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The End of the Affair

Crytek's Michael Khaimzon looks back on the process of creating Crysis

Continuing our series building up to the GDC Lyon and Game Connection, we talk to Michael Khaimzon, the art director at Crytek, responsible for the team that produced the amazing visuals in Crysis.

He talks about what he learned during the game-making process, and why there's so much talent in Eastern Europe.

How are things at Crytek right now?

We're in a very busy period, we just finished Crysis and I'm in Kiev at the moment working on a new game, we've got a milestone coming up very soon.

Anything you can tell us about?

[laughs] Are you kidding? No way, sorry. Right now we're only in the prototyping phase. We've just started this new project in Kiev, a new IP, and at some point we might announce to the public, but for now we can't say.

It's an exciting time for the company.

Yes, when you work on something for four years like Crysis - which started in November 2003 - it's amazing to see it finally come out and we learned so much from it - that's what I'm going to talk about at GDC Lyon.

In all of the departments, not just art, but design and code and tools - it was a huge experience. It was four years in the making but it stays around with you forever, so it was all worth it.

One of the good things about the timing of Lyon is that it's December, and this is the time when many games have just come out, or about to, so there will be a lot of people talking about things we haven't seen before.

With Crysis done, as you say four years of your life spent on it - how do you feel now that it's all done?

Well, I'll know my real feelings when the game is out and people are playing it, and I can read on the forums what they think about it. From what I hear so far, the only thing I can say is that it was worth it.

People are raving about it, everybody is happy. It's hard for you to see and evaluate the project you're working on, because you see it every day and you have no way to say whether it's honestly good or not - after a couple of years you stop noticing anything, but right now when we see people's reactions it brings up all these old memories and emotions that we had when we first talked about it.

Right now that's just amazing, unbelievable.

Is there an element of sadness that the project's done, an anticlimax?

No, not really, actually it's good, because we know people like the game it gives us a good idea of what to do next. And if we want to do the next game - I don't know if there's going to be Crysis 2, or when, I don't have that information - but if there was, we'd know exactly what to do and how to do it. Or any other project for the matter.

The only things you can be sad about are those things that you wanted to do, but didn't have time for - it's a magical feeling you have when you finish a game, but then you realise all the things you wanted to do and didn't have time to put it.

What kinds of things did the team learn?

I think primarily it wasn't technical things, but rather good game design things, regardless of technology or hardware. It's more about how you make things right, especially when you work on something that's so big.

I think that when you make a good game, you always have to look for something that will make you different, and at the same time something that people want to be able to do in the game.

In our case one of the main things is weapon customisation - I mean, it's not some extreme genius idea, it sounds simple, but in reality it was very hard to implement it really well. You have to think about all of the levels, how you will use all of the different powers of the suit, the weapon customisability in real-time, and so on.

Things like that teach you a lot. You open such a big can of worms every time you make a decision like that, and then you have to deal with it - it teaches you to think the right way, to know what the consequences are going to be for every design idea.

It's simple to go in and say that you want to put a scope on the gun, but then it's so much work for the modellers, the animators, the programmersâ¦one decision like that can mean months of work.

Crysis has had so much media coverage - how does it feel to work on a game like that?

I think it depends on what kind of person you are. The whole reputation of Crytek, and the way people are around here, they only want to do things that are amazing. Nobody wants to make a game that's just another game - we want to make a statement.

It's very important to us to be able to do something that's very challenging, or that nobody else was capable of doing before - I'm not necessarily saying that we did that, but that's our philosophy, and I can't see it any other way.

Personally I wouldn't like to just take technology from some other developer and just make a game out of it - I like to do something challenging and that's how most of the people at Crytek think.

Doesn't that bring more pressure?

Of course it does. If it was easy, everybody would do it.

So how do you handle that?

You either do it, or you don't. There are people who can't handle it and they find other things to do. People who do have this desire to finish the project, they sacrifice their time, they sacrifice their other interests, but that's their decision - nobody is forced to do it, they know what they're getting into as soon as they apply to Crytek.

How has the team grown since you first started work on Crysis?

It was way smaller. I think we've tripled in size. In the art department we ended up with 16 or 17 people, and after FarCry we only had one production artist left, so we had to retrain and rehire them - the whole team.

I think it was the same for many other departments. We had key people that stayed, but a lot of people were hired and had to learn.

We know that Crysis isn't planned for next-gen consoles, but can you see Crytek working on those platforms for other titles in the future?

If we choose to do so, we will. That sort of decision isn't mine to make, but if we decided to do so, we could.

What's your view on the next-gen platforms now they're starting to settle down?

Well, that's very hard for me to answer, because I've never developed anything for a next-gen platform, and I don't spend that much time playing them. My opinion on them in comparison to the PC is that I think the PC is always better.

Because the PC you can do so many things with, and the console is just there for the gaming.

Do you think that extra flexibility will mean that the PC will never die?

Well, the gaming part is just one reason why the PC is there. You cannot create characters on a console - you can't run a 3D programme from one, as far as I know. You can't play certain strategy games on a console well, like Total Annihilation for example, or at least I haven't seen one, I think it's limiting to certain types of games.

I mean it's easy to take a controller and plug it into a PC and then you can play the same kinds of games as consoles, like Dead or Alive, or racing or sports games, but there are so many more things you can do with a PC that you cannot do with a console.

Aren't there drawbacks with things like compatibility issues? It's an expensive business constantly upgrading, isn't it?

Yes it is, but nobody forces you to upgrade your PC. You can take Crysis and play it on a medium-spec machine and it will still run, even on an older machine. But if you want to enjoy something that's new and state of the art, then you have to spent money on it - nothing come for free.

If people think there are games that are worth buying a USD 500 video card for, then they should go ahead and buy it and enjoy games of that quality - but they can still enjoy games at a lower quality as well.

How do you view the way that the global games industry is changing.

Well I've mainly been travelling around Europe and America, and right now we have an office in Budapest and Kiev, and I hope that soon we'll release some games that were developed there, so these cities come more into the play.

I was thinking that in terms of the people that represent the games industry, everybody thinks of a guy with glasses, a 50kg nerd who sits in front of the computer the whole day.

But the more you travel around lately the more people you meet from the industry who are as cool as people who are doing any other jobs.

More and more studios are setting up in Eastern Europe - there's a lot of talent there, isn't there?

Yes, there is a lot of talent, but what I will say about Eastern Europe, especially Russia and Ukraine - I don't know so much about Budapest - they have a huge amount of talent but lack the organisational skills and focus.

If you're an American or European developer that goes there and helps these guys not to be a bunch of stars, but a well-built, functional team with a good hierarchy where everybody knows what he's doing, then these guys can do amazing things.

Half of the Crytek research and development team is from Russia and Ukraine - more than half.

It's said that there's a lot of strong artistic flair in the region. Why is that do you think?

Because when we were growing up, during Communism, we didn't have anything else to do but sit in the classroom and draw the whole day. We didn't have McDonald's and computers, so we had to entertain ourselves with the simple things.

I'm just kidding, although to some degree I mean it. We had a very limited things growing up, I mean everybody who's over 30, like I am, who spent half of his life in Communist Russia, life wasâ¦well, if you played Half-Life 2 it kind of touches the surfaceâ¦

We did have a very limited entertainment and toy industry, so we had to come up with ways to play with things, sticks, stuff like that. So maybe that is one of the reasons.

Michael Khaimzon is art director at Crytek. Interview by Phil Elliott.