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Crytek Interview, Part I of III

By August 3, 2010Interviews

By Neil Schneider

Meet Jens Schöbel, Technical Designer (and stereoscopic 3D wiz) for Crytek, developers of the upcoming Crysis 2 video game and CryENGINE 3 game engine!

Neil Schneider (left), Jens Schöbel (middle), Andrew Oliver (right) at FMX 2010

Crytek first made headlines in stereoscopic 3D gaming with a demo they did on an iZ3D monitor at GDC 2009.  They later demonstrated CryENGINE 3 running in stereoscopic 3D on the big screen at SIGGRAPH 2009.  Now Crysis 2 is getting set for release, complete with native stereoscopic 3D support on PC and console (Xbox 360 and Sony PS3).  Today, we begin our three part mystery tour of finding out what they have cooking in 3D!

1. Hi Jens!  How did you get started at Crytek?  What are your responsibilities in relation to 3D?

Starting was quite simple. I just gave my CV to several recruiters at a job conference. I received many different offers from various German gaming companies and I picked the best one.

My main responsibility at Crytek is basically our gamer’s health in regards to the development of stereoscopic 3D. In this case less can be more and create much better immersion. Let me give you a short explanation: In the common belief, S-3D is all about objects popping out of the screen. But in reality this does not necessarily make the best 3D entertainment. In contrast – it’s more likely that this effect destroys the user’s immersion very quickly and makes him – in the worst case – feel sick. So my job is it to look at objects that “violate your eyes” and try fixing them and making the best out of it.

I’ll tell you an interesting incident that happened a while ago, basically when we started playing around with 3D.  Back then, we had implemented a very easy version of our HUD. It was placed exactly on the screen, so neither inside nor outside of the screen. That was fine as long as everything was behind the HUD. But when it came to combat, things started getting bad. Suddenly, the guns and the hands seemed to be in disorder. Although the hand was actually behind the HUD, for us it felt the other way around – The hand seemed closer to our eyes then the HUD. Of course as a player this distracts you since you can’t focus on the enemies in a proper way and thus get killed more often. We experienced a depth violation, which is something that you will barely ever see in real life.

In this case it was my task to get rid of the problem and find a solution for it. It was clear to us: depth violation is not an option for a “First Person Shooter”. The solution for the described problem is pretty simple. I had to shift the HUD a little bit left on the left picture and a little bit right on the right picture. The following play tests proved the correctness of this decision since they showed much less kills and thus saved many virtual lives.  

2. Before we talk about Crysis 2, I think it’s important to get some of the historical groundwork covered first.  What is the general storyline of the Crysis series?  Where was it set and why was it so innovative?

With the PC-exclusive Crysis 1, we wanted to push our technology (CryENGINE 2) as far as we could – and the fact that the game is still being used for graphics benchmarks today underlines our success in doing so. So one important factor in regards to the innovation is for sure the technology, namely CryENGINE, with all its amazing features like its advanced AI System, Real-Time Lighting such as Time of Day and Colour Grading, its destructibility (Procedural Destruction, Integrated Physics. Procedural Deformation), the automatic occlusion system and the shader based rendering and of course WYSIWYP (What You See Is What You Play) editor.  Besides its graphics, Crysis is especially known for its sandbox gameplay.

In Crysis 1, global tensions have reached boiling point as the U.S. and North Korea square off in the South China Sea.  At stake:  a mysterious artifact uncovered by a team of U.S. archeologists. The North Korean government quickly seizes the area, prompting the U.S. to dispatch an elite team of Special Forces operatives on a rescue mission. The battle to save Earth begins as the aliens’ flash freeze the tropics into a ghostly-white frozen landscape. As gamers take up arms against the aliens, they will be outfitted with customizable weapons and a high-tech Nanosuit, allowing them to adapt their tactics and abilities to a hostile, ever-changing environment and a mysterious enemy.

With the sandbox-style gameplay in Crysis, players can choose their own path through the open world of the game, destroying obstacles, driving vehicles from Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft to boats and using the environment itself against the enemies.

Crysis 2

3. Ok!  Now we can talk about Crysis 2!  First, how is the game engine so different from the first?

CryENGINE 3 enables us to develop games for consoles for the first time. The decision to enter the console market for engines was mainly driven by our desire to make console games – it’s something we always wanted to do and we’re really enjoying it. We have dedicated PS3 and Xbox 360 teams that are taking care of the technical realization of the console versions.  They are responsible for finding bottle-necks  and improving our engine. Furthermore our artists take care of specific texture sizes, number of polygons and  the level of detail since all those things affect performance and are thus important on consoles. Nevertheless the development process itself is basically the same for consoles and our goal is to deliver the best gaming experience on each platform individually.

4. What is the setting of Crysis 2?  How will it be different from the first installment and expansion pack?

We moved the setting from the big lush jungle to an urban environment, namely New York City. This delivers a completely new gameplay experience that is much more vertical than in Crysis 1. We also iterated on the original Nanosuit a lot and introduce the Nanosuit 2 in Crysis 2. Another important difference between Crysis 1 and 2 will be the story. We recently hired the famous science-fiction author Richard Morgan. He brings his trademark visceral writing style to the project.

Last but not least, Crysis 2 will be the first major video game on multiple platforms to take full advantage of true stereoscopic 3D.

5. When and how did Crytek first take an interest in stereoscopic 3D gaming?  What was your first experience with it?

My personal experience with S-3D differs a little bit from Crytek’s experience with 3D. Before I joined Crytek I received my Master of Science in Mathematics and used to work as a scientist in the 3D graphics laboratory at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Back then I made my first experiences with S-3D. This is about 9 years ago. My task was to visualize data in stereo 3D like jet streams around a car or biological cells. The results that we achieved at those times were absolutely amazing from a graphical point of view but not comparable with the current developments at all.

When I joined Crytek in 2008 the idea of developing videogame content in S-3D was relatively new. At that time only one programmer at Crytek researched this technology.  He implemented the first version of our S-3D tech in CryENGINE for Siggraph 2009 in less than a handful of days. After the tech was implemented we started working on the content. An internal research project lifted our knowledge bar of stereo gaming step by step over the following years. Today, S-3D is one of the most important parts of my job as Technical Designer. I have a very deep understanding of the S-3D theory itself, the programming side of things but also about the design idea behind. I’d call myself the interface between programming, art and design. Besides programming I also try finding the right values for how much left shift a shader effect needs for example, or how deep a pillar needs to be placed considering the specific arrangement of objects in the game.

6. How far into development did you decide to add stereoscopic 3D support to Crysis 2?  What finally convinced you?

I think, our research project was it that in the end convinced really everyone here at Crytek of S-3D. It looks just awesome. Of course we wanted to share this vision with our gamers. Especially our CEO, Cevat Yerli, from that time on pushed the idea of bringing Crysis 2 to 3D since he was absolutely excited. The vision was to be THE first big studio that brings out an AAA title in S-3D in a decent quality. At this stage Crysis 2 was in pre-production which gave us the possibility to push all our S-3D knowledge into Crysis 2 very early on.

7. After having the privilege of seeing your presentation at FMX 2010, I walked away with the impression that Crytek is very excited about this technology.  Do you have some ideas on how games can be written to treat stereoscopic 3D as a creative tool, rather than just a special effect?  What creative things can you do in 3D that you wouldn’t think of in 2D?

The first thing that came to my mind while reading your question was: If a game doesn’t work without special effects, no effect at all will enhance the gameplay. So how do we use Stereo 3D at Crytek in order to make it more than “just” a special effect?

First and foremost, different depths give objects different meanings. The first thing you realize in S-3D movies or games is the impressive feeling of depth. But as long as it stays a static depth it’s just an effect, nothing more. So the basic idea is to change the depth in order to bring objects with a meaning towards you. You can for example make your scenery flat or give it more depth. By changing the depth you also change the meaning; changing depth means changing meaning. Developers can make this depth interactive – something that is not possible with 2D pictures at all.

Left to right: Ashu Rege (Nvidia), Mark Rein (Epic Games), Cristian Svensson (Capcom Entertainment). Luis Giglioti (THQ), Greg Spence (Sony Online Entertainment) at 3D Gaming Summit

8. Mark Rein is VP and Co-Founder of Epic Games.  He has been very vocal that while he thinks 3D is a great idea for future generation technology, current Xbox and PS3 consoles don’t have the horsepower to make 3D games work well.  What is Crytek’s take on this?  Are you happy with the results with Crysis 2?

Sure, I am very happy with the results for Crysis 2. At Crytek we’re always striving for cutting-edge solutions and that’s why we pushed the 3D development very intensively. Of course we could have waited for the next console generation and the improved 3D support. That would have made our life much easier – but not better! We always want to be one step ahead of our competitors and thus worked out how to implement S-3D on the current generation of consoles.

Did you think the interview ends there?  Heck no!  We are just scratching the surface!  Part two will be up on Thursday this week.  Share your remarks below.

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