‘Tomb Raider’ at 25 – Ian Livingstone talks about the birth of Lara Croft

"Nobody had an idea just how big Lara Croft would become, but she's survived the test of time”

Ian Livingstone’s reputation precedes him. Before he even got into the video games industry, he co-founded Games Workshop, while his choose-your-own-adventure Fighting Fantasy gamebooks have been hugely influential to RPG developers – you’ll even find a copy of his 1984 best-seller Deathtrap Dungeon in the bedroom of a young Peter Quill in Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy.

That isn’t just a neat period Easter egg but a tribute from developer Eidos Montreal to Eidos Interactive, the British publishing giant where Livingstone was president and CEO, until it was acquired by Square Enix in 2009.

Moving to video games was not always a likely direction for Livingstone, as he tells me, “I can’t actually code myself, even though I campaign for coding in schools.” It was in fact off the back of the success of Deathtrap Dungeon in 1984 that he was approached by a company called Domark to write for a text adventure game called Eureka! But rather than be paid royalties, he opted to take an equity stake in the company, which led him to becoming a member of the board in 1991.

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Domark was best known as the publisher for the original football management sim Champion Manager but it was even better known when it and three other companies came together in 1995 to form Eidos Interactive. In the following year, it launched its biggest and most influential hit to date – Tomb Raider.

The game’s story had already begun in 1994 with British developer Core Design. The character of Lara Croft was designed by artist Toby Gard specifically to distinguish from Core’s earlier Rick Dangerous series, which was a pretty blatant copy of Indiana Jones right down to its logo.

Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider. Credit: Square Enix.

“The idea was, as the whole industry was growing up and becoming responsible, to have a character that was certainly not going to be thought of as being Indiana Jones, so I think someone said maybe there could be an Indiana Jane instead,” Livingstone recalls. “Toby had seen the rise of girl power at the time like Neneh Cherry and Tank Girl and proposed this character initially called Laura Cruz before it changed to Lara Croft.”

At that time however, Livingstone had no idea about Tomb Raider. As a new publisher, Eidos was simply looking for the opportunity to grow, which it decided to do by acquiring struggling company CentreGold. It represented a foothold into the American market as the company had acquired games from the US to publish in Europe under the label US Gold, such as Duke Nukem 3D, but it would also include its studios Silicon Dreams and Core Design.

“All I remember of course is Core Design, which was the jewel in the crown,” says Livingstone, who did the due diligence during the acquisition by visiting CentreGold’s studios and seeing their assets. “I remember driving up late on a snowy February [in 1996], and I went to Silicon Dreams first, and then drove on to Derby to meet Jeremy Heath-Smith, the managing director of Core Design.”

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Core had a number of titles in development that year alone but the biggest surprise of all was Tomb Raider. “I don’t want to say cornily that it was love at first sight, but it was quite a big moment to see Lara Croft on screen at that point.”

Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider. Credit: Square Enix.

“It was a first in so many ways, from the unique character – and games had never previously featured a female character in any meaningful way – and a 3D character moving in a 3D world when historically most games up to that point had been 2D side scrolling games, with the three pillars of exploration, combat and puzzle solving, plus incredible graphics.”

That summer, Lara Croft would also capture the public’s attention when Tomb Raider demoed at the second-ever E3, before Eidos published the game in October first for the Sega Saturn, with PlayStation and PC arriving the following month, selling well beyond its already high expectations.

As a diehard Sega fanboy during that era, I always felt a bit sore about Tomb Raider coming to the Saturn first only to subsequently become a PlayStation console exclusive and, alongside Crash Bandicoot became a sort of mascot for Sony. According to Livingstone, “Core had a pretty good relationship with Sega at the time – they had seen the initial Tomb Raider game and wanted it on their platform, so that’s how it came to be.”

“But then Sony came along with huge enthusiasm and a lot of promises to support the game and effectively made an offer that was difficult to ignore in terms of being exclusive to that platform for a certain amount of time,” he continues. “Software drives hardware, Sony wanted some iconic titles that were going to drive hardware sales, and I think at the time it was Tomb Raider and Wipeout that did that job for them effectively.”

Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider. Credit: Square Enix.

Besides representing a boom for the British games industry, Lara Croft was also an important figure in the representation of strong independent women in a male-dominated medium, even though the way she was designed – from her chest size to her hot pants – and marketed made her more of a school-boy fantasy, especially in the prime of lad mags, with the CG character also famously having a suggestive cover on Loaded in 2000.

“She was a product of the time, but I wouldn’t say Lara Croft was playing into that market as such, because, at the same time as being attractive, she was intelligent, athletic, independent, explorative, and didn’t actually need men,” Livingstone argues. “She enjoyed being played almost as much by women as she was by men. The game was bought more by men, but was played kind of 60-40. So she did have universal appeal and it wasn’t just to do with her image.”

Even if Lara was often sexualised, Eidos and Core did what they could to clamp down on attempts to associate her with pornography, such as when Lara Croft’s model Nell McAndrew was fired after posing nude for Playboy in 1999, while the magazine was also taken to court over references to Lara Croft and Tomb Raider from the cover. Then there was of course the infamous rumours of a ‘Nude Raider’ cheat code, which magazines and websites claimed allowed horny gamers to play with a naked character model of Lara.

“We tried to shut them down as soon as possible, but people like to create those stories of those unlockable secret parts of the game where you could find your naked Lara. That was absolutely impossible, because it didn’t exist,” says Livingstone, even though he concedes that those kind of mods are pretty rampant in games today, “You can’t stop people with what they do, but we didn’t do it, that’s for sure!”

Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider. Credit: Square Enix.

Lara Croft’s image has evolved over the years, notably by her younger grittier reboot in 2013, and she’s celebrated by fans as a feminist and LGBT+ icon. “Nobody had an idea just how big Lara Croft would become, but she’s survived the test of time rather like James Bond has survived the test of time in cinema.”

The series hasn’t been without its bumpy patches, Livingstone conceding that 2003’s Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness represented a low-point for a number of reasons, not least her wandering the streets of Paris and Prague rather out of step with the usual exotic tomb raiding, and admits one of the toughest decisions was taking the series away from Core Design and giving it to US developer Crystal Dynamics.

“We thought they were better placed to take the franchise on, with the technology that was being developed at the time, and it proved to be the right decision,” explains Livingstone. “The original [Core Design] team had already gone, but it was still very tough to have to tell them, ‘We’re going to have to move Lara Croft away from you.’”

Since resigning from Eidos in 2013, Livingston is still heavily involved in the games industry, from chairman of Sumo Digital to vice president of gaming charity SpecialEffect to co-founding venture capital fund Hiro Capital, less so however with Lara Croft. He admits he hasn’t played any of the new games, and he certainly sounds more fond of the earlier games that focused on exploration and puzzles over the mindset of “directing a character in a film”, though he adds, “They’re hugely popular, and I can see why.”

“Lara Croft is an iconic character and she will inevitably go on – all I say is, long live Lara!”

A collection of Tomb Raider games, from older Core Design titles to the latest from Crystal Dynamics, are available to pick up on Steam

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