Stu­dio Pro­file

How Ger­man tech­nol­ogy saved a Bri­tish de­vel­oper in an un­sta­ble mar­ket

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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,

War­face (360)

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

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