How a talented programmer practically bluffed his way into the games industry, and why Crytek has not yet fulfilled its potential.
Crytek thrives on hyperbole. It is a developer known for pulling game technology forward, for being one of a handful of companies that will push the most powerful gaming machine to its limits.
That hyperbole has become a kind of joke, in fact. "Does it run Crysis?" points to the flaws in any given piece of gaming hardware. But it points back to Crytek at the same time, begging the question, "Does my machine need to run Crysis?"
Crytek's founder, Cevat Yerli, has always had a way with machines. A way of forcing them to perform amazing things on the screen, something he says is part of his company's DNA. It comes easy for team members. But with their latest title, Crysis 3, he thinks they may have focused their efforts too much on that technical side.
"People really branded it," Yerli says, "one of the best renderings ever. ... I think that we stood out there too much.
"When you push something too much — in spite the fact it's great to push it — you put some other parts away. We had to leave [them] behind."
Yerli's goal for Crytek has always been to make his games look the best, to play the best. But he has broader artistic aspirations for the company, as well, to go beyond graphical excellence and engineer deeper feelings inside players, to create a must-play experience that touches the soul.
"I think the bottom line," he says, "is that it is a very challenging experience to make something that people want to care about. ... A game that can make you cry at the end."
Polygon asked Yerli to share the origin story of Crytek. Along the way, we learned about him, his family and the game that he is not yet able to make.
The way Yerli talks about discovering programming feels well-practiced, as do most of his stories. It takes place around 1990, when he was only 12 years old.
"I was playing a game called Kick Off, from a programmer called Dino Dini," Yerli says, pronouncing his name carefully, almost reverently. "It combined my two passions [soccer and games]. ... I played so long at this friend's place that I forgot about time. It got [to be] late, late [in the] afternoon. The sun was going down and I was supposed to be at home.
"I took my [bicycle], drove downhill and [was lost in] a daydream. And I just snapped and the next thing I remember I was in a hospital."
Yerli was so consumed by thoughts of Kick Off that he smashed headlong into a brick wall. He has no memory of the crash.
Yerli grew up in a family of seven, the youngest son of Turkish immigrants from the Black Sea town of Giresun. He was their only child born in Coburg, Germany. His mother, Fatma, and his father, Mustafa Cevdet, worked at a furniture factory there. The Yerlis were guest workers on an assembly line, and Cevat says they wanted nothing more than to provide him, his three brothers and his sister an opportunity to get a good education.
But all Yerli wanted to do was make computer games.
"I was known in school as the guy who missed the most days," Yerli says. "I had the highest number of [absences], usually Fridays and Mondays. Longer vacations on weekends." He smiles a genuine, wistful smile.
Yerli and another immigrant friend began collecting German computer magazines, tapping out the weird code they found there, printed on five or six full pages of cramped text.
"This program would be something; a game, or some other thing," Yerli says. "As you actually typed these programs you learned how to type programming language. Then you tried to figure out how to change the program, and in this way you actually started learning."
Within a year of his bicycle accident, Yerli had run out of games to play, so he enlisted his friends to help him make more. His first game, called Trade It was, of all things, an economics simulation.
"We just painted the graphics first on paper, and tapped the coordinates in. And then it was a 3D rendering."
"You could build your companies, and you could sabotage other companies," Yerli says. "You could buy a company, extend your company and you could watch your company grow."
As he talks about the game he paints the gameplay with broad strokes, fixating instead on the graphics that were the player's reward for success.
"We had the first 3D renderings of buildings," he says, becoming animated as he launches into the great pains he took to pull as much fidelity out of that Amiga as he could. "We would draw on paper the hexadecimal system and plot each dot. We just painted the graphics first on paper, and tapped the coordinates in. And then it was a 3D rendering."
Yerli submitted Trade It to a contest he found in one of his magazines, and several weeks later his phone rang.
The editor that called said that Yerli's submission was excellent, but it was far too long to print in the magazine, even if they published a double issue. He said Yerli might actually make more than the 3,000 German mark prize they were offering if he sold the game to a publisher.
That simple suggestion opened up a whole new world for Yerli. Games weren't just a hobby anymore. They could be a business, and he had to crack that code as well.
Economy of effort
Four years later, in 1994, Yerli and a friend were sitting in the tiny German offices of Black Legend Entertainment, a British company that published games for the Amiga. They were nervous because it was their first business meeting, and the pair of men across the table were watching the 16-year-old boys skeptically as they began their demonstration.
Yerli had spent almost an entire year making that game, called Moi-Thai.
To begin, he videotaped his brother's friend doing martial arts at the local gym, and digitized that video to the Amiga. He then used Direct Paint to cut the fighter out of the background, leaving him with low-resolution 2D pictures, called sprites, to use in his animations. Without knowing it, he had created his own motion-capture pipeline.
In the end, Yerli spent hundreds of additional hours re-painting each of the 5,000 frames of animation, pixel by pixel, all because he didn't know enough to use a green screen to capture the original video.
What Yerli did know, at an almost instinctual level, was how to use the rudimentary toolset available for the Amiga to create beautiful moving pictures. He says the men from Black Legend were stunned at the fluidity of the animation, the complexity of the moves available to the player.
His graphics pushed the humble Amiga to its limit, leaving just enough memory to put two fighters on the screen at one time. Yerli had accomplished that feat using an old version of Basic as well as assembly language, the most fundamental language that the computer was able to understand.
Instead of building his game code within the software environment created by the computer's operating system, he rebuilt his Amiga from the inside out. He programmed down to the bare metal, reallocating the individual physical components inside the computer to meet the demands of his game.
No one made games the way Yerli made games, and the men from Black Legend recognized his skill. The meeting ended with talk of hiring him on. But before the job offer came, that company went bankrupt.
Yerli says the experience made him give up programming for years. He eventually followed his older siblings off to college, where he ended up in an economics program because civil and electrical engineering were too boring.
Like so many other technology entrepreneurs, he would never finish that degree. Yerli says it all came down to failing just one test.
To become an economist, Yerli needed to pass a class in computer science. Late in the term he created a program as part of an exam. But even though his program worked, his professor graded him the lowest in the class because of how he wrote his code.
Yerli was livid, and argued that his grade should be changed. The head of the university eventually sided with his professor.
Yerli gave up on caring at that point. By 1998, he was just going through the motions, keeping his head barely above water in his coursework.
It didn't help that he was staying up to all hours of the night living a double life as the head of a loose, international association of game programmers.
The bill comes due
Cevat's older brother, Faruk, brought internet to the Yerli house in the mid-'90s. Thanks to Cevat's careless surfing, the first monthly bill was 1,200 German marks, somewhere over $900.
"Faruk was about to kill me at that point," Yerli remembers. His internet fees were more than 90% of the total bill.
"I had actually just found these newsgroups," he says. "The internet was different at that time. It was much more hardcore. You had to dig your way through to find [people with] the information. And when you found them, they were a really hardcore group of people who were very passionate about certain things."
Yerli says he found common ground with professional graphics programmers, physicists and other researchers. But also people interested in making games, and developing new methods of gameplay. He found a few people who he became close with, and by 1998 had gathered them together under the banner of a company he called Crytech.
It was little more than a website, a company in name only, but by creating a kind of extranet there he bluffed his way along, collecting a team of more than 50 people from all over the world.
Yerli says that together with these people from the internet, while he was nearly failing out of university, he created three games. They would be his life raft, his last chance to publish a game before giving up.
He turned to his brothers, Faruk and Avni, convincing them to come with him to Los Angeles, to E3, where they would pitch his games.
"Until that point," Cevat says, "I was thinking my brothers and my parents thought that I was just playing around, and using this as an excuse not to go to school." He laughs, nervously. There is just the slightest tinge of regret in that laugh, for the worry he put his family through during that time.
Faruk and Avni went with him. Cevat says that they, along with their sister's husband, contributed the money to start Crytek. Crytek's international team of developers would provide the games.
"We started from zero. We had nothing to lose," Faruk says. "Either we get this from zero to the top, or we learn something out of it and don't do it again."
Cevat spent a few months polishing the games, and then burned them to a single CD that he packed into his luggage.
Their 1999 trip to LA was a comedy of errors.
First, immigration officials stopped them in London's Heathrow Airport. Avni says that, due to their Turkish citizenship, they lacked the appropriate visas to travel to the United States. A friendly Lufthansa agent was somehow able to get them onto their flight to New York.
When they finally arrived in Los Angeles, there were no hotel rooms. After a full day burning gas in their rented Buick, they allowed themselves to be gouged by the staff of the Figueroa Hotel. Their reward was three cots in a windowless storage room deep in the bowels of the hotel.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the next morning E3 staff charged them each a $250 registration fee to gain entrance to the E3 floor. When they finally set foot inside the LA Convention Center, the three brothers were practically broke.
Dressed in fancy European suits, the trio stood out like a sore thumb. Dressed-down developers and members of the media wearing shorts and T-shirts looked at them suspiciously. As they moved from booth to booth, no one took them seriously.
Cevat was angry.
Avni, Faruk and Cevat Yerli in Crytek's early days
After thousands of miles of travel, a bad night's sleep and a full day of being ignored, he snapped. Standing in front the next-generation graphics on display at the NVIDIA booth, he glared at the person he was talking to and cut loose on him.
"For fuck's sake!" he shouted. "We come from Germany! You have to watch our demo!"
The tactic worked, and a stunned NVIDIA rep offered them an appointment at 6 p.m.
Cevat says NVIDIA gave them a station at their booth right as the E3 floor closed to the general public. They would get 15 minutes to show their demo.
Touring the NVIDIA booth at the same time was a group of journalists. Yerli says they ended up at their station just as the demo booted up.
That demo was called X-Isle.
The result of that trip to LA was a contract with NVIDIA to ship X-Isle as benchmarking software with every new NVIDIA card the next year.
Crytek's X-Isle was set on a virtual island that sprawled off into the distance. Reflective water lapped at its shores, and trees swayed before a setting sun. The outdoor environment was so large that dinosaurs roamed, casting sidelong glances at the player as they passed.
None of the journalists there had seen anything like it before. They lingered on the demo, attracting NVIDIA staff. Their time slot stretched from the agreed-upon 15 minutes to a full two hours.
The result of that trip to LA was a contract with NVIDIA to ship X-Isle as benchmarking software with every new NVIDIA card the next year, proof that the company's equipment could run the most advanced graphics in the world — Crytek graphics.
Shortly thereafter the Yerli brothers signed another contract, this time with Ubisoft. It would allow them to turn X-Isle into a triple-A game, and to turn Crytek into a real company.
Nearly five years later, in 2004, island shooter Far Cry snuck onto the gaming stage and set Crytek on the path to become one of the industry's best-known developers.
Today Crytek's world headquarters sits in Frankfurt, Germany. The Yerli brothers hired many of the programmers Cevat befriended in the '90s, moving them from all over the world to live and work with them there. That international culture has become their trademark. In their main office alone, more than 40 countries are represented, and satellite offices span from Kiev, Ukraine to Austin, Texas.
After Far Cry came Crysis, a franchise about a powerful nanotechnology suit that gives the wearer superhuman powers. Yerli says the decision to move on to a new intellectual property was a calculated one, to show that Crytek wasn't just a one-trick pony. Crytek has gone on to experiment in the mobile space, with a puzzle game called Fibble — Flick 'n' Roll, and in the free-to-play space, with a shooter called Warface. Crytek also profits from the licensing of their proprietary engine, called the CryENGINE.
Right now nearly the entire Frankfurt headquarters is crunching hard on Ryse: Son of Rome, one of six games in the works across the company. The game is unique in two regards. First, it's a launch title for a next-generation console. It's a change for Crytek, away from the rarified PC experience toward a mass-market audience. Second, one of the key technologies that makes the game so different is its facial animation.
With Ryse, Crytek will not focus on the waving fields of grass on a tropical island, or the water lapping at its shore, or a seemingly endless open world. Its focus is on the human face, making it more expressive and more believable.
Visiting with Crytek during this period of transition is like visiting a small movie studio. Yerli has invested heavily in Hollywood visual effects talent, doubled down on motion capture by adding in facial performance capture and borrowed the digital cinematography tricks of everyone from James Cameron to Peter Jackson. The conversational buzz in his Frankfurt studio focuses on avoiding the uncanny valley, the articulation of the nasal-labial folds on a character's face and the translucency of younger versus older flesh.
"It's about emotions," Yerli says. "It's about technology that creates the ultimate emotion."
It's a goal that has been built into the company at the most basic level. It's in the name; "cry" and "technology." Cry-tek.
Yerli recalls another time around 2006, when Crytek turned its technical prowess toward creating deeper emotions, toward a game that would make the player truly feel something.
Yerli says that he killed that project himself, even after Electronic Arts had signed on to publish it.
Mute evidence of the game is found around the Frankfurt headquarters in a series of sculptures, the largest of which Yerli keeps in his office. The game was called Redemption.
Inspiration came one afternoon when Yerli was looking after his niece, Faruk's daughter, in the back yard of his brother's house. He was distracted for just a few minutes, and when he looked up the little girl was gone.
"I had this emotional rush," Yerli says. "'Where is she?' I was freaking out. 'Where the hell is she?' And I couldn't find her."
Crytek created sculptures of Redemption's main characters in the game's early concept stages.
Eventually he did find her. But the experience left him with an echo of a feeling that was unique, an emotion he hadn't felt before. With Redemption, he hoped to capture that feeling.
Yerli describes it as The Last of Us meets Crysis 2, a third-person shooter set in an open world with the central goal being to protect your companion character, a 10-year-old girl.
"It had to be put on ice. Some gamers said, 'I just don't care about her. I just want to shoot her.'"
"You have to tell — Jelena was her name — you have to tell Jelena to hide ... But dogs could smell her, and they were coming in and you had to fight them off."
Built into the mechanics of the game was a "look at Jelena" button. You could even call out to her if you lost her in the underbrush. "When you looked [at her]," Yerli says, "you could always zoom in quickly to her face, to see if she [was all right]." Written on that face would be fear, or hope. Perhaps even love.
"It had to be put on ice," Yerli says, not taking his eyes off the little girl in the sculpture. "Some gamers said, 'I just don't care about her. I just want to shoot her. She is annoying me. I don't want to protect her. I just want to shoot the guys.'
"At that point we knew — or I knew — this [was a] project we could not pull off yet. ... We don't have the technology and the capabilities here. Not just the company, but the industry as a whole."
Yerli sees Ryse as a step in the right direction, as a game that will focus on the emotion behind the brutality of war. But if Yerli has his way one day the emotions he felt when he lost his brother's child will finally make their way into the games he makes.
"I would say [Redemption] is one of those games that most likely you may see back again," he says, "because that cumulates the name of the company."
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
Images: Crytek, Tom Connors, Jimmy Shelton