8 November 2015

[Warning! Minor Spoilers, although the piece focuses more on Crystal's approach to tomb design rather than detailed examples and locations.]

As part of the E3 Ambassador Program, I wrote an article for the official Tomb Raider blog about the reemergence of tombs in the latest installment of the franchise. After listening to fan feedback from the previous game, the team at Crystal focused on expanding these areas, making them more complex and captivating. For the piece I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Wajcs, Senior Designer at Crystal Dynamics. I am so happy with how the interview turned out, the answers that Jeff gave were not only informative but there was a clear passion and genuine interest behind the words.

Parts of the interview can be seen in the Return to Tombs article, but I am excited to be allowed to share with you the full interview below. A huge thank you to Meagan to arranging the interview and Jeff for the fantastic answers:

What types of tombs can players expect to encounter in the game? And how to do they differ from each other?

Jeff Wajcs: We have the main critical path tombs the optional challenge tombs. The critical tombs are bigger than ever and feature a variety of gameplay, themed around big puzzles. Additionally, there will also be exploration, combat, and traversal in these spaces, along with collectibles to find. Challenge Tombs are smaller and focus primarily on puzzles. Traps and other dangers appear in both, so Lara will have to stay on her toes no matter which sort of tomb she is raiding.

You’ve announced that you want to improve the tomb experience from the previous game, what is your design philosophy for the new game?

Jeff Wajcs: Besides just having more tombs in general, we have a new philosophy for critical path tombs. Every critical path tomb throws one “big problem” at Lara. She needs to solve a series of puzzles in order to chip away at the “big problem,” bit by bit. We also refer to this as “nested puzzles.” This philosophy lets us insert traversal and combat challenges in the moments between puzzles, and helps us balance the pacing without compromising the puzzle theme of the level. This also puts the puzzles into much larger spaces to explore, and Lara will be able to return to them later to find everything she missed on her first time through.

Has the Next Gen technology and graphics expanded the potential of tombs and puzzles in Rise of the Tomb Raider?

Jeff Wajcs: You bet! Water is one of my favorite things to use for puzzles, and you’ll see a lot of new next gen materials and FX on display. Lara will need to use the different physics of water to solve a wide variety of puzzles. There are changing water levels, water currents, water used as weight, water powering machines- there’s a lot. And Lara will be able to swim around freely in it for this game!



What is the developmental process for planning and creating tombs? Can you walk us through the workflow?

Jeff Wajcs: There’s no formula for coming up with puzzles. Some like to start with the story component. Others start with the puzzle mechanics. I like to start with the layout of the space itself. Of course, all three of those things need to be decided on and approved early. After that comes the grind- iterating to work out all of the problems. Is there enough of a “wrinkle” with a nonobvious solution? Have all the puzzle mechanics been introduced? Are there any problems with the layout? This all takes place before user testing, which flushes out all kinds of new problems. Why aren’t players finding the rope connection? How can we discourage an idea that leads to a dead end? How many times did the player die on a specific part? It takes a lot to get a puzzle balanced and satisfying to play!

Did you find anything particularly challenging when it came to designing the tombs in the game?

Jeff Wajcs: The most challenging aspect of designing a tomb is always tying in the fiction. The days of random pressure plates and gigantic wall switches are long gone. We work hard to incorporate every puzzle element into the environment and the story we are telling inside of it. The puzzle and story improve each other by quite a lot when they are connected.



In the previous game, the focus was on Lara learning how to be a survivor, for Rise of the Tomb Raider she’s more experienced. Does this have an impact on the tomb design?

Jeff Wajcs: Instead of stumbling into tombs and trying to escape, this time Lara is actively seeking the tombs out in order to learn their secrets. We put a lot more attention into how Lara finds and infiltrates the ancient spaces of our world. Of course, now that Lara actually wants to get into the tombs, the tombs themselves have to try even harder to keep her out. We’ve prepared a bunch of new traps and hazards that only Lara Croft could survive.

How are you handling the difficulty level? Are the tombs designed so that Lara and the player always have to push that little bit more? And do you have a way of balancing the difficulty so that experienced and new players can both enjoy the tombs?

Jeff Wajcs: Survival Instinct is the key for aiding new players. Every puzzle can be solved without Survival Instinct, and players that enjoy being challenged by puzzles can definitely go without it. Lara will provide more hints the more Survival Instinct is used, so less familiar players can rely on it more. The presence of Survival Instinct is actually what allows us to include the harder puzzles in the game that we hope our longtime fans will appreciate.



Closely related to the previous question, how are you tailoring the tomb difficulty for players with different levels of experience?

Jeff Wajcs: Tomb Raider has a lot of action gamers in its audience, gamers who may not have a lot of puzzles in their diet normally. It is a great opportunity for us to introduce them to puzzle gameplay, and it is no small challenge. We’ve done a good job breaking down our harder puzzles into their constituent pieces and introduced each individually. For instance, Lara’s rope arrow is something unique to Tomb Raider and has more than one application (including a couple new ones!). Teaching those applications one at a time and ramping them over the course of the game is really important. That way, when players are stumped on the puzzle, it is for the right reason and never too long, and they get the rush of satisfaction from figuring it out.

What kind of rewards can players expect to find in the challenge tombs? Do they unlock achievements or will they affect the gameplay and Lara’s abilities or equipment?

Jeff Wajcs: There are a ton of new skills this time around, and several of them can only be acquired by completing the Challenge Tombs. Tombs also have a ton of crafting resources, which are more important than ever. Lara will also find maps that show her the locations of other collectibles out in the wild. So no matter what kind of player you are and what kind of gameplay you like, Challenge Tombs will have the right reward for you.



The challenge tombs in the previous game felt a little disconnected from the main storyline. Will the new tombs have a bigger story significance or be tied more closely to game world’s lore?

Jeff Wajcs: One of the biggest improvements to the Challenge Tombs has been in the story department. Each Challenge Tomb has a history for the player to discover, both in the documents left there but also in the environment itself. Each tomb feeds into the broader mystery that Lara is trying to figure out. The environments are certainly much more exciting as a result.

What are Lara’s motivations to enter the tombs? Is she going there purely for archaeological interest or for personal gain or something else?

Jeff Wajcs: Finding the secrets lost in time is important to Lara so that she better understands the world, and what happened to her on Yamatai. There is also Trinity, an organization that exists to use history’s secrets for their betterment. They destroy what cannot be hidden, whereas Lara would rather use those secrets for the betterment of mankind. She will learn a lot as she learns those secrets one by one.

[Transportation, lodging, and E3 badge provided by Crystal Dynamics and Xbox as a part of the E3 2015 Ambassador Program]

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