In 2009, Free Radical Design was in a difficult situation. Following the significant critical mauling and sales disappointment of Haze, the company was in an untenable financial position.
The demands of the modern industry, along with a confused perception of what makes a game successful, looked close to forcing the studio out of business.
At the eleventh hour German studio Crytek purchased the firm and Crytek UK was born. Two years on, and the recent release of Crysis 2 marked an important milestone in the life of the ‘new’ studio. Having developed the game’s multiplayer code, its release marks the first published work for Crytek UK since assuming its current identity. For studio MD Karl Hilton and executive producer Hasit Zala, it’s an exciting time.
It has been two years since Free Radical became Crytek UK, what has changed in that time?
Hasit Zala: Well, there’s been a lot of changes really. Crytek is a different company than Free Radical Design, so really what we have done is in many ways take what we had before and integrate it within the Crytek community.
Karl Hilton: Free Radical had a very strong company culture based around the excellence of our technology and our playful nature with video games. I think that we have been successful in taking that and moving it under the Crytek umbrella.
Crytek have very similar company values, and obviously they have excellent tech, so that’s been an easy move for us. We’ve tried to make sure we’ve carried on the better traditions that we had at Free Radical, and we’ve obviously taken from Crytek. I think it’s been a good learning process between the two studios and something that we worked [Crytek HQ] very closely with Frankfurt on.
The new building looks very different as well. We’ve tried to keep a lot of the same people – to take a bit of the best of everything you’ve got, but with a slightly shiner, newer surface on it.
Were there any major changes needed while becoming part of Crytek?
Zala: They looked at the offices that we had and decided that they wanted a new office, an environment where people could work which was of the highest calibre, so that’s been really nice. Also, culturally speaking, Crytek wanted something that was in the centre of town, giving people the flexibility of either being at the gym or getting food or going out for drinks and the like. They wanted to have an environment where people felt very comfortable.
Hilton: The major difference in terms of culture was that Free Radical was quite insular. We focused on our work, we were out in a business park. We had a good time doing our job, but that was our job and that was that. Crytek have a policy of trying to bring all of that together. We moved into the middle of town so that we could say to people if you do need longer lunch times or if you need to go out after work then you can go out and do that because the whole town is just around the corner from us.
Do you operate as an arm of Crytek or are you more autonomous?
Hilton: We’re a very independent studio here. We’ve been working very closely with Frankfurt as we were doing the multiplayer of Crysis 2.
Zala: It’s both really. The multiplayer is very tightly knit. We’re using the same code base as Frankfurt. We’re very closely knit together.
Hilton: But our model as a studio is to be strongly independent. We have all the skillsets we need, we’re not dependent on any other parts of Crytek. Obviously we share the same technology, but we have all the skillsets we need and we have our own projects that we work on. We have our own, strong independent character within the Crytek group. I think they said when they first came over, you’re not just a little insourcing house for Crytek, it’s about adding value to the group.
How did you find working with the CryEngine on the Crysis 2 multiplayer?
Zala: It was amazing really. I think that for the staff, when they came on board, that was the thing that they were most excited about, as well as the nice new environment here.
The actual tools and technology available to us has made an enormous difference in terms of what they are able to produce from a quality perspective. The key aspect of that is the ability to iterate really quickly, you can start to construct stuff in the sandbox and then just drop into it real-time.
Especially from a multiplayer perspective, you’re able to literally block out your levels and in a really quick turnaround you’re able to play it, and see if the routes work and so on and so forth. That ability to literally iterate on-the-fly means that artists are really able to hone in on the graphics, and they are able to finesse in a way we were never able to before.
Are you hoping to keep growing as time goes on?
Zala: That’s something we’re a little cautious about because Free Radical, before being taken over by Crytek, was a large company.
Hilton: There’s an optimal size for a studio. Here we are getting up to about the 100-strong now, which is enough to make a quality triple-A title with some insourcing and outsourcing as well. That’s the goal, to have one project per studio.
The UK studio does some other little bits and pieces as well, so as to whether we need to get a little bit bigger we may do, but this is the kind of comfortable size where you can get that small developer feeling in the
studio, where you know everyone’s name but you are still big enough to do something that is triple-A.
Everyone likes working in small teams, but we realise the need for a certain size. The heart says we want to be smaller, the head says we need to bigger. You have to find the optimal balance there.
Zala: Triple-A development means that you need to have quite large teams. There are no two ways about it. There’s also the flipside where you are too big and you don’t know all of your people.
There’s a tipping point where all of a sudden you need twice the number of producers and so on and so forth to manage everything, and I think we are at a pretty efficient size to manage everything going on right now.
How will Crytek UK manage to thrive in the UK’s rather challenged games development sector?
Zala: We think our future’s very secure, Crytek as a company is doing very well. We’re well funded, we’ve got a good track record, and so publishers are always interested to work with us. We’re aware that it’s a tough time however, and a lot of big companies are finding it very difficult.
Hilton: It’s all about interacting with other companies, and the reputation that you have in the industry and the strength of your technology and ideas.
With the economic climate the way it is, publishers are looking very carefully at what they spend and how they spend it. So in that sense the competition is between independent developers who want to attract publisher money to them, you have to be sure about what you’re offering. You have to look attractive to them and we have that at the moment, that’s great.
It’s a great position to be in, but you’ve always got to be on top of your game because there are some great studios out there who do some great work. It is really sad to see that some of that talent is falling away at the moment.
We think we’ve got a good offering and we’ve got some good relationships, a good reputation. We think we’re secure.
What is Crytek UK’s position on UK industry Tax Breaks?
Zala: We’d love them, yes please.
Hilton: Any healthy industry shouldn’t really need tax breaks.
You shouldn’t be in a position where you have to use them. On a philosophical level, I don’t like the idea of them at all, but clearly if other countries are doing it, we need to make sure we are working on a level playing field. What are you supposed to do otherwise, if you can’t realistically compete on the costs of development?
You have restricted amounts of money to spend, and in that situation and in the current climate we do need something to help us compete internationally.
Person for person we’re as good, if not better, than any other studios abroad, but if our cost base is considerably higher here then it automatically starts to undermine things for us..
Zala: It’s really sad when you see the UK gaming economy leading the way in terms of creativity and technology and general gaming standards. To see that being dissipated because a lot of the time the business is moving elsewhere, that for me is a real shame.
Hilton: There clearly is a lot of young talent heading out to Canada and you can’t blame them; it’s a good offer over there.
What does the future hold for Crytek UK?
Hilton: It’ll be one project per studio and we have a solo project going in this studio which we are very excited about. Crysis 2 is a springboard for the UK company to continue on to bigger and better things.