Less is more as legendary Lara goes back into action

The videogame icon once thought past her sell-by date is proving profitable for her new owners, writes Huw J. Williams.

She is beautiful, highly intelligent, athletic and of independent means – a countess who has graced the covers of hundreds of magazines, appeared on stage with U2 and starred in two Hollywood movies. Yet despite all her assets, this world- famous celebrity is really no more than a collection of pixels: Lady Lara Croft.

The heroine of the Tomb Raider computer game series is 10 years old this year. Her latest adventure, Tomb Raider: Legend, leapt into the UK video game charts on its release and its sales are expected to push the total number of Tomb Raider games sold past 30 million.

But until this latest game hit the shops, many gamers felt Lara was a spent force. Despite the franchise earning over $1bn worldwide through games, movies and merchandise, later instalments lacked star quality and Lara was perceived as being past her prime.

Legend’s success is, however, testament to the foresight of the UK’s largest games publisher, SCi. Even though the last few Tomb Raider games had been roundly panned by critics, when SCi purchased rival UK publisher Eidos in 2005, it was with more than half an eye on the digital diva’s pulling power.

The remit for the new title was to revamp the vamp; downsizing her unfeasibly large breasts, enhancing her skills and taking her back to the character as first conceived. With high quality games now costing upwards of £5m to develop, let alone market and produce, retaining faith in Lara’s pulling power could have been a costly gamble. The fact that the game is a hit is due in no small part to Toby Guard, the original creator of Lara Croft. He hadn’t worked on any of the games since the first but was recruited as creative consultant for Legend, in order to return Lara to her original state.

‘Lara Croft and the original Tomb Raider was very innovative for its time and the following games failed to expand or take it anywhere new. I think they had lost sight of what made Tomb Raider good in the first place. Lara has an interesting personality. She’s eloquent and polite, but underneath that she is extraordinarily dangerous. That’s what makes her interesting,’ he said.

Lady Croft’s charisma and alluring looks caught the attention of the fashion world; she was a cover girl for the cult culture magazine The Face and Gucci paid £16,000 for her to model virtual versions of real clothes. For a digital character to have spawned such a successful franchise is significant enough, yet Lara’s impact has gone far beyond the bottom line; Lara Croft was recently voted one of the top 10 British design icons and one international survey claimed she had a higher recognition factor than the Pope.

She has also been credited with broadening participation in video games: women are not traditionally enthusiastic games players, but Lara has attracted many. Guard firmly believes it is the complexity of Lara’s character that has drawn them in, proving that she is not merely a fantasy girlfriend for countless teenage boys. However, it was the titillation of her male fans that the developers of later titles pandered to, and the increasing emphasis on her bra size led to criticism, including academic debate and a paper entitled ‘Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo?’

Ian Livingstone is SCi’s acquisition director in charge of the group’s portfolio of games. He first realised Lara’s potential when he was executive chairman of Eidos, yet even he has been surprised by the extent of her impact.

‘She is undoubtedly the iconic figure of gaming, and she has gone beyond the games niche. All the licensing went to significant brands who were using Lara to increase their sales, so that I think that showed the value of the character.’

All this is of course very good news for SCi and its shareholders, especially as the industry is due to enter a difficult period. Historically, the introduction of a new generation of consoles has led to a shakedown; the ever increasing expectations of consumers and the radical hike in development costs associated with producing games for the forthcoming Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii will undoubtedly force some companies out of business. As Livingstone points out, having Tomb Raider in their portfolio places SCi in a privileged position.

‘It’s rather like having a gold mine. We have a blue chip investment that allows us to take risks in other areas. We are exploring online games, casual games or titles that other people might feel inhibited by because of the risk. But if you can take those risks the reward is much greater than it used to be.’

But over-reliance on one brand brings its own risks. According to independent analyst Nick Gibson of Games Investor, SCi is trying to mitigate vulnerability by diversifying into other products and ensuring their presence on the new-format frontiers. He also thinks there’s still plenty to be made from Lara Croft.

‘This version of Tomb Raider has gone a very long way to proving that Lara Croft can and will survive in the next generation and since the bulk of games software revenue is going to have to come from tried and tested genres, Lara has still got life left in her.’

With SCi in discussions for a third Tomb Raider movie, CEO Jane Cavanagh is confident that SCi will prosper, despite any pending bloodbath in the UK games industry.

‘There are always challenges and we have to remain focused on what we want to deliver to the consumer as an end product,’ she said. ‘But the prospects for the next year in the UK are looking very encouraging – new hardware platforms, new games and new opportunities

 

The Observer, 4 June 2006 [read it here]

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