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CryEngine sticking to $9.90 subscription, working hard to improve

Gamasutra speaks to Crytek's director of production, David Bowman, about the company's efforts in the last year to broaden its user-base, improve tools and capabilities, and speak to its community.

The headlines of the engine race at GDC have been stolen by the battle between Epic and Unity. Unity has released Unity 5, with a robust free offering; Epic has dropped any up-front fee to download its engine.

But Crytek is at the show too, and though it doesn't have any big news, it does have a new, Oculus-powered VR demo and is chugging along with its technology, too.

I took some time out at the show to see that demo (as you'd expect, it looks beautiful) and speak to the company's director of production, David Bowman, who oversees the production of both its games and its engine efforts.

In the year since CryEngine went to $9.90 a month (and royalty-free), Bowman says that the user-base for the tool has grown.

"We're trying to broaden" the audience, he says -- "we want to make our engine accessible to people, in a way, to grow community."

The engine has always been known for its power -- but not its ease-of-use. Over the past year-plus, the company has put effort into improving its documentation and tools.

"To be blunt, we've been focused on making the most powerful engine -- getting that first, making it bleeding edge," Bowman said. Now the focus is "more robust tools. We're working on documentation, working on our process. We know to be successful, we have to grow our users, our community -- that means giving them a good experience."

"Our devs do amazing thing with these tools," he said. The question at the company is now: "How do we get people from aspirational to actually fulfilling" their own amazing projects?

The "average game" can be built with "no problems, no worries, no concerns," he says. The developers who are pushing the envelope still have to work hard to take full advantage of the tools; for example, Crytek has close relationships with Turtle Rock (Evolve) and Cloud Imperium (Star Citizen). The improvements those games demand flow back into the engine, of course.

"We pull a lot of our backlog directly from the users -- the people who are using the engine on a regular basis," Bowman said.

That is, of course, not just the triple-A studios -- but also the subscribers, whose feedback flows from the forums and, at times, direct communication.

"Our challenge is responding to all of the input coming in. We prioritze that and create the backlog," Bowman said.

The company's own projects, of course, feed the pipeline of engine improvements too. The VR demo shown at GDC was treated the same as other game projects at the company.

"After GDC, we'll go back, start writing our documentation, do a postmortem," Bowman said. "We say okay, here's our experience, our documentation. Put this in your backlog and prioritize it, and it will become a set of the engine in the future."

The team behind Hunt is "doing all sorts of prototyping... That gets reported back in the same loop."

Bowman says the company could become myopic, even with a variety of game projects, if it were just solving its developers' problems: "If you're tied too closely to just a single product, or a clump of products, you're working with too small a solution set."

"The core engine team... they're looking out for our long-term interest." The long-term interest, he says, is the broad development community using CryEngine. "It's an ecosystem, and it feeds back within itself."

"Our R&D, they're unfettered from any specific 'how do we solve an issue' from any game," he said. For example, there's a lot of excitement around physcially based rendering; the team is looking for the next big thing along that line. "What's five years down the road from that? What's the next thing people are going to [call] 'the must-have feature'?"

As far as pricing goes, changing from the current royalty-free $9.90 a month isn't in the cards. "At this point we see no reason," Bowman said. "We want to get that right before we try to do a different model that requires a different support system."

"$9.90 is a lunch here in San Francsico," Bowman said. "If you're treating your team to lunch once a month, you might as well treat them to our engine."

Bowman said an underappreciated aspect of the company is how international its staff is. He's American, but works out Crytek's German HQ. "We have dozens of languages spoken," he says. "In my first German class, there were 14 languages spoken. Our engine and our game development is really influenced by that, because we're a global company."

"It's hard to encapsulate what that means, but it's a culture thing," Bowman said. "It's a worldview. ... Culturally, we have people who can relate in a way I don't think most developers can."

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