If you’re paying attention at all to Microsoft’s Xbox One launch spread, you’ve seen Ryse. It’s the console’s debut showpiece, the platform’s visual pièce de résistance, the thing you’re going to fire up and fool around with come Friday, November 22, telling yourself that this, this is why you paid hundreds of dollars for a next-gen system.
The danger, of course, is that Ryse turns out to be another empty (if immaculately tailored) shell, a vacuous graphical tour de force into which you’ll pour money and time and ballooning disappointment as you wait for something more than hundreds of blood-spattered, gladius-swinging, visually flawless legionaries goring and stabbing enemies like a leather-and-iron typhoon to shake you from your languor. That’s the way of so many launch games, after all.
But then this is Crytek, the folks responsible for the original Far Cry and the Crysis series. Surely they’re aware that gamers want more than mere spectacle in 2013. Will Ryse deliver?
I put that question (and others) to Crytek CEO and president Cevat Yerli, Ryse‘s director, as well as Christopher Evans, the game’s technical art director. Here’s what they told me.
For decades there’s been this obsession with better graphics, but there’s been a backlash, too, because there’s such a glut of games that hype what they look like, but drop the gameplay ball.
Cevat Yerli: Usually what happens, to some degree, is that new technologies or new graphics or new production values bring new ways of looking at things — what we call pipelines — to the development process. And sometimes those pipelines don’t match up with the requirements of the gameplay. Hence you get certain things like laggy animation or slow responsiveness because of the amount of data and the amount of complexity.
The big challenge that we have, and that we had in some of our previous games, is that on the one hand you want to increase visual fidelity to convey more emotions or be more credible. On the other hand you want to have responsiveness and snappiness for the gameplay itself. Both have to be in accord, and that’s been something we’ve been religiously following. Like, how do we frame-by-frame control the game, despite the fact that you’re moving 10 times more data in animations and textures and mesh and physics and all those aspects, without losing any of the frantic, fast responsiveness that you have in a combat game, for example. That’s been our primary focus, to make sure Ryse is responsive but also next-gen.
And the next thing has been making the gameplay deep, making the gameplay reveal itself over the course of the game. There’s much more to that, of course, like upgrades and updates within the game — what we sometimes call the meta-game experience.
Game consoles are fixed architectures, like buying a computer and saying you won’t upgrade for five or six or seven years. When I talked to you in 2007 , before Crysis came out, you were a PC-exclusive developer, and you were critical of the limitations of consoles. Yet here we are, six years later, and Ryse is an Xbox One exclusive. What changed?
CY: The consoles are doing a favor to the market. When we started PC development, consoles were behind PCs. I’m talking PlayStation 2 and original Xbox days. At that time, PCs were much more high-end, and for us they were a better playground — to be honest, they still are today.
But we always had a reach problem from a critical mass perspective. Creating higher-end experiences every year costs much more in terms of investment and research and development. So when the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 came to market, there was a short window where the consoles were outpacing PCs, but after a year the PC market caught up and surpassed them. We were able to benefit from that, especially with Crysis 2 and 3 on PC compared to the consoles. On Crysis 2 in particular, the console spec was pretty much the high-end PC spec.
With Ryse, therefore, it’s a great opportunity for us because we’re able to bring high-end PC gaming quality to the mainstream. If I look at the specifications of the Xbox One, it’s pretty much a high-end gaming PC. That allows us to assume for at least the next year or two that there will be millions of Xbox Ones we can count on as a high-end base.
Think of it this way: It’s like we’re at DirectX 11 generation levels in consoles now, whereas previous consoles were at DirectX 9 levels. That’s a great thing, because PC games as well as consoles going forward have a much higher low-end specification that’ll be driven by the new console generation. Five years from now, PC games will look substantially better — not in spite of, but because of the console generation today.
What about the uncanny valley? I’m not sure I relate any more to a hyper-detailed version of a human being than I did a more abstract but well-voiced or crafted character a decade ago. I understand how a more lifelike character expands your dramatic toolset for expression, but a lot of what you see in games these days feels lifeless because all the little unrealistic, unnatural aspects of the renderer leap out. How are you grappling with that challenge in Ryse?
CY: The key thing in my opinion is that there’s no decoupling between the voice acting and the animation and body performance. The way you usually do this is a Frankenstein concept, where you’ll have different actors being recorded and animated, then you have them compiled into a scene and then you have voice actors who play each role individually, and the scene would come together in a hopefully great way.
With Ryse, we captured an entire scene as it played, we captured the entire performance from all of the actors, all simultaneously in one go. That allowed us to get much more believable and credible performances, not just from a voice and facial expression perspective, but also from them touching each other and having relationships and context to each other. That’s something that adds another layer of complexity or fidelity to it, which I believe is going to be new in gaming.
Christopher Evans: It’s not that we’re just saying “performance capture” and all of these buzzwords, it’s the fact that we actually have guys that’ve done it before. We worked with Andy Serkis and his studio, and we used all of the same head-cam tech that was being used on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and on different projects liks that. We have those guys here working in-house.
I was working as a creature technical director in Avatar, and using this new level of technology we’re able to take the exact same filmic pipelines and apply them to gaming. Marius’s face in the game has a ridiculous rig, and the rig is kind of like the puppet that drives the face. The face is more complicated than any character we’ve done before, much less the rest of the body and all the physics and everything that goes with it.
It kind of goes back to what you were asking about the limitations of next-gen and graphics and how they serve the story — more and more the limitations are on the data side. We were capturing so much data, of all the actors and how they play together and how they’re touching each other and all of the little quirks that happened on the stage because they’re all in the same room. When you’re not just having some voice actor try to have a voice that fits with a body, the limitation on next-gen is that we have all of this data and memory, and that means having sufficient artists and animators.
In the old days, we’d frequently hit walls, where you’d have a vision and you’d want to do something but because of a hardware limitation you couldn’t. I think in the future — whether it’s on a PC or a console — the limiting factor to doing these kinds of big games is going to be, do you have the artist to digitally sculpt and paint the trashcan in the corner? And can you make the facial expressions so that you get the actual facial expressions from the actor on the stage coming across in the game at high fidelity? A few millimeters of difference around the eyes and you don’t know if the person is smiling and happy or they’re constipated. It’s very difficult with the uncanny valley when it comes to facial expressions.
Did you have to add a substantial number of people with film experience to make Ryse?
CE: Yeah, I mean Peter Gornstein, the game’s cinematic director, has won a lot of awards for his live action shorts. He’s directed a couple of TV series. He’s a really good guy with story, too. We have Martin L’Heureux, our animation director. He worked at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] for quite a few years on many shows. So we have a lot of guys that have backgrounds in film, and it’s made it a lot easier to take these techniques now that we have more horsepower and bring them across.
One example would be, we built our own virtual camera to allow Peter, on set, to look into the game engine when he was on the mo-cap stage. Usually you look into a kind of gray-shaded landscape that’s from the 3D package the mo-cap house uses. But we used our own package to look directly into the game engine so he could see the lighting and characters he was familiar with to make decisions for framing the characters and how he wanted to do different shots — even down to executions.
CY: The key thing was how we shot the sequences, both the gameplay and cinematics, and how we made sure both blended into each other seamlessly. I think that elevated the experience, and that it’s something people can expect from Ryse or Ryse-like games in the future. The fact that Marius as a story character is the same resolution as the cinematics character — the same asset effectively — has allowed us to seamlessly move between sequences where people used to say “Oh, it’s pre-rendered.” In Ryse, it’s not — it’s real time.
Why the shift to antiquity?
CY: Antiquity or history principally is very interesting because there’s tons of opportunities to tell great stories — hero stories in fact. And so we looked into mythology and legends, and how those can drive hero stories we can retell or reinvent. The other thing was, we were always testing different epochs, including the Roman Empire and its buildup and fall, but different ones as well. We found that there’s an interesting opportunity here, because no action game franchise or brand has really depicted different epochs the way we want to depict them, so we felt there was a great opportunity long-term to be there.
With Ryse, we wanted to be this intense, combat-driven action-adventure game that could tell the untold hero stories, enveloped into some epic historic story events.
If it’s appropriate to call Ryse a hack-and-slash, are you doing anything to subvert that genre’s clichés?
CY: It’s always easy to just talk down a genre, right? But each game has its own depth, each game has its own story. So yes, Ryse is an action-adventure, a hack-and-slash and a melee experience, but in essence what we want to provide you is the conceptual experience of a Roman soldier who turns into a leader, Marius Titus being that soldier. And you learn through the journey and the trust of your people, as well as your comrades who you’re leading…you become key for Rome’s destiny. We want you to experience the journey of a Roman soldier, not say we are just a hack-and-slash game. We want you to experience what it means to be a leader, the journey to becoming a leader, in actual gameplay.
Most people loved Gladiator, but 300 and Alexander and Immortals and Troy were pretty bad films, and I wonder if there isn’t some concern about this being another anachronistic, chest-beating bloodbath. What would you say to someone that looks at Ryse and says “Oh, it’s just another Roman epic action thing”?
CY: Well first of all, I’d say it’s not a film, it’s a game, and second, I think we have a very interesting niche in the way we tell the story and allow you to play it. We are not working with fantasy or magic, everything is realistic and historical, if a bit over the top action-wise. I think we have the right kind of emotional landscape, so I think we are innovative in a sense. Do we have a resemblance and similarity to Gladiator? Yes, we do some, but we have our own twists and turns, our own uniquenesses and oddities that I would say are quite interesting to be exposed to as a story. You definitely play the journey of Roman soldier, but you’re also shown the story and told the story.
Why did Crytek decide to make Ryse platform-exclusive? Were there aspects of the Xbox One’s hardware or interface that drove the decision?
CY: To be honest, we were considering a number of opportunities at the outset. Microsoft reacted fast — they came forward very quickly with how they see next-gen and were very involved with us. We’d been looking into working with Microsoft for a long time and we’d actually approached Microsoft twice in the history of Crytek. The irony is that with Ryse, Microsoft approached us.
You’ve been working with the new version of Kinect. My concern with the old version is that it was unreliable and inconsistent. It was cool when it worked but you couldn’t depend on it. How do you feel, since Ryse supports Kinect, about that dependability, since the last thing you want in an action game is to bark a command and have the system fire back “Say again?”
CY: First of all, the Kinect on Xbox 360 was definitely much inferior to Kinect on Xbox One. Kinect on Xbox One is vastly improved, much more accurate, much more high-res. The negative responses to Kinect inputs are reduced to a few percent only, I would say.
With Ryse we’ve said your hands have to be on the controller, so you can use the voice as an alternative to bark commands, but it’s not something you have to do. A lot of core gamers play in the evenings, where they need silence in the home. So Kinect is optional in Ryse — not because we don’t think we can rely on it, but because we want players to have the choice to play it the way they want to.
Let’s talk about the Xbox One a bit since Crytek’s known for pushing performance envelopes. We’re still having a conversation, and I don’t think it’s a very healthy conversation, about the relative power of consoles. There’s this furious dialogue going on about the PlayStation 4 vs. the Xbox One, for instance, fired by developers slinging abstract comparison numbers around in public, as if consumers have the developmental context to grasp what they mean. Why do we still have this conversation?
CY: Honestly, going forward, the difference is going to be between PC and consoles, not consoles and consoles. Like it was last generation, there are differences in the platforms now, but eventually they’re going to be more or less the same. In principle, if you’re investing real research money into each platform, they’re going to exhibit roughly the same performance. It’s a very premature discussion to be having right now in any case. If you take your time and really use each piece of hardware efficiently, the differences are going to be pretty much invisible.
Is it a sign of our immaturity, that we’re having this conversation, as you say — as we always seem to — prematurely, or at all?
CY: Yeah, I think that discussion frustrates developers, but on the consumer side of things, I actually think that it’s typical, from a PC industry market view. The PC market has always had that element of “I’ve got a better PC than you.” Console manufacturers have done us a disservice, I would say, by being slightly different, leading to all these discussions, despite the fact that from a developer standpoint, these consoles are actually more or less the same.
Gamers should be happy that we’ve elevated the next-generation market substantially. If I’m a PC gamer right now, I should be happy that consoles are coming out, because PC gaming will get a huge boost forward in quality because of console games. High-end console games means better low-end games to PC gamers. So yes, it’s a sad discussion to have, because really we’re enabling new conceptual experiences, and that’s more important to realize. That said, I think only a few are having that discussion — the majority is excited about next-generation and the concepts that devices offer.
CE: Looking back, I could only afford to buy one console, and I wanted to feel good about my decision. So you get camps, and I think as long as there are two big manufacturers, people are always going to want to justify their decision. I don’t know if I would say that it makes the consumers less mature, it’s that they really want to make sure they’ve made the right decision. And so as long as you have this one or the other situation, you’re going to have these people.
CY: In my opinion, for the majority it’s going to be about the games, about what you prefer and what types of games exist on either platform at launch. That’s what’s going to matter most in the end.