In one of the last of our IP profiles, we cast our eye over the most iconic UK-born games property of all…
Estimated Total Unit Sales: Over 35 million (console and PC
Number of Iterations: Nine across console/PC platforms plus numerous compilation, remake, enhanced, mobile and portable editions
Game Release Timeline
1993: Development started
1996: Tomb Raider
1997: Tomb Raider 2
1998: Tomb Raider 3: Adventures of Lara Croft
1999: Tomb Raider 4: The Last Revelation
2000: Tomb Raider 5: Chronicles
2001: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (movie) released by Paramount
2003: LC TR: The Angel of Darkness
2003: LC TR: The Cradle of Life (movie) released by Paramount
2006: LC TR: Legend (Crystal Dynamics)
2007: LC TR: Anniversary (Crystal Dynamics and Buzz Monkey Software)
2008: Tomb Raider: Underworld (Crystal Dynamics and Buzz Monkey Software)
1988: Core Design started by Jeremy Heath Smith.
1994: CentreGold acquires Core Design to consolidate finances of U.S. Gold, Core Design and CentreSoft
1996: Eidos acquires CentreGold for £17.6m
1996: Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) offers Eidos exclusivity arrangement for Tomb Raider 2 through Tomb Raider 4
1998: Crystal Dynamics acquired by Eidos
2003: Responsibility for the development of Tomb Raider: Legend passed from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics. Jeremy Heath-Smith resigns to start a new studio
2004: Eidos seeks acquirer following consistent poor trading
2005: SCi acquires Eidos for £74m
2006: SCi sells Core Design assets and staff to Rebellion
2007: Principal development responsibilities for Tomb Raider: Anniversary split between Crystal Dynamics and independent developer Buzz Monkey Software, a situation continued with Tomb Raider: Underworld
Creator: Toby Gard (first Tomb Raider) and Phil Campbell
GAME INCEPTION AND ANALYSIS
Tomb Raider is a perfect example of a game whose IP hinges on public identity. And famously, the Tomb Raider as we know it today almost never was: when Core Design first began work on the title its principal character was male and the game was action-oriented – concepts which thankfully evolved in time into a ‘female Indiana Jones’ called ‘Lara Cruz’ who relied on athleticism and stealth, not shooting and killing (a position which gradually changed over the various iterations, slowly alienating some players, it should be noted).
Back in 1995, details about the game and its lead character were withheld until close to release, at which point the media was captivated by the character, her face appearing on covers of publications as varied as The Face to the Financial Times. Lara Croft, as she had finally been renamed, quickly and notoriously achieved iconic status. The controversial combination of Lara’s hard-hitting femininity (some say it was appealing to female gamers) and pneumatic figure (most say it was appealing to teenage males) simply fuelled interest, guaranteeing coverage to this day.
The game went through a number of iterations, with varying degrees of success in sales. Tomb Raider 2 represented the sales peak with over seven million unit sales, partly helped by a deal with Sony to keep Tomb Raider on the PlayStation to the exclusion of other platforms. The deal was one of the first major platform exclusives for an independent IP and Sony believes the deal contributed significantly to its hardware sales both in the USA and Europe. The deal terms were never made public, but they are understood to have comprised a substantial advertising ‘contribution’ and co-marketing benefits (at point of sale as well as on multiple media).
Despite Sony exclusivity, the third and fourth Tomb Raider titles failed to match the success of the first two but still managed in excess of 3.5 million units each. Tomb Raider Chronicles (the fifth title) arrived in 2000 as the PlayStation market had begun to decline, and received only a lukewarm critical reception – but still managed sales in excess of three million.
The sixth game, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, proved particularly problematic because the technology transition between console generations. The end result was a late, buggy game that was critically mauled. Although Eidos had initially shipped 2.3m units, sell-through was slow and the actual revenue generated failed to meet the company’s sales expectations.
Stung by the potential death of its most valuable IP, Eidos radically passed the development of the next game from the Core Design team to Eidos’ Crystal Dynamics studio in California. Under first the Eidos management, and then the SCi management, Crystal was given the time to perfect the technology and gameplay experience. SCi also re-hired Toby Gard, the original Tomb Raider designer, to work with Crystal Dynamics, a role which he has continued since. The game has since returned to its roots, met with favourable reviews and, crucially, sold well. Subsequent titles Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary (a remake of the original Tomb Raider) and Tomb Raider: Underworld have both followed similar design and development tracks with few changes to the tried and tested gameplay.
Crystal Dynamics has remained the lead developer since 2003, although SCi’s broad platform focus has necessitated the use of independent US developer Buzz Monkey Software, plus a small number of other third party developers for porting.
COMPANY INCEPTION AND GROWTH
Core Design was founded in 1988 as a games developer and made a name for itself creating original titles (such as Rick Dangerous) and, in the mid 90s, technically innovative titles for various Sega consoles (most notably SegaCD’s Thunderhawk). By this stage, Core had begun to self-publish some of its products and its success was recognised by rapidly expanding publishing and distribution group CentreGold who acquired the company in 1994.
CentreGold was acquired for £17.6m by newly listed Eidos, which quickly disposed of the distribution business and integrated all of the development and publishing parts – except for Core, which it granted autonomy.
At the time of Tomb Raider’s launch, Eidos was just a small (albeit comparatively well capitalised) company that had only been operating in the games sector for less than a year, but strong reviews helped the first game sell in significant volume. The franchise became the principal driver of Eidos’ remarkable four-year ascent during which over a dozen additional companies were acquired or invested in. However, by the start of the 2000s, Eidos’ management of internal and, in particular, external studios had started to become loose and inefficient, with a blank cheque mentality that played havoc with the company’s profitability. The introduction of new management at the top of Eidos brought a degree of respite and the company initiated a major cost reduction programme to improve its dwindling efficiency.
Unfortunately, this initiative failed to curtail the mounting problems being experienced with the development of the sixth Tomb Raider game, Angel of Darkness. Despite a massive development team, the project was beset by technical problems, the design focus was diffuse and the development cycle ran to well over three years. The title was finally released in 2003 following several much-publicised delays, and shipped with numerous technical and gameplay problems. Sales of the game were unsurprisingly weaker than expected, and contributed to its financial underperformance. This ultimately lead to the Eidos board’s decision to seek a sale of the company.
The purchase of Eidos by its smaller rival SCi, and the subsequent integration of its more successful approach to publishing management (a stronger emphasis on tight financial controls and a focus on execution) saw wide ranging changes. The underperforming team from Core was sold to Rebellion and Tomb Raider itself has returned to strong financial performance with the 2006 release of Tomb Raider Legend.
SCi’s fortunes did not last, however, and a succession of poor results since, a failed attempt to sell the company and increasing shareholder discord forced the departure of the SCi founder and CEO, Jane Cavanagh, and her senior management team. It also precipitated a radical restructuring of the business that resulted in the axing of numerous development projects and teams. With a new management team and a healthier balance sheet SCi is now focused on exploiting a smaller number of ‘pillar’ IPs, of which Tomb Raider is arguably the most important. Whilst Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary achieved only around 1m unit sales, much is expected of imminent release Underworld whose performance could prove crucial to SCi’s fortunes.
A unique aspect to this particular IP is its commercial exploitation outside of games. When Paramount had initially approached Eidos for the movie rights, there had been no successful game to movie transfer. Eidos’ management, however, underestimated the potential for Paramount’s dramatisation of its IP and secured what is estimated to have been only a low level, $1m to $2m fee per movie, including a complicated, limited royalty deal.
A slightly better deal is thought to have been renegotiated for the second film, after the success of the first (which grossed $275m at the box office), but the second film flopped (‘only’ managing $156m in box office receipts) leading to an acrimonious dispute between Paramount and Eidos. In negotiating the original film deal, Eidos’ management were much more concerned with protecting their brand from being mangled by Hollywood, and strove to retain final approval rights for the script and the casting of all Tomb Raider films.
In its 11 year history Tomb Raider has proven to be a pivotal IP for every company that has owned it. In Eidos’ case, it single-handedly transformed the company from being a small regional publisher into an international player, but equally contributed to the company’s downfall and eventual sale. In this regard, it has demonstrated IP’s ability to be a double-edged sword. The UK industry’s history is littered with examples where a developer has gone under or been acquired in distressed sales while trying to bring out sequels to best-selling franchises that have over-run budgets, schedules or its internal team’s production capabilities. This reflects a whole host of endemic problems in the UK development community but primarily a lack of management experience in companies struggling to manage growth after a major hit game.
That the Tomb Raider franchise bounced back, after the critical savaging and relative commercial failure of the sixth game and the transfer of the franchise to an entirely new studio, is a testament to the resilience of the underlying IP and the ability of its new developers. The resurrection of a brand many feared damaged is an almost unique achievement in the industry.
Despite striking numerous lucrative merchandising deals for Tomb Raider and Lara Croft, Eidos failed to demonstrate this shrewdness with the IP’s biggest spin-off, the films. Combined they made over $400m in global box office sales (the biggest game-to-film success the industry has seen) and an unknown level of DVD, video and other film merchandising sales. Eidos is not thought to have generated more than $20m from them in total. With over 10m units sold by the time the movie was green lit, Eidos could undoubtedly have been justified in securing a greater proportion of the film’s receipts. However, this is far from an easy deal to negotiate – Microsoft’s attempts to extract a material percentage of box office receipts from a proposed movie base on its Halo franchise attributed to that project’s failure to secure funding.
The Tomb Raider IP has changed hands several times. It is still a critical IP for SCi, but attempts by the company to diversify its portfolio to be less reliant on the franchise have met with mixed success and undoubtedly contributed to the recent financial problems at the company. Tomb Raider is, however, the strongest IP to remain in the hands of a UK company – although SCi, having attempted to sell itself in 2007, may well still change hands in the short to medium term. Since there are no potential acquirers of scale in the UK, any purchaser (Time Warner with a 19 per cent stake would appear the most likely candidate) is unlikely to be a UK-based company. Once again, UK IP ownership may change hands to a larger US or possibly European company.