Adrian Smith and Jeremy Heath Smith

Interview: Jeremy Smith, Adrian Smith, Core Design (PrimaGames, 2000)

The original article was posted on on 03-09-2000.

Lara has many technical fathers, but only one commercial godfather. Besides the game creators Andy Green, Robert Toone, Terry Lloyd, and Chris Shrigley, Jeremy Smith was the single sales and marketing professional in the founding team of Core Design in 1988. His company developed in ten years from a small, ambitious programming studio to become a worldwide entertainment business.

Under the leadership of Jeremy and his brother, Adrian, Core survived the ragged transition from the home computer market of the 80’s to the Sega and Nintendo paradise of the early 90’s. The winning move of Sony’s PlayStation pushed Core right along with it. Lara Croft represents for the Sony and PC market what Mario was for the former market leader, Nintendo: cult figure and commercial hit rolled into one.

This interview with Jeremy Smith, Core founder and President, reveals much about the development of the video game business in the past years, the commercial side of game development, and the meaning of hardware in an industry overflowing with Lara, Sonic, and Mario. Smith explains how Lara was created, how hits develop a surprising life of their own, and how you—against all odds—secure the lifespan of a successful brand.

“She fights with wolves.” —Jeremy Smith, Producer at Core

Prima Games: Does it bore you yet to constantly talk about Lara?

Jeremy Smith: (Laughs) No, it’s hard to get bored in discussions about a beautiful woman.

PG: When I look at the many Lara posters and statues in your office, I ask myself how life before Lara looked for you and Core.

JS: Before Lara? The game industry was still fighting with too many computer and console variations. We also had to program more games. Core developed simultaneously for Amiga, Atari ST, PC, and Mega Drive. We were quite busy. The introduction of Lara came together with the breakthrough of the 32-bit platforms. After that, it all changed. The games got more difficult, and suddenly it wasn’t possible to produce six games for five different platforms. We concentrated very much on the PlayStation, and naturally on the PC. The change from 16 to 32-bit wasn’t just a doubling of power. The devices were suddenly 500 times more powerful than their predecessors, Sega Mega Drive and Super NES. The PlayStation meant an unbelievable step forward for the game market. Then came the 3D graphics cards for the PC. That changed the games greatly, and naturally, the way the games were programmed and produced.

PG: Before the PlayStation emerged, Core was closely tied to Sega. What was special about the relationship between your company and the Japanese giant?

JS: With Sega we always totally understood that it was important for the growth of Core. They helped us when we were still a tiny company that wanted to play with the big boys. I spent a lot of time in Japan to present my technology and my games. Sega went so far as to support all of our projects. We were one of the first English firms to receive a license for the Sega Mega Drive. A small company in Derby, surrounded by huge game concerns, we were very loyal to Sega.

PG: Even as Sega’s first CD console, the Mega CD, totally sunk on the market?

JS: The Mega CD was a disaster! We developed Thunderhawk especially for it. In all of Europe, we sold about 300,000 units. At least for this system, we had a huge hit. Months later the hardware was essentially dead. We were lucky that Thunderhawk was out when there were hardly any other Mega CD games.

PG: Now Sega has a new wonder console with the Dreamcast. Is Core going to support this hardware so zealously too?

JS: We are good friends with Sega and have been using several Dreamcast development systems for months. Our Dreamcast games are going to be done for the European hardware introduction this year. The problem with Sega, though, is that it has to catch up to fifty million PlayStations. Core is now part of a large company that naturally first and foremost wants to develop games for the most popular console, in the long term probably the PlayStation.

PG: Back to Lara: Were you the first one at Core to recognize the charm of the video game heroine?

JS: I was at least the kind that people ran to and yelled, “Wow, you’re great, you made Lara Croft!” (laughs) But naturally I didn’t make it, I just approved it. The working style of Core is simple: The development teams have ideas that they present to me or my brother and we then talk about them. “Yes, that could be it!” or “No, the idea is bad.” With Tomb Raider, I personally wanted a game where you plunder ancient pyramids and burial grounds.

PG: Like ten years ago in your Rick Dangerous?

JS: Exactly! That is still my favorite game; absolutely great! In the case of Tomb Raider, Toby (Gard) came to me with the idea and I said, “Great! Let’s do it!” Toby and the rest of the team played around with this idea of an Indiana Jones-type hero for months. I loved the idea and spurred them on, simply to keep going. When I saw the Indiana Jones hero for the first time, I thought George Lucas would be mad. Toby and his team worked over the hero and after a few weeks, he came back with Lara. I looked at the monitor in disbelief and said something like, “My God, now that’s a woman. You can’t be f***ing serious!” But Toby was enthusiastic and you have to give the creatives their freedom; the freedom to go after what they believe.

PG: So only a little bit of skepticism from your side?

JS: Of course I was skeptical, as was everyone then. But then, that was five years ago, and Lara simply came to life and you could see what Toby was planning. There weren’t any girls in video games at all then, other than in Japanese games. Sure there were a few single women figures, for example in Virtua Fighter, but still no game that completely revolved around a heroine. We had always developed games that were a little bit different, and looked at many to ask ourselves, “Super game. Why wasn’t it successful on the market?” We played with the ideas and finally gave them the missing twist. Tomb Raider was surely the most ingenious and original Core game.

PG: Core is recognized as one the most technically progressive game companies and still hasn’t ever tried an online or internet game. . .

JS: At this moment, we’re playing with this idea. For twelve months we’ve been working with a few things in this area. But as long as we aren’t really sure that we can do it well, we’d better let it go. It’s difficult to get into this sector.

PG: Do you believe you have to use Lara to get a foothold there?

JS: No, I believe that would be easy; maybe too easy. We would rather do something more difficult and not take advantage of Lara too much. I’d be nervous that you would see Lara everywhere, in every shopping store, on every T-shirt . . .

PG: Do you believe that Lara’s success will ever be matched by Core?

JS: Actually, now I’d have to say yes. Though the Lara story surprises me too, and that’s how I stake my trust in Hollywood. Look at James Bond: born at the end of the 60’s, eighteen films later, he’s still as fresh as the first time. We’ve created such an icon, and now we have to give the consumers what they want. Ian Fleming was very smart. He knew exactly what his readers want. Some science, cars . . .

PG: . . . girls, technology, and exotic locations.

JS: Exactly. Everyone seems to love it. But it doesn’t matter if they love it or not, they watch it every time! This is exactly what we’re doing with Lara. The Bond philosophy says, “Give the consumers what they want!” That’s why there will be no Lara role-playing game. Lara is a 3D adventurer. She fights with wolves!

For eight years Adrian Smith has helped Jeremy, his older brother, lead Core. He too comes from software sales, but in comparison to his brother also has a technical background, and is thus the ideal connection between management, development teams, and external partners. As Operation Director, he also takes care of the Lara hype, reviews, offers of potential licensing partners and gets angry about unlicensed Tomb Raider products. We discussed the Lara cult and its growth.

“Jennifer Lopez would be my first choice!” —Adrian Smith, Producer at Core

Prima Games: We just asked your brother this same question: does it bore you to be asked about Lara again and again?

Adrian Smith: No . . . or to be honest, yes. It’s slowly gotten a little annoying. On the other hand, it’s flattering to be addressed as the “father of Lara Croft.” It only got really grating with the reaction of many trade magazines to the third Tomb Raider. In certain circles it really became the fashion to mince up Lara.

PG: Has your “baby” developed through the three parts, like a proud father had imagined?

AS: Yes, in every way. Although all episodes were primarily created for the PlayStation and this hardware hasn’t gotten any better, there still have been significant technical improvements. In 1996, Lara began as a 3D heroine with about 230 polygons, and in the third part she’s detailed and is made up of about 300 polygons. In addition, she develops somewhat further with every gaming idea. For example, as we invented water and flooded caves, we opened a whole new dimension for Lara to explore.

PG: Up until now, all Lara games were created for 32-bit platforms. With the introduction of new game consoles like the Sega Dreamcast and the PlayStation2, do you see a gaming quantum leap for the series?

AS: New game consoles like the PlayStation2 will certainly provide a whole new gaming experience. Videogames are getting more and more similar to Hollywood films, and we anticipate a whole new graphical experience.

PG: Won’t that drastically change the role of the professional game developer?

AS: Yes, definitely. For example, we need better Sony authors than each of the ones we have. Like in movies, games will show up with multiple protagonists with strong personalities and their own character. That requires new talents and will probably further crank up the size of the programming teams. Now only Japanese firms use one hundred or more people for a single game.

PG: The Lara cosmos doesn’t just determine the fate of your games, but also the countless, often even unlicensed, fan items. How do you deal with that?

AS: The fans on the Internet are particularly enthusiastic about Tomb Raider. For us it’s of course great and that’s why we help out with the unofficial (Internet) projects that were created out of the interest of the fans. On the other hand, there are also things that we don’t like as much, like the naked cheat that our team allegedly built into the game. Although the pictures are created through a technical trick, and Lara is simply represented in another color palette, it seems many players get off on this. For us, this is naturally a thorn in the side, and destroys Lara’s good reputation. The peak, though, is on a CD that I received this morning . . .

PG: What’s on it?

AS: (Pulls out a CD-ROM with ” Nude Raider” written on it and explicit photos on the cover.) A hardcore porno with someone dressed up as Lara as the main actress! That’s really just vulgar and repulsive!

PG: Your office film project will probably bring you even more fun.

AS: Of course, the coming Hollywood film is a big thing, though also not without risk. With Lara, we’re bringing a worldwide popular character to the project. Core has a lot to lose with the film, as compared to Paramount which can only win.

PG: Does Core have any influence on the film? Could you, for example, determine the actress for the title role?

AS: No, we can’t determine it, but Paramount naturally talks to us about potential candidates. My favorite actress for the title roll, by the way, would be Jennifer Lopez. The woman is classy and fits right in with the Lara image. Jennifer would definitely be my first choice!