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Interview: Crytek on Ryse's filmic ambition

By Dan Griliopoulos on Wednesday 2nd Oct 2013 at 12:29 PM UTC

Crytek's Ryse has gone through many changes during its long development - from first-person Kinect brawler to third-person squad combat - but what hasn't changed is the focus on making the game as cinematic as possible.

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Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli

After his speech at the recent DICE Europe conference, we caught up with Crytek president Cevat Yerli to hear the reasons his company decided to take this route, and find out why it sees its techniques as not just ground-breaking for video games, but potentially revolutionary for cinema.

Ryse is set to release alongside Xbox One on November 22, 2013. The console will launch in 13 markets including North America, UK and Australia simultaneously.


Your DICE talk focused heavily on cinematic techniques - why is this such a concern for Crytek?

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We've been looking at the story as the main target of Ryse. We want to tell a fantastic journey through Europe, the story of Rome. It's going to be much more story-heavy than anything we've done so far. We've been looking at how we can bring filmic techniques to amplify that experience. A world of characters that are, in total, told in a better way. Gameplay is always a hard goal to achieve in a new IP, but pairing it with visuals and animation and cinematics, and heightening that experience, is a good goal for us.

Looking at how Ryse changes from your previous games, the style is different, the combat is different, the perspective is different, the setting is different... why would you want to change every single aspect of a game at once?

(Laughs) Internally, we're almost joking talking about that! We couldn't make our lives harder. We've done everything new, there's nothing there which is a constant between our previous games and Ryse. But we wanted to improve Crytek in many ways and the toughest choice we've done is to experiment with whole new types of gameplay. Over the years, Crytek has grown and we've explored many areas we can go into.

Ryse came from experimenting with Kinect and first-person action-oriented gaming with melee. Eventually we settled into a close-up emotional experience, but with a third-person cameraman around you, providing a great perspective, focusing on Marius as a hero. That choice was a typical one, not to stay comfortable and to move out of your comfort zone, break new terrain, and push a genre forward that has not received a real, serious treatment.

I don't want to say the games were bad, in the third-person action genre, but that they weren't matured yet. We have a more believable, credible story - there's no fantasy, no over-the-top experience. For me, it's the difference between Quake and Counter Strike, back in the day, and today the comparison between arcadey third-person action games and Ryse.

Yet, it's not strictly realistic; you had your stuntmen on wires, as nobody could realistically lift a man on his sword and throw him over his head, every 30 seconds...

Exactly, it's the borderline between the hero and the superhero. It's grounded in realism. If you play the game, it'll feel real to you, feel believable, as there's a certain amount of emotional reason why [Marius] is so powerful. But we didn't to want to add anything like magic or overpower or supercharges or anything like that - we wanted a touch of realism, in the world, and the characters and how you fight. The choreography of combat was a big deal for us - we didn't want to just have gaming looking-choreography, we put a huge amount of effort to give the fighting a style, a rhythm, a mastery kind of experience, so even a newbie can have a great-looking experience. It's difficult in Ryse to not look good.

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The Roman setting you're going for is non-descript, non era-specific. Do you have an era in mind?

We call it a historical mash-up, things that people know about, so we're not historically accurate, just like Gladiator. We are trying to be accurate to what people perceive what the history is. We would like to be the Hollywood history mash-up, where you take some of the parts and compress it into an interesting experience. It's between 400-600AD.

So this is late Roman Empire. Right.

Ryse is very much how people perceive Rome, but we've done a power-take on the art direction of Rome. It resembles Rome, we call it Rome, but it wasn't really Rome like that. We added some aspects of visual characterisation to help it stand out from the Romes you've seen in films or other video games. We've mixed the architecture of Rome with Art Deco, so it stands out.

The theory behind this is simple - realistic graphics get forgotten very quickly, so a stylised version of graphics, whether through colours or silhouettes, we went for an architectural style that doesn't break the realism, is believable or different. We feel we have a Rome that's very interesting to explore and other area of Britannia that we have changed away what from people would perceive but makes a better environment for storytelling.

"Realistic graphics get forgotten very quickly... we feel we have a Rome that's very interesting to explore and better for storytelling."

You're keeping the cinematic elements in-engine and you're not doing many cuts. How do you handle keeping people immersed when standard Hollywood techniques rely so heavily on cuts, as seen in Heavy Rain?

If you look why people cut, it's because it's convenient to cut a film like that - it's convenient to shoot a movie in shots. To shoot in one go was hard - if you needed an actor to perform a two hour play, then he needed to be at top quality. Then they improved this by saying, hey we can get more drama out of it, by getting closer and getting away and getting establishing shots. Michael Bay has taken this to extremes, using cuts to improve the pace of a movie substantially.

However, in my opinion, if you do it too much, it confuses people, especially in a game, where you have control. They can be hugely disruptive, more so than in film. So we made a rule, that we do not cut unless we absolutely have to - technical limitations, or whatever reason. Or in a cinematic, where the actors couldn't perform long enough. We use it as pacing for a last restort.

Is it true that you storyboarded the whole game, including the action sequences? How long will it last then?

Pretty much - I mean, if there was a 15 minute fight, we didn't script 15 minutes of fighting. But in essence, it was about getting the scope of the game and designing the pacing. When we have cinematics, when we have gameplay, what types of gameplay, what it takes to get there, the entire game visible. That experience led to the point where we were much better prepared for production.

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That also means that you have a good idea of how long the game is, before you start making it.

We have a pretty good idea, but no-one knows accurately, as players are playing differently, as you say. We have an estimated average time - but, just as in Crysis there is an element of sandbox, so the way you upgrade your character, changes the time.

You said you've done all-new lighting design, colour-coding levels, doing ultra-realistic lighting on faces, and a range of new cinematic tricks... why hasn't anyone done this before?

Well... I don't know. In our company, it was simply a matter of expertise. We have been working with a film lab for a while, to exchange expertise and knowledge, how to use engines to improve film production, and Cinebox is a by-product of the learnings. There's a way for us to bring that into game experiences, and in a more visible way than the big Hollywood guys. It educated us that we have a group here with the talent to push certain ways of story creation. It's a matter of budget, platform and technology all coming together, then over to the talent.

Films that employ these techniques are working at a much-larger budget - while game developers are working at a tighter budget - usually. We learned from each other and bumped the budget up a bit on Ryse and said we will now prove that extra investment can bring that kind of quality jump - and we believe it did. Eventually, it did. A more dramatic, emotional experience, the game as well as the cinematics, perceive quality that they've never seen before. Even subliminally. I want people to say that this is a deep experience, but I don't want them to be able to point out why.

Steam OS has just been announced - would you consider making a steam console? A Crytek box that sells just Crytek games?

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That's an interesting question. I hadn't thought about that. But, to be honest, I'm not up to speed on SteamOS - my head's been down on Ryse all this time. It sounds like an interesting idea and I'd have to check it to really judge it and test it out or get more information from Valve. But I applaud their risk-taking - I appreciate companies that do risk-taking and they're quite ambitious here.

That being said, a platform launch and an OS launch, it takes quite an amount of effort... There might be a certain amount of enthusiasm here, but I have to check what the reaction is here, but it's too early for me to judge right now. We have Ryse and Warface and Gface and other things, so it would be premature to say 'this is great' or not.

You've got real-style camera lenses in the game too, right?

Yes, we're mimicking prime lenses, simulating real lenses, and when we shot the cinematics, we have applied virtual cameras and handheld-techniques on those, to support a different type of visual experience to add more realism to something that's virtual. The cinematic techniques have worked really worked well and improved quality across the board.

Why, with all these filmic techniques and evocative setting, are you doing a QTE-focused hack and slash game?

It's because Marius is a fighter. We wanted to tell the story of a soldier and a substantial proportion of that is fighting. I don't like the term hack and slash - our game is a combat game. We are definitely as accessible as any other combat game - but hack and slash is, for me, more like fantasy monsters. Combat games are usually between humans and other humans.

We chose a combat game because it added punch to the emotional journey we already had. And, also combat again, is an opportunity for us to put to put our standpoint and say ' this is how we, Crytek, would do combat and how we would portray it, cut it, do the performance capture, etc, etc'. I think we found a style that could be interesting for the future to build on top.

"I don't like the term hack and slash - our game is a combat game."

Did you see the LucasArts 1313 film technique, which is being used for movies? Did it impress you?

I've seen it and no, it didn't impress me. The reason is that we released, three or four years ago, a video that did just that. Out of that tech demo, Cinebox was born, a full application that's been doing it for 3-4 years. We have been showing it to film studios for the last few years, from which we adapted filmic techniques for Ryse. It has virtual cameras, and staging, and physics, and touching. It wasn't even CryEngine 3, so the rendering quality was awful at times, but technically it was real-time mo-cap, real-time everything.

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I think it's great to see it from ILM because it justifies or validates our strategy, that this is a way that future film-making should be done. It's something we've shown to James Cameron and other directors, and they were very impressed. It's just a matter of time before the entire film industry adapts these techniques.

The other thing that's exciting is that we've seen this with photography, journalism, game development and programming, everything is becoming more egalitarian - everyone has access to the tools that previously only professionals did.

Yes, exactly. Technology's reason for existing is always to empower the less-powerful. We're doing it already - we have over 5 million downloads on our website. If you have a look at CryEngine.com, you can download the SDK for free. We have 300,000 or 400,000 monthly active users on the engine right now - it's one of the biggest out there right now. That being said, in the next two years, there will be some substantial updates in that area and there will be some interesting announcements coming early next year about that. We've interested in empowering the most underpowered.

You sound like Karl Marx, 'seize the means of production.'

Ha, that's funny. Oh, and with regards to Cinebox, a big commercial push will happen early next year in the film industry, which is exciting for us. We're running a long closed beta period with hundreds of closed beta testers - and Who's Who is on the list. And we have just been testing it and ironing out bugs and fixing pipelines. It does not really fit into Crytek's industry, as it's a different type of consumer and different types of plans and business model, etc. We're looking to spinning it off or licensing the rights to another company, as we want to see Cinebox grow. We're very excited about it!