This summer, nearly 18 months since the launch of Tomb Raider: Underworld, we're going to see a different side to Lara Croft.
Yes, she's back, and yes, she's running around tombs again, but this time she's not running around shops on the way there, and she's unaccompanied by her traditional Tomb Raider headline.
That's because Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a download-only game for PC, PSN and Xbox 360. An experiment of sorts - developer Crystal Dynamics asked a small team to find a new outlet for the Tomb Raider heroine - the result is a co-operative action-adventure co-starring some dude with a spear.
Crystal Dynamics' brand overlord Karl Stewart is treading on unfamiliar ground, but he's confident his team are onto something. Eurogamer sat him down for a good talking to.
Eurogamer: This game has been called an experiment and a stopgap for Lara's next big release. Is that accurate?
Karl Stewart: When we started it was an experiment. We split the studio into two 18 months ago. We had two teams: one focused on the pillar release - their big baby - and the other one was experimental and looking at how we could be more bold and risky and try new things.
We looked at tons of different places: handheld, Wii, DS and online platforms. In those early stages we were very experimental, trying new things. Now it's gone past experimental. Now we're headfirst into building something that's compelling and new.
Eurogamer: What experimental things were you doing with Lara?
Karl Stewart: There's always somebody in the room smoking crack. When you get that amount of people in one room and ask them all for their idea you get some hare-brained ideas. But some of them will go on the back burner and may see the light of day. She's a real unique character and we have the opportunity to take her to new places.
Now, given the amount of work we've done on previous Tomb Raiders, we need to be fresh, to create something new. And this felt right.
Eurogamer: Those experiments are still alive?
Karl Stewart: To be honest, most of them are locked up in a draw. We made a decision when we were going down this road that the entire studio's focus was firmly on two products. This is taking up all of our time for this team. There's nothing else we're working on apart from this and our pillar release. But when we're finished with this we'll see how well it does and we might see what's down the road. Right now there's nothing in the works apart from these two games.
Eurogamer: How much are you gambling on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light?
Karl Stewart: Ultimately making any game is a risk. You can mitigate this by doing tons of research: NPD, Nielsen. But in the case of arcade gaming it's an area that's locked off; if we sell a game I'm certainly not going to say how much we sold. It's all anecdotal data. In terms of risks then, this is a huge risk for every studio. You're putting a team onto something that you have to believe in your heart of hearts is the right direction. In terms of financials, that's a huge risk.
In terms of the space, what are we if we don't take risks? We don't want to continue making the same games that we've always made.
Eurogamer: Is the Guardian of Light team very big?
Karl Stewart: We don't normally reveal team size, but it's a pretty moderate-sized team. It's certainly smaller than anything you would have on a pillar release. A lot smaller.
Ultimately you have to have the key people: the creative directors, the tech guys, the lead designer. Having a small team we're able to communicate much more freely; we're able to fix a lot of things on the fly, and make decisions. The days of building a game by committee are absolutely gone.
Eurogamer: Will there be any crossover between the studio's two projects?
Karl Stewart: No, no. We made a decision that the two of them are completely different beasts. Guardian of Light is an arcade game with the arcade consumer in mind. Going forwards, we don't want to confuse. This direction has to be communicated correctly. The other title we're working on is built specifically for that [other] audience.
Eurogamer: Is Guardian of Light a sneaky way to return to puzzles and a more 'human' Lara without the mass market going mental?
Karl Stewart: In everything we do, irrespective of if it's a digital game or a pillar release, the heritage of Tomb Raider has to be there, because what is it without that? Just a generic game. We know who Lara is and what it is to be a Tomb Raider.
In this case we decided to have Lara in co-op. This will be the first time players have spoken to each other at the same time as trying to solve a puzzle. We've been very solitary in the past. Now you can come across these things that have been in our DNA in the past and talk to other people about them and have some fun. That's new, that's big for us.
Guardian of Light has been built with a critical and non-critical game path. The arcade gamer who likes to play from start to finish in one sitting without doing those hardcore puzzles can. There's no puzzle that dumbfounds you so much you put the controller down and say, "I'm done." But for the Tomb Raider fan you can choose to go into some Challenge Tombs and pick up some additional perks that will help you play the game in a unique way.
Eurogamer: Perks! Do I spy an RPG undercurrent?
Karl Stewart: Ah, that's our secret we're going to show around E3. We do have a couple of facets... From our perspective, in order to build a game that's a minimum of six hours in single-player or co-op, there has to be more than just running... Nice elements where players can sit and have some fun, take their time. With critical and non-critical paths we're able to boost the time of the game from six hours straight play to seven-and-half to eight hours, taking into account all of the hardened puzzles.
We believe that, in terms of the arcade space, we're trying to raise the bar of what it means to spend 10 pounds or 1200 Microsoft Points on nowadays.
Eurogamer: That's the price you're aiming at?
Karl Stewart: Yeah, it's what we're aiming at. Obviously we're dictated to somewhat by the first parties and their pricing models. Right now we've suggested to them that we want to come in line with all of the rest of the big hitters that have come out over the last year or so.
Eurogamer: Co-op is a big step for Tomb Raider. Now you've made it, will we see it again further down the line - perhaps in a pillar release?
Karl Stewart: I don't know. It's new, it's different and we're getting a lot of great feedback. Ultimately I want to hear from Tomb Raider fans and gamers when they play it and whether or not they think it is right. Right now it's fun. We have people who are die-hard Tomb Raider fans coming into test and we sit them next to another fan and within five minutes the two of them are laughing and joking and having fun and talking to one another.
We've never seen that before in our games. I'll leave it to the fans, I'll leave it to the gamers to tell us what they think.
Eurogamer: Talking of reception: how dire would that need to be to prevent a sequel? Presumably with the engine in place a sequel would be a cinch.
Karl Stewart: It would be easy. It is our engine and we are well-equipped to pick-up and do another one. But we're not about pumping out another game for the sake of it. The experience has got to be right. We'll know at the time what to do - our fans are very vocal.
Eurogamer: Is Guardian of Light, with its fancy visuals and mega IP, trying to blow other downloadable competition out of the water?
Karl Stewart: Every developer when they start making a game aims high and to be the best. We're no different. We've had a leg-up with our existing technology, but it's about how we take that into this space with its limits on how much consumers are allowed to download. We truly believe that right now we have a great game on our hands, and the first-parties are excited. This is a cool space to be in and hopefully we'll be one of those big hitters. And the space has come on, even since last year.
Eurogamer: Let's say Guardian of Light flies and sells hundreds of thousands, maybe millions: what happens then?
Karl Stewart: Yeah, of course we have contingency plans. The development time on these games is obviously a lot shorter than a full retail title. The guys who are working on the game have tons of ideas of where they could take it. We'll see. I'll be absolutely delighted if we could sell a couple of hundred thousand or, if it's a million, that would be great!
Eurogamer: And the game is coming to PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 this summer - simultaneously?
Karl Stewart: Again, the plans are at the moment to have a sim-ship. But we won't know until post-E3, unfortunately. We'll have the game in submission in about two weeks so it will be complete. It'll be about a month and then it will be up to Microsoft and Sony as to when they want us [the game] to come out.
Summer is the biggest time for arcade gaming and they have their timelines. For PC we pick the date, but obviously we want to make sure we get as close to sim-ship as possible.
Eurogamer: So that's a late summer release, most likely?
Karl Stewart: We've been ahead of the curve, we've said, "Look, we want to get the game finished and in the can and let the first-parties tell us when they recommend we should come out." We don't want to be pushed into a space purely because the game is late or wasn't finished in time.
They've given us the recommendation that July and August are the two biggest windows for arcade gaming, so we're going to have the game finished long before that and then let them help us pick a window.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light will be released this summer on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.