How German technology saved a British developer in an unstable market
We visit Crytek UK, home of Time Splitters and forthcoming FPS Homefront: The Revolution
Homefront: The Revolution’s tale of guerrilla warfare in a near-future Philadelphia pits a small but close-knit team against a large occupying force with more expensive equipment and far greater firepower. It’s a narrative analogous to Crytek UK’s situation: while it may have advanced tech of its own, here is a studio whose current project faces a struggle for territory in a genre ruled by
Call Of Duty and Battlefield. The developer’s story is also one of triumph over adversity. The studio was founded in 1999 under the name of Free Radical Design by three ex-Rare staffers who’d worked on GoldenEye
007: David Doak, Steve Ellis and Karl Hilton. Yet despite a number of successes – most notably with the Time-Splitters series – by 2008 the studio was facing administration. In May that year, its new PS3 exclusive, Haze, had underperformed critically and commercially, and while the studio had been working on Star Wars: Battlefront III for LucasArts, sweeping changes at the publisher led to key management staff exiting and some projects – Battlefront included – being cancelled.
LucasArts offered the studio a small payment to buy out its contract. Free Radical had received no money from LucasArts in six months; without the funds to pursue the case in court, it had little choice but to accept. Later that year, a potential deal with Activision to remake GoldenEye fell through without explanation. After suffering a nervous breakdown, Doak quit, and Ellis and Hilton were left to deal with the administrators.
Hilton is now Crytek UK’s managing director, and the only one of the three co-founders to remain. “A whole host of issues came together from Free Radical’s point of view,” he recalls. “The credit crunch was vicious; suddenly, lots of projects were being cancelled, everyone was looking at what they were spending money on, and Free Radical bore some of the brunt of that. Plus, there was a console transition going on at the time, which is always a tricky time for games. It was just a perfect storm of events that hit us.”
From around 200 staff, the studio was whittled down to 44. The company went into administration just before Christmas 2008 and Crytek wouldn’t enter the picture until early in the new year. Ellis and Hilton needed to impress upon the administrators – who knew little about the game industry – the viability of Free Radical, but it helped that the studio’s reputation preceded it. “There was interest from day one,” says Hilton. “Both Steve and I were extremely hopeful a rescue was possible. Neither of us wanted to dare think it wouldn’t happen. It always seemed [like] someone would come forward.”
He also admits that the buyout was only possible thanks to the loyalty of the remaining Free Radical staff. “On January 2, we came back to the office. We didn’t have a buyer, and everyone showed up,” Hilton says. “It was one of the most humbling things to see everyone turn up again, and [the Crytek acquisition] wouldn’t have been possible if half the team had disappeared. The situation wasn’t perfect by any means, but we had this close-knit group of people who believed in a lot of what was being done and were prepared to try to stick by us.”
Hasit Zala was among them, having been lead programmer on the Time-Splitters series. “The term we used then was ‘team leads’,” he says. “This was back in an era where we didn’t really have producers or designers – we were just a bunch of developers making a game. When Crytek bought us, one of the key things within that very strong core group of people who’d been with us for a long time was a very high skill level. People had that intuitive muscle memory of working together and that knowledge base.”
Crytek’s arrival could have been quite a culture shock, but the transition, suggests Zala, was easier than anticipated. “They’ve been utterly brilliant from day one,” he says. ”There was this [concern] initially: are they going to throw in a layer of management on top? Are they going to take creative control or production control? Are they going to [impose] their systems, their process, their culture? But it’s not been like that at all. They’ve been super-trusting. They said, ‘Look, we’ve got this technology. You use your team, your culture and your experience and work the way you want to work.’”
The publisher has given the studio its engine and infrastructure, as well as an opportunity to flourish. “They don’t want to take overarching control on a micromanagement level,” says Zala. “Working with top creative at central Crytek is more of a collaborative effort.”
Being able to work directly with Cry-Engine undoubtedly made it easier for the newly named
“STEVE AND I WERE HOPEFUL A RESCUE WAS POSSIBLE. NEITHER OF US WANTED TO DARE THINK IT WOULDN’T HAPPEN”
Crytek UK to adapt. Yet while its core team remains, there have been changes to the working environment and the studio’s methodology. Zala says that while Crytek didn’t come in with diktats, the studio’s first assignment working with the
Crysis 2 team on that game’s multiplayer component saw it move from the waterfall method to an agile development process. And while Crytek UK’s development teams are spread over two floors, adopting an open-plan layout has made communication easier, too. In the early stages of Homefront: The
Revolution’s creation, meanwhile, coders, designers and animators were split into goal-focused groups, before being shifted back into departments towards the end of development. “But it’s still fundamentally the same relationship,” says Hilton. “Because you’ve still got all these different artists and designers and so on having to work together and understand each other’s needs… That’s the reason I love the game industry: there’s such a diverse set of talents that [have to] come together to make a game.”
Still, Homefront: The Revolution represents quite a departure for the studio. After all, Free Radical was best known for TimeSplitters, an FPS series defined by idiosyncratic characters and a surreal sense of humour. “I always evangelise it or talk about it in retrospect as this very developer-indulgent game,” says Zala. “We just came up with stuff: ‘Oh yeah, monkeys! That would be cool. Let’s make them smaller and put them in. That’s amazing’. And we’d have robots and zombies, and we had a lot of fun poking fun at movies… It was whatever came into our minds. It was a very unstructured project. It was very creative in that respect, but confusing to marketing people, who didn’t know how to market it [to a global audience].”
The benefit of Crytek’s involvement, then, was to help curb such indulgences. “We always had an ambition to make a really big game,” Zala says, “and for something like that, you need a central, coherent vision, something much more structured.” The trade-off is far less spontaneity in the final stages. “I do enjoy those games where you can say, ‘Oh, what the hell, let’s bring in this Ozzy Osbourne character,’” Zala admits. “So it goes both ways, really.”
Not that development of Crytek UK’s current project has passed without incident. Having worked on an expansive multiplayer game for over a year, that was scrapped to focus on a singleplayer campaign. Homefront: The
Revolution is now something of an anomaly: a narrative-led open-world shooter with a co-op mode, but no competitive online component.
Crytek UK learned a hard lesson from working on Crysis 2 and 3‘ s multiplayer – namely, that it had misjudged the importance of accessibility, so while both games retained a small core of elite players, they failed to break out beyond their niches. Still, the success of Crytek’s F2P Warface, which focused on a familiar, accessible set of principles rather than visual fidelity, did inspire the team to try again.
“We’d built out large-scale multiplayer using CryEngine tech, with vehicles and so on, and it was all very cool,” says Zala, “but when we looked at it and asked what it offered against, say, Battlefield, we had to ask ourselves whether it was more compelling… That was a difficult question, because we were playing something fun and well-executed that had that accessibility, but was it enough to pull people away?”
Despite the radical shift that followed, there’s clearly a belief here that the studio can make a success of its Homefront sequel. Even if the game
Perhaps it could find an audience as a multiplayer-focused game on one of the digital services, though? “Like any good brand – and
TimeSplitters was a good brand – I don’t think there’s any value in carbon copying that for a new set of technology,” Hilton says. “You might get a few people who’d really enjoy it and it’s always fun to see something running better and faster, but you’d need to distil what the core competencies of the game were – the things that people really liked – and then bring it to new tech, while learning from other multiplayer games that have done things differently [since].
“I think Crytek has always said it would like to return to it one day. We’re obviously very busy
“YOU’D NEVER MAKE TIMESPLITTERS NOW THE WAY WE MADE IT AND PUT IT IN A BOX AND SELL IT IN A SHOP”
does underperform, Crytek UK is in a stronger position than before to adapt. Upstairs, a small team is working on a 360 version of Warface, and Hilton is aware of where the company’s future is likely to lie. “A lot of companies see their future in online, free-to-play and freemium gaming – certainly Cevat [Yerli, president] has said that’s a longterm direction for Crytek. We’re making that transition now. Boxed product is not going to go away, but it’s going to decline in importance, and as a company you don’t want to be reacting too late [to trends].”
Even as it looks forward, is there a temptation for this established studio to revisit its past? A
TimeSplitters comeback would surely be warmly received. “You’d never make TimeSplitters now the way we made it and put it in a box and sell it in a shop,” Hilton says. “That’s just not viable.” at the moment. With the right opportunity at the right time on the right platform in the right form, yeah, absolutely. What that would be at the moment…” He shrugs and laughs quietly.
After such upheaval, and despite the ongoing pressures of an industry in constant flux, there’s a remarkable sense of calm at Crytek UK. Hilton says that while he hopes the studio is recognised for its technical excellence, having worked hard to develop and advance the CryEngine tech, he’s equally keen that it’s known for being an open, creative and happy working environment. “You can work on the best projects in the world, but if somewhere has got a reputation for being a bit of a slave-driving place, you don’t want to go and make those games there. It’s just not worth it. Hasit and I both believe that a good work/life balance is really critical for good work.”
Karl Hilton (left) and Hasit Zala have worked together since Free Radical Design’s formation 15 years ago. Hilton was the studio’s co-founder; Zala was its first recruit
Founded 1999 (as Free Radical Design)
Employees 130 Key staff Karl Hilton (managing director), Hasit Zala (game director)
URL www.crytek.com/career/studios/ overview/nottingham
Selected softography TimeSplitters, Second Sight, Haze, Crysis 2/Crysis 3 (multiplayer)
Current projects Homefront: The Revolution,
Crytek UK employees are invited to share their ideas, and the open office is conducive to this, as well as the agile development process the company has adopted since the buyout