Born again: the developers behind a new generation of reboots
What do you do with a property that has been misused, run into the ground, or simply left on the shelf for too long? Following the trends of cinema, increasingly developers are turning to the reboot, aiming to isolate what once made a game or series great and deliver on that expectation with a contemporary approach. And with many series still going some 20 years after their debuts, several are mature enough for radical revisions.
“People understand reimagining a franchise,” says Karl Stewart, global brand director at Crystal Dynamics. “They know what you mean when you go back and say, ‘Here’s an icon – this is what it stood for. We’re not changing the heritage of it, but we are going to make it fresh and reimagine it for today’s culture.’” Stewart is a principal force behind the creation and marketing of the forthcoming Tomb Raider, which has both impressed fans and drawn criticism as it aims to reshape Lara Croft and her adventures, so he knows the challenges of the process.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012) and Mortal Kombat (2011) are prime examples of such reimaginings – they show what’s possible when an accumulated malaise is cast aside and new ideas and technology are used to take a fresh crack at a once-brilliant template. But how do creators even get to the point of calculated rebirth?
When Crystal Dynamics was enlisted to give Tomb Raider a lift after Core Design’s Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness for PlayStation 2 was poorly received by critics, its mandate was to modernise the brand. The studio did so with 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend, which shed the rigid controls and navigation of previous entries, and delivered a more cinematic adventure. But, as Stewart concedes, these tweaks improved Tomb Raider just enough to keep it alive after years of minimal iteration: “We just continued the cycle. We made it relevant for that generation of consoles.”
After 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld, the studio took a hard look at the series and didn’t fancy its chances. “[We asked], ‘Can Tomb Raider sustain itself for the next ten to 15 years as a franchise?’ And we really felt that, no, it couldn’t,” Stewart admits. Tomb Raider hadn’t progressed much over the years, nor had it evolved to match changing tastes; Crystal’s games only made short-term fixes to an ageing formula.
Rebooting Tomb Raider meant digging into the essence of what made the series connect with players and then building around those central elements by looping in new ideas. That necessitated shedding its heroine’s increasingly larger-than-life disposition, which had been built up by games and film adaptations alike. Stewart explains the team’s philosophy: “If we’re going to set the foundations for the next 15 years, we need to reimagine it and reboot it in a way that feels like people can understand who she is as a personality, and not just as the girl with big shiny guns who came onto the scene in 1996 looking the way she did.”
For Firaxis Games, deciding to reboot XCOM was more a matter of timing, both in regards to the series itself, which hadn’t generated a new release in over a decade, and for the man who would be a key driving force behind the project, Jake Solomon. Now Firaxis’s lead designer, he was inspired to create games at a young age by 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown, the first game in the series. However, when he conceived an exploratory prototype of a remake back in 2003, the pieces didn’t click as expected.
“It was awful,” claims Solomon. “It’s a good thing it never went ahead, because I was way too young, I had very little experience, and I just wasn’t in the right place to make that game. It really took a long time until it made sense for the team and for the company.”
It took until 2008, in fact. Solomon – having accumulated years of experience working under Sid Meier, as well as achieving senior status – seized the opportunity to push another revival attempt when the team was seeking a new project. But what became 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown did not begin life as a reboot; it was initially intended as an upgrade. “We were going to remake the original game, with the original game mechanics, and we were going to add a couple of things to it,” explains Solomon.
For 2011’s Mortal Kombat reboot, meanwhile, the intention was not to mimic the exact approach of the early ’90s entries, but rather to recapture the sensational violence that made them so beloved. The series had strayed from that template over time, first moving to 3D combat and then later watering down the gore and fatalities for Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe. Looping in familiar comic heroes and villains was a new twist, but it came at the expense of some of the adult content fans enjoyed – a restraint that came from the DC licence.
The fan reaction prepared the ground for going back to basics, albeit with modern touches. “It was the prime opportunity to return to everything that made Mortal Kombat [what it is],” asserts Ed Boon, series co-creator and a creative director at NetherRealm Studios. “We thought it was time to reset the clock.”