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Interview: Crytek UK's Hilton On Life After Free Radical Design

Interview: Crytek UK's Hilton On Life After Free Radical Design

November 4, 2010 | By Simon Parkin

November 4, 2010 | By Simon Parkin
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[Gamasutra’s Simon Parkin sat down with Crytek UK's managing director Karl Hilton at this year’s GameCity event to discuss the Crytek buy-out, developing Crysis 2 multiplayer and what chance we might have of a new Timesplitters.]

In February 2009, after going into financial administration, it was announced that Free Radical Design, developer of Timesplitters, Second Sight and Haze, had been acquired by German video game developer Crytek.

Following a name change to Crytek UK and an office move from the outskirts of Nottingham, UK into the city center, the studio began work on the multiplayer component of Crysis 2, a project which is only now nearing completion.

At last week's GameCity event in Nottingham, European Editor Simon Parkin caught up with Karl Hilton, to discuss the past 18 months, and what happens next.

The last 18 months have been a rollercoaster for you. What has life been like after the acquisition?

Karl Hilton: It's been very good. Hopefully the game that we are showing this week speaks for itself. We’ve been working really hard on the multiplayer part of Crysis 2 and we are pretty much there now – there’s a bit of polishing to be done but then that’s it. I’m really pleased. The team’s done a great job and the game looks fantastic and plays well. In terms of the company, we've really grown back up again. We are a studio of around about 90 people now. It’s really positive.

Are most of your current staff ex-Free Radical Design staff?

It’s a fair mix. We've had a few ex-Free Radical people come back and join us again, once we settled down and got things running which is really nice -- a vote of confidence on the studio. All of those guys went off and got jobs in other places and are very talented people so it's exciting that they were interested in coming back when the opportunity arose. We’ve taken on some new people as well: we’ve got some graduates and students with us and some experienced people from other companies as well who didn’t know Free Radical. It's generated a slightly new character in the studio.

How many of those 90 staff are working on Crysis 2 multiplayer?

Nearly all of them. We have quite a few guys who are involved in R&D work which is supporting the Cryengine technology, addressing some of the issues in terms of moving to consoles as well as making it better for the next generation. And then we have a large amount of desk staff who are working on Crysis 2 multiplayer and then we have a few guys who are always prototyping up new ideas.

Were you always aware that you were going to handle this part of Crysis before the buy-out, or was there any discussion of what you were going to do?

Crytek was looking for a UK studio. It was perfect timing from that point of view as Crysis 2 was just starting up. Multiplayer components to games are more that just a little add-on these days: it's an entire team's worth of work, so it was one of the first things they asked us if we’d be interested in doing. Obviously, with our history of console multiplayer gaming we agreed and from that point of view it worked very well because we brought our experience of multiplayer gaming to a company which was very experienced in single player FPS games on PCs. It was a good mesh of experience and knowledge.

Did Crytek come to you with quite a defined design for the multiplayer of what they wanted or did you work on it together?

No, it was very open actually. We knew we needed a good multiplayer, and we knew we wanted to make a big stride forward with it. There was a good chuck of the single player game in place so we knew what kind of mechanics we had to play with, but other than that it was entirely open to us to come back to them with suggestions.

We spent the first few weeks just really brainstorming and making an awful lot of quick and simple white box designs that we could sort of play quick and check out – I think we did 90-odd of those. We cut it down to a core group of level that we were happy with and a core group of mechanics that were happy with and we went back to Frankfurt and presented the kinds of things that we think work. We’ve always had a good dialogue and thy have been very receptive to the things that we came with.

How have things in the studio internally changed from the Free Radical days? Did you make any big changes?

We moved offices. That's a big thing – we were in a business park in the outskirts of the city and we have now moved right into the center. That was a cultural thing for us. We decided we wanted a new start and a new building. We'd been in our new building for quite a long time so it was actually quite a lot of new infrastructure, better network connections which were good for us. We've got a very state of the art office now which is good for morale.

In terms of our day to day work, some of what we were doing is very similar to the Free Radical days. Our studio culture was a big part of why Crytek brought Free Radical. They were looking for something that had a similar culture within this team. When they came over they didn't just look at the books. Rather, they spent most of their time talking to the people about how we work and what it was like to work for us.

They decided quite early on the we were a close cultural match and that was a really key thing for them – we fit in with their way of doing stuff. That was a vote of confidence for the team as a whole. In terms of day to day practices we have similar ways of structuring out team meetings and our work groups and that kind of stuff. They developed some of their own systems which were quite interesting so we have taken those on board, melded them with our own so it's a nice hybrid of good opportunities to share knowledge.

That was a lot of positives. Have there been any negatives? Do you feel the loss of a bit of control perhaps?

No, not at all. Crytek has studios in Budapest, Sofia and Kiev and they like their studios to be very independent and add value to the group by having strong regional differences and cultured and what they do. So we have been able to run the studio very much how we have wanted to with their support. As I said, we were given very free reign to design the multiplayer game how we wanted to. Obviously we feed back to Frankfurt to get their opinions on everything. It's always good to have a second opinion. Often they pointed out some very good things. It’s always been a good and open relationship and they have shown a lot of trust to the UK studio.

After Crysis 2 launches, what happens next for your studio?

That’s what everyone wants to know. Nothing has been announced yet so I can’t talk about specifics but yes we have a couple of very interesting multiplayer and single player first person shooter projects that we are looking at. In some form both of those will be going ahead.

New IP?

Potentially.

In terms of the IP ownership for free radical has all of that passed to Crytek?

Yes.

Is there anything in particular that you'd like to revisit? Timesplitters, for example?

Everyone asks about Timesplitters. Yeah it was a popular game and has a large fan base out there. Publishers all know about it and ask us about it and obviously there’s enthusiasm within the team to do something with it. But really it's about us discussing with the publishers what’s viable and what’s gonna be good and how to take it on. There’s not been a Timesplitters game in quite a while so how do we need to move it on if we were to do another one to make it relevant? Does the name matter? Fundamentally the studio is about making quality first person shooters with strong multiplayer elements. That’s what we are interested in doing.

Are you waiting to announce your next project because you are waiting for deals to be signed or is it a matter of timing with the other project that you have coming out?

It's a matter of timing, yes. We are focusing on Crysis 2 at the moment. Everyone is 100 percent working like crazy at the moment to get it done on time. We don't want to distract ourselves with other stuff. But we will always have a small team of guys prototyping stuff.

In terms of the Crysis 2 multiplayer, how are you looking to distinguish the game from its competition?

It is a crowded market and only the best survive these days so yes, it's tricky working out how to stand out. We think we’ve got something really unique with the Nano suit. We have this sort of super soldier which allows you to have almost parkour/ free-running game play. It works very well with the New York setting where the rooftops provide the opportunity to play around with architecture.

On top of that, the suit allows you to do things that you couldn't do if you were just a human. It allows you to have limited amounts of stealth and extra strength for climbing etc, so you can feel almost superhero-like for a little while. Because of its technology, these abilities are also limited so you've got the rock, paper, scissors sort of gameplay where one thing plays off another. It's got a good tactical sort of element to it.

Do you think today's multiplayer first person modes demand that sort of super human element? Has the well of creativity run dry on standard soldiers?

There will always be a place for every different area when it is done at the highest level of quality, so realistic stealth-based shooting games, more conventional warfare action and near-future and far-future games with fantastic weaponry are all still relevant. As long as there are strong mechanics in the game and it's solid and consistent in its reality then there’s a place for all of those. You just want to be the number one person in what every sector it is you’re competing in.

Who do you see as your rival for this particular project?

The Call of Duty games have a phenomenal record. They are more realistic in their setting than our sci-fi approach, but they are the benchmark in many ways for the quality. In multiplayer you see the numbers that they achieve and continue to achieve in terms of sales and ongoing players. We'd like to exceed what they achieve.


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