Life in the Big House
Up. Down. Left. Right. With few exceptions, video games moved in four directions beginning with their origin in science and university computer labs through the rise of Nintendo in the mid-1980s and the heated 16-bit console wars of the 1990s.
In 1996, three groundbreaking games turned heads by adding a Z-axis to the field of play. Released in June, id Software's Quake evolved antecedents like Doom by mashing together a true 3D engine and online multiplayer. The September launch of Super Mario 64 alongside the Nintendo 64 dropped players into expansive worlds made from polygons and gave them total control over Mario and a camera able to be manipulated separately.
That October, a small British developer did more than innovate in a three-dimensional space. It changed the way people perceived virtual characters.
Core Design was founded in 1988 by nine friends who put their company on the map by developing games for the Commodore 64 and Amiga. The small crew lived and worked in rambling Victorian converted into an office space.
There was no hierarchy at Core. The nine co-founders grew their team slowly, and fostered a laid-back atmosphere. During crunch periods, programmers and artists wandered in at their leisure, put in 10 to 12 hours, then trundled on home or curled up under their desks before doing it all again the next day.
In 1990, just two years after the studio opened its doors, Core became the first British studio to receive a license from Sega to develop games for the Genesis. That same year it launched a publishing and distribution business that flourished, establishing Core's reputation as a purveyor of CD-based titles for Amiga and Sega CD, and leading to an acquisition by CentreGold in 1994.
Two years later, Eidos snapped up Core from CentreGold for a cool £17.6 million (roughly $21.5 million) based almost entirely on a prototype a 3D platformer called Tomb Raider.
Beginning in 1993, six Core employees crammed into one of the Victorian's smaller bedrooms and hammered on Tomb Raider. At first, they wanted a male protagonist. Most games starred males, and Core wanted their title to fit in.
As the team began favoring stealth and puzzle elements over action, a female character seemed increasingly appropriate—not because a woman was incapable of kicking down doors and unloading a hail of bullets, but because they wanted to break away from stereotypes.
Through the 1990s, most videogame characters fell into one of two categories: beefcakes, or Mario. Female characters existed, but their femininity wasn't front and center. Samus Aran of Metroid fame wore a space suit that hid her gender unless you finished the game in under a tight time limit, the reward for which was an eyeful of Samus's pixelated curves clad in a one-piece; and Ms. Pac-Man was just a yellow circle with a pink bow and lipstick.
Laura Cruz, Core's heroine designed by artist Toby Gard, started as a gritty military type before shifting to a finer blend of hard and soft attributes: Tall and curvaceous, but intelligent, articulate, and intrepid—more Indiana Jones than Super Mario.'
Over time, Laura Cruz morphed into Lara Croft, a British aristocrat predisposed toward excavations and spelunking rather than frilly dresses and soirees.
Lara wore apparel appropriate for crawling and climbing around archaeological digs: brown shorts, turquoise tank top, a backpack for supplies, fingerless gloves for a firm grip, and twin pistols overflowing with unlimited ammunition.
Gard and his colleagues did their homework. Mario attained iconic status as much for his recognizable actions, like leaping into the air with one fist raised, as for his identifiable attire. Following in the plumber's footsteps, Core imbued Lara's movements with personality. She didn't just climb up ledges; pressing a certain key caused her to lift herself into a handstand and lower herself gracefully to the surface.
Unlike Mario, Lara's mission wasn't as straightforward as heading straight for the nearest flagpole. Tomb Raider's levels—ranging from caves to tombs and temples—were massive. Figuring out how to traverse each screen's blend of platforms and pits, hostile creatures such as bears and wolves, and puzzles rooted in platforming maneuvers and pulling switches, called for mastery over Lara's acrobatics and keen intellect instead of endless shooting.
Instead of enticing players to set high scores or complete missions in record time, Lara collects artifacts as she goes along. Just as importantly, clearing levels spins new threads into a complex narrative tapestry woven from mythology, character development, and intrigue. Whereas Mario and Pac-Man were more akin to vehicles players occupied in pursuit of an arbitrary goal, Lara felt like a person, fleshed out through a combination of cinematic sequences and personality conveyed through attitude, motion, and character interactions.
Tomb Raider garnered little interest through the late spring of 1996. That June, representatives from manufacturer 3Dfx swung by Core's office to show off some of their upcoming graphics cards, and one of the programmers whipped up support for 3D graphics acceleration in the PC version of the game. Lara and her environs already looked great; powered by 3Dfx hardware, the game looked stunning.
Eidos took a demo of the game running on a 3Dfx video card to E3, and suddenly members of the games media came knocking. Editors canvased magazines and the nascent World Wide Web with previews of Tomb Raider, praising its clever levels and puzzle design.
Core rode a wave of press coverage into Tomb Raider's October 1996 release, where it was met with nearly unanimous acclaim. Eidos immediately tasked Core with developing a sequel. Tomb Raider II Starring Lara Croft hit shelves in October 1997 sporting larger environs that players explored using vehicles, expanded acrobatics for Ms. Croft such as a midair roll, more action sequences to balance out tomb raiding and shooting, and technical innovations like the ability to save anywhere and graphical effects such as muzzle flares that lit up surroundings.
For all Tomb Raider's impressive graphics and gameplay, Lara stole the spotlight. Not only was she a pretty face, she was tough and smart—the embodiment of '90s feminism personified by women both real and fictitious such as the Spice Girls, Lucy Lawless' Xena: Warrior Princess, Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani. As Tomb Raider's popularity grew, Lara broke outside the gaming sphere and graced the covers of mainstream publications such as Newsweek, Time, and Rolling Stone.
In an age when machismo and Mario defined videogames, Lara Croft demarcated gaming's past from its future. Characters sporting mature narratives and personalities players could identify with, rather than oodles of bullets and family-friendly action, became the hottest trend.
The novelty of Tomb Raider's success wore off quickly at Core. The team that had crafted the first two games were burnt out on Lara and craving new challenges. Not done milking their cash cow, Eidos ordered Core to assign another internal team to Tomb Raider III. Ahead of that game's debut in November 1998, the team transitioned onto Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation, released in October 1999. There were even plans to kill Lara, leaving no room for interpretation on where Core stood on the subject of more sequels.
By the end of 1998, Eidos was on top of the videogame industry. It had its sights set on climbing even higher. Core had released a third Tomb Raider title, and the first two installments had sold 15 million units between them, propelling publisher Eidos to be named the world's fastest-growing company at 1998's World Economic Forum.
After cranking out four Tomb Raiders in as many years, nearly every person at Core was fed up with Lara for one reason or another. The press had judged her third adventure too expansive and too difficult, though it sold like gangbusters. Tomb Raider IV scaled back, transporting Lara to Egypt and letting her loose in more intimate environments, only for critics to deem them too small. The next game, 2000's Tomb Raider V: Chronicles, was panned as a shallow, been-there-done-that rehash of previous games.
Review scores slipped. Sales dropped in parallel, but not enough to defuse resentment brewing within Core's walls. The company juggled multiplayer projects and mascots, but none were as profitable as Lara. Anyone who worked on Tomb Raider cashed royalty checks exponentially larger than those received by employees, who got pennies on the dollar in comparison.
Bringing on more staff bolstered the studio's ranks, but muddied its culture. New recruits came in with opinions and ways of working that clashed with how veterans who had been around since before Lara Croft was a glimmer in Toby Gard's eye had done things. Cliques sprang up. Developers who refused to talk to one another adversely affected development processes that required input from individuals on opposite sides of political fences.
Long-standing traditions faded. Back in the early '90s, the tightly knit band of Core staffers went pub crawling together every Thursday night. By the early 2000s, the company was so large that many developers failed to recognize colleagues in the hall.
The straw that broke Core's back was its management's failure to adapt to industry trends. In the old days, the team would crunch roughly six months out from a due date, burning the candle at both ends until they finished a game. They'd spend the next four months unwinding, gradually ramping back up for another stretch of long days and nights.
Stop-and-go schedules worked for a team of 15. However, Core Design circa 2002 was huge and in need of structure. Moreover, employees who had worked 18-hour shifts without breaking a sweat often left work ashen-faced during crunch periods. It was one thing to eat, sleep, and breathe work when they were young and single. Now many were middle-aged, married, and had kids.
Angel of Darkness, the sixth Tomb Raider and the first on PlayStation 2, stalled and started for two years before Lara limped rather than vaulted onto shelves in June 2003. Reviewers appreciated its darker tone and modern graphics, but slammed its outdated control scheme, abundance of glitches, and incoherent hodge-podge of action and stealth mechanics, the result of the development team borrowing ideas from Metal Gear Solid, Shenmue, and Grand Theft Auto III.
"They just took it and ran," Core programmer Gavin Rummery said in a 2015 retrospective. "It felt like a robbery, honestly. It felt like we'd been raided ourselves and the thing had been stolen."