Keir Edmonds' "My First Visit to Crystal! Part One The Tour!" (May 12 - 19)

As many of you know Im the Global Community Manager at Eidos. This means that a) Im very, very lucky and b) Im responsible for working with the fan communities for all of Eidos titles, from the brutal and murderous Hitman to the cute and sweet Pony Friends. Its a fantastic job and would be a massive task in itself, even without the gargantuan behemoth that is the Tomb Raider community which makes sure Im kept amazingly busy (its also the best community to work with but dont tell anyone else I said that). One of the things I like most about community management is that the interaction with the community makes the world a very small place. In my day to day duties I can answer questions and speak to Tomb Raiders from around the world; a Tomb Raider fan in Mexico wants to know if Lara will be wearing trousers in Underworld, one in Australia wonders when the next bit of goodness will be released, another in Russia has translated all the cut scenes from TR1 and 2, I love it.

Indeed, when I go on holiday these days I normally encounter some Tomb Raider fans somewhere along the way. Last year when I was on a family holiday in Finland I ended up meeting with some fine Finnish TR fans on an impromptu community day in Helsinki, around 10 guys turned up and a lovely day was had by all, eating strawberries under the Nordic sun, chatting about Lara, Natla and Anniversary. So, when I had made arrangements to visit the west coast of the good old US of A, it seemed inevitable that it would include Tomb Raider in some way. The fact that I was flying into San Diego and making my way to San Francisco meant there was only one outcome my first visit to Crystal Dynamics to see where the magic happens! So, while youre waiting for the next update on the awesomeness that is Underworld, I thought Id give you all a behind the scenes look at Laras studio.

The first part of my holiday was taken up with the journey from San Diego, which took in the ridiculous (Hollywood is seriously crazy) to the sublime (coastal Highway 1, flanked by the Pacific on one side and rolling hills on the other is a beautiful way to see what California has to offer) before arriving in San Francisco. SF is a lovely place. Its a compact, liberal and welcoming city with splendid architecture and tasty sourdough bread (not to mention quite a famous bridge). The sharply inclined streets which carry the famous Trolley Cars are framed by grand buildings exuding atmosphere which lead down to the ocean but most importantly of all, its home to Crystal Dynamics.

Mustang
Me and the 4 litre Mustang I took up the coast, lol :)

Kathryn (who is the brand manager and general goddess of the TR brand from Eidos HQ in London) was out in Crystal at the time and she had spread the word that I would be visiting. On the morning of my visit, I set off from my hotel just off Union Square. As my taxi sped south down the 32 lane freeway (OK, I exaggerate but Californian roads are big) I spotted a futuristic and plush looking office complex glinting in the distance. I had seen photos of Crystal D before, and I was sure this was it. I wasnt wrong and with-in a couple of minutes I had arrived and found myself standing outside Tomb Raider HQ.

Crystal Outside
The Crystal Dynamics studios in all their splendour.

This fine building houses Crystal Dynamics and the US branch of Eidos. It was great to finally have the opportunity to be here, because I frequently exchange emails with a lot of the people that work behind the swanky glass faade. As I made my way in I spotted a small an unassuming chap with shortly cropped hair, a goatee and round rimmed glasses, but more about him later. I introduced myself at reception where Morgan Gray (some of you may recognise the name from an Anniversary Wii video we released a while back) was sitting on the comfy sofas catching up with the industry latest from some computer magazines. Before I knew it, Kathryn appeared and ferried me into the offices.

Crystal Sign
I had finally reached my destination!

Kathryn trying to hide
This is Kathryn, who is the Tomb Raider Brand Manager is somewhat camera-shy,
and she will kill me when she sees Ive sent this out.

They offices are vast, occupying an entire floor, grouped by department. Everyone sits in their own large cubicle each of which had been decorated and personalised by its occupant. Some of them were funny, others really neat. One of them even had an improvised roof, so the cubicle looked more like a cave.

Before I could get a full tour of the office I had been escorted (read: frogmarched) to a meeting room where some recording equipment had been set up. Along with Mona and Justin from tombraiderchronicles.com, Kathryn and I have been working on a series of podcasts to give the community the inside line on the development of Underworld. I hadnt initially planned to partake in the recordings (because I am shy!) but when Kathryn and Crystal said I should, I could hardly refuse. It wasnt long until Eric Lindstrom joined us. Eric is the Creative Director on Tomb Raider: Underworld and general living legend. Hes responsible for the storyline and oversees all the creative elements of development. I had first met him many moons ago when a few members of the Crystal team visited Eidos HQ to present an overview of Underworld. I had compiled a list of criteria and points that the community wanted to see from the next Tomb Raider and taken into that meeting. As Eric spoke I remember ticking off each point I had noted down. Im delighted to say (because it makes my job great!) that Eric has worked on Underworld with the community in mind. I appreciate youll only really be able to believe that when you see it, but its why Im looking forward to release so much!

Alex Jones (Underworld Producer, who seemed really cool but was suffering from the mother of all colds) joined us shortly after. There was time for some quick discussion and a couple of sound checks before we recorded the first podcast, which will be available for download soon so watch this space!

Croft Manor
No its not a screenshot from Underworld Im afraid
but even the meeting rooms sound familiar!

Once the podcast was recorded, we all relaxed and retired to another meeting room where Crystal had kindly provided some fresh fruit for me to graze on. As I tucked into some delicious strawberries (there seems to be a strawberry-theme developing here) Eric, Kathryn and I discussed every aspect of the community, from Eidos split from Core and some peoples resulting animosity to Crystal, the buzz around Underworld, and Crystals interaction in the community, etc. Eric mentioned that he checks the forums at least once a day. Hes not alone. As I made my way round the office meeting various members of the dev team, I discovered that a lot of the team do likewise. As the community manager, this was great to hear. Ill encourage and manage some community interaction from the guys at Crystal for the Underworld campaign, of course theyre extremely busy, but we all agree direct interaction would be great for the community.

Strawberries, YUM!
No Tomb Raider community day is complete without fresh strawberries! Yum!

We continued chatting and I asked some questions from the community. Ill give you the answers in next weeks instalment of my visit. With the questions answered Eric had to dash off into some important meetings. It was great to spend some time with him, and I was suitably excited to hear in person about how much he values the community and its opinions. Now is a good time for me to tease you and say that we have some really cool ideas for this coming up!

Next up was my tour of the studio. The offices are deceptively huge. My photos dont really do them justice. There are lots of people busily scurrying around, and theyre all really helpful which is just as well as I frequently got lost and when I asked directions, everyone was super helpful. I must have met about a hundred people in the space of a couple of hours. Here are some photos of the offices I took while I was wondering around.

Cubes
Imagine this x 10,000 in area!

Story Wall Story Wall
The first thing you notice, apart from the size is that Lara is everywhere. Concept art here, renders there. This was fun to see, but the coolest part of the office was a massive wall covered in concept art from the game. As you walk from left to right, the storyboards and concept art play out the main details of the game. Yes, its a long walk from the one end to the other, and yes I did walk all the way to the end but Im not going to show you any photos of that!

Juli Award Woo
First I met Juli whos a producer on Underworld (and the office Wii Bowling Champion). She is a really great laugh and proudly showed off her Wii Bowling Trophy. As Eric said They sure know how to bowl in Nebraska!

Jae
This is Jae. He works in creative services, which means part of his job is to take and distribute the screenshots which I get to pass onto you guys. He is a top bloke. He was really interested to meet me as hes another one who enjoys browsing the forums. You might be seeing some more of him in the future!

Eric's Desk
This is the nerve centre of TR:U - Erics desk. It was empty at the time as he was in his important meetings.
Its pretty neat compared to some of the desks I saw and it would seem he likes to unwind with a nice stout after a hard days work on TR!

Morgan Being Chilled
I ran into Morgan again, he happily posed for a photo!
This guy is so laid back hes practically horizontal :)

Lara and sofa
Crystal have comfy sofas (and the TV is guarded by a familiar face
to ensure there isnt any slacking!) I didnt have time to sit down though.

Kitchen
No time for a snack either!

Forest, Eric and Toby
I discovered where Eric had got too. Here he is with Forest and Toby in discussion about some important cinematic matters. Toby is a decent and down to earth chap, I had a good chat to him shortly afterwards. At the end of the day, Kathryn and I got the train back to SF central with Forest, she told us some secrets about how Crystal create some of the sound effects (more on this later!) and she gave me some tips for some cool bars in downtown SF to visit.

I met a million more people, but didnt get photos of everyone. However, one of the guys I really wanted to meet was Troels Folmann. Ive spoken to him a few times on email and Ive always been a huge fan of the music in Tomb Raider; I loved what he had achieved in Anniversary. It was getting to the end of the day and I hadnt had a chance to speak to him, until my meanderings took me past his office - low and behold there he was. I popped my head round the door to say hi and he invited me in for a long chat.

Troels
Hes seriously cool and was really interested and excited to hear about my work with the community. Troels is another guy that spends a lot of time reading the forums and checking on community consensus. If youve ever created a thread about the music in the game, chances are Troels has read it. I told him I definitely wanted to do some community related features about the music in the game and he agreed that we must, so watch this space.

Jason
Finally, I bumped into a certain Jason Botta. He is a master of understated cool. It was a pleasure to meet him, but more importantly, it gave me the chance to ask the first questions from the community and make him (somewhat reluctantly) pose for a photo request!

While I was chatting to Jason, I took this opportunity to ask the first of the questions from the community so read the second instalment for the Q&A session with Eric Lindstrom and Jason in which we talk about Crystals view of the Tomb Raider community, what its like to work on Underworld, if Crystal knew about Cores version of Anniversary and lots, lots more! Out next week!

Keir Edmonds' "My First Visit to Crystal! Part Two The Questions" (May 12 - 19)

As you may have seen last week, I wrote up an account of my recent visit to Crystal. I was out in California on holiday, and seeing as I was visiting San Francisco, I took the opportunity to meet the nice folk at Crystal Dynamics and get the inside line on life at the Tomb Raider studios (armed with some all important questions from community).

Roof

While I was there, I crammed in a load of stuff: I hosted our first ever podcast, got a tour of the studio, took lots of photos, met a million charming people, ate strawberries and ultimately achieved the main goal of my mission to ask some questions about Crystal from the community.

I left last weeks instalment on a bit of a cliff hanger; while touring the office I had just encountered Jason Botta, and I asked him the first of the community questions. I asked as many as I could, and not all of them got answered, but Im sure therell be an opportunity in the future to ask more :)

Me: Can you ask Jason Botta if he wants to go out with a date with me? (Larson 1998)
Jason: I think my wife might be rather upset!
And with that Jason rushed off to get back to work and I sat down with Eric Lindstrom, the Creative Director of Tomb Raider: Underworld, and in between discussions about Underworld I put these questions to him:

Ask them if Toby Gard is around and is he working on TRU. (Daventry)
Toby is around and hes our cinematics director and continues to be a valued consultant on all things Lara Croft and Im very glad we have him.

I wouldnt mind knowing how many people are working on underworld (Nenya awakens)
It does vary, but around now its around 80 people.

How far ahead do you [Crystal Dynamics] plan the TR games? Legend came out in 2006, then Anniversary came out in 2007 and a brand spanking new current gen TR game will be out at the end of the year. Do you know what story you wanted to tell and how it would pan out when you made Legend? (Angelus)
Theyre asking a lot of questions with this one! Like any good franchise, theres always going to be another one. Anniversary was a little different, because that wasnt in the chain, that was done as a side project. And that was why we ended up getting Tomb Raider titles that close together because it was not the same team. We have people who did Anniversary who came on and helped us [on Underworld] but Anniversary was a side venture to reward the fans.
The second part of the question, about the length of time we work on a game; what were really doing is making a game that is two and a half years long. We started working on Underworld, the same time we started work on Anniversary, so its not right to think we finished Anniversary and then started on Underworld. To be precise we started in Christmas 05 on Underworld hardcore November. I didnt actually take any time off from Legend on which I did story design and directed, edited and co-wrote the script.
I needed to hit the ground running for Underworld so I had all concept docs working for studio approval before Legend was on the shelves. I was excited because when I came back to Crystal (it was my second time here) I was the story designer on Legend, I really wanted to start work three months earlier on Underworld, but I was too busy making the game I was assigned.

Are they planning on another game in the Legacy of Kain series. (Knightgames) Is there any chance of another Legacy of Kain game in the future? (John york)
Well there is always.. *Kathryn coughs loudly and drowns out the answer*

Eric faces the questions
Eric faces the barrage of questions!

I was actually more curious about what they think of us.. There are so many useless posts bashing at Crystal for no reason (don't get me wrong, I'll probably never play Legend again and I think criticism is important).. - although I'll admit it's going better I love it. (MrBear) Ask how thay think of us and are comments on them! (Hairhelmet12)
I dont go to the forums for any reason other than I like doing it and I get something valuable out of it. I dont have any obligation to do it as far as the company is concerned, I dont even think the directors know that I do it, its just something that I think is very valuable and I think its important.
What do I think of them is a different question because I am completely unaffected by all of the mudslinging and all of the bashing. I think its too bad sometimes when they say Oh Crystal did this or Core did this or Toby did this, when its not true. When they say Oh I hated they way they made Lara whiney and emotional, thats true! We cant deny that, its true! The fact that they have different opinions thats important for us to know. When they something thats not true, thats unfortunate but I dont take it personally because I know its not true.
Its kind of like listening to gossip that youre not supposed to listen to. Thats what gossip is, its people in the house next door to you, whispering about you and you dont get to hear it, looking on the forums is like eves-dropping on conversations that are kind of going on with the assumption youre not listening. Even though they say I hope Crystal are listening! they still act as if were not.
I dont take any of it personally, I remember reading early on when the community became aware of my name somebody said This Eric sounds OK but he has a way of sounding like he says a lot but really not saying a damn thing and I had to laugh because it was true, because at the time I couldnt say a damn thing and I was trying to hide it as best I could, the guy saw through it and I thought good for you. So when people are going around saying about how much they hate this and hate that often its stuff that the community dont even agree on. With 1500 people theres going to be 1500 different opinions.
I would hate for the community and forums not to be there, and for them not to be saying what theyre saying.

What are some of Crystal Dynamics' most favourite games right now? What are they currently playing on their Xbox 360's and PS3's? (UNDERTAKER)
I dont have as much time as Id like to play video games sadly. We currently have a Battle of the Bands tournament on Rock Band. We just finished up a Guitar Hero tournament, before that we had a Wii Bowling tournament. The Underworld team won the bowling, our producer Julie shes a powerhouse, they know how to bowl in Nebraska!
The most recent team that I played that I loved was Portal, but thats no surprise to anyone. I loved Portal.

Game development obviously has its highs. But what are some of the lows of the job? What makes the game development process difficult? (UNDERTAKER)
That wasnt on the email I saw! What are the low sides of game development? Wow. Im thinking about all the true answers I dont want to say! One of the lowest things is that, its kinda hard to explain, but imagine making a game over two and a half years that people can play and finish in 12 hours and do the division. So, you can spend a month of hard work where what you see on the screen hasnt changed, because its just a lot of construction work. There are times when you go too long without seeing the thrill of whats going to end up in the final product, and that can wear you down. But then again, it just makes it that much more exciting when suddenly it all comes together and the screen lights up and everyone sits up in their chair and says Wow! This is great! Its not so much a low moment, but its one of the more gruelling non-high points of development.
Theres the fact that movies get the benefit of just filming another movie, they dont have to invent a new camera every time. Making games and the tech that goes with it is like inventing a new camera every time, and they break all the time. I love the story of Richard Dreyfus that he tells of him and all the Jaws actors sitting on the beach waiting for the shark to work for days and days. And a lot of our low points are when the tools all break and dont work. Then were stuck on paper again and theres no sexy answer to this question!

Does Natla or any old characters such as Kurtis return, if so.. to make my question different to others.. do they die? (Dizzydoil)
[Eric looks at Kathryn] You dont want me to answer this question do you?! Natla is immortal, she cant die, but Im not saying shes in the game or not!

Do you plan to put this costume in TRU? (Image of Lara in trousers) (KC Mraz)
She will have costumes in the game of course. Shell have shorts and long pants in the game but shes going to be wearing a hell of a lot more than that!
And with that, Eric dashed off into an important Underworld meeting. Along with these questions we discussed lots of exciting ideas for the Underworld community campaign.

Patrick Rob Pavey
Patrick and Rob

Riley at his desk
So before I conclude this report, no account of a visit to Crystal Dynamics
would be complete without (a much requested!) photo of Riley Cooper!

Keep an eye on the forums for more on our Tomb Raider: Underworld community campaign, and if you have any questions or suggestions Im only a Private Message away!


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By Keir Edmonds, Eidos Community Manager

credit to Keir, Eidos, Crystal Dynamics, Mona Sax and tombraiderforums.com