Somebody has to push the leading edge of graphics technology in video games. And on a regular cadence, the game developers at CryTek in Frankfurt, Germany, are the ones who do it. Crysis 2, one of the most ambitious and expensive video games ever made is debuting today on the PC, Xbox 360, and the PlayStation 3.

Games like Crysis 2 are important because they inspire hardcore gamers to buy the biggest and baddest computers they can get. That in turn inspires the hardware makers to create better and better hardware, keeping the engine of innovation humming in a kind of virtuous circle. Crysis 2’s innovations are all in the details, from shattered glass to translucent water or flickering flames for the environment of the first-person shooter game.

Electronic Arts
is distributing the game far and wide, and the game will be an example of just how good game developers have become at exploiting the graphics hardware in the fastest game machines on earth. More than 200 people worked on the game, not counting testers and outsourced talent, across several locations for 2.5 years. The original Crysis sold more than 3 million units, but its sales were limited because it wasn’t made for the consoles and wouldn’t run on a lot of PCs. The new sci-fi game takes place in the city of New York in the future and features some eye-popping special effects. I’ve played a few of its levels, and it’s clear that the graphics make it one of the most visually arresting games ever made. We’ll see if the game turns out to be a bigger commercial success than the original.

Nathan Camarillo is the executive producer of Crysis 2. We talked to him about the state of computer graphics, the details that they enable players to experience in games, and the company’s decision to make the game viewable in stereoscopic 3D. Check out an edited transcript of our conversation below.

VB: How long have you been working on this game?

NC: The game has been in the works since Crysis One finished in 2007. I joined CryTek two and a half years ago.

VB: And how does it feel at this point?

NC: It’s nice to play with the game, finally get it in the hands of all gamers who have been eagerly awaiting it and see people’s reactions. I’ve been able to play online multiplayer with my friends. That has been a lot of fun.

VB: So what were the goals this time?

NC: There were a few goals on this project. One of the main ones was to re-architect the CryEngine and build the CryEngine 2 so that we could simultaneously make the same game on the PC and have it scale across all of the available hardware on the PC and also run on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. We are still taking advantage of the PC as much as possible. We had to re-architect the engine so it could run on consoles. We reused some code. But we reworked a lot of it so that it could scale appropriately. We really wanted to push the visuals of PC gaming as we did with [the original] Crysis.

VB: So does it work easily that way? Can you scale it from the Xbox 360 to the modern PC, or do you have to do a new version for each one?

NC: Under the hood, we can adjust and tune to create images for the specification, whatever the hardware is. So for PC gamers right now there are three set configurations based on what type of hardware you have. Very few people have the hardware capable of doing the top specification. This engine has a wide range since it can run on a 5-year-old Xbox 360 or on a brand new machine. If you have an older PC, and you can meet the minimum specifications, you can get the same awesome experience as someone on the Xbox 360. So we are not in the same position that we were on the original Crysis where either you can run the game or you can’t.

VB: That was really at the high end.

NC: If you were too low on the hardware scale, it wasn’t playable. It would run but it wasn’t fun. Likewise if you have a five-year-old PC, you should be able to expect to turn your desktop resolution up to whatever you like and still have Crysis 2 run because it is built to do that. If you have it at a  reasonable level, you can have the same quality experience as someone on the consoles. If you have spent a zillion dollars on a PC, with two graphics cards, we want to make sure you get the benefits of that, since you’ve paid about 10 times as much for your computer as other people have.

VB: I guess that really hasn’t been done that well in the past with lots of other engines?

NC: I can’t speak for the other engines. Just our own experience.

VB: So you think you are widening the audience?

NC: We want as many people playing the game as possible. You probably won’t see Crysis 2 on an Nintendo DS, but we want to grow the community as much as we can. We have a very strong reputation in the industry among gamers but would like to raise the awareness out there.

VB: What are some things you can notice visually at the high end of the technology that you won’t be able to see on the lowest-end PCs?

NC: There are a few things. The most obvious one is the view distance for objects in the game world. Our view distances are further for the high-end PCs. You can alway see all of the game world. But when a trash can in the distance becomes visible is different if you have a low-end PC. You notice that first. The quality of the shaders gets better at the high end. There are better shadows and it’s visually richer and more accurate.

VB: Ah, so maybe you can be a better sniper on a high-end PC.

NC: Yeah, maybe. But in multiplayer combat we make sure that no one has extra advantages. Your computer’s frame rate (how many screens it presents to you in a second) is always helpful. If some guy has really crappy hardware, he isn’t penalized. But someone who plays with a higher frame rate can be more responsive than someone with a lower frame rate. Those are the most obvious differences. Others include the quality of water.

VB: The original Crysis didn’t look so bad. Is there a way of describing how much better this looks?

NC: You just look at the screen shots and you can see the difference. The flame and smoke are more realistic. The environment is different and there are a lot more materials to play with. The first Crysis had jungle terrain, and now we are in the middle of New York City, with concrete, asphalt, glass, and lots of visual variation that results.

VB: Is there a kind of scene that pushes the hardware to the limit?

NC: There is more action going on and the world is bigger. You can roam around a large battle area. I really think that only the CryEngine can do this. It’s not just visual effects. It also has great artificial intelligence. And we are making much better sound as well. There are so many things going on at the same time. It’s quite amazing when you absorb it.

VB: I suppose if better hardware comes out, you will be able to make use of it?

NC: We are always pushing the high end. We are in touch with hardware manufacturers and we understand what is coming down the road.

VB: The PCs have raced ahead of the consoles now?

NC: Yeah, those consoles are five years old now. When you think about how much technology has advanced in five years, it’s easy to see the difference. You have more memory on the video cards, more textures that you can process at once, more characters on the screen at once. More details from the shaders.

VB: But it seems like the audience on the consoles is bigger now?

NC: I don’t know. If you look at sheer numbers, there are more home PCs than there are consoles. There are more enthusiast gamers on the PC, but then you have to deal with piracy as an issue. It seems like the fan base is getting smaller on the PC. The consoles have been bought over the last five years. And those gamers are more likely to buy new games too. But by no means is this a console-only market. The PC is not dead or dying. It is sustained.

VB: How did you approach stereoscopic 3D?

NC: We wanted it to be fully 3D with Crysis 2. We started internally at CryTek; we felt like this would be the next big way to experience entertainment. So two and a half years ago we started researching 3D projects internally. We had some side projects that we were doing some experiments with. We were learning about 3D and what works and what doesn’t because there are a lot of things that don’t work for the viewer. They cause eye fatigue or eye strain. We wanted to be in the beginning days of 3D PCs and 3D TVs. They are just now beginning to be sold in stores. The problem is, there is a lack of content. There are a few 3D movies and a couple of 3D games. We want to be there for the beginning. We have been researching and doing a lot of work. It is not something that we just tacked on. We feel like we have a very solid implementation of 3D compared to earlier offerings.

Movies are different as passive media. For interactive 3D, it is totally different. As a player, I can choose where to look or go. The game developer has no control over that. So it’s a lot tougher. You have to pay attention to all the small details in the game world. If you go up to a park bench, it has to look good in 3D. Even small details on enemies.

What we don’t do is push the 3D experience out of the TV. That really causes you to adjust your eyes. Your eyes will get sore from that. So what we do is we do a concave 3D experience. We start the 3D experience at the screen and then push deep into the TV. That is different from most but then the frame of that television becomes the window into the world of Crysis 2, and you can see how you can play that for hours and hours. If you and I are talking, we are looking close at each other. But we spend most of the time looking past our arms distance. It’s easy for us to do that all of the time because our eyes make only small adjustments. If you look in the foreground and then have to adjust your eyes to look in the background and you do that a lot, you get tired. We don’t stick stuff out at you. We want you to play the single player campaign and then you can play multiplayer for 50 hours to unlock everything. If you want to play all of that in 3D, you should be able to. All of our cinematics are in 3D.

VB: How many hours is a single campaign?

NC: It is 10 to 12 hours. That’s the average that was seen from pretty hardcore gamers. I think if you are the kind of player that stops for all of the flowers and looks at things or searches for everything, you could play it for much longer. But the number of hours depends on how aggressive you are. You can blast through the game as fast as possible.

VB: Did you get to look at the Unreal video that just went out?

NC: Oh no, you can imagine that we don’t show each other what we’re working on. I’ll check it out.

VB: How is the competition for you?

NC: It is healthy competition really. We really have a lot of respect for each other.

VB: So where do you look for where this could go in the next generation for graphics or physics?

NC: We will always keep pushing forward. We have several game studios at CryTek. This game was made in Frankfurt and in Nottingham, but we have three other game development studios.

VB: How many people are there altogether?

NC: Over 500.

VB: How many did it take to build this game?

NC: Over 200 people worked on Crysis 2. We have outsourced people, but we don’t count those. And then if you count the publishing side that contributes as testers and other people, that’s a lot more.

VB: How will the marketing kick in now?

NC: We are going to have a barrage of marketing now. It’s on Facebook and on Twitter. There are trailers going out. We look at what people say on social media, and in general the feedback is good. It’s fun to directly access the community. I used to be a gamer and it’s fun to access those people.