, with this much playtime variation, how can I give a number for how long the whole game will last? To answer that, I really wanted to wait for you all to play some and help me with the math.
Scribbling on the back of an envelope here…the demo covers less than a fifth of the Thailand area, and much less than a fifth of the playtime given that there are no ancient device puzzles to figure out in the demo. And given how small an area the demo is compared to the entire game, using the 20-to-120 minute metric, that means the whole game is easily many times longer than Legend, depending on how much you rush through it without exploring and how long you struggle with the puzzles (or use Field Assistance). Thorough people could easily spend 50-60 hours playing through and finding all the hidden rewards and such. But I really can't be more specific because there is so much variation of playtime for Tomb Raider: Underworld.
As excited as we are about the demo, we are even more excited about the game. With as much as we managed to show in this little stretch of Thailand, there were so many major aspects of the game that you haven’t played. Loads of puzzles, from small local challenges to huge ancient set pieces are in store. Exploring the environment, finding the elements you need to understand, manipulate, and master to get ahead, in dramatically different environments around the world. Encountering many more enemies protecting even deeper truths about the ancient past. (Some of you already got a head start on this, finding ways to get to the floor of Bhogavati even though the demo was supposed to end before you met the naga…congratulations! We knew you would figure out a way eventually – that’s why we put invisible walls in the hallways below…)
I know it’s hard to wait – it’s hard for us, too, because we want to see everyone play the whole game and get answers to long held questions – but the time will fly by, you’ll see. It's only a week away!
Croft Manor Environment Art Blog
~ Jeremy French - November 14th 2008 - Link
Tomb Raider: Legend was one of the first games that I played on the new-at-the-time Xbox360. To me, one of the most striking levels of the game was the Croft Manor. Not only did you get to see where Lara spent all of her time away from exploration, but it was also some of the most stunning artwork on the console. Even her home was filled with mysterious puzzles and a web of interactivity. Now, imagine my excitement when I was told that I'd get to work on the latest vision of Lara's mansion... and then blow it up.
Rebuilding the Croft Manor for Tomb Raider: Underworld was an interesting task for many reasons. Her family home is an iconic, recognizable piece of architecture. TR fans are quite familiar with it through a number of games as well as the movies. With this title taking full advantage of the technologies available on the next-gen consoles I wanted to really make some memorable artistic changes. At the same time I had to be very careful not to stray too far from what people expected to see.
I started rebuilding the mansion pillar by pillar and wall by wall while using the geometry from Tomb Raider: Legend as a starting point for scale and reference. Along with a material artist with whom I kept close communication, I began to rebuild the foundation of Lara's main foyer. After deciding on recurring motifs, colors, and textures I applied these themes to create the foyer, the main playable room in Croft Manor, and later to Lara's bedroom and the hallway attaching it to the main foyer.
One notable exception in my process that differs from just about every other unit in Tomb Raider: Underworld is the fact that the mansion already had a designated layout before any game designer ever began to work on it. Additionally, the mansion was going to be used as a tutorial for the player, keeping the puzzles and complexity of structure to a minimum. Because of these factors, I did not work extensively with the level designer and this allowed me to concentrate heavily on the aesthetic appeal. Later, the cinematic team decided to tell a number of important parts of the story in this area and I found myself working more closely with them than I had in the past. The changes they requested turned out to be much easier to make than for those of the design/gameplay department with all of their intricate and grand ideas.
With the main structure of the mansion built I came to the really fun part. Helped along by some amazing, custom-built tools for destruction, I began tearing apart the geometry of the foyer. Imagining the sources and locations of the explosions that would rip this large room apart, I laid down pieces of the forensic storytelling that will allow the player to really become immersed in the environment. Using dark, saturated lighting, heavy fire, smoke, ash, and rain effects as well as layers upon layers of rough, charred textures the mansion really came to life.
Unfortunately, this process also created a large technological hurdle. All of us contributing to the brilliant atmosphere of Croft Manor had to work extremely efficiently in order to keep adding all of these detailed layers. This unit was the largest in memory on the console. Rather than rip out these pieces that added so much to the now moody, high tension, and intensely interesting environment, we raced to be the most economical we could. By developing tricks for dealing with typically power intensive processes, I really feel that we were able to push a whole lot of character into this space while making a very small footprint in the overall memory allocation.
In the end I believe we created a memorable and spectacular destruction of Lara's family home. I hope everyone that plays it has a truly immersive experience.
Now It's Your Turn
~ Eric Lindstrom - November 18th 2008 - Link
This is it, the last day (as I write this) before the official launch of Tomb Raider: Underworld, and everything that can be done has been done. I just spent a relaxing day with Alison Carroll, our Lara Croft action actress, giving her a tour of the studio here at Crystal Dynamics. She spent the day posing for photos with the team and signing posters and telling us outrageous stories about her press tour around the world. It was a nice way to end three years of hard work.
It's an otherworldly feeling to be at the end of such a big project, one that we've put so much time and energy into, but still waiting to see how well everyone will enjoy the game. I've already heard enough advance press to know that we hit the mark squarely, but it isn't the same as gamers all playing and sending messages back and forth about every little detail. I had to take a break from keeping up with the forums to get the game done, but now I'll be able to return and spend more time reading posts and gathering feedback. And believe me, we analyze the feedback of each game carefully and these reactions do go into future development...you'll see just how much this is true when you play the game.
And I do hope you'll play. Directing Lara Croft's journey to the underworld has provided me with some of the most exciting times in my career, and I feel honored and privileged to have been given the opportunity to guide one of my own personal gaming heroines. She means a lot to me, as I know she means a lot to many of you, and I wish you all the very best of luck as you guide her adventure in Tomb Raider: Underworld.
Tomb Raider: Underworld Revealed!
~ Mario De Pesa - November 21st 2008 - Link
Tomb Raider is well known for larger than life environments and intricate puzzles that usually relate to this environment. Most of the time in Tomb Raider: Underworld, solving a puzzle results in the environment being transformed, usually in order to open up a path for the player to move forward.
These sequences are usually presented in the form of short in-game cinematics we like to call “reveals”. These “reveals” serve one of two purposes, sometimes both, which are to convey new information to the player (what he needs to do next, where he needs to go, etc…) or to plain and simply provide a bit of “wow” by showing an interesting event from a dramatic perspective.
One of my main tasks (and greatest pleasures) on the project was to create these “reveals”. They went from really basic single-shot sequences showing simple actions like a door opening up, to rather complex multi-shots scenes with massive statues sticking out of the ground and giant stone dragon heads rising up and spitting flames. Needless to say, some were more fun to create than others.
If you’ve checked any of the screenshots, videos and demos for the game yet, you’re already aware that all the levels in the game offer fantastic looking sceneries and beautiful lush landscapes. But some of the most impressive environments, at least to me, are featured in the game’s arctic level. From a towering spiral path leading down to a deep pit to a room with giant swinging hammers…, you get an eyeful of some of the best game environments seen in recent years.
Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy playing and watching it as much as I did working on it. And brace yourselves because Tomb Raider: Underworld is going hit, HARD!