Ryse: Son of Rome is an action adventure game, which was developed by Crytek and published by Microsoft Studios in late 2013 on the Xbox One at the console’s launch. However, it was originally planned to be a first person brawler exclusively for the Xbox 360 under another title. This great turn in direction is just one of the numerous twists that occurred throughout its development.
Kings & Kingdoms
Years before the name ‘Ryse’ would come to be, the basis of the project was born in 2006. It was the brainchild of Crytek Co-Founder, Cevat Yerli, and was imagined then not as one game, but two. One half of the coin was a title called “Kings” – an ambitious MMO where the player joins the ranks of various factions to fight for supremacy in a mythical world of monsters and sorcerers. The other was Kingdoms, a smaller scale first person game focussed around more intimate ground combat between soldiers of warring sides. At this time, no platform was attached to it.
The initial plan for these two games was that they would have been set in the same fantasy-themed universe, informing one another as development went on. Crytek put together a variety of concept art and basic prototypes for them, attempting to flesh out their ideas and convey their ideas more thoroughly as the company began showing them privately to publishers.
Behind the scenes, the world of Kings & Kingdoms was steadily coming together and over the years that the developer toiled away on it, a multitude of concepts for everything from characters to settings was produced. Fortunately, we have been able to preserve a good amount of these for your curiosity.
Later environment/character art:
That CryEngine 3 Demo
At Gamescom 2009, Yerli gave a presentation on CryEngine 3 to a small audience of attendees. Included in this was a brief tech demo with a medieval fantasy setting very similar to the one portrayed by the early art of Kingdoms, leaving many to retrospectively assume a connection after the game was announced in 2010.
Although this goes without any formal confirmation, there certainly at least seems to be a relation between Kingdoms and this demonstration based upon some of Yerli’s statements at the event. During his talk, a member of the crowd asked whether or not the medieval environment had anything to do with some of Crytek’s cancelled projects. Laughing, the developer commented:
“I don’t know… I don’t think we have so many cancelled projects. Time will tell. Sooner or later, we will all know”
Despite clarifying later that this piece was a tech demo specifically made for Gamescom, his answer definitely suggests that it was in some form based around the thematics of Kings or Kingdoms. It also gives the impression that he was unsure whether or not Kingdoms would ever be made, implying that Crytek still had yet to find a publisher at this point (which we now know to be true).
The connection is further supported by the fact that when the game would later go on to be developed for the Xbox 360, it was being built in this same engine.
Microsoft Comes On Board
Later that year, Microsoft began to take an interest in the projects in a move lead by Phil Spencer, who was head of Microsoft Game Studios at the time. Spencer had been looking for a good opportunity to work with the developer, after having met Yerli years previously. While Microsoft was not interested in developing an MMO for the 360, Spencer still wanted to pursue Kingdoms. He was looking to expand the console’s portfolio, which he thought was lacking in the melee combat genre and he also thought that it could open the floodgates for other developers wanting to license CryEngine 3 on the system.
Without a publisher backing it and wanting to move forward with Kingdoms, Crytek cancelled their plans for Kings. With the scope of their ambition being effectively halved this decision, the company began to rethink the world of Kingdoms with first person melee combat still at its core.
The First Take On Rome
While Crytek UK and Frankfurt were busy working on Crysis 2, Kingdoms was given to their Budapest team towards the end of 2009. To help them reimagine Kingdoms with an entirely new look, German art team, Karakter Design Studio, was contracted to create concept art for characters and settings. Karakter was an integral part of moulding the game’s visual style, even if a lot of the work they did was ultimately strayed from.
“Numerous character and prop designs became obsolete or were changed drastically as the story was forged into its final shape.” – Karakter representative.
Together, the companies reworked the ideas driving Kingdoms into a more realistic Roman themed game, away from the fantasy realms of before. Their original vision for Rome was in many ways vastly different from the one seen in the final game. Karakter and the Budapest crew imagined a more colourful, majestic city at the height of its power. This more vibrant side of the locale would never really be seen in Ryse: Son of Rome, however, as it is regularly under siege from barbarians, on the brink of collapse.
This wasn’t all that would change. The characters, too, evolved quite considerably as the game’s story grew more elaborate. Tobias Mannewitz, the creative director of Karakter mentioned their younger version of emperor Nero as a particular example of this:
“At this point during development, the emperor was thought of as a cold hearted, power hungry technocrat. His palace reflected these uncomfortable qualities. Eventually, the emperor developed into a more luxurious, lavish character.”
It appears that entire characters were cut from the script as time went on, including an elderly man called Lucious and a sidekick for the main protagonist, Marius, named Severus. The concept image for Severus gives us a little bit of insight into what the character might have been like.
Karakter helped to realise the location of Glott’s Hop, a Caledonion (Scottish) base of occultist Barbarians; a level from from partway through the story mode, as well. Originally, Karakter had planned to represent these lands as snowy blue forests instead of the dark, grey landscapes seen in the released game.
The art team was also playing around with the idea of introducing minotaur enemies into the mix. In Son of Rome, Glott’s Hop is populated by foes based on picts, who are dressed in tribal outfits that include masks made from the hollowed skulls and horns of dead bulls. To exaggerate and better portray the “superstitious horror” felt by the Romans as they encountered these hostiles, Karakter wanted them to appear to the player as actual minotaur-like creatures. This element of psychological horror was dropped later in development and in the final game, they are shown to be regular barbarian soldiers.
After years of tinkering behind the scenes, the existence of the Kingdoms project was finally divulged to the public at E3 2010. Crytek showed the first trailer for the game during Microsoft’s press conference, an enigmatic teaser that was intentionally vague. The game had been given the tentative title of ‘Codename: Kingdoms’.
“We were trying not to show that it was Roman at that stage. There were kind of hints of Roman in the trailer, but that was our secret we weren’t sharing.” – Nick Button-Brown
The clip, which can be seen below, showed a live action video of three actors posing as soldiers and a voiceover hinting at the game’s themes of rebellion and corruption.
Around this time, the game was being targeted for a 2011 release.
The Game You Never Got To See
The first reveal of ‘Codename: Kingdoms’ came and went, but Microsoft and Crytek remained completely tight-lipped as to the title’s nature. To the wider world, the game would remain a mystery for some time and when it did finally emerge, it had changed in a big way. No screenshots, gameplay clips or other material ever was released of the original first person game that was in development in Budapest. At this stage in development, Kinect control had yet to be introduced and it was a first person melee combat game with conventional button controls. According to Yerli, who spoke to CVG about the project in January 2011, they were intending for the game to leverage the full capacity of the 360’s hardware.
“… I think when we put Crysis 2 out we will show a level that is, multiplatform-wise, maxing out, but we will look into with Microsoft how Kingdoms can push the Xbox 360 110 percent, to its limits.”
During this part of development, the story of Kingdoms was still very different from the released game. Much of it revolved around Roman general, Julias Caesar and his elite guard, made up of the toughest warriors from around the world, who he handpicked himself. Caesar, in the end, was never present in Son of Rome, having been removed completely.
Although they never got as far as rendering most of them into the game, Crytek Budapest did create profiles for the member of Caesar’s chosen soldiers, which give us a bit of background on each of them. This varied group of characters would have accompanied the player throughout the campaign.
The hero of Kingdoms, who had not been given a name yet, was younger and less experienced than Marius, the protagonist of the Xbox One game. Little of the narrative itself had been figured out at this stage outside of these details, as Crytek Budapest had still yet to decide on much of the project’s overall direction.
In addition, the team drafted concepts for a battle in the campaign set during Winter with a backdrop of arctic mountains. Just like the original version of Glott’s camp, there was no snowy locale realised ultimately in either Budapest’s Kingdoms title or Son of Rome.
We’ve also been able to recover a number of the character models made to give you a greater idea of the level of graphical fidelity being aimed for. These were created between 2009-2010 during Budapest’s time on the project and were all scrapped later in development.
Additional 2010 concept art by David Smit:
Ryse Up From The Couch
Not long after E3, Crytek began looking into Microsoft’s upcoming Kinect hardware and drew plans to potentially implement it into Kingdoms. The Budapest branch formulated a pitch for Microsoft, showing how they thought it could work in the context of a brawler.
Crytek’s proposal was fairly basic, only consisting of concept art renders like storyboards, but gives us a little more insight into Budapest’s unrealised version of the game. They envisioned a scenario where the player would take up arms as an unnamed gladiator, performing kicks, punches and slashes towards the Kinect sensor to slay other soldiers. The storyboards used to convey their idea showed a man in an everyday living room set-up stepping up from the comfort of his sofa to battle a barbarian with motion control. He mimicked waving a sword with his right hand and gestured holding a shield with his left.
These concepts were noticeably much more exagerrated and over-the-top in tone than the game that would eventually come to be. One of them even shows the player sending the enemy flying through the air and smashing into a column with nothing more than a kick. There was also the idea of a “bloodlust meter”, which, when filled, allowed you to perform deliver deadly finishing blow; in this case, decapitation.
Microsoft took well to Crytek’s ideas and decided that Kingdoms would be well suited to Kinect, according to Phil Spencer. Before long, it was already being built into the game by around November. Although, it was kept completely internal and was never implemented into Ruffian’s external prototypes.
Trouble In Budapest
Work continued on the game still referred to internally as Kingdoms, but behind the scenes, the project was becoming increasingly in jeopardy at Crytek Budapest. Development was progressing behind schedule and after a year, it had yet to advance beyond the stage of prototyping. The team was running into regular setbacks both creatively and technically. Not only were they experiencing “issues with Kinect development” initially, one former employee told us; there was also the matter of them being unable to settle on a concrete direction for the gameplay.
There were growing doubts about whether or not full Kinect control was appropriate for a game targeting itself towards a “hardcore audience” that had previously shown indifference towards the tech during its unveiling. As such, the Budapest offices had made three prototypes at this point: the aforementioned standard controller first person mode which also had minor elements of Kinect, one with solely Kinect inputs, and another, fully button-based option in the third person. Ruffian Games, separately, had been experimenting with the fully button controlled style of play.
Unsatisfied with the results they were producing, it was in January 2011 that Microsoft eventually intervened and had Crytek pull the project away from the Budapest team. They also ended their contract with Ruffian, binning the prototypes they had made for multiplayer and other content. The responsibility of developing the game was now in the hands of Crytek HQ in Frankfurt.
5 months later, Gamasutra reported that they had received a tip from an anonymous source inside Crytek Budapest, claiming that the majority of the staff there were about to be laid off. Around 50 employees were let go, shrinking the studio to a group of 30-35 people. This was later confirmed by Crytek themselves, who had immediately transitioned the remaining staff into working on mobile platforms.
Despite the circumstances of the their dismissal, one one of the former artist we spoke to from the company described his time there as “a great experience” and the game as “a dream project” for them.
Back To Frankfurt
As Kingdoms returned to Crytek’s Frankurt offices, development continued with Kinect in mind, although its new developers still retained the three prototypes worked on previously. The Frankfurt team, also, was questioning whether or not motion controls were suitable. For the following seven months, the game was effectively in limbo as they continued to experiment and figure out if Kinect really was the way forward.
A few months into 2011, Crytek had finally moved on from the working title of ‘Codename: Kingdoms’ when the game was renamed ‘Ryse’. According to Yerli, Crytek had originally wanted to call it “Rise”, but were unable to due to copyright issues. The suggestion to alter the spelling to ‘Ryse’ came from Microsoft, according to Polygon.
One year on from its first unveiling, it was once again time for the game to be shown off to the public as E3 2011 loomed. It was unknown to the rest of the world, but in reality, Crytek were still undecided in its direction and despite a full 12 months of work, little progress had been made towards finishing it.
Ant Farm, a creative advertising agency, was then called in to assist with putting together a trailer for the title. The company elected to use a combination of pre-rendered CGI cinematics and live action footage, as the game was “in no shape to be shown off” at this point, a developer commented.
An artist involved with the trailer told us that Crytek was “deeply concerned” with sending the right message at E3 that year. They would reveal that their new game supported Kinect for the first time and was cautious about ensuring it would appeal to the “hardcore audience” they were targeting. “This would be the first Kinect game for the core and it was very important to them that it look tough and cool-looking“, the source continues.
With some similarities to the aforementioned storyboard art from 2010, the trailer showed a man in a living room gesturing in front of his TV to control a soldier with Kinect in the first person.
The trailer revealed the newly-revised name for Kingdoms, Ryse, although the subtitle of “Son of Rome” would not be added until much further down the line.
A Dragon’s Lair Style Cinematic Approach
Throughout 2011, Crytek’s Frankfurt offices was working on a more “cinematic” version of Ryse. As Kinect was now central to the title, the creative lead on the project, Rasmus Hojengaard, suggested that a more guided, on-rails experience with a more story-heavy angle might be the way to go. According to Polygon, Yerli responded well to his idea, seeing it as a revival of games like Dragon’s Lair.
It was worked on for a number of months, before being scrapped. It would have been a very narrative-driven title, one source told us, lasting “probably no more than 4 hours” and featured branching paths with multi-choice dialogue trees. Crytek apparently believed that it was too hard a sell for an audience expecting a product more substantial and interactive.
Character model renders:
Another New Protagonist
As development continued to slowly chug along, Crytek was beginning to completely rework the in-game storytelling as they started to hone in on the one eventually featured in Son of Rome. This involved redoing the protagonist of Kingdoms from scratch.
Whereas the hero of Budapest’s title was a younger-looking soldier, their new character was considerably older. He was a more masculine, bulkier chap of the name Evander and would be the final stepping stones towards Marius.
The Three Prototypes
As previously mentioned, Crytek had at this point developed three separate work-in-progress prototypes for Ryse at this point. One was in the first person, controlled by Kinect only, the second blended together the 360 controller and Kinect, also in first person; and the last had a third person perspective with buttons only.
Later in the year, Crytek decided that it was finally time to bite the bullet and figure out for certain which to go with. A company-wide survey was conducted, inviting people from all over the developer’s offices to play the three prototypes and choose their favourite. “We tried to make it as scientific as possible”, Patrick Esteves told Polygon. However, the team faced a dilemma; there was a near perfect division between people who favoured each. Every version had its fans.
The group then expanded their reach, testing it out in Microsoft user research labs and with close relatives of the company. In the end, the results began to tilt in favour of the third person demo. People found it more rewarding and suitable for the experience, seeing the character in front of them; especially as it had grown into a more story-driven game at this juncture. Noticing this, Crytek settled on creating a brand new game with this angle.
Into To The Next Generation
With a great deal of the work done over previous years having to be scrapped, Crytek Frankfurt was setting their sites on a new horizon and starting almost entirely from scratch. Although, their transition into developing a third person game had come so late in the 360’s lifespan that Crytek’s management didn’t believe it was worth even building it for the console anymore.
The Xbox One was still a good deal of time away from being completed, but it was no secret to the developer, which remained in communication with Microsoft, that a next generation Xbox was, indeed, on its way. With that in mind, the devs commenced work on the project once again, but this time, with unspecified next gen hardware as a base. It would be initially created for PC until Microsoft would later divulge to Crytek prototypes of the One system.
Any and all plans for the long-awaited 360 version of Ryse were abandoned, as the game continued its journey to release; the remainder of which was comparatively far less bumpy.
Crytek maintains that none of the big changes made to Ryse were imposed on them for negative reasons:
“We’re thankful that we’re not in a situation where these changes were forced on us for negative reasons, but rather that they represent the growing ambition of Crytek as a company and the increased belief in “Ryse” as a game that really push boundaries and take players somewhere new.” – Changing Perspective – An Introduction to Ryse: Son of Rome
Early concepts for Marius + other characters:
Thanks to Rob for the contribution!
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I actually purchased 5 XDK Units from an online tech clearing company. They had been paid by Ruffian games to dispose of goods but they thought they where just normal Xbox 360 consoles and sold them as such. They had a very early Ryse build on them along with a dev build of Nike +, sesame Street and Halo. Email me if you want some more info or vids of the Ryse build (there where 3 different versions of the build.)