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采访Core Design

作者 TombCrow, 2006 七月 16, 上午 01:53:00

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2006 七月 16, 上午 01:53:00 Last Edit: 2006 八月 09, 下午 05:47:42 by TombCrow
This is a recent interview from Edge magazine UK.

Whatever Happened to the Lara Lads?

The Angel Of Darkness seemed like the angel of death for the studio which created Lara Croft. Now, Core breaks its silence and speaks out.

If a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing, then Core's studio manager Gavin Rummery is well prepared for a career with the Foreign Office. Ask him what life has been like for Core over the last three years - three years that saw Tomb Raider : The Angel Of Darkness savaged by the press, the franchise shipped out to Crystal Dynamics, its old owners Eidos up for sale, its new owners SCi's decide to put Core up on the market and its recent purchase by what is now the UK's biggest independent developer, Rebellion - and he says: "It's been a little bit...interesting".

But from the outside, 'interesting' isn't the word that springs to mind. From the outside, Core looked butchered and abandoned. It took two weeks after The Angel Of Darkness's 2003 release for it to be announced that studio head Jeremy Heath-Smith had been asked to leave, and just one more for the team to be ripped from her roots and handed over to an American studio. By early 2004 Heath-Smith, along with his brother Adrian, had founded Circle studio, just down the road from Core's office in Derby, and staffed it entirely with their ex-employees. Jeremy Heath-Smith was scathing in his description of what was left behind: "Core Design is now floundering around with a handful of people trying to get a project off the ground, and no real leadership," he said in an interview in E134. And over the course of those years no word came out from Core to the contrary. Its PSP title Free Running was never released, and disappointing puzzle game Smartbomb seemed to confirm suspicions of a skeleton staff and limited remaining talent. But freed from the constraints of one acquisition process after another, it turns out that Core - still going strong with 65 employees, half the original Tomb Raider team and 30 million sales to its name - has some record straightening to catch up on.

"It was mad. We had 40 people sitting here going: 'That's mad!' " recalls Rummery, of the Heath-Smiths' suggestion that Core was dead in the water after Circle had been set up. "It was very difficult, very frustrating. Obviously Jeremy was free to go off and totally promote Circle, and meanwhile Eidos was saying: 'Right, we'll hold off, we'll do a Core relaunch a bit later, it'll happ... oh, we're up for sale.' " And it just stopped. And then Sci stepped in, and they didn't want too many internal studios to run so they decided to look and see if they could sell us on - and in the middle of it our games were just getting chewed up in the mix of one sale after the next." And all this while we were still labouring under the blame for TAOD's failings. "Eidos needed a scapegoat and we were it. Rather than say: 'Ah, well, we should have given it a bit more time', they just pointed the finger and said: 'They messed up.' "

That question of blame was one that lingered after the game's release, however. Was it Eidos' fault for rushing the game out unfinished? Or was it the fault of executive producers the Heath-Smiths for not managing the game-making process the better? Rummery's take on his former bosses' subsequent performances is customarily tactful: "Jeremy is and entrepreneur , and has done what he's done is gone and made a successful company." But while Circle studio may stil be a successful company, after the failure of Without Warning (E156, 3/10) it is no longer a videogame company, specialising instead in iDVD quiz games. Is there a sense of vindication? Matt Sansam, executive producer, can't resist a chuckle. "My favourite review was; 'Without Warning. Consider yourself warned.' There was a lot of anticipation, definitely - a question of 'can he prove himself?' And he's certainly proved something." Indeed, Core is now seeing people returning from Circle, perhaps disillusioned with the direction the company has taken. "Since the split we've lost guys to Circle, one of whom was a web-developer, and we've had eight come back the other way, including some senior staff," explains Sansam.

So where does Core lay the blame for what went wrong with TAOD? "Ok. Right," begins Rummery, and an explanation that's been dammed up for three years starts to tumble out. "Angel Of Darkness was a product of the old Core. Internally, we hadn't changed much as a studio from the first Tomb Raider games. It was a small team, working in isolation- very small teams, actually, the original TR was six people. Even by TR5 it had only got up to the heady heights of 14, 15 people, so suddenly, for TAOD, it was a whole new process. Writing a new engine completely from scratch, even though we'd already developed PS2 engines within Core, because that was the way we worked. Thirty-five-odd people, the biggest team we'd ever had - tiny for a AAA PS2 game, but still the biggest team we'd ever worked with - and we had this deadline. It had to be out in a couple of years, and people just weren't confident from the start that we could do it. But that was the way we were told it had to be and, you know, we'd managed to hit all the deadlines in the past, so we hoped we could do it. As it went on it started to become more apparent that it couldn't be done, but Eidos were like - it's got to be out , we haven't had our big TR rush of cash, it's got to be out, no ifs and buts. So it got past the Christmas slot, and it got closer and closer to their year -end, and they just said it has to come out, full stop. So at that point it was like a machete was taken to the game and the design, and it was hacked to pieces. The guys on the fan sites have dug around in the code and found all the content that was never wired up in the final game. It was just a shadow of the game it was supposed to be. Things like the character progression - the 'I feel stronger' when she pushes boxes - that was just the last stage of a much more complicated system which got cut out."

Sansam also acknowledges 'the kitchen sink problem'. "We were trying to do too much," he admits. " There was a muddying of the waters about who was pulling the direction of the game." explains Rummery, "because it was a bigger team and it didn't have a real central focus, someone who was saying do this, or don't do that. We ended up with a bit of a factional thing, which meant that you had things like the Paris section which never really fitted. And that was part of the shame of the game for things like reviews, because that was the one bit of the game that people played, so a lot of the reviews were based on that. Of course, it got more into Tomb Raidery stuff later on, but I doubt many people got beyond those Paris streets where whole sections of gameplay had been utterly, utterly cut out. You had entire locations where you once had dialogue, and strange events where you could watch people doing a boxing match - you were actually supposed to learn your hand-to-hand combat moves there, bu t of course that never got done. That whole section was very non-Tomb Raider to me, but it was born out of us not being used to bigger teams."

It was an ugly situation, and the mood within Core was initially bleak. "People weren't proud of the games themselves," recalls Rummery. "It looked really good, but the gameplay just wasn't up to scratch. It needed another six months, but it went out as it was, and everyone was pretty miserable to see it get mauled. But, to be fair, it did go on to sell around two million units." It wasn't a mood that lasted, however. With the establishment of Circle it soon became clear that everyone's jobs were safe, whether they stuck with Eidos or jumped ship - "the devil you know," smiles Rummery, and it's not clear if he means Heath-Smith, or Eidos or both.

More surprisingly, for the team, losing Tomb Raider felt as much like a reward as a punishment. Rummery, one of the team behind the original game, has a veteran's perspective: "People sometimes forget that when you are an internal studio, you just have to do what you're being asked to do. By the time we were doing the late PlayStation games the teams here saying: 'Look, could we work on something else now, or do we have to do another one?' It really started at the end of TR2. After the first game, when Toby decided to go because he was very ****ed off with the way Eidos had decided to market his game, the rest of us stayed on. A few more people joined to work on the next game, but at the end of that we were burnt out. And then Eidos said: 'Right, time for number three!' and it was like - oof - we don't want to do a number three. We had already put all of our ideas into TR2. In the first game there were things we didn't get around to putting in, but in the sequel we took it and made it a bit different, made it a bit more James Bondy. The two games complemented each other - we put in many new things, new moves, vehicle sections. I couldn't really see, at that stage, where to go. And to be honest, where have the other games gone? Just more moves, more stuff, more vehicles. Nothing really has gone into the mix that wasn't there in the first couple of games. So we all stopped working on it and moved onto other projects, trying to escape the franchise, but where we weren't lucky is that it turns out you can't do that successfully in a studio which is making the next game in a big series, because the other projects just won't get the attention they need. So we learnt that to our cost, too."

And, with TAOD, the situation had only intensified. "My God, it had been a painful process for the guys who'd worked on that game, " recalls Rummery. " They'd had a year of crunch, burnt out, very unhappy, and then had seen this miserable thing coming out at the end of it that they hardly wanted their name attached to it, so it wasn't a very satisfying situation for them at all. So there was a sense of 'well, at least we've got a fresh start - this could be cool.' " Freed from Lara's legacy, a real sense of excitement took hold. "We were thinking: 'Hey, we haven't got TR hanging over us any more. Eidos said: 'Right, come up with some ideas of what games you want to work on,' and they were really surprised because they got 30 game concepts put forward in a fortnight. And they picked a couple to put into production and away we went. And, within Core, people realised we couldn't continue working the way we had in the past - we had to get more organised, it couldn't just be a case of a bunch of people sitting in a room saying: 'OK, let's make a game'. You can't do that with a team of 30 people- it just doesn't work. So we said right, we've got to grow up and act like a proper software company. And that's been a massive shift. So we got a complete fresh start, which was a great opportunity."

But soon after things got started again, they hit another brick wall. "It was all cool for about a year," remembers Rummery, "but then Eidos really began to feel the pinch, because of course as a company they really depended on that regular Tomb Raider money, and as it became clear that Crystal weren't going to get the game out anytime soon, they started to realise they needed to look for a buyer." And so, with the two prototypes underway - Free Running and Smart bomb - and with work beginning on another major project (this is still unannounced, although widely rumoured to be a sequel to Shellshock: Vietnam), Core found itself in the middle of a recruitment freeze. And this time it's Sansam's turn to describe the that painful point as a moment when things became 'interesting' all over again. They're frank about what it did to Smartbomb ("we got two bits right - we got the process right, and it was on time and on budget, but we didn't get the quality we were after," admits Rummery) but are more frustrated at the fate of Free Running. Completed in time for the PSP's launch, it remains unreleased, although Core retains the rights and Rebellion will be seeking a new publisher for it. "It's a good game," asserts Rummery, while recognising that its first-generation looks may find it hardto compete with third-generation titles now ready for launch. "We learned a lot form it - a lot of very good techniques for moving a character around. In fact, we shared some of those ideas with Crystal, and they used them in Legend..." He shrugs, but it's clear the new incarnation of Lara is a sore point. What's it been like, watching another team develop what must feel like their baby?
"It's been hard. What's been hard is knowing we could have done it, and knowing we could have done a good job. It would have been very easy to make another game and fix the mistakes of TAOD, because it was not fundamentally broken, it just needed to be finished off, but that opportunity went away. So we just had to sit back and watch Crystal doing it. And the reality is obviously they have produced a good game. But the frustration for us is that they've been given all the time they needed and a phenomenal budget. It's a budget bigger than the we received for the previous six games added together - twice that, in fact - and it's really frustrating, because if we'd had that money..." Another shrug.

The acquisition by Rebellion, however, brings Core something much more valuable than money: freedom. "Core going back to its independent roots is quite exciting," acknowledges Rummery. "We can talk about doing new IP, we can talk about taking those IP's to more than one publisher. When you're an internal studio - obviously it's swings and roundabouts, because you get the payroll made every month - but you're only pitching your game to one set of people, so if they don't like it, it stops. Whereas now, we know that some of those concepts may not be a sort of archetypal Eidos game, but we can pitch it to different publishers." And the Rebellion deal also brings access to its proprietary Asura engine, as well as savvy production approach which balances the risks of original IP with licensed games and work-for-hire projects. So where does Core see the future taking it? Rummery puts it plainly. " People here have worked on the biggest franchise in the world. We've experienced being top of the charts, and we want to be there again."

At the peak of Tomb Raider's success, Core had nothing to prove and everything to lose. The last three years have turned that situation on its head - the Rebellion deal may have given the studio a clean slate, but it has a reputation to rebuild from scratch. What's clear though, is that it wouldn't want it any other way. The success of Tomb Raider had halted the studio's evolution, insulating it from the rapid changes in game development as other companies switched to new technology, new management practices and new funding models. But the videogame business is ruthlessly Darwinian: if only the fittest studios survive, then those studios still standing must be finding ways to fit. And in that, at least from, Core is already an expert.

Sidebar 1 - Lara's First steps.

"I arrived two or three months in," recalls Rummery of joing the first Tomb Raider project, "and Toby said: 'This is what we're doing' and I said [pulls incredulous face] 'Are we...?'. When he described it to me I thought he was off his trolley. I've just come out of university, I've never worked on a game - there's only one other programmer here. Are you sure? My programmer brain was going ' a full 3D camera? How is that going to work? and of course I had to design it from scratch, because no-one else was doing them." But this ambition brought great success, and the original Tomb Raider remains an icon of characterisation. Its staying power was proved again by the recent leak of what seemed to be a PSP remake of the original, which Core has since confirmed came from a cancelled internal project. The studio, of course, retains no rights to the Tomb Raider games - no, indeed, to the name Core itself - and Eidos has recently confirmed that Crystal Dynamics will develop a game to mark Lara's tenth birthday.

Sidebar 2 - Rebellious Nature

Rebellion, which made its name with Aliens Vs Predator, is now best known for its acquistion of 2000AD. That deal has so far led to only two games - Juudge Dreddredd Versus Death and Rogue Trooper - and is just one prong of Rebellion's plan, the others being original IP and work-for-hire projects. Last year's Sniper Elite showed the company's ability to zero in on an original aspect of an overcrowded genre - an approach much like the one Rummery describes as being the hallmark of Core's designs.

For Jason Kingsley, CEO and co-founder of Rebellion, the Core acquisiton is an unexpected solution to the risk that the slow process of recruitment might have slowed Rebellion's planned expansion. "We weren't looking for a new studio, but we were growing, and there's a problem with expanding quickly and trying to keep the quality of the team high. You can hire, but only at a certain rate." Approached by a third party with the possibility of acquiring a new studio, Rebellion's response was initially cautious, aware of the potential difficulties of intergrating new technologies and new staff. "But," says Kingsley, "we thought: Let's keep an open mind, let's see who it is'. But when we went up to Derby and realised it was Core, we thought: 'Crikey'. Here's a team with a fantastic track record, and with fantastic talent." The acquisition process started at the end of 2004, and was completed in mid-June. Sansam describes the wait as 'long and painful' although Chris Kingsley (Rebellion's CTO - one of the little ironies of the Core deal is that it once again puts the studio in the hands of a team of brothers) is quick to point out that "all acquisitions are slow and painful - this one has been alot easier than the 200AD deal". Indeed, the process was so streamlined that integration between the two studios started almost immediately. "We had those guys coming up every week from the first moment they showed interest, and that really helped. And we started using their technology,the Asura engine, straight away because we'd been looking for some time at shifting onto one central technology," explains Rummery. "It's odd," continues sansam, "because when the deal was announced - well, unofficially announced - we started to get calls from recruitment agencies saying: 'Oh, how are you guys doing, it must be a real shock,' and we were saying that; 'Well actually we've been chatting to these guys in an on-going process for about six months and we've already been sharing tech,' so it was a bit of an anticlimax when it was announced. People were asking: 'So how does it affect you?' and we were saying: 'No more than it did yesterday'.

The deal, along with Rebellion's acquisition of Strangelite, the makers of Starship Troopers, takes the studio's head-count to around 240 people, making it one of the biggest independent game developers in Europe.