An Interview With Richard Morton (1999)
- The Croft Times -
Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a level designer in a high-profile game? Richard Morton should know, as he is the lead level designer for the upcoming fourth installment of Lara's adventures, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (TLR). Rich has been involved with the Tomb Raider games since the beginning, and has designed some of the most memorable levels in the series.
PART 1: PERSONAL BACKGROUND
What's your personal background? How did you end up at Core and working on Tomb Raider?
I left school at 16 and joined a local training scheme. My first placement was at a very small company called Wise Owl. They mainly did conversions of big titles for the Commodore-64 and Spectrum. It was here that I learned the basic skills of computer art. I was there for about two years.
Next, I went to Hi-Tech Software - they had licenses for the Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters. I did tons of games here (each project only lasted for around 3 to 6 months). They were all budget titles but got good reviews. I left after about two years and joined Core.
My first job at Core was to convert all the Chuck II graphics onto Amiga format. I then went on to do the Asterix titles, ThunderHawk 2, Blam, Swagman and then the TR series.
What was your role in the first three games of the Tomb Raider series? What levels did you design?
TR1 - I sat in on most of the level design meetings to give input. I was designing maps for other games at the time.
TR2 - The Temple of Xian - this was a nasty trap-filled monster.
TR3 - I did Coastal Village, Crash Site, Madubu Gorge, Temple of Puna, Nevada Desert, Area 51 and also had to give Lara's house a new look.
PART 2: LEVEL DESIGN
As a level designer, what is your philosophy for making a level work well?
The first thing is to have a centerpiece for the level and work around that. This could be the crashed plane on TR3, a vehicle, or a huge creature. The level must have at least four specific things that are either unique or introduced on that level. Difficulty is always a tricky task... it's actually harder for us to make a level easy.
What are the actual steps involved in level design? Could you run through this procedure for a typical level in TR?
First I took a visit to the local library and all the good bookstores to gather as much reference material as possible. Then I usually get as much design work done on paper first as I can. The next step is to create a rough level design - this is usually very sketchy and is only useful as a rough guide. It's quite difficult to draw a 3D map on a 2D sheet of paper.
Now we move into the [computer] editors. I first create a rough room layout and sculpt the landscapes. Rooms usually get added as the level fleshes out. Textures are scanned in and adjusted to make them work, then a room is textured and lit to check the look and feel of the level. Now the rest of the level is built - the enemies, pickups, traps etc. are added last.
What sort of inspiration did you use for the new levels in TLR?
Cambodia was a place I wanted to do for ages. Its culture and architecture is a weird mix of Chinese and Hindu. Angkor has always fascinated me... just the fact that it was only truly discovered a few decades ago makes it even more mysterious.
Egypt is so rich in locations and architectural style that we had to base the game there. Not many people realise how diverse Egypt really is. In other games we get the typical "Egypt Level". Not this one.
We understand you were the head map designer for TR3 and also currently lead level designer for TLR. What responsibilities does that entail?
Playing the entire game through to try and balance the difficulty out, giving suggestions and ideas for the other mapper's levels, solving any technical faults with the editor, working around the limits and sometimes breaking them.
What is a typical day for a level designer?
A normal working day - Get into work at around 9:30am, work until 1.00pm (lunch), get back in at 2:00pm, work until 5:30pm, go home.
Last two months of TR:TLR - Get into work at 9:30 - 10:00am (very tired), work until 1:00pm after four cups of coffee, go to lunch as usual, work 'til at least 11.00pm, sometimes much later. The last few weeks are 4.00am finishes.
How does a development team keep focused on the project at hand? Do you ever just get tired of seeing Lara day in and day out?
It depends day to day. Some days I can stare at Lara and really hate her. When something really cool gets implemented within the game (like the rope-swings), my faith is restored. She is such a versatile character for us. We can put her in any situation and give her any superhuman move we like. She still looks cool.
When you do get a new feature implemented (like the ropes), what happens to the levels that have already been designed? Do you go back and redesign them, so that the new feature can be put to good use?
We usually know from the start all the features that are going to be implemented. Sometimes when one of us invents a cool new feature that has to go in (the climbable poles is one example), we try to adjust the level to make it fit in. We never try and force a feature to work for the sake of it... you can over-use things and that just makes them boring.
There have been many requests for a level editor for TR, but we know that Core is clear that there are no plans for a TR level editor to be released to the public. From your perspective as a level designer, what are your thoughts on this issue?
TR-Edit isn't a commercial editor. There are so many quirks within the system that it would be unusable for Joe-public. The only way a TR editor could be made public is if we wrote another one for the public. This would take a lot of time. A TR level usually takes two months to complete. Some levels are quicker to finish than others though.
What are some of the games you like to play and admire?
Quake obviously. Unreal was nice. Half-Life was better that all of them. I also like to play the classic shoot-em-up games like Metal Slug and R-Type Delta. Zelda 64 was cool but had some very obscure puzzles in it, Many, many nights were spent trying to finish it.
What games do you think are examples of great level design?
Zelda 64, Half-Life, Outcast.
What is your dream game that you would like to design?
I would love to create a TR-RPG, in full 3D but with similar gameplay to the old LucasArts titles (Day of the Tentacle, Fate of Atlantis, etc).
PART 3: QUESTIONS ABOUT TLR
We can't help but ask you a few questions about your current project. How long ago was TLR conceptualized? How long has it been in production?
About mid-way through TR3.
What's your favorite aspect of TLR? What have you put in there that you're most happy with?
The story is really sorted with this game. It will flow within the levels as well as in cut-scenes and FMVs.
How did you come up with the background story for TLR? For example, in TR2 and TR3, the locations were decided on first, then the story was built around them.
You got it - we always lock down the locations first then apply the story. Sometimes the story calls for a new location to be added to the game, but this very rare. TLR was no different but the story outline was to have the game set within one country, Egypt was perfect.
When Core set out to make this sequel, was there one feature you had in mind that you wanted to implement above all else? If so, what was it?
The new inventory, a different training level, new generic moves. Oops, that's three... sorry.
For us die-hard Tomb Raider fanatics, what do you think will be the most fun aspect of TLR's new features? What will make go "WOW!"?
The new training level should to the trick.
If you personally could add one thing to TLR that you aren't, what would it be? Why are you not adding it?
We wanted to implement a gyro-copter in TLR but it wouldn't fit with the setting.
What are the new vehicles that will be in TLR?
Sorry... not sure if I can reveal the answer to this one yet.
Long ago and far away, a certain outlaw beta demo (for TR2) gave Lara the ability to fly. Will Lara be able to fly à la Drakan in TLR?
[Editor's note: There was a feature in the beta versions of the previous TR games that allowed Lara to "fly" anywhere in a level to test the design layout.]
This is a testing feature. It's really cool though.
What about "helpers" in TR4 that assist Lara during her adventure? We've not actually heard anything about them yet. Is that what the sidecar on the motorcycle is for?
Could be. There are many helper characters within TLR. If I told you, it would only spoil the surprise...
It seems that TLR will have a much higher degree of interaction between Lara and the environment around her. Will interaction with the other characters only be at the cut-scene level, or will there be in-game interaction? What are your plans for the future as far as character interaction go?
There is some in-level interaction with friendly characters... not much, but it's really nice.
Will we see Lara's butler, Winston, a.k.a. Jeeves in TLR?
Can we ask you when the demo for TLR is coming out?
Sorry, can't answer this one either...
PART 4: FAN FEEDBACK
How did user feedback play a role in making design choices for TLR?
We always look at criticism from the public and try to fix common faults.
What are some specific examples of fan feedback that have been incorporated into TLR?
More smaller levels, the crossbow.
Smaller levels? What does this mean? Little rooms? No open areas? Claustrophobia sets in...
There are many outdoor areas in TLR. "Smaller levels" means [the size of] the levels overall. Instead of having two hundred rooms to search through there could only be one hundred. Some levels have been broken down into separate level loads with the ability to return to some levels.
What sources do you use to get feedback from fans?
We check out the fan sites on a regular basis, and also letter columns in the press.
We maintained a TR4 wish list. This wish list has many suggestions for TR4 from the newsgroup. Did the design team use the wish list for ideas?
Only on rare occasions. We tend to have ideas for the next game even before the current one is finished. Sometimes there are ideas that were thought impossible to implement in TR1, TR2 and even TR3, then suddenly one of the programmers has it working on his test map. (The 3D ropes are a good example of this.) It's good to see the fans are thinking along the same lines as us.
Don't you feel that fans sometimes focus too much on the small problems instead of enjoying the game, and are sometimes unfair to the developers? How do you deal with it?
We try to fix all criticisms from the public. Due to the tight time-frame of each TR project some things aren't quite as polished as we'd like. It's just the way it is.
Speaking of small problems, please tell me that you haven't fixed the corner bug!
For the experts, will you hide a goodie or two in inaccessible places for those of us who truly explore the game? Will you leave in a couple of expert's challenges?
As with the previous three installments of TR, will there be an unreachable large medi pack in TLR?
In a recent interview, Susie Hamilton mentioned that multiplayer has been discussed for the TR series. Can you comment about the future of multiplayer in TR?
We have a few ideas but I can't say anything now.
We're curious... have you ever thought about exactly what motivates Lara to search for ancient artifacts? Motivation so strong that it leaves no person or (endangered) animal to stand in her way? Although we know she's not real, it's interesting to consider what her moral character may be like.
This is probably explained within TLR.
What do you feel about the level of violence in video games, and how has this been addressed in this latest Tomb Raider game? For example, one suggestion was to have a blood and gore setting. Drakan has implemented this feature. Will TLR have a blood/gore setting? Will the spurting blood in TR3 and other effects be reduced in TLR?
We have tried to get the rating lowered for TLR. This doesn't mean that we have removed the blood, just had fewer human enemies.
PART 5: HARDWARE QUESTIONS
Could you give us a breakdown of the improvements planned for the PC version? For example, lighting effects, bump mapping, force-feedback joystick support, AGP support, PIII SSE instructions support, DirectX 7 support, support for other APIs (Application Programming Interface) like OpenGL and 3Dfx's Glide, etc.?
Bump mapping is definitely in there. The way objects are lit is much better on the PC. I cannot confirm the other items.
Any idea what the minimum PC specs will likely be? Who decides this?
We decide the minimum spec for the TR games here at Core. We are still undecided as of now.
Can you comment on TLR's support for the new video cards coming out, like the NVidia GeForce 256 or next-generation (post-Voodoo3) 3Dfx chipset?
As for these new cards I cannot confirm yet.
Are the textures 16 or 32-bit? Up to what resolution will TLR support on the PC?
Textures are 32-bit. Not sure about maximum resolution yet.
How about 3D audio support? Creative's EAX and Aureal's A3D have been around for awhile, and I'm wondering if they will be supported, since 3D positional sound would really add to the game's atmosphere.
Sorry, once again, I can't confirm this.
Can you tell us a bit about the new music in TLR? The drums were a great addition to the music in TR3.
We have a new musician (Pete Connelly) working on TLR. He is very good and will add a fresh new sound to TLR.
What way will TLR further push the limits for graphics on the PSX?
A new lighting system, a new sky mesh (similar to Unreal), the locomotive level. We are constantly finding ways of squeezing more draw time/calculation time from the PSX. Also, just when we think we can't fit any more Lara animations in, the coders find another 100k to play with.
Any chance Lara will finally get to wear her sunglasses in-game? How about other outfit items like a baseball cap?
We tried the sunglasses. They look cool on PC, but on PlayStation the glasses flick on and off (bad sorting). The baseball cap isn't really Lara.
[Editor's Note: Rich later told us that the sunglasses may go in after all.]
Will TR5 involve a true 3D environment rather than the current "Lego block" look? (We're assuming it will take advantage of the powerful new PlayStation2 technology.)
TR5? Who said anything about TR5?
PART 6: CLOSING COMMENTS
I quickly scanned a magazine article the other day, and it mentioned that TLR was the "last in the series." Does this mean this is the last Tomb Raider, or does it mean this is the end of the series for the original PlayStation technology? Please explain. We love the mystery that the new title has caused. I'd like to keep it that way.
If TLR is the last of the TR series, what game could Core Design come up with to satisfy the TR fans, or will Core Design risk losing these TR fans to other games (i.e. will TR become like an RPG etc).
There will always be quality games from Core, Tomb Raider or otherwise.
What do you think will keep Lara ahead of the competition? (Indiana Jones, Drakan etc.)
They still haven't got Lara have they? Her animations are far superior to any similar game title out there. Indiana Jones was meant to be out last year (same time as TR3). We've done another game since then. They are all playing catch up.
The final question: Do you have any advice for people who want to work in the game industry? What sort of educational background do they need?
All you need is talent: if you can create things that look cool, if you can animate or design levels, if you have a great imagination. You don't need any qualifications as long as you can do the job. The hardest thing is for a company to give you the chance to prove yourself.
We all would like to sincerely thank you for taking the time to answer all our questions! It has really been a treat for us to have this interview with you.
=> Return to Articles & Interviews <=