Restoration of an Icon
A quick search on Gamerankings shows the Tomb Raider franchise's history — slipping from the 90 percentile in its first incarnation, down by about 10% every release. By the end, 2003's Angel of Darkness could only manage 54%. IGN called it "miserable".
Now in the hands of Crystal Dynamics, the buzz among the press is extremely positive. Edge recently gave over a cover to the game; unthinkable for this franchise at any time since the mid-1990s. Magazines are scrambling for the exclusive first review.
It's not just a new developer at the helm. Eidos, under the leadership of Bill Gardner, has revamped its marketing team, headed up by industry veteran Bob Lindsey. The pair worked together at Capcom in recent years, handling IP such as Resident Evil.
Lindsey says the negative associations surrounding Lara will be swept away with a single decent iteration, arguing that Lara, far from being a one-decade wonder, has legs.
"Eidos has learned in spades that just because we make it, does not means they will come," he says. "Users are very discerning about what is a good experience and what is not. If you create a big franchise like Tomb Raider, one that has sold more than 30 million units globally, you can't afford to burn it with something that does not deliver.
"So this version is not about the launch of Tomb Raider Legend. This version is the relaunch of the franchise and Lara Croft for the next generation for a global business that includes licenses and movies."
He says the marketing and positioning is all going to be based around the character herself, revamped in every way imaginable. "This character is coming to life in every way; in terms of physics and animation and story telling. That is what will yield the future hundreds of millions of dollars in the Tomb Raider business."
He adds, "Lara is a really fascinating female action figure. Starting with however her persona was defined 10 years ago she has evolved with the available technologies. Now she has become more interesting, compelling and emotionally engaging. Animation and graphics makes characters look great but we have to do more than that, to make her more compelling."
But is there a sense among gamers that this is a dud franchise; ruined by lazy sequels?
Lyndsey says the consumer is forgiving. "We know the franchise started well and it got off track. But the primary market for is Tomb Raider customers. We want to say 'come on back and take a look at this. We owe you one.'
"We believe the user in the game space is forgiving as long as you admit mistakes and correct them and deliver against as many expectations as you can. The consumers will forgive and will come back."
It's unusual to see such a massive franchise being launched in the spring, against the usual fall market. Clearly, delays have pushed it into 2006, but Lindsey sees positives.
"Last year the company shipped Lego Star Wars in April and we sold over three million units worldwide. The industry is better off if some big games are moved out of that fall window. Consumers are playing the boxes all year around. They are not as seasonal as in prior years.
"Retailers are clearly embracing it because it is driving off-season business. They don't want to deal with 25 products a week launching in November. I don't think Tomb Raider would sell fewer or more units by moving to November, because it has the stature to stand out any time.
"The game is strong so we will get a long run, it will extend to other platforms and then go platinum. It will be evergreen so we are comfortable with the decision."
The coming of new consoles also helped convince the company not to hold its monster until later in the year. "As a publisher we need to be aligned with the next generation platforms and we need to be able to offer consumers Lara throughout the life of those consoles," he says.
"The longer we wait to participate in that the fewer versions we can produce for the next gen platforms. Coming out in April is smart; we are there for the first million units of 360 and we'll be able to do another version that really uses everything we have learned about leveraging the technology. PS3 will be the same. We will be there or thereabouts [at launch]."
So what is the target for Tomb Raider: Legends? "I would be surprised if we were not number one in the charts during the early months and in the top five at the end of the year. We feel that good about the product."
Lindsey says Lara will mark the comeback for Eidos, a company which has, in recent years, lost its reputation for innovation. "We will build the business one brick at a time," he says. "The results will be based on how we manage big franchises, how we increase revenue and manage profitsand margins while growing internationally."