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Crytek's Cevat Yerli

The company's CEO and president on lessons learned from Crysis, and the challenges facing new studios today

Cevat Yerli is the CEO and president of Crytek, the PC-specialist developer behind smash hit Far Cry and the award-winning Crysis, with Crysis Warhead due next month.

Here Cevat gives his thoughts on how the industry has changed over the years, and offers his advice on what any new company starting out should focus on. Crysis Warhead is coming next month - how much did you learn from releasing the original Crysis title last year?
Cevat Yerli

Well, when we finished Crysis there was quite a bit of internal research as a post mortem of what we did right and wrong, and then we looked at the reviews, the gamer feedback. Some things weren't a surprise - some things we knew were wrong but we had to go. Sometimes you have to move on, knowing that something is wrong, but you've made the best out of it.

Unfortunately there were some things we knew - that the game's pace was changing, but that's because we wanted the players to finish the game at some point, but with that pace change came a game style change too in around the last 20 per cent of the game. And in that last 20 per cent the change in play style was criticised quite heavily, because it felt more contrived.

But we wanted to change the pace to make sure people got to the end, and found a satisfactory conclusion to the game. However, the next weakness was the ending itself - we said we'd have a great ending, and unfortunately we couldn't make it great this time. Of course, we'll be better next time, but this time we screwed it up. We were in the final crunch phase and it was a bad thing.

So the conclusion was that, because we knew we weren't on track there and Crysis Warhead was already in development before the original Crysis was finished, we said to the Warhead team to make sure that the same thing didn't happen with Warhead - the contrived ending, the play style change, and that the core sense of Crysis should work more strongly. It's something we found with Far Cry, and refined with Crysis - and we want to refine it further with Warhead.

So with Warhead we took the formula that was very well established with Crysis and pushed forward - more intensity, more action and a more cinematic feel. That's as much learning as we could get out of Crysis.

It's more optimised - but that doesn't mean Crysis wasn't optimised, because it was at the time. But once you finish something, then you can disassemble it and fit it together again, and you can always do is faster and better, because you know exactly what it is you need. The learning means we can fine-tune Warhead, and make sure it doesn't have any baggage that people don't need. There comes a point at which you have to draw a line under a project and move on, though?
Cevat Yerli

Yes, that's always a reality with every development, regardless of who you are. There's a situation that you have number of things that people are expecting, there's competition in the market, there's a lot of external things but also internal decisions.

At some point you have to move on - there may be mistakes, but we made it as well as we could. The first Crysis pushed PC hardware to some degree - does Warhead make that any easier?
Cevat Yerli

Well, there's a misconception in the market right now about that, which is that Crysis can only be played on PCs that are very expensive. It's not true - Crysis can be played on a USD 600 PC at the second-highest configuration that's better-looking than any console game, right now. But compared to an Xbox 360 game, such as Call of Duty 4, whatever they took out of the box they'd play at maximum configuration - because there's only one configuration for everybody?
Cevat Yerli

Yes, but imagine if we'd not shipped with that top configuration, they would have maxed out. We just had a configuration that people could have for the future, and they can play it now, but it will look even better. There are community projects that make extreme configurations for Crysis, because that also shipped in the game but we just didn't enable it, because people would have "cried" even more then. They'd have said they need a PC that doesn't even exist today to play it...

But our intention was benevolent, but it backfired on us because people said they couldn't max out their settings. But maxing out isn't the point - we have a game that if you can max it out, it's ahead of anything else by a big margin. That backfired with people telling us they could max out other games...yes, but they don't offer two more generations... Wouldn't it just have been a lot more simple to develop games for consoles?
Cevat Yerli

Well, it's true in that respect that console development is quite a lot easier, because you only have one configuration, and if you find an optimum set of engine features, and work towards that, it's certainly better internally.

We've been investigating consoles for almost two and a half years now, and I wouldn't be surprised if something comes up for consoles from us. I think the experience we have from PC will help us to make better console games in fact.

But it's true - life is a lot easier with a fixed platform compared to a moving platform, but we saw PC as our strength, and we wanted to make the PC gamer happy - they're all about the platform, they want the best experience for their PC, but later on if they buy a new PC, they want to still be able to play the classic games without them getting old.

That was my thinking as a PC gamer - if I boot up Crysis in three years, and we make the settings configuration official from Crytek, I'll be able to scale the game up to hold its own with the best games then, in the future, because it has built-in scalability. Do you think the game will have a long tail then?
Cevat Yerli

Frankly, and it sounds a bit strange from a business perspective, but there was no interest in making sales long term - it was just to offer those people that bought Crysis the knowledge that further down the line they can discover a visual experience in the game that they won't have seen before.

Our investment was purely on the future benefits of the gamer, and not about creating massive sales in two years - we never believed in massive sales after two years. And I guess there will be other products, like Warhead, to take its place?
Cevat Yerli

To some extent I think that will happen, but I think also Warhead will be another natural entry point into the franchise - if you like that you can move on to Crysis. We're looking at Warhead as a game that appeals to a wider audience that potentially hasn't played Crysis, and if they like it they can move on to Crysis. You've been working very closely with EA - how's that relationship continuing?
Cevat Yerli

Great - pretty good actually, it's been quite solid. We'll see what happens in the future, but I think we'll continue having good relations. What have they been like to work with as a publishing partner? What's the main area of support they've provided you?
Cevat Yerli

EA's been supportive in the sense that they haven't interfered in the development too much - people on the outside might think they would interfere with the concept and the development, but it's simply not the case. In some other areas we've received benefits in terms of market research, and how we could market the titles more efficitently.

But for Crysis specifically, it was a difficult situation - I think EA did as well as they could in terms of getting the game out. For the timing, it was the most intense release window for new titles in the history of the industry, but we held up pretty well against the competition, because Crysis was a well-known IP by then.

Our Google ranking was over 25 million hits for Crysis, and EA was instrumental in getting that IP out there, so they did a great job and I think that's where we benefited most. The industry's changed a lot since Crytek first started - what do you feel you've learned in that time on the business side?
Cevat Yerli

I think the number one thing we learned was to be agile and iterative - we knew that already, but that thought was confirmed. Always stay independent, agile and iterative, but when I say that it doesn't mean necessarily being independent of a publisher, but being having the ability to make decisions.

Then if you want to make iterations, it means you need to be able to cycle through changes quickly, and again you can't need to ask somebody before you make changes. So independence doesn't necessarily mean financial or business independence - that's one idea to aim for - but also within the structure of the company.

Because if you look at it, the bottom line with Crytek, whatever we did so far, whether it's technical, vision, gameplay, audio - everything was an achievement of a certain quality bar - but we established those areas as independent units in our organisational structure.

So within the team you can have smaller teams of five or six people that are independent of the larger team - and that's what it was all about, so that we could maintain that agility, those iterative principles, or our company.

That allows us to get better games out there faster, because at the end of the day efficiency in releasing a game is the most important thing in coming to market - how you get your idea out. Crysis could have been faster, but frankly we had to move on, and for every mistake we made, there were 20 or 30 things that we did right.

So the good things outweigh the bad, you can create faster, and you're independent in your organisation, at the end of the day that brings efficiency. Do you think it's harder for a company to set up now that it was when Crytek first started?
Cevat Yerli

Absolutely, nowadays I don't think Crytek could have set up. It wouldn't exist. The situation has changed drastically, the competition is more serious, companies have consolidated, costs have increased, the platforms are getting more difficult to enter, and so on.

For example, to make a next-gen PC title entering the market now we'd need about EUR 10-12 million, even for a newcomer, to make an FPS as good as Far Cry was back then. To get the trust and commitment from a publisher for a newby studio...I think it's quite impossible. So what's the best thing for any new games studio to focus on now then? What would you advise?
Cevat Yerli

From the concept perspective, don't rely on anything that's about realism or technology, focus on something that involves creativity and gameplay. No new company can really compete on production values.

The second thing on the business perspective I would suggest looking at digital distribution - whether it's you or a publisher distributing it, it doesn't matter, but prepare for that market. Then you've already narrowed down your choice of platforms, which is either PC, mobile/iPhone, modding potentially, XBLA and PSN.

Then it's about finding the right partner to fund it, with a concept that is small enough but creative enough to bring it to the market. With any of those platforms you can get a fraction of what you'd need for a triple-A title, you could work on a prototype with four or five friends, in fact.

Then pitch a playable version, and if your core idea and concept convinces, then you might get support for production values.

Cevat Yerli is the CEO and president of Crytek. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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