At the height of Tomb Raider's popularity in the 1990s, a swarm of companies tried to persuade Jeremy Heath-Smith — who played a key role in launching the franchise — to approve their plans for branded merchandise.
The craziest option?
“Tomb Raider tampons,” he says.
“We were made ridiculous offers by ridiculous companies to do ridiculous things, and we just said no to all of them,” he says.
That bedlam is just one reason why Heath-Smith left the industry, one he worked in for more than 20 years. The co-founder of Tomb Raider studio Core Design and the former chief operating officer of publisher Eidos stepped away from games in 2005.
“I love where games are ... but it’s just too big a business,” Heath-Smith says. “It's turned into a multi-billion dollar revenue business now, which it was always going to do. For me, that kind of takes some of the fun out of it.”
For Heath-Smith, fun is how it started. He joined Activision as a sales assistant in the 1980s to push product to small stores in the United Kingdom. Heath-Smith was such a die-hard fan that the man who recruited him was concerned he wouldn’t take the job seriously enough.
“It seemed like the coolest thing on the planet. And I know there were hundreds of people that applied to this job, so I felt very fortunate,” Heath-Smith says. “But the guy who hired me said, “I’m going to take a chance on you ... I’m not sure this is right for you.”
Heath-Smith spent his time talking with shop owners about games and learning the industry, including everything he could about the publishing business as a whole. In time, he joined up with a studio — Gremlin Graphics — to help publish games for systems including the Commodore 64. In the 1980s, there were so many new console that the pace was frantic to get product out the door, he says.
But here, he says, Heath-Smith learned a lesson that would plague him throughout the rest of his time in the industry: working frantically to chase hardware has its disadvantages.
The same pressure to keep up with near-constant technology changes that had him running door-to-door selling games was the same pressure that distracted the company’s efforts to create solid content, says Heath-Smith.
“Suddenly the market can change, and overnight, from being this vibrant market,” he says. “The tap can be turned off, and if you look at history, which does have a tendency to repeat itself, that has happened over each iteration of hardware platforms.
“I always fought for back in the early years is that we as developers were always chasing technology. And chasing technology is one of the worst positions to be in.”
Gremlin Graphics downsized in 1988. Heath-Smith and others left to form Core Design. The firm took off with games like Rick Dangerous and slapstick platformer Chuck Rock; Heath-Smith’s clout in the industry began to grow.
But as Heath-Smith witnessed the firm’s growth, he was troubled by what he saw: although impressed by advances in hardware, he was constantly let down by what he felt was a chase to the most advanced graphics at the expense of content.
Heath-Smith was privy to see one of the first iterations of the hardware venture between Sony and Nintendo to produce a new peripheral for the Super Nintendo that would use CDs. Heath-Smith says the failed experiment was yet another example of hubris among hardware manufacturers that the tech mattered more than the content.
To this degree, Heath-Smith distinctly remembers a slight in working in sales: a Sega meeting being held in the lobby of a building. The same thing happened with Nintendo. But even after several trips when he was allowed to enter an office, he was disappointed with the executive response.
“One of my favourite questions was to ask the chief executives at these companies ... “Well, can you tell me about the configuration of the PlayStation joystick?” and they’d look at me as if I was mad. It was my frustration — it you’re running a video games company, then at least play the bloody games.”
“So, it always frustrated me that people [ran] companies but didn't really know what their product was. I always knew what my product was.”
Despite Heath-Smith’s love for the content over hardware, his first early look at the PlayStation solidified what he believed — and what Sony pushed — was the future of gaming. After an initial meeting, Heath-Smith rushed back to the UK and asked for ideas for something that would impress on Sony’s machine.
Tomb Raider was among them — and while a massive success, it put in motion a chain of events that ultimately resulted in Heath-Smith leaving the industry.
The game’s success is obvious now, with more than seven million sales and a legacy that extended to Hollywood (Heath-Smith was a producer on the first two Tomb Raider films). But financial security for Heath-Smith and the team didn’t negate the long hours and intense work, and Sony was eager for more, no matter what it took.
“There was a finite amount of time in how long the PlayStation was going to be around before they launched the second one, because hardware was on fire. We didn’t have two years to write a PlayStation 2 game, so we needed to make games while [the first] was on the rise,” he says.
“Tomb Raider 2 had to be written within a year, which means the development time was probably about eight months. We worked long, long hours.
“But we also earned an awful lot of money.”
The constant turnover demanded sacrifice, and the sequels “rolled off like a machine”. The quality suffered, and so did the sales. By the time Angel of Darkness, the sixth game in the franchise, was released, Eidos had had enough — the game was riddled with bugs and critically panned.
Heath-Smith was fired.
“Angel of Darkness just about killed us all, and it was a life-changing experience for everyone involved in it — and not necessarily a great one,” he says.
“I was basically co-running Eidos ... and everybody had software problems because Sony changed the development systems we’d been working on after 18 months, so we had to start again.”
Once again, Heath-Smith had been the victim of the frantic pace of changing hardware. But he doesn’t regret the firing, and in fact, knew it was coming.
“The only ill will was the fact that they phoned me to tell me that I'd been canned rather than telling me face-to-face. I was so pissed off about that, because I knew it was coming. This was not a shock. We had talked about what needed to happen. At the end of the day, I was ready to go. I was done.”
Heath-Smith is now financially set for life after helping debut one of the most successful franchises in video games. After helping found another studio, Circle, and remaining there for some years, he decided it was time to bow out. Now Heath-Smith serves as the CEO of Spike Global, a firm that creates software and other technology for larger businesses.
The pace was just too much for him and the pressure of finding another franchise with Tomb-Raider level of success was too great.
“The business has changed so dramatically,” he says. “It’s like making a movie now. You need an enormous amount of money.
“I enjoyed my time in the games business. It was an incredible time. I'm delighted about that and it was time to pass that mantle onto a new holder.
“I don't look back and miss it. I look forward.”