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CHOOSING YOUR RELIGION

Filed in Developers' diary by Dan @ 8:34 am UTC May 10, 2012

Screenshot from CryEngine 3 from Crytek's promotional materials. (© Crytek)

This time, I won’t be bitching about the evil game industry and how things suck for a change, but surprisingly, I will tell you about how great everything is.

Intermezzo I

We’ll have to go back in time to August 2011, when we were establishing the company. At the time, Warhorse was becoming reality but it wasn’t incorporated yet, so we were still just a bunch of unemployed guys.

But we needed to get going in order to be able to start testing the technology that we’ll use for our game from day one when our people arrive in the office and we needed to start negotiating with all of the technology providers. So we printed nice looking business cards, created the website to look like an actual company and went to Games Convention in Germany to do some business.

Intermezzo II

Before we go into detail about our adventure in Germany, let me tell you something about technology in games. Back in the days when games had to fit into 48kB of memory, technology was everything. Programmers were the kings (and they were usually also the designers and artists). Gameplay and art was very often dictated by the limits of the technology, but in spite of that (or maybe because of that), lots of people were able to create unbelievable pieces of art. Developers were constantly trying to come up with workarounds and hacks to make the impossible possible. Pete Cooke, one of my favorite programmers on the ZX Spectrum managed to draw graphics out of the Spectrum drawable screen area for example. Just look at worldofspectrum.org where you can play these awesome ZX Spectrum games in your web browser and try Academy, Driller or Great Escape and remember that they all fit into 48kB.

ZX Spectrum classic Great Escape

Later with the arrival of 3D engines, people still judged the looks of your game by the features the engine had. Thanks to different approaches to technology on limited hardware, games and their features were easily distinguishable from each other. Quake was different from Duke Nukem 3D, because it was more technically advanced, but Duke and every game on its engine was easily recognizable and not less visually attractive. It was a question of prestige among developers to have better tech than others. I was damn proud that our game had so many features that other games didn’t have.

This whole approach was necessary at the time, but very ineffective. It was as if filmmakers had to develop cameras and film stock each time they wanted to shoot a movie. You spent several years working on a tech that you would then use on one or two games before it became obsolete. I dreamed about a time when there would be a powerful enough 3rd party technology we could license affordably and make our games without wasting time reinventing the wheel each time we started a new project. A few years ago it wasn’t possible as most of the stuff you could buy had its limits and was very expensive. Today, that time is past.

There is no need to develop your own tech anymore. With modern commercial engines, you can create almost anything. Technology still has its limits, but today even free engines that can run in web browsers or on tablets have so many features we could only dream about a few years ago. It’s not the tech that is slowing our imagination anymore; almost anything is possible if you are clever enough. The technology also became so complicated that the possibility that you would be able to create in-house, something as advanced as Unreal or Cryengine and do it more cost effective than their licensing fee, is almost zero.

This means that the development of our own tech was absolutely out of the question. Our first decision was that we’ll license everything possible and concentrate just on the content.

Back to Intermezzo I

So here we are at Games Convention in Koln, Germany, knocking on the door of the booths of the likes of Epic, Crytek, Havok and many others, which was totally new for Martin and myself since we had always worked with in-house technology and only had a vague idea about how much it would cost to license an AAA gaming engine. I personally was also unsure if a company like Epic would be willing to deal with an unknown startup like us, but as it turned out this was totally unnecessary. We talked to almost everyone from Epic to the guys from Bitsquid and they were all great. Everyone was very supportive and open to various models of financing. Hell, it almost felt like they wanted to give it to us for free (and in the case of Cryengine and Unreal UDK, for indie developers they are). If I were to decide what we’d buy solely on my feelings, we’d have to buy everything.

Point of the story

We were looking for a complete package which included engine with good tools, especially for the terrain editing and scripting, AI, some pretty lighting and a sophisticated animation system. Some engines offer all of this in one package (Cryengine) and some rely on 3rd party solutions (Havok Vision). Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. In the first example, you have everything under one roof for one price, but you might end up paying for something you don’t need. You also don’t have the choice to select the component that suits your game best if you’re not happy with the built-in one. In the second example, the initial price is lower and there is much more choice, but when you need everything anyway you may end up with a higher price, than the one for the complete package and lots of solutions from various providers may not work as well together. Even then there is a possibility that the option to choose different components to your liking will be more important than the final price.

There are also some risks. Smaller companies might offer great solutions at even greater prices, but since the games industry is quite a risky business you must take into account the possibility that they will go out of business and trust me, it sucks when you're working on a game for several years and the technology provider goes bankrupt, or stops supporting its product one year before release. I’ve seen it happen once and it really is bad.

We ended up with six different engines for evaluation and several middleware solutions for lighting, animations and AI. We were testing everything for two months (not long enough) and the final decision was not easy. I would have loved to work with the new younger developers like Unigine or Bitsquid, since one could easily see that they have a lot of talent and enthusiasm and what they provide looks great, but on the other hand we had to play it safe. Our game is going to be huge and we need proven and advanced tools from day one. I also liked the combo of Unreal + Enlighten lighting middleware which looks totally awesome (Enlighten was used in Battlefield 3), but it has its shortcomings when you have a game with realtime time of day changes and huge (huuuuge) environments.

Unreal Engine level using Enlighten

In the end, we decided to go with CryEngine 3, because it has a little bit of everything we need. It has great tools for building large worlds, very impressive real-time lighting, great looking foliage, supports all the platforms we’re interested in, plus our lead artist worked at Crytek before leaving to come work with us, which is also a great advantage. For a game of our size and scope, CryEngine was (hopefully) the best choice. If we were developing a different game or had a different budget, our choice might have been different because all of the tech we tested had their strong points.

In general I have to say that we were very impressed by the amount of support we got from everyone.

As I said, previously I always worked with in-house technology. It was a necessity, because there simply weren’t engines that could do everything we needed to produce the kind of games we wanted. Developing a gaming engine was a great adventure, but also a great pain in the ass and a very risky business. Nowadays the industry has made huge leaps forward. The sky really is the limit and developers can concentrate on the development of the game itself. They don’t need to start over from scratch with every new project.

Because we licensed the technology it doesn’t follow that we don’t need programmers. We have a very strong programming team, with most of our guys having worked on proprietary technology in the past, but thanks to licensing, they can now concentrate on the stuff that will make our game special – our combat system, unique controls, our very complicated RPG system and the whole world simulation. It’s better to concentrate on the stuff no one has done before, than on the shaders that everyone can do.

Dan Vavra, Creative Director

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