As founder of Core Design Limited, Jeremy Heath-Smith gave birth to the worldwide phenomena that became Tomb Raider and Lara Croft. Seven months or so after stepping down from his twin positions, as development director of Eidos plc and managing director of Core Design Limited, Heath-Smith seemed at ease (at least in this interview) in talking to GameDaily about what went wrong with Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness and providing some details on his new start-up, Circle Studio.
GameDaily began by asking Heath-Smith to recount his last few months with Eidos and Core, which ended with him resigning after the latest entry in the Tomb Raider series failed to overwhelm both critics and consumers alike. "I'd love to put all the blame onto the publisher (Eidos), which is the normal kind of developer thing," began Heath-Smith. "But, there was a line drawn in the sand when that game had to come out...it had to make it for the financial year end. We knew we had to get it out. Pressure from Eidos didn't really enter into the fray."
"It had to go! Everyone knew that it had to happen. The game essentially wasn't to the standard or to the polish we wanted. We were all kind of happy with the game, it just need a bit more time. It was our fault because we were late; we took longer developing the game than anticipated."
Why did that happen? "We've analyzed that, as you can imagine, for those past few months, figuring out where the last three and a half years of our life went," responded Heath-Smith. He added that the game's developers spent "three years chasing technology," getting "sucked into" pressure applied from The Internet, magazines, fans and "even ourselves," to change Tomb Raider "dramatically." Reflecting, Heath-Smith said, "The reality now is I think Tomb Raider fans actually wanted very little change, we put too much change in. We misread where the PlayStation 2 market was going to be, as I think many other publishers and developers did."
"We spent a lot of time redesigning the whole thing, giving Lara a new identity and persona. I think if we had given the fans more of the same.," he said, before switching gears a bit, "We wanted to please the magazine and the critics, but I tell you what, I would have liked to please more of the consumers." When the wise acre in us pointed out that consumers are generally fairly important to a game's success Heath-Smith laughed and responded, "Sometimes you get too wrapped up in other people saying 'Oh, your just doing another Tomb Raider' and 'Why don't you go and do something different.' The truth of the matter is, when you have such a winning formula, that's sold so many copies, who is right and who is wrong? We've certainly learned a huge amount from our whole experience with Tomb Raider."
"It was a sobering and 'sombering' experience for all of us. We busted our balls for the best part of twelve months. I've never worked as hard.we were in seven days a week, eighteen hours a day."
How much longer would Heath-Smith and his team have needed to polish Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness? "We were not happy with the controls," he started. "We spent an inordinate amount of time on the animation of Lara and designed the controls around the animation instead of designing the animation around the controls. She (Lara) does a perfect 360. But it takes too long! If you play Splinter Cell for example, you want to turn around, flick! He turns around in a second. That's what you want. We got wrapped up in that whole beautiful big animation experience. I don't know if we ever would have understood what we got wrong with the animation until the game was out. We could have easily used another two or three months. We could probably use another year! How long is that piece of string?" he asked rhetorically, "To polish a game, it's just continual."
Heath-Smith was especially disappointed that the developers "Couldn't leave the game on the high that we started. We left it, I think, in mid-ground."
Leaving Eidos and Core was hard for Heath-Smith, who stated, "I had been at Eidos seven years. Mike (McGarvey, Eidos' CEO) and myself rebuilt that company between the two of us. I was there when it was a two nickel company. I made numerous statements that if this game (Angel of Darkness) doesn't hit and do this and that, I'm out of here. It was kind of no big shock (his leaving)."
Heath-Smith served as executive producer on the two Tomb Raider feature films, in addition to his self-described role as executive producer on the Angel of Darkness videogame. Was that a case of biting off more than he could chew? "Not really," he answered. "The movie was a great release for me when we were doing so much on Angel of Darkness. I don't think the movie put any pressure on that. Again, I would love to find something to blame, but.," he trailed off, laughing again.
Since Heath-Smith's exit, Eidos has transferred the task of developing the next Tomb Raider videogame to its U.S. based studio, Crystal Dynamics. GameDaily asked Heath-Smith his thoughts on the future of the franchise. "Who knows? As I said to Eidos when we all kind of split, if it was me, I would be doing the same. It made a lot of sense for that franchise to go to the States for a new look at it. I suspect that they will look at it through a different pair of glasses and try to figure out how to take it mass-market and keep the basic formula. Crystal Dynamics is a good studio, I certainly don't want to see the franchise die after all the years and man-hours and part of my life that's in that, nor does the rest of the team quite obviously."
A blockbuster franchise does levy certain creative restrictions on a developer. Heath-Smith called it a "huge weight lifted" not having Lara to worry about anymore. "It's a complete poison chalice in some respects, because of everybody's expectations."
Heath-Smith likened Circle Studios' newfound artistic freedom to opening a floodgate and "releasing four years of pent up creativity." He continued, "This office is a flow with creativity. If you can imagine, the guys who were on the Tomb Raider team and are now at Circle, who worked on Tomb Raider for up to four years, they just were so sick at looking at the backside of Lara Croft. They want to get out of their system all this other stuff that's building up for the last four years."
Being the creator of Tomb Raider does have its advantages, as Circle Studios is self-financed. "It's no secret I've made an awful lot of money off Tomb Raider, said Heath-Smith. "Self-financing is a wonderful position to be in. It takes huge amounts of pressure off as a developer. We've got time to really plan and map out projects and drill down on those. We've been very lucky. A lot of publishers-I'd say all publishers-have contacted us, which of course you would expect. Angel of Darkness still sold over a couple of million units. I think we've got a pretty decent track record"
Heath-Smith wouldn't rule out using Eidos as a publisher, noting that he is still a "considerably large shareholder" in the company. "I don't wish them any harm and would happily hook up with those guys to make them more money. I think that I'd have resistance from the rest of the guys here though."
Circle hired about 35 or so ex-Core workers, leaving Eidos with an estimated 30 members remaining from that team according to Heath-Smith. "Even the 30 left, were 30 people we would happily have taken with us, but we didn't want a company that size."
Heath-Smith's bittersweet feelings about Core had him wondering out loud how Trip Hawkins felt about Electronic Arts, a company he founded. "If I was him I'd sit down and look at it in complete awe."
Circle has two prototypes currently in development, "neither of which will have a female lead character." The titles will both be character-driven, because, "That's kind of our bag," said Heath-Smith, adding they will be third-person, arcade styled action adventures. He said the two were at "different ends of the scale" at the moment, and aimed at what Heath-Smith feels is the sweet spot of the market. The first is expected out in the first quarter of 2005. "We want to get these first two out on this iteration of hardware."
Because of his earlier mention of "chasing technology" as one of the pitfalls in developing Angel of Darkness, GameDaily asked about the technology powering the pair of games Circle is developing. Turns out the company has licensed the popular RenderWare technology, but will also incorporate elements from the Angel of Darkness game engine and tool set. Heath-Smith said the split between him and Eidos was similar to a divorce, and instead of a messy, court-fueled separation, the parties were able to work out an amicable parting, which would allow Circle access to such technology. "It would have been a very sad end if we couldn't have sat down and negotiated as adults, rather than children, which is exactly what we did. We came to a compromise agreement in which we agreed not to do certain games that will compromise Eidos and which we don't want to do anyway."
"That was such a big chapter in my life, but it's a chapter which I've now closed."