Exec sees CryEngine 3 as competitive with Epic’s latest.
Crytek CEO and founder Cevat Yerli has a lot to be proud of. In just over a decade, his company has gone from a personal hobby to a major player in the game industry. Not only have its first-person franchises like Far Cry and Crysis become synonymous with top-of-the-line graphics, but its CryEngine 3 is being licensed for major upcoming projects including MechWarrior Online and the next game from Left 4 Dead developer Turtle Rock. The company is also investing heavily in the growing free-to-play first-person shooter market with Warface.
But Crytek faces significant challenges as well. While CryEngine 3 continues to be licensed by high-profile games, architectural firms and even the United States Army, the Unreal Engine has much deeper penetration in the video game space and drew considerable attention with the recent reveal of Unreal Engine 4. And while Warface is successful abroad, it is untested in the North American market.
Yet when I talked to Yerli at E3, he came across as one of the most relaxed people at the entire show. Perhaps it was just exhaustion, but he wore a consistent smile, laughed readily, and didn’t seem at all like someone facing down threats from all sides.
I spoke with Yerli about the origins of Crytek, the future of CryEngine in an “Unreal” world, and why high-end PC gamers can be a tough audience to target.
Ars Technica: You began developing CryEngine as a college student. Was that your first experience in game development?
Cevat Yerli: I was 12 years old when I made my first game, [but] Crytek was formed in ’99. It was a virtual company. It was a hobby for me more than anything else, really. I had friends all over the world, on the Internet, that shared my opinions and my thoughts, and they were happy with what I said and they joined the virtual teams. This was all for a hobby only, to make the kind of games we would love to make. I was 16 when I started my first endeavors to make games [with others], and I was 19 when the more serious efforts started.
Then in 1999, when I was 21, we had three different prototypes we had developed. One was called X-Isle, one was Silent Space, it was a space shooter, and the other one was called Engalus. And in 2000 I went to E3 and showed those three prototypes around, and people were blown away by the quality because we were doing this as a hobby. And when people said, “How come your hobby project is better than our pro project that we’re showing at E3?” I was like, “I have no answer for that, but I know what we do is cool.”
We [Yerli and his brothers Avni and Faruk] were three Germans coming from Germany with [our] suits [on], and nobody was wearing suits here. I was like, “Alright, get rid of the suits!” the next day. We showed some of the stuff to publishers, and Ubisoft was the one that picked up X-Isle, which then became Far Cry.
When you were pulling together your original team to work on X-Isle, how did you sell them on the idea of designing an entire engine? That’s a huge project for a bunch of guys just as a hobby.
It was kind of like a chicken/egg issue. First we’re like, “Okay, we want to build this game,” and we didn’t want to compromise the idea. We didn’t know what it meant to make this game, because we looked at the other [game] engines and said, “This engine cannot do the game we want to do.” We found that, back then, Unreal, or its software engine, was too “closed-spaces.” We wanted to have a terrain-based, open world engine for Far Cry, and that technology didn’t exist. So we said, “Let’s build it.”
And people didn’t really question the statement “Let’s build it.” They just said, “Alright, so who do we need to hire?” And then I started hand-picking engineers and the tools guy and whatnot. Effectively, as we were building the company, as we were learning how to make games, we also built an engine team at the same time.
The odds of failure are huge at that point, but we had no fear and we had no understanding of the risk. We just did it. We didn’t have the burden of previous experiences, so we could be mad enough to do it. If I would [build a new company] with today’s experience, probably I wouldn’t be that crazy.
If you think [about] our risk profile, there’s three guys who want to make a game, so they pick the genre of shooters, which is most difficult at that time. They decide to make their own engine and a whole different game that had never been done before. Bright colors, open spaces, nonlinear, systemic AI, things like that, and [our] first engine, so the odds of failure [were] huge.
Where does the “Cry” in Crytek come from? Crytek, CryEngine…
I’m poor at coming up with names, that’s why! [laughs]
It came from somewhere.
I wanted to have recognition around the Crytek brand. The conception of the Crytek name, the real reason is a secret, but I’ll tell you another reason. It’s the technology that should eventually be so emotionally true that it makes you cry, right? Then there’s another reason, which is the original reason, which one day I will share, but not now. The idea is that we want to be sure there’s a brand recognition with our games that we build, but we are relaxing this a little bit right now.
When you look around in the video game industry, do you see advances in technology that you think are clear responses to CryEngine?
Oh, yeah. A lot of them. A lot of them. I mean, if you honestly look back at the last six years, since 2007… when we put the first Sandbox video out, the CryEngine 2 editor where you could play the game inside the editor, nobody had done that before. So we see the Unity [engine] spawn off… and the Epic [Unreal] engine tried to mimic that, and Epic is still not there 100%, but Unity actually started like that, clearly inspired by Sandbox.
If I look at DirectX 9, DX10, DX11, progress is being put out constantly, every time there was a following wave, and if you really analyze [the] technical quality of the engine since [the] X-Isle tech demo, then Far Cry, then Crysis, then Crysis 2, I don’t think there was ever a moment when CryEngine did not lead the pack. And I think it’s because we are relentless in that regard.
We do not think of it as, “Do we really need the future?” We rather say, “Make it.” It’s better for the gamer, it’s cooler for the game. We don’t [worry] over a ton of investment. We just go forward and say, “That’s the best thing we can do, that’s going to press the boundaries, that’s going to innovate, that’s going to allow this,” and we want the best to achieve that.
Our culture, our philosophy in our company, [is that] we let the guys come up with the new ideas. It’s not very top-down and I say to [my] engineers, “Hey guys, can you do this and this for me?” Rather, [I say], “How do you think we can push the graphics forward? What can an animation do? What can physics do?” And those guys come up with tons of ideas which they pitch, and [I] say, “Go and do it.”
I don’t ask them, “Did you check with [the] game team if they need it?” [I say], “Make a case, tell the game team how they can benefit from it.” That’s how you get evolution. If you ask your customer, as in gamers, sometimes they don’t know what they want yet, because if they can’t imagine the future, it’s difficult. So the best subject matter experts are the people who do the job, and if you tell them, “Where do you see the next two years going,” they come up with hundreds of ideas.
I’m just packaging them and saying, “Let’s take this, this, and this” and then we go forward, and then tell the game team to use it. And that’s how the best games are done.
Piranha Games’ MechWarrior Online uses CryEngine 3 to create some fine-looking giant walking robots.
Do you ever see us hitting a wall when it comes to graphics power? Is there going to be a point where all game engines are so powerful that the differences are negligible?
We have started already, five years ago, and you can see it already in the DNA of our company, that it wasn’t just about graphics, what we did. We always push physics, we always push AI, but most importantly we push productivity.
If you really look at the DNA of the CryEngine… it’s 100 percent real-time, the only engine in the world… which means if I change the [position of the] sun and the light, all my lights and shadows are calculated in real time, not pre-computed with a render farm, or like in Epic’s case with light rendering stations and whatnot, or in Unity which relies on the middleware [Editor’s Note: Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 adds this kind of real-time light calculation]. We also have an all-in-one solution that means we have our AI middleware, we have our physics middleware—you don’t have to get physics or AI middleware to make your game.
CryEngine has always been about pushing each thread forward, and productivity at the same time, because it’s an integrated approach that allows us to do real time, [with] no compromise, and then to have the tools for developers to make better games.
When we made Far Cry in 2004, our messaging was not just Far Cry, [but] “Look at how you can make Far Cry.” Crysis 1 in 2007—yes it had amazing visuals, benchmark-setting visuals that will bring your PC to its knees, but it [also] had one of the most advanced physics engines, and it had systemic AI.
Far Cry was the first shooter to ship with a real physics engine and a real systemic AI engine at the same time…all right, Trespasser was the first one.
[Jurassic Park:] Trespasser. It was in 1998 [and had] a software renderer. It was way ahead of its time. I rule out this game because it was an exception [laughs], but in the 2000-2010 space we were the first game to ship with full, next-gen graphics, systemic AI, and systemic physics in Far Cry. We had per-pixel shading in 2004. I could go on and on with what we did first, and so many people have been following [us].
How is CryEngine mobile development proceeding since the release of Fibble? Any plans on releasing an iOS or Android title intended to appeal to the core gamer?
Yes, we do. It’s going good—it’s going great—and I think you will love what’s coming up. We are definitely interested to deliver to the core gamer, but also we like the casual gamer space.
How do you define the terms of engagement with other engine developers? How do you personally measure success as you continue your efforts to license CryEngine?
I don’t measure our business by the amount of licenses. I measure our engine success when we push the boundaries forward, when it provides better games, when I know that our teams are more efficient, when I know they are pushing the industry standards forward. That’s how I measure success.
I have never been and will never be about selling the most amount of licenses, and we are never going to give the biggest discounts on our engine business because we do not want this to be an engine that’s everywhere. That’s not our primary goal. We want quality, not quantity.
If you’re looking at different engines, and how they stack up against one another, do you think there’s ever going to be some kind of an innovation that so clearly tops the list that we start using one engine?
Yeah. We’re working on that. You can look at my recent tweets, I have hinted on that. It’s something very new, and it has the word “cloud” in it.
When you say that CryEngine 3 is next-gen ready, do you literally mean that it could take full advantage of the next generation of game consoles?
Yes. Since two years ago. And not [just] since Unreal Engine 4 [which was just unveiled]. Since two years ago, not recently.
Considering the recent unveiling of Unreal Engine 4, do you think a CryEngine 4 is something you’re going to have to work on sooner rather than later?
I think CryEngine 3 does very good already competing against Unreal Engine 4. I have seen it, and I don’t know why they trumpeted it so loud at GDC. For what they’ve shown, for me it was very underwhelming, to be honest, because CryEngine 3 has been doing this for the last two to three years. Whatever they’ve shown, we’ve been doing for two to three years. But that being said, stay tuned for the next CryEngine.
Crytek is held up as the white knight of PC gaming. PC enthusiasts point to Crytek products as the demonstration of what the PC can do. Is that a double-edged sword?
The PC gaming community [is] brutal. [laughs] They are super demanding and rightfully [so]. They’re spending their thousands of dollars on their PCs and they want content, right? But at the same time, we have to earn money too, to make games. If there would be a hundred million PCs that cost $3,000 I could justify going bonkers about those PCs, right? But we have to balance it out slightly.
We definitely are going to push the medium forward, I think, with Crysis 3. I think you are going to see a lot of that again.
CryEngine is becoming a platform to support new business models—are those business models ever going to be viable on consoles, considering the pipeline issues with console updates?
We’re working with Sony and with Microsoft on that. We’re giving feedback constantly to them… some listen more than others… and it’s an industry problem right now that console manufacturers are not open enough to the new kind of business models that are driving the future of gaming, such as free-to-play gaming.
I mean, a game like Warface, which has tremendous success right now in Russia, with 2 million registered users within like a month, just wouldn’t exist on consoles right now. We had 2 million users in one month signing up on a free-to-play game. The entry barrier has to be free, the games have to be of high quality, and consoles don’t deliver that. And if they do [in the future], I would love to deliver it to them as well.
We are building a social and gaming platform called GFACE. That’s something that is going to be exciting in the free-to-play space. We are building this network as a premium service. Future gaming is going to be where games are connected across systems, whether this is on iOS, Android, tablets, or browsers. We think that gaming at heart is social, even for core games.
So whether this is retail games like Crysis or Medal of Honor, or current free-to-play games likeWarface, we think that in the future all of those games will be free-to-play, whether it is console or not. I think console manufacturers will turn around and say, “Yes, we support free-to-play, too” and GFACE is designed to be the software layer that connects all that together.
Why do you think hardcore gamers in Western markets have been so slow to embrace free-to-play, considering it’s so huge in Asia and Russia?
I think it’s mentality and mindset, and also dependencies on the business chain. You have mighty forces in retail telling publishers, “No, you can’t change,” mighty forces from retail telling console manufacturers, “I won’t sell your console if you don’t sell games.”
Until somebody figures out [how] to go digitally completely as a platform, it’s going to be very difficult for publishers to say, “We’re going digital as well,” because the publishers need the retail because the platforms that the games are on are in the retail space. [Games are where retailers] can earn money back, because the margin on consoles is very low. The margins for retail are in the games to sell the consoles. So it is a very engraved and rooted business model.
I think it will take publishers to step out and say, “Fuck it, here’s what it is, the future,” and just cannibalize the old business for a while and transition it. Everyone’s afraid of cannibalizing themselves. The truth is people are afraid of it, but it will take one company to do it, and everybody will follow it.
We think that Warface will show for the first time, a true triple-A shooter experience in the free-to-play space. We call it triple-A for free, a social triple-A for free, and the first game that does that in [the West] with an Eastern business model, that’s going to capture the world.