Design director PJ Esteves talks toying with history, and taking a project from Xbox 360 Kinect game to next-gen scene setter
Ryse: Son of Rome has had a famously tumultuous development process, and the result is a ‘hack and slash’ with interaction that feels very different from its contemporaries. How intentional was – particularly in terms of the combat mechanics – building a game that feels so at odds with its genre mates?
Esteves: We definitely set out to give the game its own heartbeat, and particularly through the combat and executions. That difference, if you like, was always going to be part of Ryse.
At the core we built a crowd control combat game, where the player is surrounded by enemies, and we give them a set of tools to be creative; various attacks and melees, and we’ve really tried with a variety of enemies. It’s not a game about prescribed combos, and we try to encourage creativity in the ways the player plays the game.
And has that allowed you to push yourselves from a technology or technique standpoint as a studio?
On the AI side of things we’ve really pushed ourselves. We wanted a game where enemies work together a lot more than in other games. It was a bit of a contention from a lot of the consultants we hired on, to give us feedback.
They questioned how efficient the AI made the enemies, in terms of the player’s enjoyment, but we feel we’ve given the players the tools to be able to handle the challenge, and made the enemies feel more believable, and interesting in terms of the strategy of the combat. We’re confident the game has a pretty deep combat system.
And you’ve taken a game originally conceived as a Kinect-only Xbox 360 game and reworked it to be an Xbox One Launch title. How easy did the Xbox One make that process?
One of the most important things about the Xbox One is pure processing power. The amount of RAM we had available to us helped a great deal. The NPCs in the game all have cloth, facial expressions, and the same fidelity as a character in the cinematics. We were able to give the AI characters the same detail as the player characters, and they express a lot more emotion than is seen in other games.
The Xbox One gave us AI that really feels just human enough. You can see pain as you slice at a guy, or you see surprise. It’s always hard work, but the Xbox One let us give the game more emotion as we took Ryse forward.
But what about that change in direction from Xbox to Xbox One. How has that defined the game Ryse has become?
When we were making Codename Kingdoms – let’s just call it that – you had an up-close camera. I can't remember the year, but at an E3 we showed a demo that highlighted the surprise on character's faces and so on, and that went down well. And that core idea, of an up-close camera and this, almost claustrophobic brutality; we've stuck with that, and it's remained important that we really push performance capture to allow that.
We hired a real camera director to teach us how to do all that. We also wanted to make the game cinematic while framing everything as close as possible, keeping it intimate, and that remains key to what Ryse is today. Back then it was a very different project really, but that key idea always resonated with us, and is really important to what Ryse has become. It's meant we've really had to innovate on the camera system.
We've kept looking at games we love through the whole process; games like Sleeping Dogs and Batman. But what we felt was missing was this sense of having an AI in-game running around with a camera like a cameraman.
So we started to think about giving Ryse a look of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai or Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. We realised it might not work building an AI camera man, but we got our cinematics director working with our camera programmer to build a procedural camera that tries to always frame things up close but also in a cinematic way, and that has a lot to do with the look of Ryse, and the starting point of Codename Kingdoms.
And what about the game's setting. It's not quite historically accurate. What were you creative decisions on that front?
We've been thinking of the game as something of a historical mash-up. You're never sure how many of these kinds of games you'll get to make, so we thought that if we're making a Roman-themed game where the empire spans hundreds of years and a vast geography, it would be very hard to pick the best time and place as a setting for one game. One time period just wasn't enough for us. We loved the craziness of Nero, but the Boudica story of rebelling against Rome was irresistible. So we picked the stories we liked best and wove them together into a fiction.
Fans of history will enjoy the depth of accuracy we went to with some details – we even hired a Roman combat historian so we could make the characters move in a way realistic to the weight and type of weapons they use – but we didn't get too constrained. We respected history, but wanted to be creative with it.
And you've even given the Roman design aesthetics a spin of your own, it appears.
Yes. We're Crytek, so we obsess over detail. We introduced this art deco feel to the armour and so on. That divided our team, if I'm honest. Some wanted to really push the way Roman armour could look in our game’s world, and others wanted it left alone. But that alone brings about the passion in the team, and so can serve as a real creative driving force.
You've mentioned history and cinema consultants from outside Crytek. How important were people in those kind of roles to the team model built for Ryse?
They were really important, especially because Ryse is new IP, and it's a launch title. We aren't four or five games into a series, so getting the world's best experts to help shape our game was really important. People that know better about specific things can help you define the core DNA of your project. Both hiring and using consultant experts is a great way to move your game forward.
What about Ryse as a next-gen test for CryEngine? How did the engine fare?
Honestly, the engine has been one of the smoothest parts of the whole project. From the time of Crysis 2 we were working with DX11 already. We were two games deep with DX11 and working with a 360 game learning about how the ecosystem works. So that all helped.
I think it was about a week to get up and running on Xbox One from the time we got the first kits. Having a great partnership with Microsoft helped, to prepare us as the platform developed alongside our game. Any launch game lands hot; it doesn't matter who you are.
But having a mature engine really helped, and getting to harness things like physically based rendering was incredible. Improvements in facial animation pipelines are great too. It's a terrible way to say it, but CryEngine and the Xbox One have let our game be the hot one at the launch prom.