Between trying to take on Call of Duty and plugging an unfortunate leak, Crytek's got a lot on its plate. Fortunately, senior producer Hasit Zala took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with little old us at GDC today.
For most games, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment just before launch is a victory lap. After all, the game's a known quantity. The lines are drawn. Everybody knows where everyone else stands. All that's left is to shove your latest hatchling out of the nest and pop open some celebratory champagne. Crytek – for better or worse – hasn't quite had that luxury.
Between prepping a multiplayer mode with the aim of taking down the industry's 800lb gorillas and attempting to clean up a messy leak, senior producer Hasit Zala's been front-and-center for all of Crytek's recent trials and tribulations. And while other men in his position might be jaded and worn down at the end of such a bumpy ride, Zala's anything but. His product, he believes, is more than capable of besting any multiplayer shooter on the market. And if that shooter happens to be Call of Duty? So be it.
“We have a team of over 70 developers dedicated to the multiplayer side of Crysis 2. And I think the key thing is that it's a big, big operation. The idea is really that multiplayer is a big part of first-person shooters. One of the key things that we wanted to establish was multiplayer that'd go toe-to-toe with the top games out there. And yeah, that's something we're hoping to do,” he told VG247 during EA's GDC showcase on Tuesday.
Of course, it's one thing to make such a bold proclamation, but it's something else entirely to actually pull it off. For Zala and co, that meant going back to the drawing board and developing something capable of standing on its own two feet – a stark contrast to the obligatory multiplayer components so many modern shooters are guilty of supporting.
"One of the key things that we wanted to establish was multiplayer that'd go toe-to-toe with the top games out there."
“It's probably fair to say that one of the things we did when we came on board was to just re-write the whole of the multiplayer. So we didn't really look at either of the [Crysis] games before that. And when you get to play it, you'll see that it is a completely different multiplayer design,” Zala explained.
“One of the key things we tried to address was how we could really make the nanosuit experience stand out in a modern day multiplayer arena. We tried to make something that was more immediate, faster-paced, and visceral. The action's tighter. The arenas are much more in-your-face. And all of that is enhanced by the nanosuit and its behaviors.”
While the jury's still out on the success of that endeavor, it's certainly led Crysis 2 down some interesting avenues. We had the chance to try out a mode in which one side was given full nanosuit abilities and a very limited selection of weak weapons while the other's ordinances packed more of a punch, but they themselves were nanosuit-less and squishy. The result, then, was an interesting contrast, as the suit's abilities made its wearers formidable foes for multiple opponents – even with their pitiful pea shooter guns. And while we're not entirely sold on it just yet - the mode's balance seemed a bit skewed in favor of non-nanosuit wearers - we're still definitely interested in seeing more.
When it leaks, it pours
Unfortunately, we don't live in a world where games live or die solely based on relative quality. There's a constant tug-of-war among outside factors, and, on the PC, the burly armed rope-tugging champ is none other than piracy. But even piracy's status as a predictable occupational hazard doesn't dull the sting of seeing your unfinished, unpolished mixture of blood, sweat, and tears haphazardly tossed into the internet's soup of bile and venom. You'd think, then, that Zala would've been devastated by the recent Crysis 2 leak. And he was – but not for long.
“You know, we just finished a critical stage in development, and we were on a real high,” he told us. “Then we heard about the leak, and our immediate reaction was that we were quite despondent about it – as you can imagine. But what emerged from that straight away was the community, the people out there, and the support – the overwhelming support – that they gave, it just blew us away.
“Guys were out there saying, 'Well, I'm not gonna download this. I'm gonna support Crytek. I'm gonna support Crysis 2. And I'm going out to buy it straight away.' And we were just blown away by it. The leak was something that was very disappointing for us. It just sort of galvanized the community. To be honest with you, we just really thank the PC community for that. For Crytek, it's an important platform for us, and we will always continue to support it.”
The numbers, of course, reflected that, with early stats showing only 10,000 completed downloads of the Crysis 2 leak. So then, is that it? Does Crytek have piracy's number? Is it really that simple? Zala – for the time being – isn't ready to make the nanosuit-powered leap to such conclusions.
“I don't know,” he said. “It's too early to really make any kind of analysis of that. I think that, as time goes on, we'll be able to talk about it with a bit more clarity. For right now, we're focusing on bringing the game out to the public and seeing how they're gonna receive it.”
The road ahead
Crysis 2's nearly out the door, but while other companies might take a few months to pat themselves on the back until there's nothing left of them but a hand-shaped crater in the ground, Crytek's pushing forward. The company, Zala explained, wants to be at the forefront of gaming industry tech, so that whenever, say, a new generation of consoles comes along, it'll be ready.
“We're always researching. We're always looking at what's coming out next. We're always exploring. So, you know, it's not really there for me to talk about what's coming out next, but we're always looking to be one step ahead,” Zala said.
New platform launches definitely haven't gone away entirely. For the time being, they've just gotten, well, smaller. Case in point: Sony's upcoming NGP, which – according to a recent compatibility listing – is a perfect fit for CryEngine. So then, the ball's in Crytek's court. For now, however, the developer's choosing to study said ball and make its next move after long and thoughtful consideration. Terrible ball players, sure, but very good game developers.
"The overwhelming support that [the community] gave, it just blew us away."
“I think, really, Crytek looks at all platforms, and we look at all technology bases. We're forever evolving, and we look at whatever's out there to see if it's appropriate to our business model. So it'll be something that we're looking at,” Zala explained.
Which is all well and good, but it's hardly an earth-shattering shock to Crytek's core business. That honor, however, could very well belong to a rapidly changing gaming industry climate, which has seen many triple-A development studios end up crushed under tremendous monetary pressures. Is it only a matter of time, then, before Crytek and its fellow triple-A brethren suffer a similar fate? Unlike many people in this industry – or people in general dealing with any sort of major change, for that matter – Zala approached the problem realistically.
“I don't think [triple-A's] going away,” he began. “I think it's a harder market because of the production values and expenses. You're kind of elevated to an ever more demanding standard. But it is something people want, so I don't think it'll go away. But I do think there will be fewer players in the market.
“You look at the top releases and they make a lot of money. It's one of those cases where the middle market is kind of falling away. You have to be one of the big players. And for a lot of the publishers, what you're seeing is that they're being more selective with their portfolios in terms of what they push for with their big-budget titles.”
"We have a team of over 70 developers dedicated to the multiplayer side of Crysis 2."
Unfortunately, the line between selectivity and over-cautiousness is all too thin, and with so much money on the table, one could be forgiven for declaring the triple-A portion of the gaming industry creatively bankrupt. Zala, however, doesn't think the situation's so grim.
“There's always the school of thought going that smaller portfolios are maybe going to be less creative with the risks that they take,” he said. “But the games industry is a creative industry, and I think it goes in cycles. Eventually, something breaks through, and people want something different as well. So I still think there will be innovations. I think it's a difficult one, because smaller portfolios will have an impact, but people crave for differences and innovation.”
The customer's always right, after all. And for now, the customer has an almost disturbing obsession with shooting things. Incredibly high-fidelity, graphically advanced things. Just a hunch, but we think Crytek might have this whole game development thing figured out pretty well.
Crysis 2 releases on March 22 in North America and March 25 in the UK.