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The Bleeding Edge: Cevat Yerli On Crytek

The Crytek CEO talks about the future of shooter game design, the inevitability of 3D as the next wave for gaming, and how its diverse, seven studio organization has allowed the company to quietly become one of the biggest independents in games.

After years of making games exclusively for the PC with its ambitious large-scale shooters Far Cry, Crysis, and Crysis Warhead, Frankfurt-headquartered Crytek is stepping into multiplatform development with Crysis 2, a game that leaves the studio's traditional lush island environments behind in favor of the dense urban jungle of New York City.

That's a decision that has significant implications on Crytek's established gameplay tropes, which tend to deal with massive, wide-open landscapes. CEO Cevat Yerli, who has presided over Crytek's rapid expansion to a seven-studio company that also tackles serious game contracting, uses the phrase "choreographed sandbox" to describe Crysis 2's intended dynamic.

Yerli says the "choreographed sandbox" allows for the player expression and exploration that defines Crytek's previous efforts, while giving the studio's designers the ability to script elaborate cinematic sequences with toppling skyscrapers and massive alien ship landings.

In a wide-reaching interview, Yerli sat down with Gamasutra to discuss that gameplay philosophy, what Crytek has learned from its past titles, how the company has maintained growth while shipping so few games, and why Crytek is on board with 3D gaming.

Have you been working on this since Crysis, for the most part?

CY: We started Crysis 2 in mid-2007, just before we finalized Crysis 1. We started working on it with just a few people, and after we finished Crysis 1, the dev team took a little break, then jumped right into Crysis 2.

So that was parallel to your other studio's work on Crysis Warhead.

CY: Yeah. We are quite a large organization, so we have a lot of projects now, but we focus on them one-at-a-time still. We are trying a lot of new IPs as well.

How many Studios do you have now? There's the Frankfurt headquarters, the Budapest studio, and the former Free Radical, but there are more, right?

CY: Six. There is also Kiev, Sofia, and Korea.

What does the Korean studio do?

CY: I can't divulge that yet. Actually, I can't divulge any of them right now.

During your demonstration, you spoke a lot about the notion of choreography. How does that play into the traditional Crysis values of openness and player direction?

CY: The choreographed sandbox combines the freedom of Crysis 1, so you still have free-form gameplay, with choreographed moments that are interspersed into the experience. You have a more intense feeling -- a more action packed, intense feeling of a linear shooter. It's more accessible and more cinematic.

At the same time, you can use the world full of freedom; you can traverse it horizontally and vertically using the features of New York. The world is filled with objects that have logic behind them; you have cars, barrels, and breakable stuff that you can pick up and slap people with, and you can also have the intrinsic ability to play stealthily without the stealth suit.

You can also activate the stealth suit to play stealth, because the entire AI system is based on hearing and seeing. If the AI didn't hear or see you because your footsteps weren't loud enough or you were behind an object, then you can sneak up on them and activate stealth mode.

You can sprint fast, jump high, jump long, and you have the tactical mode to assess and scan the enemies' attacks to truly define your action. I bet Crysis 1 gamers will be super happy with the game; we still have the more open areas. But, also, traditional FPS gamers will also find cinematic, intense experiences because of the choreographed sequences.

What we want is for people to explore the depth of the game, the systemic tools. I want people to experience their own created experience; we never tell the player how to play. Since Far Cry, we've always said, "Play as you want. You are empowered. You have the tools, the world is a tool, and everything can be a weapon is some way, you just have to find a solution to that." We want people to still be able to do that, but we also want to satisfy people who don't care too much about sandbox.

Did you feel pressure to move in that direction when going to a multiplatform release?

CY: It was more about an evolution. For me, it's a new generation of sandbox, to be honest, because it's a challenge. It's a challenge to be more accessible and deep at the same time.

Crysis was a bit difficult to access because it required more burden on the player to think. What we want is for the burden to be reduced, but thinking is still allowed, so the access is easier, simplified. Generally, if you have complex systems that are more easily accessible, it is an evolution and a challenge. Hence, moving the sandbox to a choreographed sandbox was a challenge in gameplay design.


So far you've shown fairly constrained urban environments. Are there areas of more openness?

CY: Yeah, there is a variety of openness and verticality. Crysis 2 is more 3D of a sandbox than Crysis 1, because you have more traversal up and down. You are looking up and down more as well when you fight. The volume of play space is very similar. But sometimes it might be more narrowed, sometimes more expansive and flat. It varies a lot in the game.

Has that required you to rethink the level design process? Both Far Cry and Crysis were relatively flat and open.

CY: Yeah. Far Cry is what I call a "2D sandbox". Crysis is what I call a 2.5D sandbox, because you have some jumping up and down on huts. That was a favorite of a lot of people; you jump on a hut, break it, and go inside.

Crysis 2 is a true 3D sandbox. It definitely changes the way level design is done because you have to think about more dimensions, you have to think about where enemies will come from, how you want to traverse the environment, et cetera. It definitely was quite a big change for a lot of people.

Crysis Warhead already started to go a little more to a directed, linear experience; do you feel like you learned lessons from that?

CY: Yeah. Crysis 1 was sandbox, Crysis Warhead tried to be a choreographed sandbox, but was a bit too choreographed in a way, and Crysis 2 is a bit in the middle, offering flexibility and intensity as well.

For me, it was an evolution of that learning experience. With Crysis 1, we tried to be more intense, but still open. To be frank, in Warhead, you can still be very sandbox-y, but we didn't make a mistake from a level design perspective -- we made a mistake with the tempo of the game. It felt too much like it was pushing you forward: "Push, push, push, go, go, go!"

People didn't feel like they could explore anything, but if they tried, they could have. It felt like a loss of opportunity; it felt like, "If I try to deviate from my main course, it looks like I'm doing something wrong." It was an aesthetic element that led to that. With Crysis 2, I think we are doing this much better.

There must be a difficult balancing act there. Your demo includes scenes like a huge building falling over; that's obviously scripted, and it has to happen at a specific time and place. How do you still retain openness?

CY: That's the crux of it, right? That's the fine line of it. Again, we've been working on this for many years now through sandbox experiences, and we had two options: go wider, more open, or try to bring in the ultimate cinematic experience.

I always wanted to have a blockbuster feeling with surprises. With Crysis 2 I chose the choreographed sandbox approach. I wanted to nail that one for Crysis 2, because usually, the more open the game gets, the more challenging it is for gamers.

That being said, people have experience with open games, right? But in the shooter category, not as much. From that perspective, there was a DNA change for the genre. What was our Crysis 2 DNA going to be? Should we make it open like many third person games? Should we move into third person as well? Should we keep it first person?

The thing is, in first-person games, people are not used to it. In first-person, the dominating games are much more linear, but we didn't want to be linear. The challenge came when we decided that we needed to nail the choreographed sandbox.

What is it about the first person perspective that Crytek connects with?

CY: For me, it's about immersion. It's you who plays, it's you who is in charge, you are empowered, you are the super soldier, you are badass, you are kicking ass. That's what I want players to feel. It's not necessarily about you impersonating a character; it's more about you being yourself, as a hero. That works best with first person.

That being said, there are third-person games where that works well, but usually it's more about impersonating a character and identifying with the character. I want you, yourself, to become the hero.

You talk about how you want some things choreographed and you want players to think, and the options have been more streamlined. That seems true of the suit as well; now, you choose broader configurations that combine a few powers.

CY: The nanosuit evolved in a more direct, accessible way. It's more straightforward to access it now. You have direct access; you have indirect access already by just sprinting and jumping. If you press jump longer, you jump higher; if you sprint longer, you sprint faster.

You have some of the speed and strength parts from Crysis 1, but you also have the armor mode, which makes a protective element, but also stabilizes your aim, and it has melee kill differences. We just pushed that one because it was very popular in Crysis 1.

Stealth was also popular, so we said, "This one should become one of the primary modes." We have speed and strength as part of the core experience that is already present by default, and on top of that, we added a binocular visor mode that gives you tactical combat intelligence. Making them more streamlined and easy to access was part of the equation of making the choreographed sandbox much better.

It sounds like you tried to determine the effective tonal modes of playing Crysis, rather than just the individual notes.

CY: Yeah. It's less about the ability, and more about the intention. What do you want to do? "I want to play stealth, I want to play armor. I want to be tactical." It's much more intention-driven than ability-driven.

I remember speaking with you before Crysis came out and you were saying that the suit powers actually came along quite late in development --

CY: Yes, we were at a point in Crysis where there was no nanosuit, and I said, "There's something missing." Thank goodness we came up with that (laughs).

I followed up on that in the run-up to Warhead and you said that, as designers, that short turnaround time didn't let you really learn how to best incorporate the suit. Does it feel very familiar now?

CY: Yeah, going from 2.5D to 3D sandbox from Crysis 1 to Crysis 2, I certainly believe we are using the nanosuit powers much better.


On the note of 3D, what makes you so interested in stereoscopic 3D? You've talked about it quite a lot.

CY: Don't misunderstand that. We're not that focused on it, we just offer it as a cool experience. It's because we're Crytek [laughs]. We always try to be on the cutting, bleeding edge.

The choreographed sandbox doesn't come for free from a technology perspective. It's a huge challenge to make a game that's intense and packs but allows you to go anywhere. You can go anywhere, do anything you want, physics objects are breakable everywhere -- technically, that's a big challenge.

That's why it took us a while with Crysis 2 to get it right. On a console space, there is not much power, much less than on the PC, so cranking all these things up step by step through innovating streaming techniques and computation streaming has been quite a challenge.

With stereoscopic 3D, similarly, we started to do it two years ago on PC as far as researching it. We haven't shipped a game with it yet, but we had done some contract work for some other non-game businesses where stereoscopic 3D was required.

About a year ago, we found a way to make stereoscopic 3D run on the consoles, and since then we've changed this technique to optimize it so we don't lose any frames if you go from 2D to 3D. That's why it's just a button press now.

Typically with 3D games now, when you switch to 3D, they lose a lot of the visual fidelity, or half the framerate, or other constraints, like it will work on one platform but not on another. For us, it runs everywhere on all platforms on all three solutions. We want to be sure that when people play Crysis, they take advantage of the future.

For example, if you play Crysis 2 in 2D on a normal TV, you will have a lot of fun, but if you buy a 3D TV, you will have even more. I want our games to be one of the first games out there to show how 3D could be and what it means for first-person gaming.

There definitely seems to be a sudden surge in interest in 3D gaming, at least from some publishers. Do you think will become a standard?

CY: I'm quite sure over the years it will become standard. 3D entertainment is inevitable. It will come, and the key solution will be if it's easy for the eyes. If it's a challenge for the eyes, people won't like it. But we are trying to make a game that is hours of 3D, and you can judge it yourself. You've seen how easy it is for the eyes, and for me it's critical that people understand we are not naïve when it comes to 3D.

We have been working with 3D for a while. We know the nuances and details, and our approach of concave 3D makes the game ultimately very accessible.

I'm curious what has allowed Crytek to grow so quickly. You said earlier you have six studios. You have only released, I think, three games in some ten years. What is driving that growth?

CY: Part of it is that we have a very good secretive engine business. We have some other contracts going on as well for some other non-game industries. From that perspective, it's been a good, privileged position to be able to do that and also work on our own IPs.

Working with a partner like EA also brings in funds. Our most recent game is signed up with Microsoft as well, which helps us bring in finances to develop technology and awesome games.

So you actually do a fair amount of engine licensing? There aren't as many press releases as there are for, say, Unreal.

CY: Yes, especially with CryEngine 3. Since March, we've been doing very well with that.

What kind of non-game stuff do you do?

CY: There is a whole industry in serious games, and we have a lot of contracts going on from gas and oil companies, General Electric, all the way to SOCOM. We have a lot of military companies working with our technology, in fact.

So you provide simulation and training software?

CY: Technologies, simulations, contract work, whatever they need and whatever they want. We have a studio for serious game development. That studio is a subsidiary of Crytek, but it's not called Crytek. It's studio number seven -- so secret I didn't even mention it! [laughs]

Does it seem overwhelming to have seven studios at this point, again, especially given your output level?

CY: Every studio has its own head of production and studio management. We grew our infrastructure first before we grew with the game development itself. Obviously, it's a challenge to maintain quality everywhere, but it's effectively my day-to-day job to make sure that happens.

Also, we focus on one game at a time. Right now Crysis 2 is the focus, and after that another game. We have a lot of games in the pipe, but we don't talk about them right now.

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