Square Enix Montreal is an unusual studio.
Owned by the Japanese publishing giant, it is focused entirely on mobile games and its output so far is much more reminiscent of indie ventures such as Monument Valley than of the triple-A titles in the works at its sister studios.
The team’s first title, Hitman GO, was a critical hit, praised for condensing the intricate strategies and freedom of choice that Agent 47’s adventures are known for into something much more comparable to a puzzle or tabletop board game.
Fresh from this success, Square Enix Montreal turned its attention to an even bigger franchise: Tomb Raider. We spoke to technical director Antoine Routon to find out more about the making of Lara Croft GO.
How did you come to decide to do a Lara Croft game based on the mechanics of Hitman GO?
Hitman GO was the first game from our studio Square Enix Montréal. It was a bold move which ended up working well for us. The fantastic feedback we received told us that we had hit a cord, and right away we got excited about the possibility of taking the GO experience to the next level.
From there, it didn’t take us long to imagine how we could apply this concept to the world of Lara Croft. With more than 15 games over the course of almost 20 years, she is one of the most iconic video game characters ever created… it was such a great opportunity for us.
What were the biggest lessons learned from Hitman GO and how did you implement these?
As a developer, when you start a new game, everything is unexplored, mysterious, unclear… especially if when working on a brand new concept, like Hitman GO.
It takes a lot of time and effort to look at each aspect of the game and clarify concepts, answer questions, refine features, iron out issues. After a year of working on Hitman GO, we definitely felt wiser and we started to have a better grasp of what made a good GO mechanic or a good GO puzzle. Those lessons informed a lot of the choices we made on Lara Croft GO.
As an example, I could mention the fact that for most of the production, Hitman GO was target for tablets only. Only a few months before releasing the game did we realise that a lot more people own phones than tablets, and we decided to support phones as well. I think it ended up working okay but you can see some camera placement work better on a bigger screen.
So when we started with Lara Croft GO, we targeted phones first and made sure puzzles were fitting properly on smaller screens. This had consequences, of course, like getting the “nodes” closer, and limiting the number of characters on a spot at any time to one. But this was a good tradeoff to make the game work well on every device.
For most of the production, Hitman GO was target for tablets only. Only a few months before releasing the game did we realise that a lot more people own phones than tablets, and we decided to support phones as well. For Lara, we targeted phones first.
Antoine Routon, Square Enix Montreal
What mechanics from Hitman GO translated well? What were harder to retain?
There were a lot of changes regarding the mechanics between the two games. I think we ended up keeping only three mechanics exactly as is: the stationary enemy, the forward moving enemy and the chasing enemy.
But even then we had to re-skin them to fit the world of Lara Croft: we felt early on that Lara Croft is not about eliminating hordes of faceless henchmen like Agent 47. Instead, she evolves alone in a natural but hostile environment. So we re-themed those Hitman GO’s pawns as creatures: Snakes, Lizards, and Spiders.
Other mechanics came as a direct inspiration from Tomb Raider tropes: sawblades, arrow traps, giant boulders. It was a fun exercise to imagine how each of these adventure classics translated in terms of turn-based puzzle.
Another reason behind the changes is that we wanted to increase the possibilities for interaction between mechanics compared to Hitman GO. A good instance of such a versatile mechanics is the Pillar, which can be used to fill gaps, reach certain areas, kill enemies, block boulders and arrows, etc. This is a good fit with the brand, but mainly it’s a great addition in the designer’s toolset.
Basically, this is how we approached new mechanics: they’re a good fit with Tomb Raider but they also must be a good fit with GO.
What mechanics from the main Tomb Raider games were easier to simplify for this style of gameplay? Which ones were tougher, and how did you tackle this?
As I mentioned before, it was fun to reimagine Tomb Raider mechanics in a turn-based puzzle. Some came us to us fairly easily: the spear Lara can throw in a line, the sawblade moving on a rail, and so on. But some were harder. For instance, we realised that a crucial element of a Tomb Raider adventure is the sense of danger and time pressure. We were not sure how to go about it in a turn-based game, where time is intrinsically not a resource for our gameplay.
Someone suggested we could add Quick Time Events but we felt that this wasn’t what GO games are about. Eventually we found the solution: instead of giving the player an actual time constraint, we could theme some mechanics to give an impression of time pressure.
An example of this is the weak floor that cracks under Lara’s feet the first time she walks on it and collapses the second time. Theoretically, the player can spend as much time as he or she wants on the weakened floor the first time they step on it, but in practice people feel this sense of urgency that they should move out. It’s all a matter of perception.
Why choose the Unity engine for the GO games? What does it enable you to do that other engines didn’t?
We love Unity, it is such a great engine. It is very friendly and user-centric, which is great for small teams like us where everybody has to get their hands dirty, including the less technical of us.
It’s also a great tool to prototype quickly and iterate on features, which I believe is definitely one of the key to making high quality games. Finally, it does so much of the legwork for us: we released the game simultaneously on iOS, Android and Windows phones and tablets, and we were pretty happy to let Unity do most of the platform-specific work for us.
How have you modified the engine to enable features and functions of Tomb Raider GO?
We really try to work the “Unity-way” to make sure we leverage the engine to the maximum: we make extensive use of components, prefabs, etc. The component architecture is such a great way to keep things modular. We spent a lot of time developing easy-to-use level editing tools, because we wanted our designers to have as smooth a workflow as possible. Building upon the pipeline established for Hitman GO, we were able to provide a Lego-like editor, very “sandbox-y”, where it’s extremely easy to create and tweak levels.
There is one area where we did quite a bit of rewriting compared the plain version of the engine: rendering. On Hitman GO, we used the default lightmap system, but on Lara Croft GO we went for quite a different art style which required us to write a custom lighting system.
Instead of giving the player an actual time constraint, we could theme some mechanics to give an impression of time pressure. An example of this is the weak floor that cracks under Lara’s feet the first time she walks on it and collapses the second time.
Antoine Routon, Square Enix Montreal
How did you decide upon and create the art style?
We were really inspired by the very first Tomb Raider, from 20 years ago. Back then, the PlayStation 1 could not display a lot of polygons, and the "low-poly" style of the first instalment in the series was actually a technical constraint. Everything was very cubic and faces were very large.
Daniel Lutz, our game director started to wonder: what if we could make the cool 2015 version of this low-poly style? This was the key inspiration for Lara Croft GO art style. There are a lot of games with low-poly art direction being released these days, and we really wanted to stand out and find our unique take on this style. So we also looked at other art forms like cartoons. We started to focus on big plain-color surfaces rather than triangle polygons, added fog, vistas and foreground silhouettes, and slowly the visual direction of Lara Croft GO started to emerge.
What were the biggest challenges in defining the control system? How did you translate the world of Tomb Raider to simple swipe controls?
The control system is pretty similar between the two GO games, except for one key difference.
On Hitman GO, the player was able to rotate the camera to peek around and discover some hidden freeze frame scenes. This made sense for a Hitman game: there has always been this voyeur vibe in the franchise. But with Lara, we wanted the player to discover the world with her as she goes. That’s why the player can only see where she sees. In terms of controls, getting rid of the player-controlled camera makes things easier, as we don’t have to spit input between two competing systems anymore: the player can swipe anywhere on the screen and Lara moves, and that’s it.
In order to boil down the world of Tomb Raider to a simpler experience, we followed the same creative process than on Hitman GO. We looked at the franchise from far away, almost squinting, and tried to see what stuck out: a Tomb Raider adventure is about Combat, Exploration, Traversal and Puzzles.
Each of these elements had to be translated in terms of a GO game. The Puzzles component was easy, as GO game are puzzles by nature. For Combat, adding animation on top of Hitman GO’s killing system was a great fit. For Traversal, the addition of vertical nodes was the answer. Exploration was definitely trickier.
How do you add Exploration to a puzzle game? We tried different approach, and started to hone in on maze-like levels where the player would have to find his way by swiping from node to node. When we playtested those levels, people asked us for a “touch to destination” feature, in order to go faster through the level.
But we realised that the real problem was not in the input system: there was just too much swiping required with too little decisions to make. So we removed those levels. Instead, we added the Exploration layer in the environment art: vistas, silhouettes in the foreground, different environments throughout the game, etc. As a result the feeling of Exploration is purely esthetic.
Square Enix Montréal is at the interface of two worlds: on one hand we’re a small studio, with very small teams we’re not so far from an indie studio. On the other hand, we can work with characters like Lara Croft or Agent 47.
Antoine Routon, Square Enix Montreal
What were the biggest challenges overall in developing this game, and how have you overcome them?
Working on a Lara Croft game is a child’s dream, but it’s also a lot of responsibility. We wanted to come up with a fresh new take on Lara’s adventures, but it was also important for us to respect the existing universe and the very rich body of work established in more than 15 games spanning over 20 years.
Crystal Dynamics, the Tomb Raider brand owners, were very helpful in helping us understanding the license. Lara’s outfits we offer in game are the perfect example: with the help of the Community Manager at Crystal Dynamics, we have been able to choose the most popular outfits, to make sure we always please the fans.
Overall, being able to create fresh and unique takes on big established brands has been very exciting for us. Square Enix Montréal is at the interface of two worlds: on one hand we’re a small studio, with very small teams where people are wearing many hats and have a lot of ownership – not so far from what you could find in an indie studio – on the other hand, we can work with characters like Lara Croft or Agent 47. This put us in a very interesting position, and I can’t wait to see what’s in the future has in store for us.