Crysis Warhead Interview: Lessons Learned

A common theme began to emerge over the course of my conversation with Crytek producer Bernd Diemer: this company has learned a lot since the release of Crysis.

Crysis Warhead, the result of Crytek's accumulated knowledge, will be released on Tuesday, and already the game is receiving high marks from critics.

In our lengthy interview, Diemer went over the major changes made to the Crysis formula in Warhead, whether Crysis itself will be patched to bring it up to speed, the importance of the new Crysis-branded PC, and the future of the Crysis franchise.

Shack: The aliens were a controversial aspect of the original Crysis--some people liked them, some people hated them.

Bernd Diemer: In Crysis, one thing we did--with the best intentions of course--was we switched the AI behavior quite fundamentally in the later levels with the aliens. So everything you learned from fighting humans wasn't valid anymore. And looking back, I think the switch was a bit too harsh.

Shack: So you guys saw it as more of an AI problem than any other design problem.

Bernd Diemer: I mean, if people complain about a certain section or a certain mechanic, most of the time it's the developer's fault. The player is always right.

Shack: How have you improved the aliens in Crysis Warhead?

Bernd Diemer: We created the best child of alien and human AI, basically. We took the stuff that worked really well for the humans, which is basically flanking, cover, reinforcement and group tactics, and stacked them onto the aliens.

In the original game we conceptualized the troopers as sort of like the bugs in Starship Troopers, where they run straight at you. And that was kind of the feeling we wanted the player to have, where you're constantly under pressure. But we realized that it was becoming a twitch shooter. "See alien, shoot alien before alien comes close enough to kill you."

And what we wanted was that we would have more of the gameplay you had with the humans, so you could actually play with them. You could go into cover, throw a grenade, duck back in, relocate.

Shack: It seems like it's in your advantage to play with them, because the more you do, the more the other humans might attack them.

Bernd Diemer: Yeah, the goal was to create a more open system for the AIs, so it's not like alien combat is the same all over. We did a couple of very subtle tweaks which went a long way.

For example, the flying ones, we brought them a lot lower than in Crysis, which made them a bit more visible and in your face, and also easier to hit. Because you have to balance what the AI can do and what players expect so it's still fun.

Doing the perfect AI is easy. But something which is believable, fun to play with, and makes the player feel smart by figuring out, "Oh they might be trying to flank me," is hard. And you have to keep these things in mind when you build AI, and that's what we tried to do in Warhead.

Shack: How did the focus on more complex AI change the level design of Warhead?

Bernd Diemer: Two things changed. One is that our creative guys, our level designers, programmers and everybody, they are a lot more familiar with how to build levels for the nanosuit. And how to build levels for this alien AI we did, because we could use what we learned with the humans, how to construct interesting scenarios by changing geometry, in the level.

Like in that canyon you played, that really is tailor-made for the alien AI the way it is now. Because they can jump, similar to the MK nanosuit dudes, so the level has to reflect that. And then we can create this "oh my god" situation, where you have one guy jumping over here, or over there. Like you experienced a moment ago: where you are completely surprised by what the AI is doing, but still you can get a grasp of what is going on. So we got a lot more comfortable building levels for nanosuit and alien AI.

Shack: What exactly have you changed as far as destructible objects and environments?

Bernd Diemer: We added a lot more stuff that blows up. [laughs]

For example, one thing which always annoyed me in the original game is that we had these really nice, big fuel tanks, which didn't blow up. Which is realistic, because in real life fuel tanks don't blow up like they don't in Hollywood. But it's so much fun, so we said, "To hell with realism, we want these things to blow up."

Shack: And you're fighting aliens, so realism is sort of a moot point.

Bernd Diemer: [laughs] Yeah.

Shack: What was your approach to the multiplayer component? What are the major additions?

Bernd Diemer: One new mode. Seven completely new maps tailor-made for that new mode. All the fancy new stuff we have in Warhead is in the multiplayer as well. All the new weapons, all the new vehicles. And it's on a separate disc in the box.

One approach was we wanted to separate it out, because it was developed in Frankfurt by our multiplayer team, and while we had the chance doing Warhead, we wanted to separate the two franchises a bit more. So we can continue working on multiplayer continuously without being forced to wait for the main SKU to come out. Which was the way it was in Crysis, because it was an integrated experience, single-player and multiplayer. So now for example we can do upgrades independent from each other, without having to QA the whole package all over again.

And the multiplayer team also benefited from the things we learned with Crysis. Something we had to learn and get better at is to build levels which suggest the use of the nanosuit for players. Especially with multiplayer we had some levels which were really really big, because the reflex reaction of the designer is if you tell them you have a speed function is to build everything with big distances.

But that's not what it's about, it's more about the choice you have. It's not about navigating long distances using speed mode--that becomes boring really fast. Spring, charge, spring, charge. We had a couple sections in the original game, in single-player and multiplayer, where we reevaluated that. You know, running in speed mode isn't fun if it's just to get to a different point. It's more about dashing, dodging, jumping on top of something.

Shack: Will there be any cross-play between Crysis and Crysis Warhead in multiplayer?

Bernd Diemer: No, there isn't.

We're still evaluating the possibility of bringing all three products we now have on the same level, but that's something you have to look at really really carefully, because that's a big challenge for us. So maybe even patching the old game up to use the performance improvements we did on Warhead. That's something we're discussing internally, but there's no final call on that yet.

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Shack: Was Warhead always intended to be a $30, stand-alone expansion?

Bernd Diemer: It's kind of a complicated history, because Warhead started out as your basic vanilla expansion pack. Back in the day when we were still handling Crysis we thought, "What are we going to do next?" And the most obvious thing was, "Hey, let's do an expansion pack."

Back then it was single-player only, and you needed the original game. It was more what you expected an expansion pack to be. Then it got more and more, it kind of grew grew grew to this complete single-player campaign, and then we decided to add multiplayer as a separate SKU, and also we wanted to improve a lot of things to the original game.

And basically the only thing we kept from the classic expansion pack was the price. It was something that was important for us, to keep this price point to allow more people to get into Crysis by offering a great value.

Shack: Is Crysis still being thought of as a trilogy?

Bernd Diemer: Still is. [Warhead] is not a sequel, this is a separate story, stand-alone. It's not meant to conclude all the things in Crysis. It sort of fills into a couple of blanks in the original story, but it's not Crysis 2 or Crysis 1.5.

Shack: This is a little off-topic, but do you guys enjoy seeing those crazy physics videos that people make using Crysis?

Bernd Diemer: Of course. Yeah, yeah. Personally I greatly enjoy that. On our internal mailing list we always post these kinds of things. If you miss it on a forum, you just have to check our internal fun mailing list. We even made an explosion contest to have people make the fanciest explosion.

This is great--we love that, we love our community and the great stuff that comes out of it. And we also do hire a lot of guys that come out of the community. CryMod, which we kind of support, and our community team is working on CryMod. And we love that.

As a designer, as a creative person, I enjoy if people do fascinating things with a system I created, and not necessarily the things I wanted them to do, but you know, if they come up with creative ways of playing the level, building the level, or if it's just spawning a billion barrels and blowing them up, that's fine.

Shack: Obviously you can't talk about Crysis 2 yet, but what is the status of the project? Are you heavy into development yet?

Bernd Diemer: Lots of ideas, but nothing definite or concrete we can talk about yet.

Shack: But it's going to be multi-platform?

Bernd Diemer: We're examining all platforms. As a studio, we want to get into other platforms, but with what project, still up in the air, we're not sure yet. It has to be the right idea and the right technology, otherwise we don't want to do it.

Shack: Can you tell me about how the Crysis-branded PC came about?

Bernd Diemer: Back in the day, when we started working on Warhead in Budapest, we said, "Guys, we have to make sure that the game runs better on reasonable hardware." The thing we came up with, the trick, was to build a PC which we used as a reference.

We bought the components, which were back then like $700, and built a PC, and that was the platform we used for all presentations, milestones, new features, everything had to run on that machine as a benchmark. Because we have in the editor, all kinds of smart things which tell you that you've exceeded the budget, but the problem with designers and artists is that they don't care. [laughs]

So on this machine, it has to run on the High setting, which we now call the Gamer setting, at an average of 30 frames. After we did that for a while, we got talking to our friends at EA, because they were asking what's this Warhead PC all about? And we said this is our benchmark PC. And they said hey wait a minute, why don't we actually build this PC and make it available? And so we started talking with our partners a couple of months ago, with Nvidia, and EA, trying to find a system builder. And we found one, which is Ultra PC in the United States, it'll be different in different territories.

For us, Crytek is not in the hardware business obviously, we do games. But for us it's a very important statement. On the one hand, to get across the message that you don't need a $5000 PC to play Warhead. We still, you know, we're tech happy, so you can max out everything, we're prepared to bring down all the hardware you can throw at the game as well. But we also wanted to focus on the middle segment, the high spec, and make that a great experience with fantastic visuals, and so I think it still holds up really well.

And also it was a lot about convenience. We don't expect everybody to actually go and buy the PC, but if they want to, they can just click on the webstie and juts buy it. Or they can compare the specs to their own machine, and they will know because it's our recommended setup that this machine will run Warhead on the high settings an average of 30 frames, and there you are.

Shack: Are reasonable system requirements something that you would say Crytek is more focused on now as a company?

Bernd Diemer: It is in a way. For us, it's always a balance. Because we do like doing the latest and greatest in graphics.

Shack: Yeah. Because that's what you guys are about, but at the same time..

Bernd Diemer: We want to cover [the high-end], but in Crysis, looking back, the focus was a bit off. Because we from the beginning focused on the highest range, and then over the development we scaled it back.

So what we did here [with Warhead] was focus on the mid-range, on the High setting. Not medium, but High. We're Crytek, so it's not Medium, it's High. [laughs] So then we scaled it up, and we said, "This is running, so now crank it on."

For us that's a different way of focusing on things, you're right about that. And that's one of the things we took from Crysis, that we have to focus on this as well.

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