Develop interviews one of the last unashamedly 'old-model' studios of Ferrari-like tech, dev autonomy and big gambles

The Crytek way

The industry has transformed profoundly since the first Crysis game hit the market in 2007. Smartphone platforms and social networks have soaked in millions of game development man-hours, producing tens of thousands of titles and many billions of dollars in return.

In the four years between the release of Crysis and its sequel, a company named Zynga has seen its value rocket from $0 to $7 billion, EA has buried an axe into its old retail model, and the music games business has become virtually redundant.

And in a period of change that is likely the most drastic since the games industry crash of 1983, it’s reassuring to see Cysis developer Crytek hold faith in the old way of doing things. Crytek builds blockbusters. It gambles tens of millions of dollars, as well as the image of its whole engine business, on a single title.

Speaking to Develop in the interview below, company co-founder Avni Yerli explains that, should Crysis 2 return on its huge investment, Crytek will continue to drive in the same direction. The road ahead, however, will have its own twist and turns too – with plans for an indie dev SDK, engine deals in the pipeline and, just perhaps, a dream job for its Free Radicals.

A recent strategy from game engine vendors has been to expand to other platforms, particularly mobile, and Crytek has told us in the past it wants to enter this field. How is that plan progressing?
Yes, the use of CryEngine outside of core games makes a lot of sense to us and we are very interested. We actually have some developers going towards mobile and online for web and browser games.

From our point of view, our technology is pretty far advanced and we want to see high-end content attached to our technology. Mobile and web projects, however, are still strategically very important to Crytek.

The mobile platforms are enhancing very much from a technological perspective, and if you look at the mobile evolution from a hardware side it actually seems like modern console tech will be available on mobiles in just a couple of years from now.

We have been slow in the mobile space, and slow in the browser space, but what we will deliver will be innovative.

Of course, Crytek already has a dedicated mod community that use the CryEngine, but do you have plans to progress beyond a hobbyist community?
Well, for one thing the mod community is very important to us, and down the road will release a specific SDK for the mod community. We have a business model in mind for this – which I can’t get into details of right now – but it will be extremely user-friendly.

The barriers for entry will be very low, and perhaps even for free. Of course this will be compared to UDK and Unity and so on, but we think this sort of competition is very good for the community.

How are things in regards to traditional licensees? CryEngine is demonstrably high-end, but announcements from external studios saying they’re using the tech are perhaps fewer than expected. Have your targets been met?
Is it going as well as expected? In some areas it’s going better, in some areas it’s a bit behind. For us, it’s very important we keep on making our engine better and better, because CryEngine provides a very good revenue stream for us.

That money allows us to go away and do things completely separate from day-to-day game development. We do a lot of tech research at the company. Our R&D budget is massive, actually, and engine sales finance that very well.

CryEngine is definitely our best engine so far in terms of usability and scalability, and it’s good to see the engine used outside the games industry. Architect firms have licensed the tech. CryEngine has been used as training tools, and for simulation models, education and so on.

But if you look at the current list of triple-A projects that the public know about, what was surprising was how few are using CryEngine.
At the moment the main use of the CryEngine is with online games, and especially online games based out in Asia. There are a few western projects currently using the tech – which we really can’t talk about – but there are a few triple-A projects currently working with CryEngine. There’s also a number of XBLA and PSN games using the tech too.

We have also just sealed a very important licensing agreement with a large company, which will develop multiple games with CryEngine. So I think 2011 and 2012 will be two years where you’ll hear more about CryEngine.

But I agree; historically not many triple-A western games have been built with CryEngine. Far Cry and Far Cry 2 were both based on our tech –

I thought Far Cry 2 was built by Ubisoft’s own tech?
…I don’t think so.

In any event, it’s the lack of adoption from other studios which seems surprising.
Not really, CryEngine 3 has yet to have its proof of concept released, and Crysis 2 will be our showcase for this.

A lot rests on the success of that game – and I understand that the critics’ responses have been positive so far.
Yes, and Crysis 2 is our biggest game yet. It will prove the ability of the CryEngine, and it will demonstrate our skill in making games. Soon we will release a video to promote the game and we think… well, we are seriously looking at how CryEngine can be used in the movie industry, and I think this video we have made – built purely from CryEngine – will prove it.

Many will be happy to know Crytek remains an independent outfit. Has there ever been the temptation to agree to offers for a buyout?
There’s never been the temptation to be bought by another company, but there have been a couple of approaches for strategic partnerships over the years – but not necessarily from the companies you might be thinking of. These were offers from companies that had really surprised us.

But at Crytek we’re having a lot of fun, and we can do what we want. If we were bought out we wouldn’t be having as much fun or doing as much of our own work. The mid-term goal here is to stay independent.

For retail releases you use the EA Partners model, which is a popular choice among third-party studios. But with online, you have freedom to self-publish.
EA Partners has been a good for us and the Crysis franchise, but yes, self-publishing interests us very much with what we are doing in the online space.

By the end of this year we’ll be releasing War Face, our first online FPS, which will be serviced in China through Tencent, and in Korea and possibly Japan from another potential partner.

That game we intend to take across Europe and South America, and potentially some other territories, and this will be our first self-published project.

With the War Face online game, then, is Crytek suggesting how studios can prosper with PC exclusivity?
Well, there are some misinterpretations in the press regarding Crytek and PC gaming. We want to make it very clear that, for us, PC gaming is very important. This is something which was misunderstood after the launch of the first Crysis, and to this day we are still trying to correct it. PC gaming, and online, is a natural evolution for us.

When I go home and play Crysis 2, I do so on the PC. The business model must change, though, in order to adapt to what the PC market has become. What we said after the release of Crysis and what we say today is that PC games will be difficult to make unless they go online, or if they go multiplatform. That’s what we stand for – if a game is PC-exclusive, it has to go online.

It appears that, if a studio is to publish a PC game across the western market, doing so via Steam is essential.
Steam is a very good option, yes. I think other options will come sooner or later, but Valve is a well-respected company. The people that we deal with at Valve make things very straightforward. They are a games developer too, and what’s very good is how they approach business from this point of view – which is perhaps something other companies do not do.

Crytek and Bigpoint are two of the biggest game studios in the world, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that both are based in Germany. How do you think the German games industry is faring?
Yes I think it’s doing very well at the moment – as you say Germany has Crytek, GameForge and Bigpoint as well as a few other big developers. I would say, compared to other countries in Europe, Germany is actually growing pretty well.

Is it easy? I wouldn’t say so. We all still have political issues to overcome. We need to sort our ratings and establish a lobby [games association] over there too. It’ll take Germany a long time to sort these things out, but actually on the whole, I believe the country is at a turning point.

And of course Crytek has a British studio arm too.
Crytek UK are an extremely happy crew, I would say. They were very pleased with their contribution to Crysis 2, and we have very ambitious plans for Crytek UK. The studio is now up to 85 people, with nice new offices! [laughs] The main thing is that the team are having a lot of fun – that’s the most important thing to us.

Are you giving Crytek UK the space to do their own work now, or will they be used for more collaboration?
The way the studio is set up means we don’t have to tell them what to do – the thinking is more about what we [Crytek management] can do to help them get on with their own work. We come to mutual conclusions on projects, and I think at E3 this year – or just after – we are going to make a big announcement that I think people will be happy about. I think the gaming scene and the UK scene are going to be very pleased with the new project they’re working on.

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