To hear Crytek tell it, their upcoming free-to-play PC first-person shooter Warface will turn the market on its head -- "triple-A free-to-play." (When we asked Warface creative director Michael Khaimzon if he had anything he wanted to tell other free-to-play FPS devs, he answered, "Just stop.")
But beneath the bravado lies a team that had to adapt to the realities of a new market model that threatened Crytek's established leadership in traditional boxed-game FPSes -- and was ever-so-slightly humbled by the challenges of doing so.
Gamasutra spoke with Crytek's co-founder and managing director Avni Yerli, games general manager Nick Button-Brown, and Warface creative director Michael Khaimzon about how Crytek had to relearn how to make games with their entry into the free-to-play arena.
Once you decided to make a free-to-play game, what did you decide to do differently?
Avni Yerli: Free-to-play was a decision we made in 2006 after examining the market in Asia and really coming to understand the DNA of a free-to-play game. We really needed to understand what made the difference with free-to-play design.
Nick Button-Brown: We set up a Korean office, in part because they have such a great knowledge of how [free to play] works, and they built up that knowledge by making many many games trying to figure out how free-to-play works, because it's a very experimental market. We're working with great partners all around the world -- we're working with Tencent -- and the people we're working with have such a great understanding of how the market has changed, and the knowledge we're getting is just immense. A lot of that knowledge does affect how you build it, you build it in a way that makes sense. Warface has evolved while we're doing it, and we invested a lot of time to get to the stage we're at now.
Did you encounter any unique challenges or opportunities while making your first free-to-play game?
NB: You see what other people have tried, things that have worked and haven't worked, you're looking at how somebody interacts with it, what resonates with them, what makes them want to invest more time in it.
Michael Khaimzon: For the first time in the history of Crytek, we have statistics. And the value of that is unbelievable. You don't have to guess any more. You know what works, what people are doing with your game.
AY: But that is post-launch. And one difficult thing, to be honest, is to make a game that is localized culturally. We are learning what works in one country and what doesn't work. It was a big learning curve for us, and we struggled at first.
If you're partnering with Tencent, presumably you're getting a lot of knowledge about the Chinese market. Were there any big differences between what you learned about the Chinese market and how the Russian market responded?
NB: There were very big cultural differences. One of the anecdotes we were told in China is that it's okay to charge for the right to not be muted. Someone can pay so that everyone has to listen to them. In the West, I can't imagine that.
Did you find that different cultures had different opinions on what players thought of as "pay-to-win"?
MK: In Russia, no one complains about pay-to-win. Everyone understands that you pay for comfort and time-saving, and the skilled player still wins. Some people still spend thousands of dollars. In China, we'll see once we collect the statistics -- we're still in beta there.
NB: We had to make a lot of decisions about what we wanted; the key to us is that it's not pay-to-win. We didn't want to do that because we all play! There is a charging side to it, but it's about visual customization, different styles, and convenience -- if you don't want to play four hours to get a weapon, you can get a boost that lets you get it in an hour. In North America and Europe, you can't do pay-to-win. Also, some regions like lottery mechanics -- paying for a 10% chance to get an epic item, for example. We're going to experiment with that.
What kind of metrics do you track?
MK: We look at everything, basically. We know when someone is thinking of farting. [laughs]
NB: ...But we have taken the fart function out.
MK: We know which weapons you use, how much you time you spend in a map and where, everything. Surprising ones? We were very surprised to know that 60 percent of people play PvE [player vs. environment] -- it's extremely popular.
NB: We do a lot of work looking at heat maps to see where people are dying, where people are surviving, and using that information to make it as smooth and fair as possible.
MK: We can see the statistics to see which items people prefer and that's how we assign prices, for example. We want to make the shop make sense.
Crytek is known for making games with stunning visuals, but with free-to-play, we're seeing developers launch with a less-polished game and build it up from there, like an internet startup. How'd you compromise between between launching early and playing to your visual strengths?
NB: We've already put 3.5 years in. We're coming out in the Russian launch with lots of content -- it's not an unfinished game. And we're not releasing it all at once.
AY: If you look at our trailer, you'll see we don't sacrifice quality because the game is free-to-play. We want to offer a really high-quality experience in a free-to-play model.
NB: We've put a lot more time into Warface than a lot of people have into their free-to-play games. But we've done that because we believe that's the way to go. We believe that triple-A free-to-play is gonna be great, it's just playing a great game in a different way.
Does this mean that your development cycle has been front-loaded like a traditional boxed game, then?
AY: Absolutely. We built it like a Crysis game.
NB: And we're going to carry on building levels, weapons, items, because we expect Warface to last a lot longer than a traditional console game.
Warface is being designed with lower-spec machines in mind, unlike the Crysis games. Did this hold your development process back?
MK: It was just different. On Crysis, the guys try to really make it look better than anything else. We still made Warface look excellent, but it was different.
NB: The way we create the assets is still the same, we just want to make sure that it doesn't cripple lower-spec systems. We haven't sacrificed anything to cater to lower-end systems. We've made technology solutions that make it work.
AY: Crysis 2 still ran on lower-spec systems.
NB: We put a lot of work on Crysis 2 to get it to run on low-spec systems, and we were criticized for not making the system bleed -- because we made it better!
You started Warface three years ago. Was there anything you changed in response to your evolving understanding of the free-to-play model that surprised you?
NB: We developed a really cool tool that would allow the player to import his face with two pictures. It worked really nicely -- we did it on ourselves -- and you could do it really quickly. But we didn't get great feedback for it from various publishers for lots of reasons -- one reason was legality, since you could take a celebrity's picture and get into all kinds of legal issues. But people didn't want to necessarily look like themselves -- they want to look cool. We still have the tool, and we might revisit it.
Did the free-to-play model change anything about Warface's content-creation process?
MK: It's completely different.
NB: We have lots of different levels of content generation. We start with a setting -- say, Eastern Europe -- and we try to prototype ideas in that setting to make sure it's compelling. Then we start building maps, starting with basic lightbox maps to figure out the look and feel. From there, we have a system that lets us design PvE maps without having to start from scratch. That allows us to create more new maps, because we can build different combinations from these. We've spent a lot of time making sure we can build it efficiently and make it look cool.
Is there anything you've learned or built for Warface that you plan on using in future titles?
MK: Know-how is the most valuable thing we're getting out of Warface. It's like learning how to make a game again.
NB: The main thing is the mindset. It's about learning that people interact with free-to-play games in a very different way. We have other projects in the pipeline as well -- the Warface team is doing a great job, but we have other games coming through.
Did you need to hire new people to adapt your dev team for free-to-play?
NB: We brought new people in -- I mentioned the Korean studio, they shared a lot of knowledge with our Warface team. We brought a lot of new people in, too -- we brought a business guy in who understands how people interact with different items, and we've learned a lot from our partners.
MK: It's like starting from scratch.
NB: It's a different pipeline. You have to create things in a very different way, respond quickly. I think the main thing is to respond to what people are thinking and writing. If people really like a certain shotgun, let's create a few different kinds. We have that immediate relationship with the game that we couldn't have with a boxed product.
Did you feel like you lost anything from designing Warface to be a free-to-play game?
MK: Absolutely not. It was very hard -- harder than a boxed game. But if it's easy, what's interesting about it?
For more reports from E3 2012, be sure to check out Gamasutra's live coverage.