Exclusive: Crytek Interview

Tom Hopkins

NowGamer speaks to Crysis developer Crytek about games, Kinect, DirectX 11 and next-gen.

Published on Jul 5, 2011

From left to right: Crytek founders Cevat, Avni and Faruk Yerli.

Crytek isn't one to rest on its laurels. Founded by brothers Cevat, Avni and Faruk Yerli in 1999, the developer has created tech-busting PC games Far Cry and Crysis, and more recently moved into console development with Crysis 2 and the upcoming Kinect game Ryse.

It also licenses the CryEngine technology for game development - and has an eye firmly pointed at the next generation of games. NowGamer spoke to managing director Avni Yerli and CryEngine's director of global business development, Carl Jones, to find out more about Crytek's game, tech and next-gen plans.

Avni, you founded Crytek with your brothers – does it still feel like a family business?

Avni Yerli: I think the culture of Crytek remains the same; at least that's how I perceive it. There's very little hierarchy. Our technology and our games are the priority for Crytek... it doesn't feel like a corporation, even if it's gained a certain growth. We still have a family atmosphere, which is very important to us.  

Valve recently claimed it has no company hierarchy at all...

AY: It's very similar [at Crytek]. Of course games have specific structure and there are specific people who have responsibilities, but in the end it's still a co-operative effort.

Why haven’t we seen CryEngine being used in more games up until now?

Carl Jones:
The games being worked on with CryEngine obviously require a certain amount of development time, and they haven’t got to a point yet where our licensees are ready to show them.

We’ve shown a few, but there’s a lot more in the pipeline… they’re not at the development stage where they’re ready to announce or show. But certainly in the next year you’ll start seeing some really exciting products that are using CryEngine 3 in many genres and on all the main platforms – consoles and PC.

Crysis 2: Crytek's first multiplatform game.

How many projects are we talking about?

CJ: We’re up to about 40 licensees now with CryEngine, but we haven’t been able to announce many of them as yet. But we have publishers that have signed up for licenses with CryEngine as well as independent developers so there are some good products on the way.

Are all of those licensees commercial game developers?

CJ: No. That’s the interesting thing about CryEngine, is the way that people are seeing its use outside of games. We very recently announced that the US Army has signed up a major licence for CryEngine for training infantry as well as special operations command, who will also make use of the engine.

So that's in the simulation space, but we also have partners and licensees in other industries who have seen that real-time engines can be used to replace what's currently being done with linear pre-rendering.

The power of a real-time engine with the graphical quality of CryEngine gives them the ability to create CG quality movies that their clients and they can use in an interactive way, which is such a huge leap from just watching a film - being able to change it on the fly and interact with it.

Companies like Foster + Partners, Norman Foster's UK architect firm, they use CryEngine – they recently used it in a major project in Hong Kong, and we'll announce very shortly a very big partner in the architectural space that is actually very relevant to the UK and London in the next year.

What percentage of Crytek's business is outside of games?

CJ: Still the great majority is in gaming, of course – so much of the technology is built around gaming. It just happens that there are elements of the technology – the sandbox tools and rendering quality – that are usable by other industries. Right now I'd say it was about a 75/25 split, where 75 per cent is in gaming.

Do you just provide military clients with the tech, or do you build simulations for them too?

Here at Crytek we’re hands-off with that. So we have a company called RealTime Immersive, which is a Crytek studio we set up in the US, which is dedicated to that market. They’ve taken the engine and enhanced it for that market, and take care of that side of the business. We’re not heavily involved in that at Crytek, because Crytek is primarily a company looking at entertainment and gaming.

The original Crysis required a monster PC when it launched in 2007.

Crysis is now something of a flagship series for Crytek and CryEngine. Can we expect that to continue in the future?

AY: Crysis as a franchise for us is obviously very important. From that perspective we’re looking to continue Crysis somehow. We have not said anything publicly yet, but maybe soon we will make something more public on the Crysis franchise. It is a very important franchise for Crytek, however any future plans, we have not revealed yet, but be assured there will be some new things.

It was recently revealed that City Interactive’s Sniper 2 is using CryEngine. How did that come about, and how will Crytek help the developers get the best from the technology?

AY: That is a very talented team. We were really impressed how fast they understood the engine and how fast they turned out great results on the screen. That was really impressive to us. There wasn’t much to do from our perspective.

Our programme is very good in our opinion, in that we offer a good training programme, then we have dedicated support people who help them and make sure they don’t stall in their progress. So far the relationship with them is very positive. They are very happy with the progress they’re making in a very short time.

CJ: In other cases people are looking at the scalability of the engine and the visual quality they can achieve with a very different style. Other technology can’t necessarily push with the same amount of power that CryEngine can, and also we’re very proud that you can create very different-looking games with our engine.

We aren’t limited to one particular style. I recently saw one of our unannounced engine licensees, some games that were totally different styles from anything I’ve seen on CryEngine before, in terms of gameplay style as well as visual style.

Would you like to see CryEngine used for other types of game more often?

CJ: We’re very keen to see different products made with our engine. Ultimately the whole industry is led by the consumer. Whatever decisions we’re making in the chain between the consumer and the game developer… decisions always trickle from what the gamer wants to see.

If the gamer is presented with a lot of similar products based on an engine, they start to become frustrated or bored with what’s possible with that technology.

By making sure that we have very powerful but generic technology, and tools that allow you to create many different types of game and look to ensure that people will never be in a position where they say: ‘we never want to see another CryEngine game’.

We’re lucky enough to have some really talented and creative licensees using the engine, who are trying to push it in different directions – they don’t just want to make a clone of our games. In fact, we discourage people from doing so.

City Interactive's CryEngine-powered Sniper 2 already looks impressive.

Would you say that Epic is your biggest rival in the core, third-party engine space?

CJ: I think it has been, but I think we’ll all be competing with Unity pretty soon because they are becoming very widespread. So as Unreal and ourselves all move onto more platforms I think we’ll be competing over that space.

People will make decisions based on their game and the best engine to make the game and the engine that fits their team. That doesn’t mean we’ve got to try and win each other’s business, because we’re wasting our time.

If someone comes to me and describes a game that I know would fit perfectly with Unreal Engine I’ll tell them to go and talk to Mark [Rein]. I won’t want them as a customer trying to use CryEngine for a game that wouldn’t make the most use of its power. That’s a waste of everybody’s time.

Equally, if someone wants to hit as many platforms as possible in a short amount of time, then they’re not going to come and use CryEngine, or at least they wouldn’t consider it right now.

If they did, I’d say ‘if you want to hit all these platforms and your game is very simple and easy to build without using too much deep technology then go and speak to the guys at Unity’. That’s the way it’s starting to go and we’re happy with that.

How interested is Crytek in mobile platforms?

CJ: The good thing is that the platforms are converging in architectural terms. So we’re coming to a space where it’s easier to build a CryEngine for those other platforms.

If we’d have built CryEngine for the iPhone 3G, for example, we’d have downgraded so many things and it would have taken so much engineering effort that by the time we did it, it may no longer be relevant.

So we bided our time and we’re glad we did that because it is looking like future platforms will be unified more simply by gaming technology. I’m not saying they’re going to be the same, but they’re going to be more similar than in the past.

So we’re very excited by those developments and the fact that people will be carrying around devices in their pocket that will be able to do very high quality graphics, very complex games and use 90 per cent of the power of CryEngine. As Mark himself said a year ago, triple-a will come to those platforms. That’s the situation.

AY: We obviously want to support all major platforms, and mobile is very interesting. Mobile has had a significantly fast evolution, and it needs to catch up to PC less and less.

How fast the hardware's iterating is frightening actually. So from that perspective, it's great. We like mobile devices because they can enable games not just at home or in specific environments, they're also good for upcoming games so that you can consider those platforms as part of your offering.

It's enriching for the industry. Our Budapest studio is focusing primarily on mobile, on the tech side as well as content side. Two months ago we basically changed the studio to a mobile studio. The team is working on CryEngine mobile technologies and on mobile games.

When might we see something from Crytek on mobile platforms?

AY: Soon I think.

Crytek is positioning itself for future hardware. What are your thoughts on the next gen?

AY: That's a very tricky question [laughs]. We have certain expectations about what next gen will bring. Certainly many things will have online connectivity; probably motion controllers will be on all devices, not only in the console space but on PCs as well; with OnLive it will be on the cloud sooner or later.

There are a lot of question marks but we realise, however, on the console side that things will be more niche, not in terms of the market - that's clear - but in the way they entertain people. Look at Nintendo Wii - back then it was a very niche experience, but it was a huge market.

I think the next-generation consoles will be similar; every console will have this very specific type of group of gamers to design for, so a cross-platform approach will be very difficult going forward, in our opinion.

Is CryEngine 3 in a good position to develop for whatever comes next?

AY: Well for two to three years we have invested in a lot of technology and prototypes that we think next gen can benefit from, and we think we're in a pretty good position to transition to this next phase.

The DX11 patch for Crysis 2 recently launched. Is it just a showcase for the new DirectX features?

CJ: There are a couple of things we’ve invented that are unique to Crysis 2 and CryEngine. There are things that everybody does, like tessellation, for example. There are features that we’ve been thankfully able to bring back, that were not friendly to consoles.

So we’ve been able to put those back in for the high-end. And a couple of surprises that people won’t have seen anywhere else. And it’s not finished yet – the beauty of DirectX 11 is it’s a door into a renaissance for graphics programming.

We’ve put features in that make sense for Crysis 2 that we were able to do without extensive amounts of research, ideas that we’ve been bubbling away with for a couple of years that we knew eventually the hardware would be capable of.

But there is so much more we can do now – we’re really looking forward to the new research projects that we’re establishing that are only really possible under DirectX 11 and potentially next-generation hardware.

So you think it’s a game-changer in terms of next gen?

CJ: Undoubtedly. It gives your graphics engineers, your rendering approaches, so much more freedom. We’ve barely scratched the surface on what can be written directly to the GPU now with the new languages.

In terms of visual fidelity and simulation, as you’ve probably seen, there are some amazing physics-rendering demos that are being showcased as standalone tech demos.

We’ve not seen them in-game yet – I think the first game where you’ll see the next-generation capability will be Crysis 2, because all the high-end stuff from other guys has only really been in tech demos.

So I think, looking to the future, there will be a lot more people can do, and taking an engine like CryEngine, rendering programmers will be able to build bespoke solutions on top of it very, very easily.

We really see the next five years as being a major renaissance in graphics creativity, where we should be seeing stunning things that maybe we’ve only ever seen in films before.    

Do you regard Crysis 2 DX11 as a glimpse at the next-generation of games?  

CJ: We would hope so.

Crytek’s interested in the Wii U. What do you make of the platform?

CJ: It’s something we’re really interested in. There are a load of Nintendo fans at Crytek, right up to the top of the company. We were unfortunately unable to support the last generation of Wii because it would have been quite an engineering effort to take the engine down to that level of hardware.

So we were quite excited to see a new level of hardware come out that we think we can support, do some good stuff with, and it’s something we’re currently experimenting with.

So you’ve got Wii U dev kits?

CJ: I haven’t seen them myself.

Is there a market for core gaming on Wii U?

CJ: I really hope so but I don’t think it’s a necessary part of their strategy. The Wii is great at the games people like playing on it. I’m not sure yet what Nintendo’s strategy might be for hardcore.

I don’t know if we’ll see flagship core titles on that platform – as a fan of Nintendo I’d love to see it personally, but I also enjoy playing the non-core titles a great deal.

Whether or not we need core titles as well, we’ll see. That’ll be up to the consumer. But if you can get the same visual quality from Wii U as from other platforms, then why not?

So we could see a colourful, CryEngine 3-powered Wii U platformer from Crytek?

CJ: Well, never write anything off. We’re experimenting all the time; we have a large number of very creative people with a lot of great ideas at the studio. Never say never; we’ll have to wait and see.

We’ve recently seen DICE’s Frostbite 2.0 engine, which is going to be used for a shooter and a racing game. Could CryEngine be used for such diverse titles?

CJ: The really impressive thing about Frostbite is the quality of those two games they’re showing with it. There are very different challenges when you’re building a racing game to a shooter, or an action-adventure or an MMO.

I certainly think CryEngine could be used for any of those genres and be extremely high quality with any of them. Obviously the engineering effort you need increases the further you move away – a racing game, you’d like to be driving at 200+mph at 60fps and 1080p...just multiply it and you realise the number of pixels a second you’re throwing around. It’s immense.

You therefore have to make compromises everywhere else. It’s not a series of buttons. On any game engine, you won’t just go ‘Right, we’re making a racing game. I’ll just click these buttons’, and it suddenly becomes a racing game engine.

We license the code base with CryEngine, enabling people to make those decisions for themselves, use the bits of CryEngine that will give them the best-looking racing game experience we can, but maybe take away some of the other things that aren’t so relevant in order to hit those extraordinarily high ambitions.

I think it would be tough to make a 1080p, 60fps high-speed racing game with CryEngine, but that’s not to say you couldn’t. CryEngine is being used on a good number of MMORPGs, which have a completely different requirement; a few sports games – not racing games, but sports simulation games – action-adventure as well as shooters; and even strategy games.

We recently saw more of your Kinect game, Ryse. How did that come about as a 360 exclusive?

AY: We’d been meeting Microsoft for years. At the end of 2003, 2004 we met and thought it might be interesting to work together but realised it probably wasn’t the right timing.

This time we had an interesting, innovative concept and we talked to Microsoft, and they liked the idea so we started work on Ryse. For us, first-party experience is important, so we ended up working with Microsoft. They like the level of innovation that Crytek has, the quality of our games, so it’s a very good fit from their perspective and our perspective.

Do you have to do much work to integrate Kinect with CryEngine?

CJ: Actually it’s really, really easy. Microsoft has built it well, making it easy to use and they give a lot of assistance with that, in terms of tech samples and hands-on expertise. Pushing it in a further direction to do some clever stuff is what we’re working with them on.

It’s not a difficult thing to deal with. It has some limitations like any piece of technology does - you can’t control it with your thoughts. Maybe that’s the next stage... it really is good and easy to use, and works in almost all circumstances we want to use it in.

Kinect hybrid titles are starting to emerge. Can you say if Ryse is that kind of game? Is that something that might interest Crytek in future, with a shooter for instance?

CJ: I don’t know about that. I probably shouldn’t talk about that area; it’s a little deeper in the design of the game than I know about.

Will Ryse put gamers’ fears to rest that Kinect can do core, mature experiences?

AY: I think if you look at the [E3] trailer you realise it targets that specific group. From our and Microsoft’s perspective we want to offer a great gameplay experience with Microsoft’s hardware, including Kinect obviously. Anything else is a little bit in the future.

We recently saw Far Cry 3 demoed at E3 – how does it feel seeing a franchise created at your studio being continued elsewhere? Could you imagine working on it again?

AY: Far Cry was the game that basically formed Crytek. Over 70 per cent of our dev team back then had no professional games experience, meaning they hadn’t worked on a triple-a game before, so from this perspective it was a huge achievement for Crytek... then we gave our rights to Ubisoft after Far Cry was launched and we focused on Crysis.

I still play Far Cry. A game which is eight years old, I still play at home, which says a lot. From our perspective it was the birth of Crytek. We are a little bit sad that the DNA of Far Cry hasn’t been maintained throughout the sequels, but I think Ubisoft had its own view on how Far Cry should be continued and they’ve done a respectable job. The only thing is the DNA of Far Cry is somehow missing.

Do you have any regrets over giving up the rights?

AY: Well of course we sometimes look back, but in the end it was the right decision for Crytek. As you can imagine, every company that’s founded on one game has to look at what’s in the best interests for the company to move on, and we agreed a deal with Ubisoft in which both companies were happy – we moved on with Crysis and Ubisoft moved on with Far Cry.

Many gaming companies don’t comment on speculation, but Crytek recently denied reports that it’s working with future Microsoft hardware. Why did you feel you needed to do that?

CJ: Mainly because it just wasn’t true, and we were a bit annoyed that apparently someone said they found a source – we find it very hard to believe because it absolutely isn’t true.

We could have left it, but then we felt that speculation would be rife over ‘oh, well if they haven’t said anything so it must be true’ so it was our responsibility to gamers to let them know the truth so there’s no false expectations there.

AY: Yeah, it’s true. I mean it’s true that it’s not true [laughs]. We do not have Xbox 720 hardware, dev kits or whatever it’s called. Everyone tries to suspect what it will be and since we are close to Microsoft on Ryse there was an assumption that we know more than others. That’s not true.

TimeSplitters was also mentioned in those reports. Is it still an IP you’re interested in?

Crytek, in particular Crytek UK... obviously TimeSplitters historically was for them an important IP. From our perspective we always had a lot of fun playing TimeSplitters – TimeSplitters 2 was amazing fun.

Crytek and Crytek UK are interested in the IP; we are thinking about it but we’re trying to decide what we could do best with the IP, where we could bring it. There are no concrete plans yet.

TimeSplitters could make a return soon, maybe even as an HD remaster.

Everyone’s doing console HD collections at the moment. Any chance you might tide over TimeSplitters fans with the older games?

AY: That’s a good idea! [laughs] There are indeed a lot of games doing it but we haven’t thought about that yet. But it’s a good idea.

Is it standard for Crytek now to be working on multiple projects given that you have multiple studios?

Each of our studios is working on an IP. We believe that to develop great technology we need a project to push that technology. So all of our studios are working on a product as well as the technology to enable that product.

Can you tell us how other CryEngine 3 projects are likely to differ from what we’ve seen up until now?

CJ: The next game that’s going to be released using CryEngine 3 will be from Illfonic, a game called Nexuiz, which is an arena-based shooter – so obviously in terms of genre it’s a similar game, but it’s a much faster paced, kind of old-school shooter.

That’s going to be a downloadable release on consoles. So that’s going to be a really high-end, triple-a experience for anyone that wants to download it from XBLA, PSN or PC. So that will give gamers the first glimpse of something [CryEngine 3-based] outside of Crytek.

There are a couple of other products in development at the moment that I’d anticipate seeing on the consoles within the next year, one of which will be quite different, I think, from anything that’s been done with the engine before, the other will be really taking advantage of the strengths of the engine to create a sandbox experience.

So the current crop of titles that are targeting current-generation with CryEngine will be quite different, there will be some that are more or less similar to Crysis 2 in genre, but others that are going to be quite interesting and new. 

What’s Crytek’s view of modding?

CJ: We love it. It’s a hugely important part of our culture. We’re aware that we haven’t given as much as we’d have liked back to our community in recent times and we’re working as hard as we can to address that.

We’ll soon be releasing some free versions of CryEngine that will give that power back to the community. We’re really excited to see what’s going to be possible with that. Some of our best employees have come from the mod community.

We love these guys, and what they do with the engine is always eye-opening and surprising. When we give them CryEngine 3 – which won’t be long – we’re confident we’re going to see a step-change in the quality of modding that’s possible.

And we’re hoping we’re going to be able to help those modders commercialise their efforts as well. I can’t go into much more detail about that at the moment.

Could you ever see Crysis 2 mod levels hitting consoles?

CJ: It’s a dream, but there are practical considerations. Content needs to go through a submission process, and there’s not really a simple way of getting around that. It’s something we’d love to be able to do. Our engine is built in a way that you can create content for all platforms really easily.

I’m confident that a modder with the tools that we give them would be able to build great console content, but there are practical considerations that we’ve got to work out first. I won’t say it’s never going to happen because everyone would like it to happen, but we just have to figure out the process.

At the end of the day it’s a free thing, a fun thing, so it’ll be difficult to get people to dedicate teams of staff to process those sorts of mods. So we’re thinking about it and hopefully we’ll come up with a solution with the console providers.

Free-to-play shooter Warface is in development at Crytek's Seoul studio.

On the subject of free stuff, you have free-to-play shooter Warface in the works. How important is F2P to Crytek’s strategy?

CJ: To the new platforms it’s an important part of the industry. We looked at this a long time ago. I think we were ahead of the game with our experiences in Asia. The decision to create Warface was made probably before a lot of people were considering free-to-play outside of China and Korea.

We think it’s here to stay and could potentially be a changer to the industry. There are things that have to happen that are out of our control in terms of infrastructure and platform support.

We’re going to do everything we can with our technology to ensure that free-to-play games are easy to make and easy to commercialise. We see that growing all over the world.

Could you see cloud services playing a part in next-gen gaming?

CJ: I think the concept of more streaming and more hosted content, even up to the point of hosted rendering streaming to any device... that’s a great goal for our industry to have. As I’ve said before, the issue is one that isn’t necessary in our control, and that is the issue of latency.

Solving that problem without requiring the consumer to make a massive investment, or have an extra widget to plug in to whatever device they have... that’s got to be the Holy Grail. Again, we believe that that’s the future, and we’re working on our research to be there, but that’s not a simple problem to solve.

I can see a future of gaming where it is independent of the device you’re using; the quality of the experience will be the same. I think we all have to work out how to get there as painlessly as possible for developers, distributors and, most importantly, gamers.

So you don’t think the existing services are quite there?

I think they are still held back by the same issues at the moment. The infrastructure just isn’t there to really support the vision that these guys have. Obviously they use our games a lot as a ‘prover’, to say ‘Wow, these things can run even the most complex triple-a products’, but I think the final experience isn’t quite there yet.

There’s still a lot to be done. Whether that’s designing games with the cloud in mind, deciding what the cloud actually means and making sure that you can live up to your promises and that at the end of it the consumer isn’t actually saying, ‘This isn’t as good as buying a disc and sticking it into my console’. That’s got to be the end goal and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.



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