Crytek CEO and founder Cevat Yerli has a lot to be proud of. In just over a decade, his business has grown from a personal hobby into a major player in the gaming industry. Not only are first-person franchises like Distant scream And Crysis has become synonymous with top-of-the-line graphics, but the CryEngine 3 is being licensed for major upcoming projects, including Mech Warrior online and the next game of Left 4 dead developer Turtle Rock. The company is also investing heavily in the growing free-to-play first-person shooter market with War face.
But Crytek also faces major challenges. While CryEngine 3 continues to be licensed by high-profile games, architecture firms, and even the US military, the Unreal Engine has a much deeper penetration into the video game space, drawing a lot of attention with the recent reveal of Unreal Engine 4. And while War face successful overseas, it has not been tested in the North American market.
But when I spoke to Yerli at E3, he came across as one of the most relaxed people on the entire show. Maybe it was just exhaustion, but he smiled consistently, laughed easily, and was nothing like someone who faced threats from all sides.
I spoke with Yerli about Crytek’s origins, CryEngine’s future in an “unreal” world, and why high-end PC gamers can be a tricky target audience.
Ars Technica: You started developing CryEngine as a student. Was that your first game development experience?
Cevat Yerli: I was 12 years old when I made my first game, [but] Crytek was founded in ’99. It was a virtual company. It was actually more of a hobby for me than anything else. I had friends all over the world, on the internet, who shared my opinion and my thoughts, and they liked what I said and they joined the virtual teams. This was all just for a hobby, to make the kind of games we would love to make. I was 16 when I started my first attempts at making games [with others]and I was 19 when the more serious endeavors began.
Then in 1999, when I was 21, we had three different prototypes that we developed. One was called X Islanda wash Quiet Spaceit was a space shooter, and the other one was called English. And in 2000 I went to E3 and showed those three prototypes, and people were amazed at the quality because we did this as a hobby. And when people said, “How come your hobby project is better than our pro project that we’re showing at E3?” I was like, “I don’t have an answer to that, but I know what we’re doing is cool.”
We [Yerli and his brothers Avni and Faruk] were three Germans who came from Germany [our] to take [on], and nobody wore suits here. I was like, “Okay, take off the suits!” the next day. We showed some stuff to publishers and Ubisoft was the one to pick it up X Islandwhat then became Distant scream.
When you put together your original team to work on X Island, how did you sell them on the idea of designing an entire engine? That’s a huge project for a bunch of guys just as a hobby.
It was kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. At first we thought, “Okay, we want to build this game,” and we didn’t want to compromise on the idea. We didn’t know what it meant to make this game because we looked at the others [game] engines and said, “This engine can’t do the game we want to do.” We found that Unreal, or its software engine, was too “closed spaces” at the time. We wanted to have a terrain-based, open world engine for Distant scream, and that technology did not exist. So we said, “Let’s build it.”
And people didn’t really question the statement “Let’s build it.” They just said, “Okay, so who should we hire?” And then I started hand-picking engineers and the tool man and stuff. In fact, as we were building the business, learning how to make games, we were also building an engine team at the same time.
The probability of failure is huge at that point, but we were not afraid and we had no idea of the risk. We just did it. We were not bothered by previous experience so could be crazy enough to do it. If I would [build a new company] with today’s experience I probably wouldn’t be so crazy.
If you think [about] our risk profile, there are three guys who want to make a game, so they choose the genre of shooters, which is the most difficult at the time. They decide to create their own engine and a completely different game that had never been done before. Bright colors, open spaces, non-linear, systemic AI, stuff like that, and [our] first engine, so the probability of failure [were] enormous.
Where does the “Cry” in Crytek come from? Crytek, CryEngine…
I’m bad at coming up with names, that’s why! [laughs]
It came from someWhere.
I wanted to have recognition around the Crytek brand. The conception of the name Crytek, the real reason is a secret, but I will tell you another reason. It’s the technology that ultimately has to be so emotionally true it makes you cry, right? Then there’s another reason, and that’s the original reason, which I’ll share one day, but not now. The idea is that we want to make sure there’s brand recognition with our games that we build, but we’re relaxing this a bit now.
As you look around the video game industry, do you see technological advances that you think are clear responses to CryEngine?
Oh yeah. Many of them. A lot of theirs. I mean, if you look back honestly over the past six years, since 2007… when we released the first Sandbox video, the CryEngine 2 editor where you could play the game in the editor, no one had done that before. So we see the Unity [engine] spawn… and the Epic [Unreal] engine tried to emulate that, and Epic still isn’t 100% there, but Unity actually started out that way, clearly inspired by Sandbox.
When I look at DirectX 9, DX10, DX11, there’s constant progress every time there was a next wave, and if you really analyze [the] technical quality of the engine since then [the] X Island technical demo Distant screamThan CrysisThan crysis 2, I don’t think there was ever a time when CryEngine wasn’t leading the pack. And I think it’s because we’re ruthless in that regard.
We don’t see it as, “Do we really need the future?” We’d rather say, “Make it.” It’s better for the gamer, it’s cooler for the game. We do not [worry] more than a ton of investment. We just go ahead and say, “That’s the best we can do, that’s going to push the boundaries, that’s going to innovate, that’s making this possible,” and we want the best to achieve that.
Our culture, our philosophy in our company, [is that] we let the guys come up with the new ideas. It’s not very top down and I say it [my] engineers, “Hey guys, can you do this and this for me?” rather, [I say], “How do you think we can advance the graphics? What can an animation do? What can physics do?” And those guys come up with tons of ideas that they pitch, and [I] say, “Go and do it.”
I don’t ask them, ‘Did you contact [the] game team if they need it?” [I say], “Make a case, tell the game team how they can benefit.” That’s how you get evolution. If you ask your customer, like with gamers, sometimes they don’t know what they want yet, because if they can’t imagine the future, it’s hard. So the best subject matter experts are the people who do the work, and when you tell them, “Where do you see the next two years going,” they come up with hundreds of ideas.
I just wrap them up and say, “Let’s take this, this, and this” and then we go ahead and tell the game team to use it. And that’s how the best games are born.