Dev Blog: The Evolution of Tomb Raider Hubs

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Jason Botta, Design Director

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In Tomb Raider we have a variety of different level types, the most expansive of which are our hub spaces. These are wide open exploration-focused areas where players are given the opportunity to progress through the game at their own pace and deviate from the level’s core story path. Specifically, they are the areas of the game where we open up our world, giving players the opportunity to engage in all the game play options hubs provide to “level up” Lara and her gear in order to improve her chances of survival against the challenges ahead. If you really want to spend time investing in making your Lara exactly who you want her to be—both visually and mechanically—hubs are the place where you can find all the tools to do so.

Building a More Rewarding World

In the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider, there were several activities available to players in hub spaces including collection of relics and documents, discovery of challenge tombs, hunting natural wildlife, and engaging with optional challenges for experience points (XP). While these were all fun and rewarding things to do on their own, the result of performing these activities didn’t always reinforce our core upgrade systems in the most effective way possible. When designing Rise of the Tomb Raider, we knew we wanted to address this issue and make hubs not only amazing exploration spaces, but provide a rich suite of gameplay options that all tied directly back in to our core game mechanics while additionally supporting the narrative we were telling with the main story campaign.

Our first step was to identify all the areas where we asked players to perform an activity that didn’t actually result in a tangible game play reward and then adapt those systems to directly improve the player. Then we looked at how to tie multiple hub activities together so that everything felt like it was part of one big coherent game play experience. Some of our systems worked fine, but the main areas we identified as needing improvement were hunting, document/relic collection, and the rewards acquired when completing our challenge tombs. Previously, the usefulness of engaging in any of these activities was limited and so we found some people largely ignored them.

We set about making sure that our expanded and improved hunting system provided numerous resources the player could use to upgrade their weapons or craft new gear items, as well as provide a more diverse and exotic set of animals to hunt. Then we created our language system which made reading documents and secret information on relics improve Lara’s ability to decipher writing found on Monoliths scattered about our hubs—an activity which reveals the location of valuable gold coins caches (gold coins are used to purchase new gear and weaponry in our “shop”). Lastly, we grant the player an entirely new skill (player mechanic) for completing each tomb. These skills can’t be learned any other way and provide a really useful reward for players who choose to really go off the beaten path in our hubs and take on the largest and most complex tombs we’ve ever built.

Once what we had in Tomb Raider was working better, we set out to create more rewarding and immersive world for the player to explore. This led to the inclusion of a friendly NPC population (the “Remnant”) who could give the player optional missions, a more diverse set of upgrade resources to collect, and world with even more secret areas to discover and explore. The Remnant not only provided a great way to contextualize missions players can complete for valuable rewards (weapons, weapon attachments, gear, and outfits) but they also allowed us a new way for the player to engage with our narrative other than just collecting information that was already written down. Once again, we aimed to tie all these elements together, so you’ll find that some of the missions the Remnant send Lara out on will guide her to some of the more hidden locations within our hubs (our underground crypts), and that our crypts not only house their own suite of valuable reward items, but the caves that lead to them are a source of unique resources that aren’t found elsewhere in the game. We strove to make sure everything the player does in Rise of the Tomb Raider naturally flows into and supports the other activities to create the most seamless and immersive experience possible.

Building a Bigger, Better World

When we started laying out the hub spaces (a process we call “shelling” internally within the studio) we knew we wanted to leverage all the power of the Xbox One and craft the largest spaces we had ever attempted. Not only did we want them to be larger, but they needed to be even richer with game play than our previous hubs to provide a compelling reason for players to spend their time exploring and participating in all of our optional game play content.

At Crystal, the initial efforts in this stage of development are driven by a joint effort between a level designer and level artist. They work together on building out a space that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but will also support all of the desired game play. In the case of hub spaces, this usually means grand vistas, clear and discernible landmarks, numerous challenge tombs, dynamic and exciting traversal routes, natural feeling combat spaces, intuitive puzzle elements, and lots of hidden areas to find. Juggling all these pieces to create something that is easy to navigate for people only interested in the critical game play path but provides enough interesting visual clues to pull players off the main path who are ready to explore–all while supporting multiple passes through the space with an ever-expanding set of gear-driven mechanics—is no easy feat! In fact, this process often results in major reworking of the space several times as development continues and both narrative content and game play systems come online.

Having done this before on the previous Tomb Raider, we had a good knowledge base to begin with, but the addition of new elements and game play goals in Rise of the Tomb Raider still meant there was a lot to figure out this time around. While we kept all the hub activities we supported in the previous version of the series, the new elements that affected our world layouts in Rise of the Tomb Raider were the inclusion of the Remnant population and their missions, myriad ancient crypts and caves, and fully realized hunting grounds. Each of these additions forced us to reevaluate our assumptions about how to build a hub space and provided new constraints we had to work around to make sure all the pieces worked together.

One particular problem that was tricky for us to solve was the overlap of the combat spaces and hunting areas. Initially, the answer was easy—let them overlap! If hostile animals appeared when enemies were around, there was a chance that they could attack the enemies and vice versa; it would be great emergent game play (or so we assumed). In practice, our enemies kept killing all the animals before the player ever had a chance to shoot them (robbing the player of their XP in the process) and their presence meant none of the passive animals would ever spawn. Additionally, the time/resource investment we would need to realize all the systemic interactions between animals and human characters at the quality level of the rest of the game was just too expensive for something that might only happen a few times during a typical game. Because of these factors, we had to walk away from this feature mid-way through development and find another solution about how these elements would work in our hubs. The answer we came up with still protects our hunting game play (a major element in Rise of the Tomb Raider), allows for dynamic combat encounters, and didn’t create an outraged animation department in the process.

This is just one example of the problems we faced with adding each of the new pieces to our hubs. In the end though, all that effort was worth it—the hubs in Rise of the Tomb Raider are the best we’ve ever made! Not only do they give players more interesting things to do in awe-inspiring spaces filled with life and tons of secret areas to discover, but they are also the most immersive and engaging environments we’ve ever made in a Tomb Raider game.

Jason Botta,
Design Director, Rise of the Tomb Raider