Things aren’t looking too good at Eidos. The U.K.-based publisher was recently forced to lower its revenue forecasts for the year, resulting in a nosedive in the company’s share value of almost 30 percent. The situation at Eidos-owned developer Crystal Dynamics is just as grim: That same day, the studio announced it would be laying off 30 employees, which Kotaku reported was being done to “eliminate redundancies and give the studio tighter focus moving forward.”
The reason for all this bad news? Tomb Raider: Underworld, the latest entry in the long-running series of archaeological action games featuring Lara Croft. With worldwide sales of 1.5 million units the game didn’t bomb by any stretch, but still fell well short of the 2 million unit sales initially projected by Eidos. As a result, revenues for the year are now expected to come in at around $240-270 million, rather than the $270-300 million the company had expected.
Layoffs, revenue shortfalls, tumbling share value – it’s a bad situation all around, and Eidos’ initial response is not especially heartening: The company is considering, among other things, revisions to the series to make it more “female-friendly.” Specifics as to what Eidos believes will constitute an increase in chick cachet are short at this point, but Chief Financial Officer Robert Brent suggested that nothing is sacrosanct. “We need to look at everything as we develop the next game,” he said in a recent Times article. “Look at how Batman changed successfully, from the rather sad character of the Michael Keaton era to the noir style of The Dark Knight.”
It’s an interesting point, but one that I think overestimates the value of the Tomb Raider property. Batman is unparalleled in the world of superheroes, and even after the abortion that was Batman & Robin, movie-goers still wanted to see the franchise return to form. But does that sort of consumer-level demand for a rejuvenated Tomb Raider game really exist? Brent’s premise relies on the idea that large numbers of people want what he’s offering, as long as it’s done properly. But is it reasonable to assume that, first, this potential audience is really out there, and second, that some ill-defined appeal to female gamers is going to bring them running en masse to Eidos’ doorstep?
Retreating to familiar territory isn’t an uncommon response to tough times, and God knows Eidos and parent company SCi have had a rough go of it lately. But Tomb Raider, despite its long history and Eidos’ most fervent wishes, just does not enjoy a reputation as one of gaming’s strongest and most reliable franchises, and it apparently hasn’t occurred to anyone at Eidos that it may simply be unable to generate the numbers it wants, regardless of what’s done to it. You don’t sell 1.5 million copies of a game everyone hates, but after eight entries in a series that’s been all over the map in terms of quality and commercial success, franchise fatigue is almost inevitable.
And not everyone thinks that targeting girl gamers is the right response to Lara’s waning popularity. “I don’t know where [the female-friendly makeover] came from,” former Crystal Dynamics Creative Director Eric Lindstrom wrote on the Tomb Raider forums. “I feel that even though Lara has attributes that appeal to males, the game doesn’t pander to a male audience. Look at all the other games out there with female heroes, and look at their bustlines and what they are (barely) wearing. My Lead Designer Harley (a woman) agrees that Tomb Raider is not a gender specific game, and research shows that it appeals to female gamers very well.”
Which brings up another point: Lindstrom’s optimism notwithstanding, it’s not as though Lara Croft’s freakishly-proportioned body offers the same appeal to girls as it does to boys. Nor has Eidos done much to promote it as anything more than a hi-res jigglefest: current Lara model Alison Carroll may be a very nice woman, but we’re not paying attention to her because she’s going to punch up our knowledge of Khmer architecture. Giving the series a makeover isn’t a bad idea in and of itself, but reaching out specifically to female gamers – however the company might go about it – smacks of desperation. Also worth bearing in mind is the distinct likelihood that any such redesign of the game will change just enough to alienate the existing Tomb Raider fan base without doing nearly enough to gain new market share from anywhere else.
And what are they going to change, anyway? Trim the boobs, put some clothes on and… what? Work in a sensitive romantic angle? Add some intellectually-stimulating dialog? Ponies, maybe? This is a woman who robs graves, plunders ancient cultural sites around the world and kills anyone who gets in her way; what about that sounds like it’s only a quick tune-up away from becoming a major hit with the chicks? If Eidos is serious about turning around Tomb Raider – which I think is a dicey proposition to begin with – then it should be focusing not on appealing to females, but on simply appealing to gamers.
Two things need to be done. First, Eidos needs to adjust expectations. Tomb Raider’s days as a marquee franchise are effectively over. Accept it, adjust for it and move on. Second, the value of the property needs to be maximized not by some meandering pursuit of the elusive and poorly-defined “girl gamer” demographic, but by being creative and innovative and taking some risks with future releases, and by abandoning the idea that female gamers, at least those past the Hannah Montana stage, are definably distinct from their male counterparts.
Break it down into manageable chunks with twice-yearly releases of Tomb Raider: Episodes, for instance, that provide a half-dozen hours of story-driven adventure for 15 or 20 bucks via Xbox Live and Steam. Or put Brent’s Batman model to work and let the series sit idle for a few years, then “reboot” it completely with RPG and puzzle-solving elements and a central character who dresses like a normal human being.
Or put it out to pasture. Tomb Raider has had a good run over the years, but as Screen Digest analyst Piers Harding-Rolls noted, “Lara is still looked on with affection in Britain and Europe, but sequels don’t necessarily go on forever.” If Eidos can’t come up with a good plan for the future of Tomb Raider, they’d be far better off to just let it go.
Andy Chalk strongly denies that he ever downloaded, installed or Google image searched the Nude Raider patch.