Raider of a Costly Art

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The creator of Lara Croft, Ian Livingstone, on the tomb raider’s new avatar, and why it costs upto $50 million to create a single video game nowadays

Q Forbes has called you ‘Lara Croft’s favourite uncle’. The reinvented Tomb Raider is set for launch on 5 March. How has the character developed and changed since the time you came up with the original concept?

A After the character of Lara Croft was initiated, there were a number of sequels. I think it has reached a point where you have to look at that franchise and see whether it is relevant to today’s audiences. And Crystal Dynamics, who’ve done an amazing job with the new Tomb Raider, also went around to see what’s happening around the new Batman and James Bond, and decided to create almost a new character. Instead of a sequel, they’re going to reboot the franchise with a ‘prequel’, with a young Lara Croft, age 21, and how she faces terrible circumstances—shipwrecked on this island and how she turns into this survivor, a tomb raider. A lot of people would like to know the history of Lara Croft.

Q What goes into making a video game like Tomb Raider?

A Setting aside Tomb Raider, to make any game, it typically takes 200 people about three years. It’s a lot more complicated than making a film, which [has] a linear production method. When you’re making a game, you have to have a game-engine on which the adventure sits, but players have to be able to manipulate it in real time. So, the amount of technology involved in creating something that is visually cinematic, with intense graphics—but at the same time, you’re able to manipulate and guide these characters through this wonderful world and have an exciting time as well—as you can imagine, is very challenging.

Plus, [there are] all the component parts of the game—art, animation, physics, artificial intelligence... the way non-player characters behave once you’ve encountered them inside the game. The brain power that goes into making a game is substantial.

The budgets are getting bigger and bigger because the horsepower of the consoles is getting ever bigger. So, current generation games cost up to $50 million for one game. When the next generation of consoles comes out, the budgets are likely to grow. It does appear that the market is going to get more polarised, and the big franchises will get bigger and the mid-tier franchises are likely to disappear. But that doesn’t mean that the games industry is contracting, it’s actually growing. Other than console games, there are so many other game-enabled devices available, whether it’s Facebook Apps or smartphones or browsers or dedicated handheld devices. Long story short, the industry is growing—it’s currently worth $50 billion and it’s going to rise to $90 billion by 2015.

Q So, do online gaming companies like Zynga have a future?

A Yes, I think they have a great future. They have a strong business model, they’ve got 100 million players playing games on Facebook, and they’re going to migrate their concept to smartphones. But at the same time, there are many new emerging companies. In Japan and China, mobile companies have come out of nowhere. [Meanwhile] the rest of the publishers are re-inventing themselves as games move from a boxed product to a digital service. So, that’s the challenge and opportunity of games.

Q What about the indie games industry?

A I love the indie space because it allows original content, and dynamic new ways for people to demonstrate their creativity. Now, of course, for every Angry Birds, there’s going to be a hundred-thousand dead birds. But that doesn’t deter people from trying because if you get it right, you can make an awful lot of money and be very successful. And the cost of making an app is very low, so you can bootstrap the development, [even] do it in your home. I think it’s a great and exciting place to be.

I have spent a lot of time with indies. I have invested in indie studios like Playdemic and Media Tonic, and I just love their determination. I kind of see myself way back then, really passionate and trying to make it big in quite tight circumstances.

Q Which is your favourite game?

A It’s like asking who your favourite child is, you know. I’ve got four children. It’s impossible to say, really. But obviously, Tomb Raider is very close to my heart. And this game is probably the best version of all. It’s because you’re so immersed in it—the survival, action, and experience of the gritty realism of it. It’s ‘kill’ or ‘be killed’ at some points in the game and a very intense experience. She’s not an armour-plated heroine anymore. You are Lara Croft, thrown into a life-threatening environment and you make those decisions yourself. So, the emotional connection is very real. But, I didn’t say which my favourite game was…

Q Then, which is your favourite game of a company other than yours?

A Don’t have one favourite because it’s changed over time. I used to enjoy many, from Lemmings to Advanced War to Populous to Call of Duty to FIFA and all those games on Nintendo… I can go on and on. I like adventure or strategy games. Games that rely purely on dexterity, I’m going to lose all the time because I’m too old. If I can use my intelligence, I’ve got a chance.

Q Which was the first game you came up with?

A Games Workshop started in 1975 with three schoolfriends—John Peake, Steve Jackson and myself. We met in London and wanted to turn our love for playing games into a business of making them. We were lucky enough to get European distribution rights for Dungeons and Dragons, so that went on three years. Then we needed to build an environment around that hobby, so we opened specialist retail stores, started a magazine called White Dwarf, and started a miniatures factory from which people could have their alter ego figures that they could paint. Then we started putting out our own board games like Talisman and Apocalypse and Judge Dredd, Battle Car. Those were very exciting times.

Q You’ve been at the cutting edge of the gaming industry since 1975. How would you say the gaming industry has changed and what can one expect of it in the future?

A The common thing that runs through it is that people get into the industry and think whether good games have great technology or great graphics. When people ask me what are the three most important things in a game, I say ‘Gameplay, gameplay and gameplay’. People buy games for the experience of the game. Of course, technology and graphics play a huge part, but great games will always be bought because of the fun you get playing them, despite what they look like.

The time we were starting up, there were no retail stores, no products; and turning a hobby into a business and turning into the largest entertainment industry in the world—at $50 billion revenues in a year, it’s bigger than TV, bigger than the box-office—has been an incredible success story and also an incredible opportunity.

However, not many parents, or teachers or career advisors understand the economic, cultural and social input of games, and because of some of the headlines they’ve read about games, they steer their children away. But 95 per cent of the games are family-friendly. I would say the games industry is a great career opportunity.