Stu­dio Pro­file

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


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.”


“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

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