What is the best game engine: is CryEngine right for you?
An in-depth guide to Crytek's CryEngine, which balances huge visual power against a smaller community
For developers just starting in the industry, the task of choosing the best game engine can be daunting. Here, we'll try to address many of the issues concerning one of the most popular game engines, CryEngine, so you can see if it's the right game engine for your project.
You can read our other in-depth guides on all the major game engines on this page.
CryEngine is known for being the engine that powered the original Far Cry -- Crytek's didn't just supply the tech but developed the game and its partnership with Ubisoft back in the early 2000s is what rocketed CryEngine's growth. The entire Far Cry franchise is based on a tech demo built by Crytek to showcase the capabilities of an Nvidia GPU, which is a weird premise when you think about it.
When Far Cry launched in 2004, Crytek also made its engine licensable and signed a partnership with EA to develop what would become one of its most famous franchises, and a poster child for CryEngine: Crysis.
To this day, CryEngine still excels at photorealistic shooters, and first-person games in general, having recently been behind Crytek's own Hunt: Showdown and CI Games' Sniper Ghost Warrior franchise.
But it's in no way restricted to shooters, and supports a wide variety of genres and formats. It also allows development for various platforms including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Linux, Oculus Rift, OSVR, PSVR, and HTC Vive. Support for Android was announced in March 2020, with a beta program to launch later in the year.
CryEngine is also known for its 'what you see is what you play' system, which can considerably accelerate the development process, which we'll discuss at length here.
Using CryEngine also means having access to both the engine and its editor source codes, allowing for more customisation and flexibility. Lots of development studios use a heavily-modified version of CryEngine -- that is the case with Warhorse Studios' Kingdom Come: Deliverance for instance, or Ubisoft with the Far Cry franchise, which is still made using a modified version of CryEngine called Dunia Engine.
Amazon also famously signed a licensing deal with Crytek back in 2016 to create Lumberyard. The Amazon deal was made through necessity as Crytek was going through a period of financial troubles.
Much like Unreal, CryEngine is a free engine with a royalties system, which it adopted in 2018 after testing a 'pay what you want' model for a few years. Your first $5,000 of annual revenue per project is royalty-free, after which you'll pay a 5% royalty to Crytek. You can also opt for a custom licence called Enterprise, which gives access to a higher level of support, a dedicated account manager and additional training. To learn more about it, you can get in touch with Crytek directly on this page.
Regardless of the licence you choose, you'll still have access to the engine's marketplace, boasting thousands of assets.
What are the advantages of CryEngine?
- CryEngine excels at first-person games
To understand what CryEngine is good at you only have to look at Crytek's portfolio: the original Far Cry, the Crysis franchise and Hunt: Showdown are all great examples of where the engine shines.
"CryEngine is best suited for FPS games with strategic elements," says Dmitry Shevchenko, team lead at Pandemic Express developer TallBoys, mentioning Arkane Studios' Prey as another example.
"CryEngine excels at open world and nature rich environments"David Heldager, Invisible Walls
However, it's not all about shooters. Invisible Walls chose CryEngine for mystery adventure Aporia: Beyond the Valley, though COO David Heldager does agree that the engine is heavily geared towards FPS.
"CryEngine excels at open world and nature rich environments," he says. "It strives in first person games -- especially first-person shooters. I would say that often the game engine mirrors what the engine originally were intended to carry out, for instance Far Cry and Crysis, which are both first person games."
- CryEngine comes with a lot of features out of the box
While CryEngine has some areas of specialism, it comes with a lot of tools from the get go, making it easy to create any project.
"One of the advantages (and sometimes challenges) is the amount of stuff the engine comes with right out of the box, especially in the old days with the GameSDK," co-founder of War of Rights developer Campfire Games Mads Støjko Larsen says, hinting at the default template that used to come with CryEngine. "Networking, game modes, characters, animation setups, weapons, vehicles, UI -- it basically came with everything required in a game. This was hugely helpful in getting our project to where it currently is as it provided a template for practically everything."
Not only does CryEngine come with a lot of tools, it also looks pretty right out of the box, Heldager adds.
"It is so easy to create something that looks like a finished product," he says. "In Unity you would have to develop all the shaders, which would end up taking all your time. With CryEngine you can focus on designing and making something visually spectacular."
- CryEngine allows for high-fidelity visuals
As Heldager just touched upon, CryEngine is known for the quality of its visuals, so if you're developing a photorealistic game it could be particularly fitting for your project (Unreal would be another good pick). The engine's advanced rendering tool is well optimised and produces great visuals -- that's what motivated Campfire Games to use it.
"We chose CryEngine because of the visual capabilities it offers," Larsen says. "It's able to achieve excellent visuals and scene complexity at high frame rates as well as it having been available for use outside of Crytek for a very long time -- War of Rights has been in development for more than seven years so we've been through quite a few CryEngine iterations."
"CryEngine is able to achieve excellent visuals and scene complexity at high frame rates"Mads Støjko Larsen, Campfire Games
CryEngine's visual strength is also why Invisible Walls picked CryEngine for Aporia. The team considered Unreal as well, but CryEngine had some non-negligeable advantages over Epic's engine in that department.
"Making something pretty is something everyone can do in [CryEngine]," he says. "We struggle a lot with light building at the moment in Unreal Engine. Whereas in CryEngine everything works straight away and the player gets what you, as a developer, sees. The base shaders are easy to fiddle around in and you don't have to make your own materials -- it's already built for you, which really takes away a lot of the hassle."
Alexander Bergendahl is co-founder and CEO at Poppermost Productions, the studio behind open-world winter sports game Snow. CryEngine's ability to generate and fill open world environments with high-fidelity visuals greatly helped the game's development.
"The visual strengths of the engine also means that the best games are the ones that take advantage of the incredible levels of detail that the engine can render," he says. "Games set in the first person, third person, or even distant third person all will benefit from this technology."
- CryEngine allows for a fast iteration process
Having so much available right out of the box, combined with visual strength, makes CryEngine a great tool to iterate quickly on projects and get prototypes out of the door.
"CryEngine has no build or compile times in its editor," Larsen says. "It's extremely easy to create something good looking very fast thanks to the powerful tools such as the vegetation tool, the environment tool or flowgraph editor (node-based scripting) which makes getting off the ground or simply prototyping ideas very fast indeed."
- CryEngine handles open-world, vegetation-rich environments really well
CryEngine can be considered a pioneer in creating high visual fidelity, open world environments, especially ones featuring big levels containing a large amount of vegetation. For a while it was simply the only option available if you couldn't afford an Unreal licence.
"As a studio in 2012 we were developing an open world game and needed an engine that could handle a large world along with complex physics simulation," Bergendahl says. "CryEngine was the only tool available at the time that could meet our needs and still to this day would be one of our top choices if we were to start all over again."
"The ease at which a small team can build a massive open world with CryEngine is unmatched"Alexander Bergendahl, Poppermost
Even now that there is more competition on the engines' scene, CryEngine is still at the forefront when it comes to handling open-world environments.
"CryEngine's world building tool is second to none," Bergendahl continues. "The ease at which a small team can build a massive open world is unmatched and gives developers lots of freedom to create exactly what they imagine. Games that demand detailed, large environments will save a lot of time by selecting CryEngine as their game engine."
You're especially going to thrive using CryEngine if your open world environment has a lot of outdoor environments. Invisible Walls initially went for CryEngine because it didn't need a lot of programming, but the engine's ability to handle vegetation ended up influencing the types of games the studio was making.
"It started out back at University where we needed an engine that was easy to implement in with the least amount of hardcore programming needed to accomplish a good looking product," Heldager says. "Thereafter, our projects utilised the strengths of CryEngine and naturally became outdoor environment heavy games. When we made Aporia we had started to really be comfortable in that kind of limitation and that's why it ended up looking like it did."
- CryEngine is easy to learn
While beginners may be more at ease with engines such as GameMaker thanks to its drag-and-drop features, CryEngine is still a good choice even for entry level developers as it doesn't have a steep learning curve.
"I always encourage other developers to consider CryEngine for their projects if applicable," Bergendahl says. "The engine is not hard to learn, is immensely powerful, and carries with it a special recognition in the minds of the gaming community. Gamers' eyes usually light up when they see 'developed in CryEngine' before a game trailer. We never had any issues training talented developers in the tool and code base."
- CryEngine's support is good
The CryEngine community is a small one (we'll come back to this in a minute), but that comes with an upside: it makes it easy and fast to contact support, with Crytek being readily available to help.
"We've been very happy with the amount of support we've received from both CryEngine's community and Crytek themselves throughout the development of War of Rights," Larsen says. "It is easy to get a hold of Crytek employees via the CryEngine Discord -- more so than the CryEngine forum. If you're looking for direct technical support, they offer that as well in terms of purchasable tech support tickets."
Heldager adds: "We love the community management at Crytek, they are always helpful."
What are the disadvantages of CryEngine?
- CryEngine doesn't have the scale of some of its competitors
While we just highlighted Crytek's effective support, there are also downsides in that field. CryEngine's userbase is much smaller than Unity and Unreal and, as a result, it doesn't have the scale of support or community that other engines might have.
"The smaller the userbase, the fewer knowledgeable people are around to help"Mads Støjko Larsen, Campfire Games
"This impacts the developer as new features or bug fixes might take longer to be released, and there are less community-created resources available to learn from," Bergendahl says.
Larsen continues: "The smaller the userbase, the fewer knowledgeable people are around to help, especially upstarters with issues who might just give up on their project and move on elsewhere. This can quite easily become a bad spiral where newcomers aren't able to get the help they seek due to the size of the userbase, thus leaving and causing the userbase growth to be neutral."
That also translates into a lack of resources available to developers. While Crytek has a website dedicated to documentation for its engine, it's not quite enough.
"The documentation on the engine is severely lacking," Heldager says. "It could be because of the amount of people using it, but we have seen a positive result on support when we switched to Unreal Engine."
- It's difficult to recruit experienced CryEngine developers
A direct impact of CryEngine's small userbase is the difficulty for studios to recruit developers experienced with the engine. Heldager rightly points out that there are "two industry standards" that people actively make an effort to learn, namely Unreal and Unity -- but not CryEngine.
Larsen explains that it's not impossible to recruit, but it requires some extra legwork: "Programmers with CryEngine experience are few and far between. They are out there though, so with a bit of persistence, and going through a lot of job applications, you will be able to find experienced people to hire. Finding artists able to adapt to the CryEngine pipeline quickly is much easier, however."
Shevchenko says that it's overall fairly difficult: "Most of the experienced developers have migrated over to different engines. As of now, there are still small teams with projects on CryEngine that are years in development, but it's almost impossible to find free CryEngine specialists. You have to find developers who specialise in other engines and re-train them, which dramatically increases the development costs."
- CryEngine is not recommended for fast-paced games or complex RPGs
As our specialists highlighted, CryEngine excels at first-person shooters -- but there's a caveat according to Shevchenko.
"It's difficult to use CryEngine for fast-paced shooters because its physics engine isn't suited for them," he says. "We also wouldn't recommend CryEngine for making complex RPGs. The development tools aren't agile enough and you'd need a lot of resources to build all the basic systems from scratch."
"Most of the experienced developers have migrated over to different engines"Dmitry Shevchenko, TallBoys
- CryEngine is difficult to use out of the box
Despite coming with many tools out of the box, it can be difficult to understand what to do with said tools if you're a beginner. It's also still lacking some pretty important features.
"The engine is difficult to use out of the box," Shevchenko says. "You'll have to develop most network systems and development tools from scratch. All the instruments and modules provided in GameSDK are obsolete and overloaded with unnecessary and inflexible features.
"Despite the active improvement of the engine, its game editor is still very much inferior to the competitors on the market. A lot of tools, like an LOD generator or a visual system for building shaders, are still missing today."
Heldaher sums it up by saying it's just hard to use CryEngine for something that it is not built for.
"It is hard to add plugins and so forth," he says. "It is very hard for artists to start developing for the engine straight away as it requires its own exporter for assets. They have eased the process a lot these last years, but we are still far away from the drag/drop in implementation that Unity and Unreal have."
Advice for new CryEngine users
- Reach out to the CryEngine community
While our respondents have pointed out the small scale of CryEngine's community, that doesn't mean you shouldn't approach it if you're considering using CryEngine for your project.
"As of now, the community isn't big at all, but it's very responsive," Shevchenko says. "Most of its members are very knowledgeable on various aspects of the development, having worked with the engine since the Crysis 2007 modding scene. Also, the engine developers frequently share their knowledge in their Discord, articles, and so on."
Don't forget you can access CryEngine's source code, via GitHub, as well as a wide range of tutorials on Crytek's website.
- Build a strong relationship with Crytek
In addition to immersing yourself in the CryEngine community, Bergendahl believes it's essential you get to know its developer to make the most out of the engine.
"Building a strong relationship with Crytek is key," he says. "We worked closely with them for many years and were therefore able to take advantage of our connections inside the company. This meant that we were closer to the support, development, and marketing teams and could work with them to find mutually beneficial opportunities. No other engine would give you this type of transparency and support."
"Building a strong relationship with Crytek is key"Alexander Bergendahl, Poppermost
- Check what the engine is capable of versus your project's needs
You should get into a project having a strong idea of where you're going with it, or at least various potential designs. Make sure your needs will be fulfilled by CryEngine before committing to it -- an engine switch mid-development is never recommended.
If you're developing a simple 2D platformer, CryEngine may be a bit overkill and GameMaker will be a better fit. But if you're aiming for an open world setting and nature rich environments for instance, CryEngine will be the perfect match.
"Think about what you need the engine to do," Heldager says. "Look at Crytek games to get an idea what the engine will be able to do, and its strengths, because the engine will probably have a lot of the features that their games will have -- while probably lacking in other areas that other games engines have covered."
- Just give it a try
Finally, the best way to see if CryEngine is for you is just to try it; it's free after all, so it literally costs you nothing to have a go.
"Give it a try," Larsen says. "The engine is readily available -- the documentation as well as the number of tutorials for it is ever growing. It is likely much easier to get a hold of the individuals at Crytek who are actively working on the particular aspects of the engine you may have questions about as the userbase is smaller. It is also likely easier to get noticed within the CryEngine community if you are able to produce some quality content as, again, it is a smaller one."
Bergendahl concludes: "CryEngine's world building tools, dynamic lighting, rendering, and pipeline continue to make it one of the most competitive engines on the market despite the considerably smaller team working on it compared to its competitors like Unity and Unreal."
Our in-depth guides on all the major game engines can help you find the best technology for your game -- this page will be regularly updated to add new engines to the list. If you're eyeing the most popular game engines, you can jump to our Unity guide right away, or read more about Unreal Engine here.