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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Karl Hilton of Crytek UK

18 February 14 photos: Shaun Scully
interview: Jag Bal

Minding its own business on Canal Street is a games studio so inconspicuous that we had to stick our heads in to believe it. While we were there, Crytek UK’s Managing Director Karl Hilton talked to us about the industry, surprising uses for games development, and his work on some of the best-selling and most highly regarded first-person-shooters ever.

You originally trained as an architect, but ended up working with RARE on Goldeneye 007 and later, Perfect Dark. How does something like that happen?
As a kid I always loved mucking around with computers, although I was never much of a programmer because you need to be good at maths. I always veered towards the art side of design so I ended up going to architecture school where I spent most of my time working on computers designing buildings and stuff. From there I went to Bournemouth University and did a degree in computer animation and got recruited straight out of there to join RARE in Twycross. I worked as an environment artist using my architectural knowledge to design buildings and environments for games. It was exactly the kind of work I wanted to do.

What do you think made those games so popular and has people still talking about them today?
We had the advantage of being there at the beginning of the first person experience on a console. We made the controls very accessible so people could have fun with it, and we were really focused on the multiplayer element as well. In those days it was split-screen but we played a lot of Bomber Man during the development process so we were very keen to bring that “having fun with your friends” experience into a first-person shooter game. I think that resonated with a lot of people.

You then went on to be a Director at Free Radical Design. Do you still play any of the older games you worked on?
Not ones that I’ve made, no. Occasionally I see people playing on Goldeneye and it’s always fun to see it through rose-tinted spectacles, but game design moves on. I do still love some of the old arcade games and I play versions of those on PC and tablet. I like really old-school games like Defender and Galaxians but that’s just a bit of casual social gaming. Everything is so serious now; TimeSplitters didn’t take itself too seriously, I wish there was more of that around.

So what do you think makes a good game?
It’s like food, isn’t it? Whatever takes your fancy, I suppose. For me personally, I like games which allow you to do things that you can’t do in real life. I enjoy stepping outside the constraints of the real world and have a bit of fun in a virtual one, that’s a great strength with video games.

What are your favourite games, the ones that you always come back to?
I love driving games. The ones I keep coming back to are things like Forza Motorsport and Grand Turismo. The quality of those games is so high both visually and in terms of programming. They’re just great fun and are adaptable to the way you want to play them. You don’t have to go through a story, you just do the bits that you want.

Crytek have been involved in Confetti’s Industry Week and GameCity. Do you enjoy the creative side of Nottingham?
Absolutely, we really want to integrate ourselves into the city as much as possible. We’re quite a large employer now, we’re very creative. I think we sit on the cutting edge of what Nottingham is doing in terms of technology. We’re really happy to help places like GameCity and Confetti to support the growth of ideas. Some of the little start-ups happening in The Lace Market are doing some really interesting stuff. There are lots of little companies springing up all over the place, micro-businesses that just do their own thing, hoping they’ll have a hit with something. You never know where the next Angry Birds is going to come from.

What do you think the industry looks like at the moment?
A game used to be a thing in a box that you sat down and played through in front of the TV. Now you can play it on your tablet or your phone, and you can play whenever you feel like it. Having games that are social, casual in nature or episodic in content means you can dip in, do the bit you need and come out again. Maybe you have a lighter experience on the bus on the way home, and then have a fuller experience when you get home. All of that just opens up to a much bigger audience and creates opportunities to make a much broader range of games as well.

Do you think social media integration and sharing has changed perceptions of gamers in recent years?
It’s funny and quite ironic that games were originally viewed as anti-social but actually so much of social interaction now has been driven by online experience. Everyone is tweeting and talking about what they have done. It is great fun and its encouraging people to share their experiences with each other and be competitive which, hopefully, is a positive thing.

How do you think the relationship between developers and the gamer has been affected by the pre-owned market?
There are lots of arguments for and against pre-owned sales and it’s a difficult one. Anything that gets more people experiencing video games is a good thing and there are so many more methods of delivering a game to people now, so it’s not really as big a deal as it used to be. It should be the goal of every developer and publisher to get its games into as many homes as possible. Gamers do know and understand how long it takes to make a really top quality video game and there’s a value attached to that. It’s about making sure the market works effectively for everyone.

Has working with the PS4, Xbox One and high end PCs presented any difficulties?
It’s always been the same in the game industry. The technology moves quickly and you have to move very quickly to keep at the very cutting edge if you’re going to be competitive. So from that point of view it’s business usual for us. The new consoles and PCs are fabulous to work on. The technology of the different platforms is closer now than it ever has been so it’s about creating experiences that can be easily translated between them all.

What are the main differences working on classics like Goldeneye and TimeSplitters compared with the Crysis series?
Those games were in the very early days of first-person shooters on consoles, the controllers were so different. Everyone was finding their way, Goldeneye was one of the first so it was very much a path finding experience and then you try and apply what you’ve learnt to the next games. First-person shooters now are infinitely more complex creations than what we made back then but each generation builds on the next one so that’s to be expected. It’s great to see them develop and it’s been nice to have been involved in such an early version.

The CryEngine has been used in all the Crysis games and more recently Ryse: Son of Rome on the Xbox One, but can you tell us a little about its other uses?
The CryEngine is a really high quality real time rendering engine, so you can use it for all kinds of simulation purposes. Crytek focuses on video games but outside of that it can be used in a whole host of simulations ideas whether it’s industrial or medical and health care. The health industry is very interested in “gamification”, turning learning or rehabilitation experiences into games. It’s a really exciting time and I hope people can understand that gaming isn’t just about killing aliens or racing cars. It’s got so much more to offer in terms of interaction with other people, interaction of ideas and physical interaction too.

Crytek is involved in a workshop for health care and wellbeing. Can you tell us about that?
We’re part of Invest in Nottingham and I’ve been able to meet people who are working in the areas of gamification. They meet lots of companies who are looking for different ways of applying technologies for health care. Some of the technology they’re after needs real time simulation and they’re looking at virtual worlds and environments to operate in. CryEngine is very good at doing that kind of thing so it’s very exciting to see if there’s anything we can help with and anything they can feed back to us.

Any tips for budding games developers out there?
There’s no secret to getting in to the games industry, really. You need to decide what it is that you want to do whether it’s being a programmer, artist, animator or a designer and then you need to develop a set of work that shows a video games company that you’re really good at it. Get your portfolio out there and show what you can do.

And finally, what have you got up your sleeve at the moment?
In the UK we’re working a lot on CryEngine technology and on Homefront 2. We’re also working on a lot of secret stuff that I can’t talk about...

Crytek will be featuring in the Gamification of Healthcare event Tuesday 18 February at Antenna. This is part of a series of free events being put on by Next Business Generation during 2014. See their website for details.

Crytek UK website
Next Business Generation website


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