It's time to start the countdown on Crytek.
The veteran AAA developer that brought gamers the original "Farcry," "Ryse: Son of Rome" and the "Crysis" series took a firm step into the grave this week with two grim announcements.
First, Crytek sold the rights to the only established gaming franchise it was working on, "Homefront: The Revolution," to the game's co-publisher Deep Silver. The development team at Crytek U.K. will now work on the game for Deep Silver and Crytek's English studio will close.
This is probably for the best. Over the past few months, rumors surfaced that Crytek was late in paying its U.K. staff, which led to resignations and work stoppages. Whether these rumors are true or not, I am sure the "Homefront" developers are grateful for a fresh start.
The sale cements Crytek's move from a single-player shooter and action-game developer to a free-to-play publisher. And that is a horrible mistake.
The single-player market is what brought Crytek success. Sure, it's waning and free-to-play games are gaining enormous traction globally, but there is no reason to completely abandon your expertise in favor of the latest fad.
Free-to-play publishers also need to release good, stable games in order to make money, which brings me to the second part of Crytek's announcement: It will move the development of the free-to-play third-person shooter "Hunt: Horrors of the Gilded Age" from Crytek Austin in Texas to the company's home base in Frankfurt, Germany. The Austin team will be reduced to a small support site for Americans using Crytek's game development toolkit, the CryEngine.
The move probably will delay "Hunt," which is now one of only two announced Crytek games. "Hunt" looked great at E3. The online co-op game pits teams of players against witches, werewolves and other fantasy creatures in a stylish, Steampunkish rendition of the 19th century.
If you think that description makes it sound like "The Order: 1886," then you are absolutely right. I saw both at E3, and the two games are remarkably similar. The only glaring difference is that "Hunt" is a co-op game, while "The Order" is a single-player title. Oh, and "The Order" is the best looking console game I have ever seen.
"Hunt" also will have to fend off another competitor. Turtle Rock Studios' "Evolve" is a highly-anticipated co-op title in which four players team up to battle one giant monster, which also is controlled by a player. "Evolve" was built using the CryEngine and will debut a few months before "Hunt," which I believe will seriously hurt Crytek's best new franchise.
If "Hunt" can't support a massive company, then Crytek will have to rely on its other upcoming game. Unfortunately, that game is the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title "Arena of Fate."
"Arena of Fate" could be a pretty good game. Players are grouped into teams that battle one another online on a huge map. I like the unique angle of using historical and fairy tale figures like Nikola Tesla and Little Red Riding Hood as playable characters, and I like it offers a casual MOBA experience that is a welcome change of pace from the hyper-competitive "League of Legends" and "Dota 2."
There's only one problem: we are about to be up to our ears in MOBAs. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have received an announcement email for a new MOBA every week for the past five months. The next few years probably will bring 30-35 new MOBAs, all of which will chase the billion-dollar dream that is the "League of Legends" and "Dota 2" franchises.
Many are all going to be disappointed. Sure, a lot of these games will make some money. But the two MOBA monoliths hold a frightening stranglehold on the genre. They will never allow another game to rise up to their level. There just aren't enough people in the world to support all these games, and this will cripple "Arena of Fate."
If "Hunt" and "Arena of Fate" don't turn huge profits, then the CryEngine will have to carry the load. The third and fourth versions of this development engine are powering dozens of upcoming indie games, including the dazzling space simulator "Star Citizen." There certainly is some money to be made from the dues that developers pay to use these tools.
However, the months of financial instability and the uncertainty surrounding Crytek's future could hurt CryEngine as well. If I was a developer and had my choice of toolkits, I would never place my game's future in the hands of a company that seems unsteady.
Can two decent games in two crowded genres and a solid developer engine support a 15-year-old company with seven offices and 600-700 employees? We are about to find out.