This is the new stuff: meet the studio leading Call Of Duty into its next generation
Inside Sledgehammer Games, the Californian studio behind Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Compare a team photograph from
Dead Space developer Visceral (formerly EA Redwood Shores) in the mid-2000s and the Sledgehammer of today, and you’ll see plenty of overlap. That’s no coincidence. Activision will stress that some cross-pollination was inevitable given the studios’ proximity to one another in northern California, and that’s true to a point, but while the studio’s founders – CEO Glen Schofield and studio head
Michael Condrey – never went out of their way to poach old hands from their former workplace, certainly those old hands were happy to move the seven miles north to work with them again.
“They know the benchmarks exactly,” Schofield says. “We don’t have to explain that we want greatness; they just know, and over the years they’ve seen us all aim for that. There’s this shorthand everyone’s developed with one another that we just don’t have to worry about.”
“At some other places, you have a game and a team, and when that game is done the teams get split up between other games and teams,” Condrey says. “We’ve been through that, and you lose that cohesiveness, that identity and that shorthand for development. One of the most powerful things in the Activision studio model is that you have one team under one roof focusing on one piece of software. So when you have a team that has worked together for years like we have, with almost no attrition – we’ve had historically low attrition and lost almost nobody over time – that team starts to form a bond… a family. It’s a working relationship that you don’t have to retrain.”
“And it’s just nice,” Schofield adds. “It’s nice to see guys who were single then get married, buy their first car, first house [and] have their first kid; everyone’s appreciative of the fact that they’re in a stable place for years.”
Founded in 2009, Sledgehammer is now into its sixth year and third game. Its remit initially was to build the first thirdperson adventure in the Call Of Duty series – an action game in the style of
Dead Space named Fog Of War – but the studio was quickly put to work making up the numbers on Modern Warfare 3 when 40 developers followed Infinity Ward’s founders out of the door. Somehow interest in a thirdperson COD waned in the meantime, and since 2012 the studio has worked on Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, due for release in November.
“Activision came up to us and asked us to work on Modern Warfare 3,” Schofield says. “But we’re making this game here, so we actually went back to the team and we all voted on it, and it was pretty unanimous: ‘Yeah, let’s go make
MW3.’ It was the right decision. We learned from the best, and look where we are a few years later. It’s an honour for us to be given this game; we’re the first new team in ten years [to work on COD], and the third team in history. For us, it’s a big deal. Every day we learn more and more about how to make a great FPS.”
“When I reflect back on it, it was a real honour to work with Infinity Ward,” Condrey “I wouldn’t sit here and say everything we do in our process is absolutely perfect,” development director Aaron Halon says. “But we’re constantly chipping away at places we feel like we need to get better. That process has evolved over the years, even back [when I was working with] Mike and Glen on Dead Space.
“I’m sure you’ve picked up their personalities. We laugh about it; they’re really different. That’s a key part of Sledgehammer: there’s a very strong creative force Glen embodies and really drives that’s all about doing the research and the art. [Whereas] Mike is really focused on the development and the nuts and bolts of how we’re actually going to accomplish the vision and the
“FOR US, IT’S A BIG DEAL. EVERY DAY WE LEARN MORE AND MORE ABOUT HOW TO MAKE A GREAT FPS”
says. “But it’s an even greater honour to be allowed the chance to do this for ourselves. We have the expertise… we know the franchise now, we’ve been presented with this opportunity, so we have to take full advantage of it.”
For Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer’s selfimposed goal was photorealism. New methods were developed as the studio migrated from traditional painted textures to mathematically accurate models of materials. Artists who worked on Dead Space and older games – Schofield himself was an artist on Game Boy games in the early ’90s – spent months grappling with the new technology. “It is like maths these days,” art director Joe Salud says, “but there is art. It’s just that the art comes in the post-production now. Once you get everything photorealistic, you can use [film techniques such as] colour grading, and suddenly it’s all about how you place objects: set design. The next level is design. How do we make the design cool?”
For all that’s new, there are still methods that have carried over from the Visceral days. goals. I think today we’ve gotten to a point with this particular team where I’m really excited about what we’re accomplishing, and hopefully that’s something you can see in the software.” Each level in Advanced Warfare is authored by a different team – another Dead Space throwback – with dedicated designers, artists and engineers attached to each ‘pod’. “Coming from EA [and] the last game, Dead Space, we started dropping the cubes,” Schofield says. “And we saw collaboration happen… When we came here, we wanted it open.”
“You have all these pods where everyone is working on important things for their levels,” Halon says, “but when [we all need to come together], we form a ‘strike team’ and really pull all the directors together. It’s a small portion in time where we all rally around [a task]. The input comes from everyone. It’s an opportunity for Glen, for Mike, for the designer, the animator, the leads to all chime in and understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”
“DEVELOPING A GAME OF THIS SCALE FOR 40 MILLION FANS, WITH THIS BAR – NOTHING PREPARED ME FOR THAT”
“A level pod will have an animator, a designer or two, a bunch of artists, and they’re together throughout,” Schofield says. “And they’re all involved in design, even the engineers. We’ve done it different ways in the past – we’ve had just a mechanics pod where they build all the mechanics and then they put it in a level – but here we do so many things that are specific to a level. We say: ‘Here’s your engineer,’ and they sit with a designer to work out how to make things happen.”
Demolishing the Golden Gate bridge was a problem tackled by one such pod. Whether it was even possible outside of a cutscene was a matter of debate until the team assigned to the game’s San Francisco level took on the challenge. Every developer is given autonomy regarding how and when they work, with some incentives to keep things on schedule.
“We let people come in when they want,” Schofield says. “Everybody here is an adult, so they work through the night if they want. We do say that if you’re here by ten in the morning and you work past seven, we’ll give you dinner. And everybody knows not to miss that, because a lot of single guys, they want their dinners.”
And like Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer is a studio of potential leads. “Eleven of the engineers here have been my leads over the years,” Schofield says. “But there’s this issue in the game industry where to make money, you have to be a lead, and a lot of them would rather just be incredibly good engineers. Everybody just gets into management because that’s where the money is. What we said is, ‘You don’t need to be a lead to make the money,’ and we paid people for their skills. It’s nice to have a lead who is just on physics, a lead who is just on tools. They love what they’re doing and don’t feel like they have to spread themselves thin.”
“I’m not just a production person,” says Halon to illustrate the point. “I have background in design… I think that core principle runs all the way through the studio. That’s something that gives us an advantage, and something I’ve learned over the years by working at different studios. This is something that really allows us to preserve polish and quality.”
Today Sledgehammer has enough capacity for 285 in an open-plan studio space inside an office block in Foster City, California. The walls that once separated two halves of the floor were torn down, and an anechoic chamber was built based on designs by audio director Don Veca. At the fringes of the studio are a handful of private rooms – mostly taken up with popup meetings and the audio and video departments – and a small theatre for big-screen presentations.
“We have a very open collaborative space, Condrey says. “It’s got low walls and we love it; there’s energy, communication and ideas just flow. There’s no closed-door offices where senior guys hide away in the dark.”
The three spaces in which Call Of Duty games are developed couldn’t be more different. Treyarch’s studio is a bunker, with low lights and few windows, where developers work in close proximity. Infinity Ward’s space is all cement and white plaster, decorated with stark murals taken from the Modern Warfare series; developers have their own rooms and each department has its own custom-built space. At Sledgehammer privacy is ensured by space; the pods are spread a short walk from one another and a communal kitchen at the centre brings everyone together.
“We meet [Infinity Ward and Treyarch] at least once a year and get together,” Schofield says. “Everybody gets together and the leaders talk. For a couple of days, you go out to dinner and you sit in presentations. One team will get up and talk about what they’re doing. There’s a lot of sharing going on, a lot of talking.”
From occupying the corner of one floor to the entirety of another, the studio has grown over its five years, and it’s still hiring. Schofield echoes Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin when he talks about the power of Call Of Duty as a recruitment tool. “We’ve hired 120 people in just the last ten months,” he says. “When we started with the game, Sandy, who is the lead on VFX, said, ‘We’ll need 20 VFX people.’ I got her six. Well, now we’re at 22. I was told, and you know what? That’s her job. What’s nice about COD is that we can get some of the best in the world.”
“I feel like we brought a lot of best practices from our previous careers,” Condrey says. “That’s helped this studio form [into] what it is today, but I think Call Of Duty sets the bar so high... I think developing a game of this scale for 40 million fans, with this bar – nothing prepared me for that. I’ll be honest, building a new IP that will maybe sell a couple of million units is very different to making for 40 million ravenous fans who want a 90-rated game. I don’t think we’ll ever underestimate that responsibility.”
Sledgehammer’s HQ is appointed with all of the features expected at a studio of its scale, including a cinema area
Sledgehammer took its namesake tool to the dividing wall between the spaces of the floor of the Californian tower it calls home. The result is an open-plan studio split up into levelcentric pods, which can quickly coalesce when higher-level oversight or thinking is needed