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GDC Lyon 2007: Yerli's Lessons From Crysis' Development

At the 2007 Game Developers Conference in Lyon, Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli discussed the story behind the development of Crysis, highlighting the tenets on which the company hinges its development strategy -- designing around solid AI, creating sandbox
Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli is a man in love. In this case, it’s the man with the nano suit from his latest game, the currently PC-exclusive Crysis, that he's adoring. After his keynote this morning at the 2007 Game Developers Conference in Lyon (presented by Gamasutra parent CMP), he told Gamasutra that such a key gameplay concept “...has to be something that goes across platforms, singleplayer, and multiplayer.” “We had what we called the suit playground," Yerli explained. "The nano suit was played in a playground. There was a little map; you could play it a hundred times against respawning enemies. You just killed them in a hundred ways.” “And if you have fun in that kind of playground, you have a formula that works,” he told Gamasutra. “It’s called a middlegame.” You can take five minutes of middle game, and parlay it into ten hours of experience. “You could tell a story, you could make enemies.” Crytek looked at things like the gravity gun or bullet time as things they could relate to. But for the nano suit, it all started with research into science-fact. The Key Feature During his Lyon GDC keynote on the making of Crysis, Yerli told the audience, “We got inspired by the future warriors and we took the liberty of modifying things. We tried to adapt it with our trademark look.” According to Yerli, the key to play expression is: if you look at the hero, you should be able to find a structure of surface that displays dynamics. In humans, that’s the muscle structure. Thus, “The nano suit allows the player to act and react.” In development of the suit, “We tried a bunch of things that didn’t work,” Yerli recalled. They tried seeing just how far they could push jumping, running and other effects. “We tried to be extreme at the beginning,” he explained. After seeing what was too much, they were able to tone it down-- but according to Yerli, that’s an unusual problem. “Developers tend to be subtle when they do things," he asserted. "You have to be overboard.” The interface was the most difficult part of the nano suit, Yerli continued, taking the team some 30 iterations across 16 to 18 months. “The point I’m trying to make here is: you have to keep on iterating in order to realize your dream,” he stressed. But it was all worth it to Yerli, who called the suit the game's "feature IP," explaining, "Part of our development is finding your feature, and developing tools to make your player use the feature.” Normally when game developers talk about tools, they’re “very abstract,” he continued, advising, “Write tools that cater to your feature – even if you throw it away.” That makes it look like your feature was designed from the ground up." The game's opening video featured the nano suit as a focal point. The directors had been given clear instructions: “Make it like a car advertisement, where you fall in love with the nano suit.” AI and Animation Data “Great AI is about looking great and behaving great," Yerli continued. “But a lot of it’s in the mind of the player... a lot of that is the animation data.” And he stressed the importance of prototyping animation -- “Animation is more critical now more than ever in game development, since at the end of the day, what’s important is what the enemy does," he pointed out. Yerli continued, "And when he does, how good it looks.” If the player sees ‘foot sliding’ he won’t believe the game. “Make a path line that allows the animators to make the AI make mistakes.” He showed, for example, a video from Crysis of enemies coming at the player, jumping over fences, and one slips, gets up, and keeps coming. “The imperfection of the human is what we need to achieve," Yerli pointed out. Talking about Crysis's aliens, Yerli said they were aiming for "new and original" -- however, he said, "If I could do it again, I would do it different, not push so many balls... I would just make them scary.” Yerli said he fell into the trap of doing character design before the AI; creating the aliens too late in the development process didn't help, either. “We’ve fallen into that trap twice,” he added, referring to FarCry's mutants as the first mistake. “It’s time for us to learn from that,” he noted. "The AI will dictate what the characters will be." Sandbox Level Design “Now that we have a hero AI, you need somewhere to fight them," Yerli continued. After FarCry, the studio hired many new designers. Yerli asked them for ‘sandbox level design’ -- but none of his designers knew what it meant. Some would say “systemic design” or “emergent gameplay." "You don’t design emergent gameplay! It emerges on it’s own,” he said. “In the end, every developer in the studio is an interpreter of your vision.” But one day, he recalled, he was watching a documentary about the Roman Empire. The latin phrase "veni, vidi, vici" was used, and Yerli liked it. He began to use the fresh phrase in order to communicate to his team. And the goal of this sandbox gameplay was simple. “It’s a player's game, not a designer's game, and that’s important,” said Yerli. “When players experiment with tactics… they should get a response out of it. We try always to lead the player -- but subliminally, with hints and direction.” A designer might say, “I have to provoke the player to use stealth gameplay in this area.” The Story The game was to have a high dynamic, non-linear story, Yerli explained. It was to be epic, sprawling, and vast. They worked on it for some time before deciding to cut back. “We said, this is too much,” he recalled. “We probably need two more years to make this story.” He showed the audience a slide with the planned story tree on it, sprawling branches everywhere -- “and this is just act one," Yerli said. “Don’t try to do too much just for the sake of being cool. Don’t get married to the script. And don’t communicate it -- if you communicate it to the public, and you want to change it, you’re stuck.” So keep story elements close to the chest, cautioned Yerli -- “Not for the sake of being secret, but for development sake. In game development, we have to deal with scope and budget, still.” Keeping The Vision Continued Yerli, “This is unfair, but always give the team goals that seem unachievable. By the end, they should feel like they have. -- or more and more at the end.” “We go to shows and give interviews and then come back and tell the team, ‘the bar’s just been raised for you," he said. "You don’t know how they hate that!” “Innovating just for the sake of saying ‘we’re innovative’ doesn’t help anybody,” he added. “Try to get into the feature itself, and try to understand it from the player’s mind.” If it doesn’t appeal to the player, he pointed out, there’s no point in pursuing it. Further, Yerli advised, “Technology research can actually get in the way of vision... Focus on your core, but innovate on technology if you can. If it doesn’t challenge you, it’s not worth doing.” Finally, he concluded, “Having a term ‘when it’s done’ doesn’t help at all. You have to have a deadline. Internally, we don’t say ‘when it’s done, it’s done.’ We do say the quality is the most important thing.”

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