Lara Croft thrives on unearthing treasures and discovering ancient wonders. Similarly, Pause Screens are discoveries that explore and reveal the people behind Crystal Dynamics’ and Eidos Montreal’s Tomb Raider origin story.
Meagan Marie knows dreams can come true—if you do as Game Informer's editor-in-chief requests and go to college, and then reapply to your dream job. Persistence pays. Marie has persistence to spare.
Crystal Dynamics' senior community manager since 2014, Marie grew up idolizing Lara Croft. Now, she helps shape the direction of the Tomb Raider brand and Lara's character, as well as record Ms. Croft's history through endeavors such as the excellent 20 Years of Tomb Raider hardcover book.
Marie and I talked about her path into the games industry, why she admires Lara Croft, and how her crushing disappointment at being turned down by Game Informer spurred her to try again.
Craddock: You've been involved with Crystal Dynamics and Tomb Raider for several years, now. What captivated you about games, and about Lara Croft and tomb raiding in particular?
Meagan Marie: I've been into gaming my whole life. I don't remember not playing games; the farthest reaches of my memories are gaming related. My brothers and I played games together. Even if they weren't co-op, one of us would have the controller and the others would shout "Do this!" or "Use this spell!" and so on.
My dad brought home Tomb Raider one day, and it was sort of the first time I had ever really seen myself in a character. Certainly there had been female characters in games before, but seeing Lara on the front of the box, this incredibly intelligent, brave, and adventurous woman, and watching her story unfold, resonated with me and inspired me throughout my formative years. My brothers thought it was cool, but I don't think they had the same connection I did because it was rare to see that sort of [female] representation. I guess the rest is history. I've always followed Tomb Raider; it's been meaningful in my life since then.
Craddock: What qualities did you feel Lara had as a female lead that other videogame heroines didn't?
Marie: At the time, it was the fact that Lara was very well-realized and a recognizable woman, in charge of her own adventures. Ms. Pac-Man is a female-esque character, and Samus' [Aran] gender wasn't front and center. Having Lara out there as this beacon, representing femininity and having all these aspirational qualities kind of made her such a perfect character for inspiring someone of my age. She had all those qualities: intelligent, adventurous, brave. She also had this unique duality of being an aristocrat but loving to play in the dirt and get her hands dirty; she could pick up and go wherever she wanted in the world.
The combination of her being this very feminine character and having all these qualities I liked. It was an inspirational combination at the time.
Craddock: How did you get started in the games industry?
Marie: One of my mottos is "always live your passions." That's why I love cosplay so much: you're putting yourself into the shoes of the characters and worlds that you love. On Myspace, I geeked out over everything. I looked into coding so I could customize my background; I liked music and all that sort of stuff for my page. I connected with several other like-minded women, and I started doing freelance work for The Girl Gaming Network. It eventually became the Girls Entertainment Network.
That was going through college and honing my writing skills. I knew at that point that I wanted to work for Game Informer magazine. They were based out of my region and it was a magazine I read regularly growing up; GEN was a great opportunity for me to hone my writing voice and get out there and get working.
I did that a lot through college. I paid my out way to events across the country; slept on the floor in a room with 10 other girls who were also trying to save money. It was a great experience, and a way to get your foot in the door.
Craddock: And did that experience lead to joining Game Informer?
Marie: I had read Game Informer for years. One day I looked at the return address on the label and realized it was basically 20 minutes away from me. I was floored by that, because I didn't really, at the time, realize there were opportunities to work in gaming in Minnesota, where I'm from. I made my mind up [to work there] when I was 16 or 17.
It's funny. I was talking about my Myspace page: my tagline was "Future Game Informer Editor." One of the staff editors saw that and we started talking. He told me they had an application for a spot open. This was when I was in college; I hadn't intended to apply until after I graduated. I went to school for graphic design, journalism, and mass communication. I figured I'd write for the magazine or do layouts for them, and if that didn't work out I intended to go into UI design in gaming.
I remember I stayed up all night playing Dirge of Cerberus so I could write a mock review to submit with my application. I remember getting a call from Andy McNamara, the editor-in-chief. He told me that they were, unfortunately, not going to hire me. He wanted to tell me over the phone because he wanted me to finish college. He said, "This is very important. A lot of us kind of got into the magazine and writing by bypassing college, straight into our careers. You're in the middle of college and we want you to finish."
Craddock: Oh, wow. I… wow. I guess on the one hand, Andy was right: This business is precarious and slippery, so you always want to have a Plan B. But that must have been hard to hear.
Marie: I remember being devastated at the time. I thought I had my dream job slip through my fingers. I finished school and kept working really hard, paying my way out to events, writing, building my portfolio. I sent them my resume and application again two days after I graduated. A couple of weeks later I got the gig, and launched right into working for them for several years.
They told me that they liked my writing and my application and everything, so I did feel like I had a good chance when I reapplied. It just gave me that extra fuel to make sure I worked hard and was prepared. In retrospect, I'm glad they turned me down. At the time I was seriously devastated. I remember getting the call and I was in a public place, a lounge or something in one of the dormitories. I just started crying, like, "Oh, god, no! It's over!" Obviously that was just me being dramatic.
I'm really glad, looking back, that I stuck with it and graduated. There was a lot of stuff I learned [in college] that was applicable. Even though I was an editor at the magazine and did writing, I heavily contributed to graphic design with my own story. I designed the Gears of War 3 cover story hub [online], and the InFamous cover story hub. I was very self-sufficient in terms of being able to do my own graphics for online stories, so I'm glad I stuck with it.
Craddock: The fact that you stuck it out is testament to your belief that your passions would help you carve your path.
Marie: I guess they have. It goes back to what I said about living your passions, and I'm not capable of not living my passions. My parents are super supportive. When I got the Portal 2 cover story, my mom read up on Portal, and she knows nothing about gaming, really. We would drive by a billboard, and she saw a Portal 2 ad and said, "Oh! The cake is a lie! The cake is a lie! Right?" They're always super supportive.
My dad, once, was very well-meaning. I was starting to apply for jobs and hoping the Game Informer thing would work, and he said, "You know, you're great at making these costumes, but I hope employers don't think that's strange. You've got to be aware of your public image." I appreciated it, and I said thank you, but I've always felt that level of living your passion—in my case, being geeky on all fronts and being unapologetic about it—shows that you're involved with the community.
You work in gaming, too. Gaming and tech can be very demanding industries. Having passion is a really important thing for employers and partners [to see].
Craddock: In prepping for our chat, I was reading up on you and realized you wrote the Tomb Raider 2013 cover story. That must have been huge for you. How did you land that story?
Marie: I heard rumblings. I had my first cover story, which was Portal 2, and I think it went really well and I felt ready for another one. I heard rumblings there was a new Tomb Raider game. Eventually Crystal Dynamics came in and pitched the team on it. We all sat around saying, "Is this something we want to take on as a cover?"
Andy's an amazing guy, totally rational and supportive, but I was ready to march into his office and say, "If I don't get this, I'll quit." It never would have come to that; they knew that if there was anybody on the staff who was qualified to write a Tomb Raider cover story, it was me. I think the team at Crystal actually hoped I would. When they came in to pitch, they saw my desk, which was basically a Tomb Raider shrine: all my toys and statues and so on. They knew I knew my stuff and that I was a big fan, but the pressure was incredible. I don't think I'd agonized over anything quite as much as I did that cover story.
Cover stories in general are a huge amount of pressure, because you're unveiling something to the world and you hope that you do it justice; it's the culmination of so many people's hard work. To take so many people's stories, put it into a several-page spread, and try to capture the heart of their work, is so much pressure. Combining that with a love for the franchise and wanting to do it justice made it very, very intense.
I remember the first time they showed it, I was surprised by the direction. Like, oh my gosh, this is so different. But I was on board. I was on board pretty much immediately. I heard the direction they wanted to take it, and how it would be the first step in evolving Lara as a character, [and] I got it. It was a very genuine passion that I felt from the first time I saw it.
Craddock: Before we move on to your work at Crystal Dynamics, I'm curious about what you wanted to see from a reboot. It was a controversial game for a lot of people, because there was a lot less tomb raiding in Tomb Raider than they expected. What did you want from the game?
Marie: What I really connected with in terms of the reboot was being there for her formative years. You got a taste of that in Legends with the plane crash; you saw Lara being that globetrotting adventurer who prefers the isolation of tombs to high society. Seeing her as a younger woman in a modern age, seeing her hold a smartphone and having Beats by Dre in her ears—it made her more identifiable to me. I still knew and understood she was going to become this great character, and that she is already an extraordinary person. Being privy to experiencing those [formative] moments that made her into an iconic character was something I thought was incredible and a privilege.
Craddock: How did you make the jump from Game Informer to Crystal Dynamics?
Marie: It was totally out of the blue. I wasn't expecting a job offer at all. I think I clicked with the Tomb Raider team, and they'd been looking for a community manager. Knowing that I knew the franchise so well, and that I had a background in communication and writing, made me an ideal candidate.
It didn't take very long. The cover story debuted, and I accepted a job to move out there four or five weeks later. It was a huge life change; it was scary moving across the country. But it felt right. I always say that Game Informer was my dream job, because it was. I absolutely loved working there; they're a great crew of people who are all very proud of their work.
But Crystal Dynamics was the dream job I never dreamed of. I never thought I'd be working on the [Tomb Raider] franchise, and with a character that inspired me. Lara inspired me and helped dictate my career. Now I get to weigh in on her future, and that's not lost on me. It's an incredible trade-off.
Craddock: What were your earlier initiatives at the company?
Marie: One of first things I did when I started at Crystal was try to start formalizing aspects of the community and give them more structure so we could look at them as an entity. The easiest way to reward fans for their hard work is to give them visibility: to say hey, we've seen this, we love it, it's incredible.
I created the official fan site program, which has been running for about five years now. Fan sites apply to the program; there are very relaxed conditions: you have to post an original news post or something at least twice a month, just so we know we're not giving you exposure only for you to abandon your site. They join the program, they get an official badge marking them as an official fan site, they get access to an FTP with all these assets, they get first looks at unreleased assets, they get a yearly goody bag.
We're trying to increase [benefits] for things like private dev streams, access to events, fast passes to get through lines, and so on. That's something we're really proud of. We operate as a pretty lean community team: it was me for the first four years, and now I have someone who helps out; her name is Robin Huey. Since we operate lean, our fan sites are so important to us. They're able to help us translate things for people in different markers where we might not have an official Square Enix office, and we put together our FAQs based on that.
It's been a really rewarding program. We have fan sites everywhere, from Iraq and Australia to New Zealand and all over the world. We have tons in Brazil, tons in the Czech Republic. It's really rewarding working with them.
When it comes to cosplay, we started a feature called Croft Couture, which was showing off some of the regular cosplayers in the community in features online. That's evolved into an ambassador program, and a new program kicked off last year. Robin and I have been working at updating it and tweaking it, and we're very happy with how it's turned out.
Up until [Tomb Raider] Underworld, there were official models. That's something we've moved away from because we wanted Lara to represent herself in-game. But there was definitely a hole in conventions for fans wanting to meet someone who embodies Lara: to pose and take pictures with her, and so on. Cosplayers apply, and we select them from around the world and hire them to represent Lara at local events. This year we hired two: a classic Lara and a reboot Lara to show the progression of the franchise.
It's been great because you give a lot of the community members a chance to be recognized for their hard work. Plus they always speak the local language and they look like their local audience; it shows that Lara Croft is a state of mind more so than a specific [physical] appearance. We can all be Lara. I like that, both from a personal perspective and how it's united the community.
We also highlight lots of user-generated content. We're constantly showcasing fan art, films, and stuff like that.
Craddock: I'm very excited to read your 20 Years of Tomb Raider hardcover. Was that project given to you, or did you push for it?
Marie: I put together a wish list for Lara's 20th anniversary; this was around two years ago . It [a book] was one item that had always been on there. We were working with our partners and decided to do this book with Prima, a fantastic partner. Really, I think what happened is when I would talk about it, I was very enthusiastic and they picked up on that. We would talk about ideas, looking for authors, and so on. I started talking about what an ideal structure for the book would be, who we should talk to for interviews, and so on.
Eventually they said, "So, how involved do you want to be with this, Meagan?" I paused and said, "How involved can I be?" They said, "Well, if you want to write it, you can." I asked my bosses, and they approved. It was a project on nights and weekends. It was a very tough timeline to turn around the entire thing: over a period of five months, and about a month of editing, looking at layouts, and so on.
It was just an amazing experience for someone who's been a fan for so long to get to talk to so many people I've looked up to.
Craddock: So you were juggling your everyday duties at Crystal, and writing the book? What was that schedule like?
Marie: I had to establish a pretty strict schedule. I just needed to basically set a schedule that I knew I could stick to every day, that I knew was optimal for myself. I chose to write in the mornings, when my brain power is the highest. I would come in at 3:00 am, and I would write until 9:00, work until 5:00, and then write from 5:00 until 7:00 or 8:00 pm and then crash out for a few hours.
It was a pretty rigid schedule, but it definitely worked best for me. I could approach writing every morning with a clear mind and tackle it that way. I put in 12 or 13 hours, if not more, on the weekends. It was definitely very, very intense. I worked at work because if I had to work at home, being so close to my bed would have been a little tempting: "Oh, I think I'll just take a nap."
It worked well, once I got the schedule underway. I have to give my boyfriend some credit. He made sure I stayed alive and took care of all the house stuff. He was like, "You focus on writing; I'll get you some dinner." I had such a great support group. It was very intense but very rewarding. We had a tight timeline, but I had a friend who worked downstairs at DreamWorks. She'd text me: "Meagan, have you eaten?" I'd say no. She'd bring me a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich because you just kind of get into a zone when you're writing, and it's difficult to think of stuff like that. My group of friends all got their own thanks in the book, because they played a very important part of making sure it got published.
Craddock: I'm always interested to talk to fellow nonfiction writers about how they find contacts and score interviews, especially ones that make or break a project. What was your process?
Marie: This being my first time writing a book, I have to admit that was one of the biggest surprises: how little time the writing actually took. It was the organization [that took longest]. I put together a comprehensive table of contents that was maybe 800 cells in an Excel document. That helped give me a structure right away.
It was finding people—getting contact information, reaching out to them, scheduling interviews, conducting interviews, transcribing interviews, and so on—that took so long. Then, once I had all of that information, I could finally start writing. That was definitely a surprise to me: how long all of that took.
I broke my months down into milestones. I worked backwards: I started with the end of the book, which is an appendix, then I went to fans, movies, comics, and games, because that gave me the most amount of time to seed interviews for bigger sections, particularly games. I would spend the first two weeks of every month just coordinating everything. Once everything came together in the last week, that's when I sat down and banged out writing.
I tried to tackle sections as I could: If I had all the interviews, or if there was a side bar with someone, but it was definitely difficult to manage. There were 60 key contributors—people I interviewed from games, comics, and so on. Then there were 250 contributors in terms of people contributing assets. For a single cosplayer photo I have to get permission from the cosplayer and the photographer.
Thank goodness for DocuSign, being able to sign and send release forms digitally. But on top of that I did have to manage over 300 documents with signatures, asset release forms for things. A lot of these assets were so old, you didn't have them at high enough resolution or you didn't have them at all. Asset management was absolutely an incredible undertaking, but I think as a result we ended up with some really fantastic assets.
One I was particularly proud of was finding an image of the Tomb Raider race car. I used archive.org to find stuff on classic Tomb Raider and classic sites, fan sites and so on. The problem was most images were thumbnails, too small to use [in a book]. I'd think, I know there must be a larger image of this. So you take the thumbnail, you try Google Image search to see if anybody has it at a higher resolution. A lot of times, because these are 15-20-year-old assets, that's just not possible.
I found a thumbnail of the Tomb Raider race car and I knew I needed a bigger picture because it's just so cool. It took weeks of digging around. Eventually I found a racing forum where a photographer had been at that race, so I had to create a forum account in this racing forum to reach out to this guy. It was just this long process, but funnily enough, once I got this email address he responded to me within a day and said, "Yeah, go ahead and put the photo in the book. Here's a bigger resolution." It was such a small victory, but so funny because it was incredible how much work it took to get that one photo. I think it was worth it.
Craddock: What were some of the most interesting things you learned?
Marie: I think one of the most interesting conversations was an interview I did with the set dresser from the movies. She was just wonderful. Her name was Sonja Kraus. I've never been involved in any sort of Hollywood production, even tangentially, so it was really cool to learn about all the thought that went into everything. How you source four containers full of props from China so you can shoot in the Pinewood studios in London, and sending buyers places. She would travel with everybody and make sure the sets were dressed at every location. Their experience filming in Cambodia as the first film crew there in decades, and so on.
I felt I got a lot of interesting anecdotes from her.
It was really great talking to Jeremy Smith, creator of Core Design. He's so funny, and very honest. It was great learning from him. Richard Morton, one of the designers on several of the games, had some great stuff and unpublished design docs and so on. It was really cool to add a section based on games that never were, based in large part on my conversations with him and Richard Morton, who was the writer on Angel of Darkness. They had all this great content on what was going to happen with the Angel trilogy, and another idea for a game that was never even talked about.
Learning all these different things, considerations for the franchise, was really cool.
Craddock: Has working on the Lara Croft brand these past few years changed your perception of what the character represents, or should represent?
Marie: At some point you feel like you can't have any more affinity for a character, but working on this book did make me love Lara even more. She continues to be so inspirational. Seeing all of the work, all of the effort that has gone into making this character being able to stand for 20 years, is incredible.
Also talking to fellow fans, and seeing these "Dear Lara" letters where fans wrote to her as if she were a real person, and say thank you for things she did to inspire and help them, really affirmed my own feelings on her. It's an honor to work on the franchise every day, and to work with Lara. She continues to inspire me.
What I love about the reboot of Lara is that she's not perfect. She doubts herself at times and doesn't always have the answers. I feel like that's so relatable. To have a character who is so relatable but still so inspirational in so many ways, and so competent and capable and honest, is great.