Crytek and the engine empire

Crytek and the engine empire

By Rob Crossley

April 12th 2010 at 10:00AM

Pt 1: CryEngine execs compare their tech with Unreal and discuss releasing a free platform

The game industry is progressing at such velocity that today’s era of sweeping, multidirectional expansion won’t be fully explained until observed from distant retrospect.

How much Crytek will be mentioned in such future summations remains to be seen, but the Frankfurt-headquartered company is armed with the kind of technology, and ambition, to leave a lasting mark.

Across a comprehensive two-part interview with Develop, the company explains its position on a number of new industry horizons; from engine technology to motion control, from stereoscopic 3D to mobile and social gaming.

In part one, we sit down with Carl Jones (director of global business development for CryEngine) and Cevat Yerli (company CEO) to discuss the engine that’s positioned at the axis of Crytek’s entire business.

The Unreal Engine 3 has been popular with a large number of developers, to the point that some studios may be working on their fourth game using the technology. Are you finding these studios the hard to get the attention of?
Carl: Actually no, we’ve had a lot of interest from major companies who are thinking about working on the latest editions of their franchise, either using their own tech or other engines, and I think a lot of them are looking to expand their horizons and are looking at our engine as the next best step for them.

CryEngine gives studios more freedom to develop large, open-area environments and that’s what a lot of studios are looking for these days. So, we’ve been pleasantly surprised that a lot of these developers have come to us – it hasn’t been so much an issue of us chasing these people down.

Our strategy isn’t to chase as many potential licensees as we can and convince them to use our tech. We want to find developers that match Crytek’s vision for game development, and the CryEngine proves that it is the best choice for our kind of studios and our kind of games.

Cevat: Our engine is achieving things that people thought were not possible on consoles. I would argue that, compared to the competition, our engine is the only one that actually is 100 per cent real-time. And we have a number of technologies that are unique to us due to the patent-pending nature of them.

The question developers once asked was; ‘how do you build a level?’ I think today the question is more about how developers make worlds.

If you look at creating fantastic large open worlds, then our engine is the ideal choice. If you want to develop games with small spaces, then you can do that with Unreal Engine 3 – not that I’m saying you can’t do that with CryEngine 3 – it’s just that our engine has been built to create big worlds.

The reason why I’m saying this is because, well, what gamers want is to play as alternate egos and this is only truly possible with large open worlds to explore. And this is where the productivity of CryEngine’s sandbox comes into play – where we have laws of physics, laws of light, and so on.

The engine is certainly positioned for the future, but a number of engine vendors have made their products much more attractive by offering tools that can be managed in-engine. Why is Crytek reluctant to do this?
Carl: We tend to try and create everything within our own engine, and there’s a number of reasons for that.

We look at creating games as a whole, and we think the best approach is a holistic one where you need to control everything as one package with a single interface. Also, in regards to performance – obviously, integrating with a host of different middlewares means you won’t be sure what other things that middleware is going to affect throughout the duration of your development.

At Crytek we can guarantee that every change that we make to the subset of the tools will not have an impact on the performance because everything is nicely tucked in together. And another thing, if you license one technology and then another and then another – it essentially complicates the deal. It’s a bit simpler for developers to see our package as a one-stop shop.

The only exceptions we have to that rule is when you have a tool or middleware that just does exactly what you need – because there’s not much point us trying to build something new if what’s already available is exactly what we’re trying to create. So, for example, we use FMOD audio and Scaleform, which were both integrated with the engine.

I should also say – CryEngine 3’s Sandbox isn’t a method of creating the assets that developers use, so obviously we support all the major DCC tools.

Another thing that we’ve added to the CryEngine is the LiveCreate feature, which enables developers to make any changes to their build on the fly. So existing assets such a Photoshop texture, or even a motion-capture animation, can run in realtime on the platform so developers can play with their changes as they create them. That’s really important to us, it allows people to create fun prototypes in a matter of weeks.

Another important thing for us is to allow developers to do this on multiple platforms equally. We don’t want to make games ourselves where the PC edition is the lead platform, and other developers get to work on the 360 or PS3 versions. That tends to slow development down, and create differences between each platform that people don’t necessarily want. So when developers create worlds in sandbox, they can do this in realtime on all three platforms, which means you can change things instantaneously, in parallel between all three platforms if you wish.  

Is that a philosophy that stretches to Crysis 2, is there a lead platform for the game?
Cevat: Essentially, the CryEngine obstructs the three systems, [the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360], because no longer do you need to determine a lead platform from them. The CryEngine is the lead platform. Sandbox is the lead platform for Crysis 2.

What we are seeing more of is free editions of platforms, with Unity building a huge base of developers and Epic following suit with their own free-to-use UDK. Is this a philosophy that Crytek follows?
Cevat: Oh we would never give our engine away for free! [laughs] I’m joking, we have already given our engine away for free. We have been giving out our mod SDK – which is effectively the CryEngine – for free to our own mod community.

We have a very vivid community of users and modders and content creators, and usually that’s a great way of unlocking the engine.

That being said, no it’s not the same as what Epic or Unity are currently doing, but we are now pushing harder on this area. We did it before already, but we haven’t pushed it that far yet.

You’re now referring to the CryEngine 3?

Cevat: Yes, but – to be frank – not as a mod. So far that’s what we’ve been offering for free, and it’s easy entry into the production environment. We do want to make a standalone free platform that people can run independent of CryEngine that will also be up to speed with the latest engine.

You acquired Crytek UK at the beginning of 2009. How has the studio moved on since?
Cevat: Well, as you reported, Crytek UK’s been given a bigger and nicer office, which is now in a better are more reachable location. The team has expanded since we first bought the outfit and they’re doing a great job.

The team had contacts with some of their old Free Radical friends, and we kept our promise that they could come back if they wished – and some did. These people are friends of the workforce, and people that we needed, so it was win-win for us.

We have steadily increased the size of the team based on its great performance, and also as part of our evolving strategy, so things have been great for the studio.