Eidos Montreal is no stranger to taking the reins on legendary, beloved franchises. The studio was built with the intention of rebooting the Deus Ex series, which it did with much critical success in 2011 with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Since then it has also rebooted Thief and continued the Deus Ex legacy with Mankind Divided, as well as helping sister-company Crystal Dynamics with development of the Tomb Raider reboot and sequel. Now Eidos Montreal takes full control of Lara Croft’s latest outing with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, developed entirely in-house at the studio, due out this year.
But that’s not all Eidos Montreal has got going on. This is the first time the developer has had multiple projects ongoing simultaneously. Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes up the majority of the studio’s resources, but elsewhere pockets of devs are working on the Avengers project and a third, unannounced title.
“We have 50 developers working on Avengers,” Eidos Montreal studio head David Anfossi tells us. “Close to 200 developers are working on Tomb Raider. It’s been three and a half years of work. Currently we total around 505 people. At some point I stopped the growth of the studio to make sure that we sit and look at where we want to be in five and ten years. We now have a very clear plan for the next five years. We’ve a lot of different things at the moment including incubation projects, so now I am comfortable to increase the size of the studio. We should be 530 by the end of this year.”
While the Deus Ex and Thief series both had cult appeal, Tomb Raider is a much more mainstream brand and comes with its own pressures. Especially when trying to put your own stamp on it, creatively, without stepping on Crystal Dynamics’ toes.
“Taking responsibility for Tomb Raider is pretty exciting,” Anfossi says. “At the beginning we worked together with Crystal to start everything off. Crystal Dynamics experts worked with us to make sure that we are respectful of the lore of the franchise. We know the pillars and the essence of it. It’s not new to us. But when it comes to the details and telling a story with relationships between the characters, you have to be careful about that. You have to take care.
“But I think this partnership at the beginning was very useful to us. After that, in terms of production, writing, programming, everything has been done here in Montreal. And we have Daniel Bisson, the creative director. He was also gameplay director on the two previous games, so this transition has been very easy for us.
“I asked just one thing of Phil Rogers, the Square Enix West CEO. I told him that I want an Eidos Montreal signature to the game. The way we develop games, with the learnings from Deus Ex and Thief, we learnt a lot about how to tell a story. The way we build the environments, characters, lighting. The way we ‘show, don’t tell’.
“It’s key for us. When you meet a very important story character, all the setting, lighting and everything conveys a message to the gamers. Even for the gameplay we brought some new, very interesting stuff for platforming, crafting, traversal. Even the combat; now you have some choice. There’s no set way to pass through the combat. That’s from Deus Ex.”
KEEPERS OF THE IP
With Tomb Raider added to Eidos Montreal’s treasure chest of IPs for which it’s now guardian, the studio has gathered all the remaining old Eidos franchises under one roof. That’s a lot of responsibility, but the studio is committed to working with established series and making them their own. In fact, Anfossi has some strong feelings about the notion of creating a new IP from scratch.
“We have to be proud of our Eidos franchise IPs,” Anfossi says. “They are very strong and very interesting to work with. And honestly, creating a new IP with the experience we have is crazy. It’s very, very difficult to start and create a new IP. A good one.
“You can lose yourself. You can can go everywhere. With Deus Ex, Tomb Raider and Thief, if you want to be respectful you have some guidelines to respect. You can make the series more up-to-date for a new generation of gamer, but you do that with a frame to work within.
“A new IP... Boom! You can start and say: ‘We’ll do a multiplayer game, we’ll do a single player game, we’ll do something cartoonish, we’ll something very realistic’, it’s infinite. That’s because you have this white sheet in front of you. That’s the difficulty of this.
“Even with a frame to work within, I guarantee you that halfway through the project you have to cut 30 per cent of the game because you want to do more and more and more. For a new IP it’s even worse.”
These frameworks all come from the Square Enix stable, something that Eidos Montreal has grown comfortable with over its 11 years in development. Now, with its Avengers project being overseen externally by Marvel, the team is working with a new collaborator, but also an old one.
“We technically work with Crystal Dynamics on that, so there’s nothing new about the way we collaborate on development,” Anfossi explains. “Avengers is like Deus Ex, Thief or Tomb Raider, you have a frame. Actually there’s no big difference with that, just that this frame and specific stuff is done by external partners, not from inside. That’s what I would say the big difference is for us.
“I initiated this partnership with Marvel, so I can give you some insight into the very high level stuff... We have very strong creative people at Eidos Montreal. So the purpose of this partnership was not to do a business title. It’s not about that at all. I have to stimulate creative people here. So it’s not about getting the rights and doing an Avengers game. It’s about bringing something from our experience, too. It’s a true partnership. There is a frequent exchange, we work together with Marvel and it brings the experience to another level.”
ALL THE SINGLE PLAYERS
Historically, Eidos Montreal has always been focused on single-player experiences. A conscious decision made by the studio to create the very best games for a specific audience rather than trying to aim for two different targets and, potentially, hit neither. Anfossi isn’t ruling out multiplayer games in the future, but it’s clear that this sense of focus is something that will remain within the studio.
“We had to fight a lot when we started this studio making Human Revolution because our publisher wanted us to develop a multiplayer mode,” Anfossi says. “We are convinced here that single-player and multiplayer are two different audiences. So when we focus on the single-player experience, we want to give 100 per cent to that and be true to that. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t like multiplayer experiences, or co-op. We have this incubation project but we want to be true to that and give the maximum we can for two different audiences.
“We set up a lot of incubation projects to test new things, including online, because we want to be curious. We want to learn. Of course we have this essence of narrative, story-driven experiences but we want to touch different things and learn from that. So we stick to the narrative single-player experience, but we try new things on the side. That’s why we’ve grown up a bit. We’ve changed the design of the studio to make sure that everything is functional and we can correctly support this initiative.”
This curiosity extends beyond the walls of the studio and Anfossi is keen to learn from the wider games industry and any other industries he can. Just a few days before our interview, Eidos Montreal welcomed members of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ dev team. Just to chat.
“It’s about learning,” Anfossi explains. “Learning from the competition and from friends. There are trends and that’s the way I perceive the market changing. It’s exactly what I said in 2007 when we were told we needed a multiplayer mode [in Deus Ex]. Since then, in the last ten years, multiplayer experiences are crazy. It’s amazing what we can do with that. And there is an audience, people waiting for that and that’s perfect.
“But it’s funny because when we did the reveal events for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I had some people ask: ‘So single-player experiences are not dead?’. I said: ‘Yeah, it’s always been there!’, but there are trends. So you have something new like Fortnite or all the multiplayer experiences we have available now, but you’ve still had single-player experiences for the last ten years. No change there. I believe that narrative story-driven experiences belong to a certain generation [of player].
“We should challenge ourselves to... not reinvent,
but find ways to bring story in different ways. Or find ideas to capture this new generation, also. We are working on that.”
UNIQUE DESIGN PROCESS
The quest for a perfect narrative single-player experience is what led Eidos Montreal to craft a pretty unique development process. One that allows mistakes to happen early, where they can be learnt from, Anfossi explains.
“We faced a lot of walls over the last ten years,” he says. “You know it’s when you make mistakes that you learn. The way we develop games here means that we want the full game to be playable as soon as possible.
“So we don’t care about the visual quality in the beginning whatsoever. Because it’s a narrative experience, we want to be able to play the game from beginning to the end as soon as possible. So it’s all grey, but you have the right elements. You can measure the pace of the story, the flow. We can test the dialogue and everything very early on. So you can adjust everything at low cost, because the visual quality is not there.
“By doing this we can iterate a lot until we are very happy with the quality of the narration, the story, characters, the balancing of everything. And when we are happy with that, we level up the quality. That’s where we push. So that’s something I believe is very unique, based on my experience at Eidos Montreal. Just to give you an idea, Shadow of the Tomb Raider has been fully playable for a year now.”
It’s a design philosophy that seems to appeal to the growing number of people working at Eidos Montreal. Despite the region being a hotbed for games development, employee retention is better than ever, with the number of developers at the studio celebrating milestones reaching new heights.
“Yesterday I was amazed because we give gifts to employees here for five year and ten year anniversaries now,” Anfossi says. “Usually it’s five or six gifts a month, so I take the gifts and I go to see the ‘Eidosian’ and say: ‘Five years, thank you very much, how do you feel?’. But yesterday we had to book a meeting room, because we had... I don’t know how many gifts it was, but the room was full and we had a line-up of employees waiting for their anniversary gifts. I spent maybe two hours handing them out, so that gives you a good sense of how loyal our ‘Eidosians’ are.
“We have to be proud as developers. I want my guys and girls here to speak to their family and say ‘I’m working for Eidos Montreal’ and they know about that company. It’s different to saying that ‘I’m working on Tomb Raider.’ We have to be proud.
“The best way to keep people... Of course there are the usual tools, creating a stronger, cooler working environment. That’s exactly what we’re doing with the current revamp, actually. After that, you have the Eidos IPs. So many IPs to work on, unique here in Montréal on top of that. We bring something different and unique with Deus Ex, Thief and Tomb Raider. Now we have Marvel, which is very interesting to work on, too.
“And the most interesting thing I hear when I discuss with the developers here is that the way we develop games and the philosophy around the quality we want to deliver is pretty unique. If you look at, here in Montreal especially, the quality of the games we delivered until now, I can guarantee you that we are at the top. I think that we have created this great image of the studio. The IPs, the quality and the way we develop games... It’s not perfect of course, we try to learn again and again and again, challenge ourselves to be better and better and better for all aspects. Development, quality, life at the studio and everything.”