Tomb Raider has been around for almost a decade, spawned a pair of blockbuster movies, and practically made a cottage industry out of its star's merchandising tie-ins, but few would deny it has fallen on hard times of late.
Last week, Eidos' attempt to repair the brand, Tomb Raider: Legend, arrived in stores for the PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Xbox 360. Definitive sales figures won't be available for about another month, but the reviews have been almost universally positive. Most of the reviews are saying the game is a return to form, or at least a step in the right direction from 2003's disappointing Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness.
Beyond just being met with critical apathy (to put it generously), Angel of Darkness was famously blamed by Paramount Pictures as the reason Angelina Jolie's film Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life fell far short of box office expectations in its opening weekend.
While Tomb Raider was still one of the most recognizable franchises in gaming, the brand was tainted. But even a tainted brand is still valuable. Just ask Howard Marks, the CEO of the new Acclaim Entertainment. Last year, Marks scooped up the rights to the oft-derided console game publisher's name after it went bankrupt. But the new Acclaim bears little resemblance to the old one; where the old Acclaim offered titles like BMX XXX and Turok: Evolution primarily for consoles, the new Acclaim imports Korean massively multiplayer online games and is among the first to test the waters of micropayment-based gaming in the American market. Despite the negative reputation the publisher had with many gamers and the lack of overlap in the products being offered, Marks felt the brand was worth picking up for a reported $100,000.
"Brands are critical to success in the games field," Marks explained. "The Acclaim brand has been experienced by over 200 million players. Players remember the games they have enjoyed and associate the brand with that experience. This type of relationship is extremely hard to re-create."
Lazard Capital Markets analyst Colin Sebastian says the value of a brand is built on trust--the idea that consumers are more likely to drop their money on products they're already familiar with.
"Tomb Raider is still a well-known brand," Sebastian said, "and you can count on at least some units moving at retail on that basis alone. However, if the goal is to establish, or revive, a large and sustainable franchise, in most cases you also have to deliver top gameplay."
So while Angel of Darkness might still have outsold many of its peers at the time (NPD pegs its lifetime sales at more than 500,000 copies), it doesn't measure up to a true hit for the company (last year's Lego Star Wars sold more than 2 million copies for Eidos). To Sebastian's point, some of the sales Angel of Darkness did accumulate can be attributed to trust built up from previous Tomb Raider games. On the flip side of that coin, mediocre games in the series can damage trust in the brand, an effect that might not be fully felt until those customers decide to pass on future offerings.
The health of the Tomb Raider franchise is one of Eidos' global brand manager Matt Gorman's big concerns. Along with the Legacy of Kain and Hitman series, Tomb Raider is one of Eidos' staples, which means Gorman must pay particularly close attention to it as the publisher's global brand manager.
After Angel of Darkness came out, Gorman says it was clear to Eidos that changes needed to be made. He says the company performed exhaustive focus-testing to get the most thorough picture of what needed to be done, but that the basics were obvious.
"It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what had gone wrong and there were a lot of clear indicators even before we did any of the research," Gorman said. "The control system in the last couple games was crap. Taking Lara out of the tombs and having her run around the cities of Paris and Prague took her out of her contextual landscape and we knew we had to abandon that."
There were also a number of new competitors in the 3D action-adventure field, Gorman noted. While the original Tomb Raider all but created the genre when it debuted, titles like Prince of Persia had refined the mechanics, and were raising the bar.
The revamping of the Tomb Raider brand to meet that bar began almost as soon as Angel of Darkness fell to earth. Mere days after being embarrassed by Paramount Pictures' public scapegoating of Angel of Darkness, Eidos announced that it was taking the brand away from Core Design--the developers of every game in the series up to that point--and entrusting it to its Legacy of Kain studio, Crystal Dynamics. As for Core Design, the company has since worked on the PSP games Smart Bomb and Free Running for Eidos, and Gorman said it is also developing an as-yet unannounced title.
"We figured we need someone to take a fresh creative look at this," Gorman said. "We need some new enthusiasm and a new take. Having a studio with fresh eyes take a look at Tomb Raider seemed like the right thing to do."
While Eidos was taking the series away from its original developer and wanted "fresh eyes" working on the brand, it was also trying to get the series back to its roots. That meant focusing on the character of Lara and the exploration-driven, tomb-raiding gameplay that made the series famous in the first place. But Gorman was hesitant to call it a series revamp. Or a reset, or even a revisiting.
"We really consciously tried to stay away from using 're-' in any form because that essentially means at some point 'it' was gone," Gorman said. "And for all intents and purposes, it was."
Those who have followed the development of Tomb Raider: Legend have no doubt noticed that Eidos is not at all hesitant to distance itself from Angel of Darkness, and doesn't rush to bring up much of the Tomb Raider line of games outside of the first two PlayStation installments.
"We promised a lot about product quality [for Angel of Darkness]," Gorman said. "We promised a lot about what it's going to do. 'It'll be great, trust us.' And in the end, the product really wasn't what we had been promising the press and consumers and so forth, so a lot of people were let down. You can't fool people twice. So what we knew we needed to do was be absolutely honest with people."
Acknowledging past mistakes (and not repeating them) is another aspect of brand management. "We don't want to lead anyone astray, we don't want to overpromise on this one," Gorman said. "This was really a critical product for us to regain credibility both in the industry, but also with consumers."
Part of the effort to regain credibility meant cutting back on the pop culture phenomenon aspects of Lara Croft. That meant avoiding a glut of Tomb Raider toys, perfumes, or other merchandise this time around.
"In the past games, the selling of Lara almost took on a life of its own that had nothing to do with the game," Gorman noted. "Lara was just a symbol or a platform for other brands and other places to come and take a piece of. But with Legend we knew everything's around Lara. She's a pristine brand. She's a pristine character and we have to treat her like such."
While Gorman said a conscious effort was made to limit the game's ancillary agreements this time around, it does include product tie-ins with Ducati motorcyles and Jeep. However, Eidos felt those products fit naturally into Lara Croft's world anyway, and her character wouldn't seem out of place using them.
For all the massaging of language, calculated honesty, and managed merchandising involved with salvaging the Tomb Raider brand, Gorman hesitated to paint the situation as a now-or-never moment for the franchise. But he didn't exactly downplay its importance, either.
"We certainly didn't come into the development and re-branding of this franchise with [a]worst-case scenario in mind, but we knew this game had to be fresh, it had to be good, it had to be dynamic," Gorman said. "Lara Croft had to come across as live as possible so there were certainly more challenges and pressure that we deliver 100 percent on the hopes and wants and expectations of gamers."
As Marks said, "Brands do not die easily... Tomb Raider can succeed again if the next version is great. In fact, it could be that next version surpasses the first one in popularity, it all depends on the game. But there is no question that they have a head start with a built-in audience."
Marks should know a thing or two about how resilient even a neglected and generally dismissed brand can be. After all, Acclaim's name is not the first one he pulled out of the trash can, dusted off, and attempted to revive. In 1991, Marks and a group of partners picked up the struggling Activision, guided it through bankruptcy, and put it on the path to becoming one of the biggest third-party publishers in the world.
Can Lara jump back to life in the hands of Eidos and Crystal Dynamics? At least in the eyes of the game press, the girl is, so far, holding her own.