Interview: Crystal Dynamics’ Mike Brinker on Rise of the Tomb Raider

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Mike Brinker, Lead Designer of Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider, recently stopped by our country to show off the game at EB Expo 2015. We caught up with him for a quick chat about Lara’s latest adventure.

Luke Lawrie, Stevivor: Looking at the feedback and what people really wanted more of from the previous game, it seemed like having more tombs was something that stood out. Was that at the top of the list for improvements in Rise of the Tomb Raider, or were there other aspects that you wanted to tackle first?

Mike Brinker: There was a variety of things that we wanted; we are always looking at core pillars. The tombs and puzzles were a big one, and I think we’ve come back in spades with that. But I also think if you look at what our RPG systems were doing right, we wanted to give players choice.

So we really looked at how to expand our ability to have different skills, and we went wild on that – there are now three trees with four tiers in each. Then we looked at the systems that play into who Lara is as a character; she’s becoming the raider of tombs. So in order to do that you have to have these systems that lend themselves to her learning. The translation system is a great example of that, where Lara is learning languages that uncover things which feed back into the game – so that is important.

We also looked at our choices as far as having to beef up our enemy A.I., and how some people were like, ‘Well I don’t necessarily don’t want to kill anyone,’ or ‘I want to have more stealth options.’ So we really looked long and hard at that to offer a lot more options and a lot more choice, and crafting plays into that as well. Our A.I. does something called ‘lost target’ and ‘glimpsing’, which allows you to sneak around but if the enemy sees a disturbance they’ll investigate and they will fan out to try to see where it came from. Where in the old game they would investigate the disturbance and immediately know where you were, now you have a lot more options to get around guys. You have options to take them down stealthily if you want to, launch a full on assault, or take a completely non-lethal approach. I think that is one of the biggest things if you look at those pillars, and one that we really listened to our fans about.

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Stevivor: The last game had these, well I would call them hubs, where you would get into an area and do a bunch of things in there and then four hours later you would end up back at that same location but it would have changed a bit, like everything was on fire now.

Brinker: Yeah, I know what you mean.

Stevivor: Are you doing more of that this time around?

Brinker: I’m glad you said hubs because that’s what we call them internally too. Really that hub and spoke structure is still very much in play here, but it is larger. I like what you said about coming back to the space, because we still focus on that metroidvania feel for it. You are still going to come back to them but they are going to feel different because you’ll have all these new items you’ll be able to use to unlock more secrets. I think that’s one of the things that we did really well which we are still expanding upon. So look out for that as well, our hub sizes are three times larger than the last game so that will give you a lot more content.

Stevivor: One thing I thought was done really well in the last Tomb Raider game was the use of colour and lighting to guide players in the direction they should be going. How do you find a balance between guiding players while also allowing them to explore a little?

Brinker: I think that it is about establishing a key visual language. Setting that standard up front and letting people know and understand what it is in a training session, a tutorial or even a level. Once they get done with that it starts opening up – which is what our hubs really do. We still establish a good visual language, but we still have that nice feeling of our world being grounded in the reality. So we really focused on that because by using the Xbox One we were able to do a whole new lighting engine from the ground up, and if you look at it it’s phenomenal. You’re really going to see that contrast of lights and darks using that technology.

So not only does it look phenomenal but people start to understand that, ‘Oh, those pools of light are going to guide me, oh those shadows are less important.’ Not only do we have this nice world of painted imagery, but we also have the survival instinct system which has been really beefed up now. Not only do you have the option to use it, but you also have some VO hit layering in there as well. It’s all on the thumb stick so you’re going to get that layering of hints if you do need it, but we are still going to really let the players dive in as they want. That also boils down to whether it’s optional content or content that you are going to play along the main path. The added exploration element that is in the discovery is there, where you are very much on your own, but if you don’t want to use that and you want help you definitely have the survival instinct to use.

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Stevivor: You mentioned combat and stealth and the way you’ve brought a lot of changes into that area. One thing that I did a lot of in Tomb Raider was basically just using the bow and arrow, because it was stealthy but also a deadly weapon. But in saying that I found myself just sticking with the one weapon the entire time. Is there more variety this time around with what you’ll be able to do with the weapons and upgrades?

Brinker: Yeah, another very good question. If you remember from the last game it was one upgrade tree straight through for the weapon. Now you have multiple weapons in each category. Let’s say you pick up the recurve bow. That is a great weapon to kit out and be something that you can use to upgrade your stealth, but you don’t have to do that now. You can go find a compound bow, or find another bow and switch between them whenever you want and then upgrade those based on how you want to play.

I think adding those choices is another thing that allows people to experience the game that they want to and it opens up a variety of options to. You can craft different ammo types and then each of those categories has a lot of depth in them as well. We separate some of those upgrades as weapon attachments which are all craftable. We have a lot of different choices there and that really plays into the, ‘There’s this one weapon that I use all the time’ attitude, now it’s a bunch of things that you can use because all different styles are now catered to.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is due for release this November on Xbox One and Xbox 360, then coming to other platforms in 2016.