With Lara at home, it's cool to be a nerd

The exploitation of Sony's Tomb Raider means turning screen reality into a showbiz illusion
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The Independent Online
She's only a graphic on a screen, but Lara Croft is a real heroine to millions of computer game-addicts. The star of the computer game hit Tomb Raider is an Uzi-toting digital animation with the gravity-defying breasts of Pamela Anderson, the vowels of Emma Thompson and the problem- solving abilities of Countdown's Carol Vorderman. Unlike them, she doesn't exist, and can't therefore take a share of the vast sums of money generated by her activities, which makes her very attractive to the men who want to exploit her phenomenal success.

Lara has already been very generous to the companies involved in producing and marketing her work. She's helped the vast Japan-based Sony corporation turn its computer games console - the PlayStation - into the clear market leader. (Its main rival, the Sega Saturn, has now ceased production.) Last week, UK sales of the Sony machine reached one million units, adding to the 13.5m that have been sold across the world.

The PlayStation's popularity has proved a fig-leaf for Sony, offsetting disappointing figures from the record-producing arm of their business, and the $5bn losses incurred by their movie-making division, Sony Pictures. With Lara, Sony's profits rose 260 per cent to a staggering $1.12bn (pounds 680m) in the first quarter of 1997.

The profits don't stop there; the British company which created her announced this Friday that, in the space of a year, they have turned a pounds 1.9m deficit into pounds 7.6m profit. Derby-based computer graphics group Core Design own Lara, and they in turn are part of Eidos Interactive, a Wimbledon-based multimedia holdings company, who also own - among other things - a video production business and a music label, Naked Records. Eidos produces Tomb Raider in the Sony PlayStation format, and Sony advertise lavishly. All are hoping for a long ride with Lara.

Lara's rise is partly a product of shrewd marketing by Sony Computer Entertainment. Sony placed free consoles in the UK's biggest clubs, venues like Manchester's Hacienda and London's Ministry of Sound. Last summer, the corporation set up gaming tents at festivals such as Tribal Gathering and Glastonbury. Most cleverly, they installed PlayStations - equipped with games such as Tomb Raider - in places where celebrities have to sit for long periods of time: the green room at Top of the Pops, and hotel suites occupied by rugby and football teams. Sony made a deal with Tour Elite, a company specialising in bussing pop stars like Blur and The Prodigy from gig to gig.

AND SO some glitterati got addicted. Liverpool's goalkeeper David James admitted that his poor performance against Manchester United in April was due to staying up all night playing Tomb Raider, and an animation of Lara will soon appear on massive concert screens as part of U2's PopMart tour. "It's great for the product when you get it talked about by stars like Robbie Williams and Ant and Dec," explains Alan Wellsman of Sony. "It's all part of the market plan, targeting these early adopters, but it's not too much of an effort: we certainly don't pay them to mention it."

Eidos contends that the PlayStation means that computer games are not solely the preserve of solitary teenage boys. "They've made it a trendy machine that's not just for nerds," explains spokesperson Paul Fox. "It's a club-led phenomenon for people who have girlfriends." More importantly, this button-pushing constituency now embraces consumers who don't have to wait for birthdays and Christmas to buy games. The market has expanded to include 20-somethings with enough disposable income to buy several pounds 40 new releases each month.

Like the catacombs in which she fights her battles, the history of Lara Croft is full of puzzling twists and turns. She was conceived by Core Design's six-strong team of game developers, but if anyone can claim to be Lara's creator, it is 24-year-old Toby Gard, a digital whizkid who oversaw her construction and who mysteriously left Core Design in March, two months after the launch of Tomb Raider. Core's MD Jeremy Smith has no idea where Gard is. "He was at his mother's, but he's not there now," he says.

But Mr Smith says Mr Gard has gone underground with significantly more than the pounds 50,000 in royalties to which he admitted in an e-mailed interview in The Face. "Toby's just chilling out somewhere," he says. "He's been pigeonholed as the guy who created Lara, and he's getting fed up of talking about her."

Whilst Lara's originator remains in hiding, those left behind at Eidos are scrabbling around for new ways of exploiting his digital fantasy. And the way that they've chosen to do this is to transform Lara from a two-dimensional graphic into a corporeal person. A 21-year-old actress named Rhona Mitra has been cast as Lara for public appearances, on a novelty record, and - they hope - in a feature film.

The current focus of Ms Mitra's activities is a record to be produced by Dave Stewart, the musician who once formed one half of the Eurythmics with singer Annie Lennox. This week, the multimillionaire rocker Stewart and ex-Roedean girl Mitra are meeting at the star's home in Nice to work on the record. With them is Nick Thorp, MD of Naked Records, who once enjoyed brief fame as part of Eighties pop band Curiosity Killed the Cat. Mr Thorp established the label in 1995 but sold the business to Eidos last October for pounds 250,000.

"I think it's only just beginning. Lara's potential is huge - she's becoming an icon and the boundaries are endless," says Thorp. Movies are at the top of a list of possible spin-offs, "and a comic would be really cool. But we want to keep a lot of quality to what we do - we don't want to turn Lara into a Spice Girl."

BUT their success is a matter of time as well as style. Miles Guttery, editor of Total PlayStation, a magazine devoted to games like Tomb Raider, doubts whether the phenomenon will last, and predicts that the Thorp/Stewart/Mitra single will be the kiss of death to Lara's profitable air of cool. "The computer games market is very fickle. Lara Croft will become a figure of ridicule in 12 months and we'll all be wondering why we were so excited about her. She's got that Pamela Anderson appeal and that's about all. Things move fast in the digital world, and Tomb Raider has become obsolete already - there are much more exciting, cinematic games around now."

Guttery also casts doubt on Sony's contention that Lara's market isn't dominated by adolescent nerds. "We get letters from spoddy boys who've heard on the Internet that if you type in certain commands Lara'll take all her clothes off. It's hogwash."

To cash in twice over, Eidos must act fast. Although it is busily hyping the new, improved version of the Lara Croft game, Tomb Raider 2 won't be released until Christmas. However, its technological advances will include one that the game's adolescent fans will be sure to appreciate. "At the moment she has triangular boobs that look like two pyramids. But we've managed to smooth them off. She'll have proper breasts," says Jeremy Smith. But they may not be enough ...