Crytek UK MD Karl Hilton ties up loose ends from the studioâ??s past

Crytekâ??s new free radicals

A bizarrely high number of game studios are founded by brothers – Crytek is indeed one of them – but not often enough do we see developers unite under a single vision, a common aim to improve on the past, and a solid mutual trust. Rarely are developers founded by brotherhoods.

But this was the case with Free Radical. The Monkey-loving idiosyncratic outfit was born the very moment four aspiring developers walked out of UK stronghold Rare, a studio which was – at the time – hitting the heights of its power and accomplishments.

Free Radical’s four founders – Karl Hilton, David Doak, Steve Ellis and Graeme Norgate – immediately set out to directly compete with their former employer. The team hired staff and began work on TimeSplitters, an FPS looking to take on Rare’s bourgeoning Perfect Dark franchise.

Ten years later, and Free Radical has gone completely; its name now locked in history. The building remains, though under a new company, and only two of the four founders continue to work at the transformed offices.

After a disappointing critical and commercial response to the PS3 FPS Haze, Free Radical rapidly tumbled into administration. Closing its doors late in December last year, indie giants Crytek saved the studio from vanishing completely with its dramatic buyout at the eleventh hour.

The group was re-named Crytek UK and sees one of the four Free Radical co-founders, Karl Hilton, standing as managing director.

Still with those turbulent twelve months fresh in his memory, Hilton sits down with Develop for a two-part interview; tying up loose ends from the studio’s past, as well as looking ahead to what is an exciting future for the rejuvenated group.

When you walk into Crytek UK each morning, does it still feel like you’re at Free Radical?

Well, yes and no. One of the reasons Crytek was really interested in Free Radical was, after coming to visit us, they thought that the culture of the studio and the atmosphere we had here was very similar to what they have in Frankfurt.

I think they wanted to maintain that atmosphere, so in that sense, we haven’t massively changed anything. Most of the faces here are familiar. And a lot of what we do, and the way we operate, is the same as before.

Of course, we have changed a few things.

Our technology is completely different and Crytek has a different emphasis on things like HR and how staff are looked after. We’re more proactive in those areas now.

So it is refreshing. Things have altered but we haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water.

It has been critical that the studio retains its ownership and identity; that’s one of the reasons why I’m still here. Talking to the Yerli brothers, they made it clear they were keen to keep this studio a strong, independent, creative force within their group.

They’re very good like that. They’re not just looking for additional development resources, they’re looking for people who will contribute to the value of Crytek as a whole, and that means us being in charge of our own destinies and developing original stuff.

Free Radical made some very high-caliber games and the only way we are going to retain those is if we continue to develop good, original product here.

We have a good relationship with Crytek. They’ve shown us a lot of trust and a lot of respect in dealing with us. As the Crytek headquarters are based in Germany, they have to rely on us to do a lot for them.

There were 43 people at the studio when Free Radical became Crytek UK. How large is your studio now?
We’re at mid-sixties.

And has that growth come from people coming back to Crytek UK after leaving Free Radical?
Yes quite a few people came back afterwards.

Why do you think they returned?
Well… (laughs)

…aside from being out of work.
(Laughs) Well, a lot of our team were really talented and a lot of them went off to find other work, but there has always been a strong community spirit in here. People made a lot of friendships here, and I think this was a good opportunity to come back and re-establish those ties.

We want to grow the studio gently over the next six months to a year, and we’ll probably end up somewhere just under one hundred workers. That’s really so we can tackle one major project in the studio, as well as establishing a prototyping and concept team for developing new IP and new projects.

What did your studio learn from Haze?
Woah (laughs). Er, we learnt that good relations with publishers are really important, and agreeing on direction is a necessity that developers must overcome sooner rather than later.

I don’t think Haze… certainly…. How do I put this…

People wanted to like Haze, and if you get people to want to like your game, you’ve made an important step.
Yeah, there was goodwill to Free Radical and hopefully there’s goodwill to Crytek UK. Haze had a lot of development issues which meant it wasn’t the game it should have been. A lot of them were technical issues; the PS3 is a powerful machine but a difficult one to get the best out of.

We hit a few stumbling blocks on it that meant we spent more time trying get the game running properly and less time to design the game properly.

Don’t get me wrong. For Crytek UK those issues are pretty irrelevant to us now. With what we have with the CryEngine, those problems are gone because the toolset is completely different.

I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of the PS3 at all, and I definitely think one of the best things about Crytek and the CryEngine is that we’re now in the best position to get the most out of the hardware.

We know the PS3 can do amazing things, and no one has pushed it as far as it can go, but I think the CryEngine gives us a great head start on it.

What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed since Crytek acquired the studio?
It would have to be the technology that we’re working with. Having completely switched over to the CryEngine, our artist tools have moved from Maya to 3D Studio Max, so there’s been a big shift in how we do our production of work.

The CryEngine 3 and its tools are genuinely fantastic. Free Radical had some good tools to work with but we hadn’t focused so much on tools development the way that Crytek has, so we’ve got some lovely things to work with. You can see from what our artists are producing that they are very energized by the whole thing.

Obviously the CryEngine 3 has a subset sandbox editor, which is very useful, and we have our own coders who can produce and adapt more for our own requirements.

Free Radical’s fall into administration quite possibly gave the company more exposure than it had ever received before. At the same time there were obviously several companies interested in buying the studio before it was auctioned to Crytek, though very few companies are usually rescued from administration. Do you think that Free Radical’s heightened exposure, and indeed the fight between companies to acquire you, will ultimately benefit the studio’s reputation? 
Hopefully it will. There is a strong appreciation of the quality of Crytek and also our own studio’s ethos. Setting up a development studio is a difficult task, so being able to tie ourselves with an established, quality developer is worth a lot.

All three consoles are offering developers the chance to use motion control in their games. Does that interest Crytek?
Of course. I think all developers have to be aware of how users interact with their games. The Natal project sounds fascinating. It’s not something that Crytek is dealing with yet, but certainly something that we’ve all been interested in working with.

Just making games higher and higher resolution is never going to be the future, there needs to be other routes too.

The Wii has tapped into what is now a growing casual market. Those types of games are not something we’re going to be fixated on right now, because Crytek UK still has a desire to make AAA core action-adventure games, but we always are interested in new control inputs. I think people would appreciate the type of games Crytek is known for if there was more than button-pressing to them.

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