Interview with Michael Read: Producer, Crysis 3

After arguably diluting eye candy and gameplay to appease the console crowd with Crysis 2, the formerly PC-exclusive franchise has returned with its third iteration and has tremendous expectations riding on it. We chatted up Michael Read, Producer for Crysis 3 and discussed how the game balances its console and PC leanings and what it takes from its predecessor in terms of console development.

How much of a revamp is the CryENGINE 3 over its predecessor?
The engine is advanced in a lot of ways. When I talk about CryENGINE 3, I always roll back to talking about Crysis 2 specifically and how we developed the CryENGINE 2 and the game. Any time you do that in the course of development, there are massive challenges and barriers. There are major technical challenges and making something work involves major design challenges regarding  what you want to achieve and how. The biggest challenge was how to take this engine and make it work on consoles. In addition to that, we weren’t experienced with consoles at all, so we had to figure out how to build a game on consoles [laughs]… How to build an engine that runs on consoles, and then do everything that we want it to do.


Levels will be a mix of classic Crysis’ open maps and Crysis 2’s linear urban fare

Moving on to CryENGINE 3, well, we took a lot we learned from Crysis 2, a lot of what we learned about console development, and that helped us to structure very early on how we would be developing Crysis 3. In tandem with that, as we were building the game over the past two years, the engine has become increasingly licensed in markets such as architecture, films and various streams we were starting to experiment in. We learned a lot about the tools in the engine, and these are things that we don’t traditionally show [laughs]. Putting those in a tech demo video doesn’t work because people don’t really get it. We have done a number of talks about some of the tools and the real-time stuff we have added in terms of lighting, grass technology, AI, mesh, drop shadows and things like that. In addition, we have also developed a series of new technologies in the engine using some of today’s top-end PC hardware. In effect, our workflow with the CryENGINE 3 was a lot more refined than it was with CryENGINE 2. Now we are familiar with how multi-platform development really works.

Speaking of multi-platform development, the original Crysis had a sort of open-world flair to its maps, whereas Crysis 2 was quite linear. One reason that gets thrown around a lot is the fact that console hardware limitations were responsible for this scaling down.
No, I don’t think that really was the case at all. New York City was chosen very early in the pre-production stage. And one thing I don’t like to do is refer to Crysis 1 as open world. When I think of open world, I think of something like a Grand Theft Auto or Just Cause or that sort of game. We can really pop into something and go anywhere and go anyplace. When we talk about Crysis 1 and how open it was, I think there are two things at play here. One of them was the maps. The maps were definitely a lot wider and spread out. So when you came up on a vista, you could see quite a lot of distance with mountains and trees and villages and water, and all of these things. You were able to go around a lot of these places, but there really wasn’t a lot of vertical movement inside the area available. Secondly, when you add things such as vegetation, it’s amazing how that can psychologically make things seem larger even in a limited environment.


Yep, there will be aliens

So coming to Crysis 2, we were dealing with an urban environment, an urban grid that defines the New York City. People really didn’t have that visual reference, but there really was a lot more vertical space that people could play in. I think there were two things at play here. There is definitely a lot of merit in Crysis 1 and things that we did right, and I think there were a lot of things we did right with Crysis 2. That’s all we wanted to come back with Crysis 3—look at those two elements and combine them together. We are not going back to the jungle environment; we are also mixing those environments, balancing out the gameplay and raising the bar on pretty much everything we have been doing in Crysis 3—from the graphics to the gameplay to the cinematics, and all of these things combined.

Crysis 3 will be the second title developed for the consoles. What have you learned with Crysis 2 that will make the upcoming game better on consoles?
We actually did Crysis on the consoles later on. We mainly did that because we wanted to see if we could do it [laughs]. That’s really what it was. Another reason was because it’s really disheartening when you bring a franchise to another platform and they don’t have access to the original, so we wanted to come back to that, and also to teach ourselves how to do proper coding, and if we were able to port a game properly, which we did. So in terms of bringing the game to consoles again, we did it mainly for the gameplay experience. We didn’t want to skew the gameplay; we wanted to create a smooth, seamless experience.

When I pick up the controller, I can play the game like I do on the PC [with a keyboard and mouse]. Whereas, when I pick the keyboard, it is going to feel like I’m playing a console game as well. I think we have hit a good balance between those two platforms—that’s something, you know, I don’t think we achieved properly with Crysis 2. So when you play this game, you can play it like a twitch game, or you can play it slowly with a mouse and a keyboard. Or you could simply just pick up a controller and seamlessly go back and forth [between those play styles].

Many years ago, Microsoft had actually pit PC gamers against console gamers…
This is a good one [laughs]. I’m sorry, but were you referring to Shadowrun? I think it’s Shadowrun that allowed this.


The airport map is fun in the Predator mode

Yes, that’s correct. So basically, it was concluded that the gamepad doesn’t really match up to the keyboard/mouse combo and the whole idea of cross-platform gameplay was scrapped. So while developing Crysis 3 did you dumb down the AI in the console version as compared to the PC version, in order to make up for the inferiority of the controller?
This is a good question and it’s something that I have always been fascinated with for a long time. I personally cannot play FPS games with the control pad. I have a lot of problems with it. But we have a lot of guys in the office, like our level designer for instance, who don’t. It makes it quite easy for him to run through levels and do certain things. We have seen people do some crazy things on controllers as well. We aren’t going to hit that realm of cross-platform multiplayer they did with Shadowrun, because that’s not something we are doing. We have to keep the platforms separate. If you look at CounterStrike: Global Offensive, they were originally going to do that. However, the challenges accompanying that are huge.

When you look back at Shadowrun, gamers with mouse and keyboard have such an advantage over those playing with controllers. You know what they ended up doing with it? They ended up tweaking and altering the mouse and keyboard side to compensate for the very stiff and robotic feel of the controller, and that’s just not the right way to do it. When you mix the two platforms (PC and console), there’s a clash that happens, which is something I don’t know how the industry is going to respond to. In general, that’s been attempted many times but it has never been achieved. So we’re not actually looking at that. For Crysis 3, in terms of single and multiplayer, you can seamlessly transition between the controller and keyboard/mouse, and that’s not going to change the way the AI reacts. We have added little things such as pixel tracking and auto-aim techniques that turn on and off, which is actually available with most games that allow controllers. We aim to create a seamless experience for both types of input methods and not just dump one in favour of another.

I have noticed in Crysis 2 that when you hit the regular soldier enemy types, they go into a long pain animation loop. This felt like it was done to accommodate the slower reaction times of gamers using gamepads. Will Crysis 3 include any of this?
That depends on where you’ve hit them and with what weapon. The AI is something we have been tweaking a lot, and I had thought we had finished with it, but then I saw an [internal] email that talked about these things. So we’re still tweaking up until the time we go gold, which is going to be very soon. So in terms of the way the AI reacts to dead bodies, or certain things in proximity, or hit animations that you mention—all this is about giving the player a little bit of advantage on some of the higher levels. I mean, when you play on difficulty levels such as Super Soldier and above that, it gets really hard [laughs]. So it’s definitely about maintaining gameplay balance.

Did you manage to get any interesting statistics from the telemetry data for the Multiplayer alpha?
Yeah, tons. Actually, you’re the first guy to ask about it, but I only got the documents last week, and we did that about a month ago. I wish I could talk in depth about it, but I haven’t actually reviewed all the material yet, because there’s so much of it. But from what I have skimmed over and based on the feedback that we’ve received, it was pretty much positive on pretty much every front. Even the things that were negative were things that players didn’t understand or didn’t figure out how to use.


John Rambo in a Nanosuit

The stability was good and it was more of a technical test and a test of our hardware, more than anything. Of course, we wanted to look at our gameplay statistics and telemetry data to pull that in and make changes. Throughout the course of the alpha, we were patching during that time, so we weren’t just throwing a ball of code and going, “Hey, let’s just let people run with it.” We were patching it not only for technical issues but for gameplay as well.

If I’m not mistaken, Crysis 3 will have a combination of large open maps and linear levels, so what kind of a ratio are we looking at between the two?
When we talk about the linearity of Crysis 3, we normally talk about the story in general. We don’t so much talk about the action and the gameplay. The way we have structured the gameplay is that there are peaks and valleys that happen throughout, but the cinematics are very straightforward. We want to tell the story like a Hollywood movie tells it, and have the players play out the action.

But it’s about opening up those action sequences, even more so than we had in Crysis 2, and leaning more towards Crysis 1 in the way the players play out the action. For example, when they come up to a vista and they tag the enemies, you may play through it once and you’re going to die at some point. The next time you’ll think, “Hey, that guy is going to be there,” but when you actually play it, he’s not there but at a different place in the map.


Putting the stealth in stealth kill with the bow

We have redone our AI navigation layer, which has allowed the AI to branch out. For example, when you tag and alert the enemies, you’ll find them walking in different directions. Not only that but you’ll also hear them communicate back and forth this time around. In terms of the maps being wide open, you’ll have open spaces and tighter spaces. Even for large indoor environments, they feel very open.

Which one of these does the game prefer? The tight linear segments or the large open maps?
Definitely the more open spaces.

We all know that Prophet died at the very beginning of Crysis 2, but he seems to have returned for Crysis 3. Well, here’s a theory explaining that: Alcatraz has taken Prophet’s suit after his death. Since the suit and the mortally wounded Alcatraz have a symbiotic relationship, I think the Prophet in Crysis 3 is more like Alcatraz’s body being taken over by Prophet’s DNA and consciousness stored in the suit’s AI. What do you think?
That could be the case… well, that’s… what can I say? [laughs] Well, it is an interesting story piece, and people are, “Whoa, what happened there? This guy [Prophet] died, he put a bullet in his head, and he gave his suit to this guy. Where is Alcatraz, and how does Prophet show up again in Crysis 3?” There are many hints I have brought up many times, and that happens throughout Crysis 2.


Vegetation returns to the series after a hiatus

I think the biggest hint is why Prophet killed himself to begin with. That’s because he had been infected with the alien DNA at that point. Now we have the climax at the very end of Crysis 2, where Alcatraz defeats the Ceph and this big event happens. Then 20 years pass between the two games and he’s [Prophet] come back and is able to use alien weapons, mainly because of the alien DNA that has enhanced his suit. I think you’re kind of on the right track with this. You’re actually pretty close, and you have probably figured it out pretty well. But I can’t go into too many details at this time [laughs], but yeah, you’re on the right track with this.


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