Toby Gard: Let the battle begin

When Lara Croft began stripping for the lads and hanging out with rock stars, her young creator abandoned her. But now Toby Gard is back with a new hero by his side and the most eagerly awaited computer game ever. He talks to Johnny Davis about arch rivals and billion-dollar deals

It's a sunny Monday morning and Toby Gard is explaining how the evil corporation sexed-up his sister and prostituted her around the world. First they made her wear skimpy clothes, he says. Then they gave her breast enlargements. Next, they forced her to become cheap titillation for teenage boys. "It was total violation," he says, thinly.

It's a sunny Monday morning and Toby Gard is explaining how the evil corporation sexed-up his sister and prostituted her around the world. First they made her wear skimpy clothes, he says. Then they gave her breast enlargements. Next, they forced her to become cheap titillation for teenage boys. "It was total violation," he says, thinly.

After Gard couldn't stand it anymore, after he said he was through with the corporation, after he'd resigned, they then went and sold her to Hollywood. The whole thing was ugly. Angelina Jolie was involved.

The story goes that Frances Gard, Toby's younger sister, was the inspiration for Lara Croft. You'll know Lara Croft better as Tomb Raider, the computer-game character who kicks, jumps and swims her way through a maze of tunnels fit to bamboozle the Minotaur. Latterly, she's done the same in the cinema, in two films: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Toby invented Lara Croft/Tomb Raider in the mid-1990s while he was working at Core Design, a company that develops video software. He designed, programmed and executed the game using techniques which, at the time, were revolutionary. It was an immediate critical and commercial success. Core has sold in excess of 25 million units under the Tomb Raider name.

But Lara Croft became an emblem beyond the insular video-gaming world. She appeared on stage with U2 during their Pop Mart world tour. She became the subject of highbrow-goes-lowbrow cultural essays. She featured on the covers of style magazines. And she was "the face" of Lucozade. She even released a pop single, produced by the dreaded Dave Stewart. The biggest video-game icon since Pac-Man, Croft has netted Core Design in excess of £400m. But Gard has seen none of it. He quit Core two months after the game was released. It was 1997. It was the first game he'd developed. He was 24 years old.

"Lara was based on elements of Indiana Jones, Tank Girl and, people always say, my sister," says Gard. "Maybe subconsciously she was my sister. Anyway, she was supposed to be this strong woman, this upper-class adventurer. The rules at the time were: if you're going to make a game, make sure the main character is male and make sure he's American, otherwise it won't sell in America. Those were the rules coming down from the marketing men. So I thought, 'Ah, I know how to fix this. I'll make the bad guys all American and the lead character female and as British as I can make her.'' (For a while, Lara was Laura Cruise, until that was deemed insufficiently British. The introductory pamphlet that came with the original game explains that Lara is the daughter of one Lord Henshingly Croft. Her birthday, incidentally, is 14 February.)

Gard continues. "She wasn't a tits-out-for-the-lads type of character in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. I thought that what was interesting about her was she was this unattainable, austere, dangerous sort of person."

But, it was the end of the 1990s. Loaded culture was in beery swing, Skinner and Baddiel had gone all Jules Rimet and the Ladette was about to be loudly foisted on the world. So, when the marketing people at Core Design saw that the hero of their new game was an ass-whoppin' broad... well, they went to work.

"I had problems when they started putting lower-cut clothes on her and sometimes taking her clothes off completely," says Gard. "It's really weird when you see a character of yours doing these things. You can't believe it. You think 'She can't do that!' I've spent my life drawing pictures of things and they're mine, you know?" And here he speaks with emphasis. " They belong to me."

But Lara Croft didn't belong to Gard. She belonged to Core. It could do whatever it liked with her. So Gard quit. He'd invented the biggest computer game in the biggest decade of computer games, and he left. Walked away to do... nothing, apparently.

Toby Gard is sitting in his offices in Bristol. He's a small man with a big stare. He wears a white T-shirt, trainers and Mr Mole glasses. These days, Gard runs his own company. It's called Confounding Factor. ("From science," he explains. "The confounding factor is the thing that you forgot to control that ruins the experiment. It's like the spanner in the works.") He set up the business to develop games his way.

In the seven years since Gard established his company, he has released precisely no games. He has, however, been hard at work making one. A sequel, of sorts, to Tomb Raider. It's called Galleon. After three or four false starts - release dates have come and gone over the years - Galleon was finally ready to be released in 2002. But then Gard realised he'd spent so long developing it, the graphics his competitors were producing had overtaken him. So he re-did it all. Now Galleon is coming out in June.

It's not too silly an exaggeration to say that, in the computer-games industry, Galleon is the equivalent of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend or the Stone Roses's The Second Coming. That's to say it's the follow-up to a vastly original debut whose resonance has far exceeded the author's expectations; resonance made all the more exceptional by the substantial amount of time taken for any sort of sequel to appear. It's that "difficult second album".

"We take Tomb Raider for granted now," says Margaret Robertson, games editor at Edge magazine, the video-games bible. "But," she adds, "you've got to remember that when Toby Gard suggested making a game about a female archaeologist in hotpants, that was profoundly bizarre. In terms of innovation and not looking over your shoulder to see what everyone else is doing, there's not really anyone like Toby."

The rise of video games - or "interactive entertainment" - has represented a vast, but surreptitious, shift in culture. To anybody who came of age after the arrival of the Sony PlayStation in 1995 - when computer processing power became advanced enough to deal with the thousands of polygon graphics needed to move a three-dimensional character around a three-dimensional environment - video games are as vital a pop-cultural currency as CDs or films. To anyone older, they seem to be the refuge of the socially backward, geeky or very young.

Everyone knows that video games are big, but when you start to examine how big, things get a little giddy. The industry earned £18bn in 2002. In the US, it's growing at over 20 per cent a year. One survey found that the percentage of US college students who had ever played video games was 100. And, while wobbly CD sales give record execs migraines, some games (Fifa Soccer and Madden NFL Football, for example) have earned their parent companies over $1bn. The New York Times reports that "for new and established musicians alike, games are the new radio; landing a spot on a video-game soundtrack is arguably more prestigious than landing a similar spot in a movie, a function not just of sales but also of the fact that the average buyer will spend so long in front of the game." For sports stars, tie-ins on titles such as Tony Hawk's Underground or Ronaldo: V-Soccer, can be as lucrative as lending their name to a cosmetic product. Certainly, it's more credible.

There's more. For young men, video games are well on their way to becoming the key media. Currently, 15 per cent of teenage males devote 20 per cent of their time to playing them.

For those who know little about video games, here's how they work. There are games made to be uploaded on to your desktop computer and there are games that require a separate machine; a console or "platform". It's this last category where the action is. The most popular platform is Sony's PlayStation 2, which was introduced in 2000 and has so far sold 60 million units worldwide. In 2001, Microsoft fought back with its own platform, Xbox, which has sold 13.7 million units. Because Xbox contains its own hard drive, it cuts down on the time you have to spend "loading" software. As such, the games it supports are more advanced and generally it's thought of as the better machine. At least, it is until PlayStation 3 and Xbox 2 appear in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

Galleon, for instance, is being released solely for the Xbox, whereas Tomb Raider was originally for the PlayStation (Sony pumped a boggling $500m into hardware development and $500m into software development for its original PlayStation launch. The company's previous two attempts at brand extension had been Betamax video and the MiniDisc and it wasn't about to repeat those busted flushes.)

A game such as Galleon may have been slow to develop, but then Gard was typically working with just five other people. The recent Japanese title Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, took four years to make and involved over 100 people.

A top-quality platform game costs the same to produce as a low-budget movie. It is the rights to license an established film, television show or comic book that is the real wallet-buster: both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings cost their developing houses over £12m.

Furthermore, video games are starting to look more and more like films. The advertising strapline for Broken Sword: the Sleeping Dragon, a 3D adventure game, is "It's the game that plays like a movie. Really!" Gaming companies not only ape Hollywood production values, they employ its scriptwriters, actors, soundtrack musicians and sound-effects teams, too.

The game James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing, released this month, features the voices and likenesses of the actors from the Bond movie franchise: Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, John Cleese and Heidi Klum. Its plot was written by the veteran Bond screenwriter Bruce Feirstein. The producers of the Atari game Driv3r released this June and featuring the voices and likenesses of Mickey Rourke, Ving Rhames and Michael Madsen have commissioned Ridley Scott Associates to produce a movie "inspired" by the game. And the Chronicles of Ruddick: Escape From Butcher Bay will be released simultaneously with the film The Chronicles of Ruddick, the follow up to 2000's Pitch Black. Vin Diesel will star in both.

While fighting, shooting and driving games are the three most popular genres; gaming isn't limited to apparently mindless violence and thrills, or the male demographic. Sims, for example, is a game where the player has to guide a set of human avatars through their meticulously detailed real-time lives (they go to work, fall in love). The Sims' franchise has now exceeded $1bn. Its core audience is teenage girls.

"We're in a period of great growth and expansion," says Robertson. "Things are moving incredibly fast. The standard of good games startles me every single month. Things that I found unbelievable before Christmas, I'm already taking for granted."

Gard fires up the Xbox in a corner of his offices and Galleon rolls into life. There are immediate similarities with Tomb Raider. The player controls a third-person character, in this case Captain Rhama Sabrier. The action is viewed from over Sabrier's shoulder. And Sabrier has to explore a labyrinthine terrain, picking up clues and fighting off baddies. Pirates, in this case. Though like Tomb Raider, the fighting takes a back seat to the exploring. The plot is its own reward.

"I wanted to have a visual language that was quite comic book," says Gard. "I realised the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films were the way to go. Also those Burt Lancaster films like The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate where he comes across as heroic but, when you look in his eyes, he's sort of laughing at himself. It's thigh-slapping." He catches himself. "But not that thigh-slapping."

There are plenty of differences to Tomb Raider, too. Galleon is vast - Gard estimates it will take 40 hours of playing to complete the game and even then the terrain is so big, when you do finish it you'll have only seen 35 per cent of what's on offer and will want to go back and explore the rest. And it's visually a far superior, and much faster beast.

Will Galleon be another Tomb Raider? Is Captain Sabrier a new Lara Croft? It's unlikely. For a start, he's male. Secondly, with Gard in charge, you won't see him quaffing Lucozade.

"People always say, 'You must be gutted about Tomb Raider. All that money you've thrown away,''' Gard says. "But I'm not. If I'd have stayed I might have become rich. But I'd have been so arrogant. Plus," he says, "I'd never have made Galleon, this earth-shatteringly cool game."

When Galleon is released, Gard says he's going to have a big party. He also promises to finish his next game more quickly.

GAME ON: YOU'RE MY HERO

Pac-Man Originally Puckman from the Japanese pakupaku, meaning "to flap one's mouth open and closed". Renamed after arcade vandals took to substituting Puckman's first consonant. The dot-munching, ghost-fleeing, maze dweller and adorned duvets and coffee mugs throughout the 1980s.

Mario In 1981. this fella made Nintendo the company it is today. When a game based on Popeye had to be dropped after a licensing row, the central character was made-over into a tubby plumber with a moustache. Named after Nintendo's then landlord, Mario is still popular. Bob Hoskins even played him in a film

The Doomguy Fronted by a nameless ex-marine, in 1993 Doom invented the excessively violent first-person shooting game. Playable on-line, its gore and moral lassitude saw the Californian State Assembly introducing a bill making it illegal for minors to purchase Doom.

Tommy Vercetti In 2002, Ray Liotta voiced the former Mafia hitman star of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The action takes place in a fictional Florida city in 1986 and unravels with the wit, colour, sex and swearing of a gangster film. A huge hit, especially with the 30-plus market.

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