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Ditching Far Cry, piracy, gameplay and just about breaking even: Crytek on the ups and downs of the Crysis series

As Crysis turns 5 Cevat Yerli contemplates past mistakes and a bold new future.

Tomorrow marks the five year anniversary of the Crysis franchise.

The science fiction shooter series began on 13th November 2007 with the release of Crysis for PC, a launch that carried much fanfare. Here was a shooter that was part open world sandbox, a fitting follow-up to the company's first game Far Cry, part graphics showcase. The hype for months before launch was that Crysis was the best-looking game ever created. Not only was your PC not good enough to run it - no-one's was.

Three and a half years later Crytek released Crysis 2. But there was a catch: the game was no longer a PC exclusive. Crytek had, according to some, sold out. And as more information about the new New York setting emerged and this new “choreographed sandbox” was laid bare, fans of the first game accused the developer of dumbing down the core Crysis gameplay to accommodate the console audience.

Now, five years after the release of Crysis 1 and only a few months before the release of Crysis 3, we chat with a frank Crytek boss and co-founder Cevat Yerli to discuss the series' ups and downs. Did Crytek intend to melt gamers' PCs with Crysis? Did piracy force the company to consoles? Was setting Crysis 2 in New York a mistake? And why is Crysis 3 better? The answers to these questions and more are below.

What were your hopes and targets for the first Crysis? Why didn't you make Far Cry 2?

Cevat Yerli: We were just finalising Far Cry. And as we were doing that it was very clear to me that I wanted to do something new for two reasons. One, I wanted to establish a culture that pushes the boundaries and breaks new ground in the shooter genre. I was afraid if we did move on to Far Cry 2 then we might fall into the trap of making a quick sequel.

To establish that kind of philosophy and culture I decided we would have to do it one more time to make this repeating pattern where you have Far Cry and then something new that's bigger. And so the company culture is established, as opposed to falling into the trap potentially of Far Cry 2.

I saw there was this thinking of the team, 'yeah, Far Cry 2 would be so much easier now. We have Far Cry 1 and we could just do new levels and then it would be Far Cry 2.' It scared me to hear that. I said no, we've got to do something new, start a new engine and make a new title and go more ambitious. This was the first point, establishing the culture and reinforcing the culture of innovation and pushing the quality bar.

The second reason was, at that time we felt Far Cry had some DNA limitations as to the way it could grow. It would need a new exploration and a new direction, so it would almost be like working on new IP anyway. And also we said as a company it would be great to team up with the next evolution of a partner as well, which was in this case EA. In all aspects it would give us an upgrade as a company, as in new IP, establishing the culture, but also taking on a new partner.

I saw there was this thinking of the team, 'yeah, Far Cry 2 would be so much easier now. We have Far Cry 1 and we could just do new levels and then it would be Far Cry 2.' It scared me to hear that

Cevat Yerli, Crytek co-founder

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Did you plan it as a trilogy even at that early stage?

Cevat Yerli: Crysis was for me always a trilogy, but we didn't design the whole game up front, just to be clear. But we always wanted to wrap up the story, effectively from the first contact in the first skirmish in Crysis 1, and then have a twist in Crysis 2 and resolve it in Crysis 3. So on a high level it was already a trilogy in that sense, but how it unfolded and what it meant, which characters we introduced, that was all based on, let's see how it works in detail, let's see how the market reacts on it and steer the trilogy itself.

You said Far Cry had DNA limitations. What does that mean?

Cevat Yerli: It means it wasn't clear what Far Cry was about really that we could build upon. If we were to do Far Cry 2 where would we take it? What would we do with this? If you look at Ubisoft they even struggle with that too. They went to Africa and now back again to the jungle. They are the same question marks we had. We didn't want to just put it out again in the jungle.

We couldn't have done what we did with Crysis, which was to go back to the jungle and stay with the jungle but also push it into the alien landscape, the alien ship itself and the frozen paradise setting we had in Crysis 1, which was the frozen island part. These kind of creative experiments we couldn't have done with Far Cry. As a company we didn't want to relive the island, but we didn't feel like if we did Far Cry 2 on an island it would be considered as a successful sequel.

We felt limitations also from a storytelling perspective and from a characterisation perspective.

Was Crysis 1 always intended to be a standard for PC graphics?

Cevat Yerli: With Far Cry we had just done CryEngine 1. We felt with the engine, while it delivered a great game, we could push it much more. Effectively we just got warmed up. We felt we established a culture in our R&D division and the game division with both working tightly together to push boundaries. We said we just learned so much and we made so many mistakes, let's do it right, but let's show off right now.

With the Crysis IP we had this construct that allowed us to really go for that and to build CryEngine 2, which was designed to be, okay, use all the experience you've done but remove all the handicaps and the mistakes and push it now full speed forward. To some degree that explains why CryEngine 2 and Crysis 1 were so much of a technology showcase as they were pushing gameplay boundaries as well.

There was a misconception that Crysis would run only on high end spec, which was not true

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You've said you were disappointed by sales of the game and its piracy rate.

Cevat Yerli: If pirates pirate the game that means you have a great game. That's true.

But it must have felt particularly disappointing to see the piracy rates given how much you'd invested into the creation of the game.

Cevat Yerli: At a personal level I can say this: in a way it was understandable to me. I was thinking, Crysis had pushed the boundaries but also raised the entry barrier. In order to play the game you had to buy or have a very good PC. Knowing how difficult it is with money for entertainment, you would have the choice of, do you want to pirate the game and buy the hardware because you can't pirate hardware, or do you want to buy both? Some people have pirated the game and retrospectively - I'm talking about a handful of people - sent us a cheque for 50 euros in an envelope and said, 'sorry for pirating your game and here's your money.' I wish a million people had done that. That would have been better.

But on the other hand I was not happy. We pushed the boundaries so high but unfortunately we just reached a few people that had the PCs and could just go out and buy the game. So the amount of hardcore gamers with the kind of PCs out there were not enough, so the sales were lower. But we had a long tail. We sold much longer because of the high end specifications of the game.

Also, there was a misconception that the game would run only on high end spec, which was not true. Crysis 1, yes, you had to have a PC that was high end to really maximise it, but we had an intention of design where Crysis would actually be a forward looking game. It was designed to be for you not to be maximising out right now. It was always designed to be maximising up for the next two years. And likewise it was designed to scale down. That means the entry wasn't that high. It was perceived as very high because we designed it as forward looking.

And so, I wish there would have been more appreciation for that and better communication so the initial four to six weeks we would have sold more. But again, I have some sympathy to piracy. I was not that happy with how the market perceived what is the entry barrier for the game, because it is not as high as most people perceive.

Why did you release Crysis 2 on consoles as well as PC?

Cevat Yerli: My response to that early on, before we even shipped the game, I said to people the number one reason was the social circle of our developers. There were fewer and fewer actually playing games on PC, as in friends and family members. When they asked, 'when are you making games for consoles?' it was for us a clear move. We had to move to consoles so nephews and brothers and sisters and friends can play your game as well.

And there was a bigger market out there. Our competitors outsold us by large margins because they were running also on PlayStation 3 and Xbox. We said, 'Hey, we could do very good here if Crysis also runs on consoles at the same time and reach much more gamers and share the Crysis love.'

I understand there's a critique out there saying Crysis 2 is more linear and we sold out and things like that. But I personally don't accept that

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For Crysis 2 you changed the gameplay to what you called a “choreographed sandbox”, but many fans accused it of being too linear. How would you characterise this shift?

Cevat Yerli: I understand there's a critique out there saying Crysis 2 is more linear and we sold out and things like that. But I personally don't accept that. When we designed Crysis 2 the only choice we made was to say we wanted to go to an urban environment. This is a very pragmatic and simple decision-making process. We had done Crysis 1, then Crysis Warhead, we had done Far Cry before, and after five or six years of jungles we said, 'Enough, let's move to something else.' And for that something else we chose a city.

We picked New York - maybe a wrong choice retrospectively - as a symbolic choice for this city of the world. And if the city of the world gets attacked and goes down then every city in the world would go down. It was a symbolic choice for the fort of mankind.

New York, however, brings dense crossroads and structures and buildings that make it difficult to have open expansive environments. When we picked the landmark locations they drove the sandbox design, which eventually ended up being at a square foot space maybe tighter. But at a cubic foot space of volume it was larger because we tried to expand the sandbox towards the height of the city, towards the verticality of the sandbox.

But, rightfully in that regard, gamers perceived it as a tighter play space and more linear. Also, we felt a sandbox game that requires a lot of freedom like Crysis 1 was perceived as something of an elite gamer kind of thing. Other games that were more commercially successful than Crysis as a formula were more handholding. They were entirely handholding experiences. We tried to bring in this choreographed sandbox formula to the table, which is mixing the volume of a sandbox from Crysis 2 with some of the linearity you would see - some of it only, like 10 per cent only - in some of the more successful IPs out there. We got critiques from others. Newbies liked it more than the previous one. It was a mixed opinion.

So, you believe New York was the wrong decision for Crysis 2?

Cevat Yerli: New York was the wrong choice for these reasons. In Crysis 3 we pretty much destroyed New York to the degree that we've flattened it in many play spaces so we get this more open play space again, like we had in Crysis 1. So you get in Crysis 3 this more choreographed sandbox but much more wider without compromising the volume. So effectively you get more volume and more space now in Crysis 3, which should lead to much more decision-making and open-ended gameplay.

If you were to make Crysis 2 again where might you have set it?

Cevat Yerli: Maybe in a fictional city. I would have done something like Dark Knight where there is this fictional city that is actually Chicago. I would have done something like that: a fictional city that represents mankind but doesn't force us to try to be truthful to things. So we can move around buildings and create fictional buildings so it looks authentic but it doesn't limit the gameplay by its authenticity.

In Crysis 3 we pretty much destroyed New York to the degree that we've flattened it in many play spaces so we get this more open play space again, like we had in Crysis 1

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Is Crysis 3 the end of Crysis?

Cevat Yerli: It's the end of the story of Crysis, but that doesn't mean it's the end of the franchise. It's the end of Prophet's story. Prophet started the journey in Crysis 1 with Psycho and Jester and others, and we're bringing those buddies together in Crysis 3 to finish up the story and effectively make sense out of the trilogy. We are finalising the story arc of Prophet to conclude in a dramatic way.

But obviously the DNA of Crysis and the franchise, we are very excited about it and we think there can be literally tonnes of titles out there within the franchise. Unlike Far Cry, this time around we feel very flexible about Crysis.

Will you do a Crysis 4?

Cevat Yerli: I wouldn't name it Crysis 4 at this stage.

Why not?

Cevat Yerli: Because it would be misleading. We want to finalise Prophet's story and Crysis 4 would imply the story just moves on.

I've read you quoted as saying you'll be free-to-play only in the future. Will all Crysis titles in the future be F2P only?

Cevat Yerli: The truth is much more complicated. There's a transformation period for the industry. I believe free-to-play is our inevitable future. I believe there are F2P titles out there that can be story-telling, that can be co-operative with your friends and can be competitive with your friends. It's all possible. The business model is independent from the way you design games. It's a very important thing. People always make these things dependent, but it's actually completely independent.

But the most important aspect is there is a psychological transformation of the customers and the publishers that has to happen before everything is F2P on every platform. We are promoting these steps with other titles we're doing right now in our company. Crysis, we do have a plan for a F2P version of Crysis, but how this looks and when this will be done, whether this is the next one or the other next one, is to be decided.

But we have a very clear picture of how this will look and how a transitional period where retail and free-to-play can coexist for one title.

The next one is potentially F2P and retail?

Cevat Yerli: Yeah.

Have you decided on any game ideas for the next Crysis after Crysis 3?

Cevat Yerli: That's too early to talk about right now. Unlike Crysis 2 and Crysis 3 for the future Crysis we have not started the process yet. Normally in this time right now we would already have pre-production going on. But because we want to make this something much more radical and new we are looking at it as a bit more of a long term thing. It's too early to talk about it for these reasons.

Will it be a next-generation and PC game or PC only?

Cevat Yerli: Again, that's something to be determined. We have yet to have these talks with potential partners. That's why it's too early to talk about it. I sincerely just don't know yet.

Are you happy with the sales of the series?

Cevat Yerli: That's a difficult one, and I'm not talking about being greedy and we want more sales. But effectively Crysis 1 and 2 and 3 are just about breaking even. If we meet the forecasts - and I can't reveal the forecasts - then we are going to break even.

This is a very important point. The market is much more brutal for developers than people assume. It's difficult for many reasons. If you want to stay in the triple-A space where you want to tell big stories with big productions, there are a lot of market shifts right now happening to different platforms, from social platforms to mobile and other platforms. People say they do not affect the market, but they do affect the market.

The console sales are down. The PC sales are down for the retail markets. But they're getting bigger for F2P and online markets. So for a retail game like Crysis 3 it's going to be a tough one to break out and hit the big numbers.

Is there something about the Crysis games themselves that have prevented them from achieving the popularity of, say, Call of Duty and Halo?

Cevat Yerli: If you track the IP popularity, we are maybe not as popular as Call of Duty or Halo yet, but we are very close to this. Crysis 3 has a chance to break out for Crytek, but it's going to be a tough one. It's a good time for gamers. Tonnes of great games are launching in the next few months. We are launching as well. It's going to be exciting for gamers and difficult for publishers and developers to stand out.

We went through Crysis 1 and 2 knowing Crysis 3 will be our long term investment and the return of the investment. Our partnership with EA is mature and collaborative. We said with Crysis 2 we are going to spend a lot of money making Crysis 2 a high quality experience on console as well. That investment is going to, hopefully, return for us now with Crysis 3. If if breaks out then we are going to have a great success. If it sells like Crysis 2 and like what a typical sequel does in a third iteration, then we are going to be all happy still.

We never make a game saying we are going to sell 15 million units. We're not dreaming about this. If it happens, because we are busting our ass off making this great game, then great. And if it hits our forecast numbers, which are much more conventional, or much more realistic, then we are going to be financially okay, and we can move on and make our next great things.

That's how we work and that's how reality is. That's all I'm trying to say. I'm not trying to paint a bad picture here. I'm just saying the realities are you have to work with a realistic situation. The game has all the ingredients. Crysis 3, I mean, look at it. From a concept perspective, from an environment perspective... the gameplay is substantially better than Crysis2, the Seven Wonders concept we put in place is spectacular, the story is more refined than ever before. I think Crysis 3 has all the ingredients to break out.

If you look at the age of the IP, we are now where Call of Duty and Halo broke out as well. Usually franchises take about seven to eight years before they can really break out. We are in the cycle right now.

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