The Making Of…
From mass resignations to corporate lawsuits, Call Of Duty on console had fraught beginnings
The story behind the arrival on console of the world’s most powerful FPS series, Call Of Duty
Developer Spark Unlimited Publisher Activision Format Gamecube, PS2, Xbox Origin US Release 2004
“THIS GUY CAME TO ME AND ASKED, ‘IS THIS GAME EVEN GOING TO BE ANY FUN?’ I WAS SO UPSET”
Scott Langteau couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He knew DreamWorks Interactive had changed – since Electronic Arts acquired the studio two years prior, the working weeks had grown longer, the upper management a lot more hands-on. As Langteau perceived it, the DreamWorks family, which he oversaw as a producer, had been split up and destroyed. To a point, it had been tolerable. Long hours, especially as a release date drew near, were a reality of game development. And Medal
Of Honor: Frontline, the title DreamWorks was developing, was expected to be a major hit. Of course EA would drop in occasionally and check on its investment. But this was too much: standing in his office, looking across at his executive producer, Langteau knew his days at DreamWorks were over. “It was just a few weeks before Frontline went into manufacturing,” he explains. “And this guy, who will remain nameless, came to me and asked, ‘Is this game even going to be any fun?’ I looked at him and was just so upset. I didn’t say it, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘You don’t know what you have here. You have no idea what you’re playing.’”
With working conditions in decline and corporate interference becoming more frequent, Langteau, accompanied by several Frontline staffers, decided to break off and start a new studio. It was February 2002. “A lot of us had realised what it meant to work for EA,” he says. “Gruelling labour: 16- to18-hour days, six days a week. We didn’t want to do it any more. So Michael Giacchino, who’d composed Frontline’s score, put us in touch with producer Craig Allen. He knew how to go out and sell a team, and say to publishers, ‘These guys have done this and are looking for a breakout – would you like to fund something?’ A number of publishers stepped forward, but when Activision contacted us and said it was looking for a ‘ Medal Of
Honor killer’, that’s when we got started.” Thus, 28 of Frontline’s development staff resigned en masse one Thursday afternoon. A lawsuit was filed, claiming the former employees had copied Medal Of Honor art and sound assets and were planning to use them in their own games. With Activision’s support, Langteau and co were eventually able to settle.
In the meantime, another of Activision’s subsidiaries, Infinity Ward, relocated from Oklahoma to Encino, California. Headed by other former Medal Of Honor developers, Jason West and Vince Zampella, Infinity Ward was working on the first Call Of Duty, to be launched on PC. Activision wanted a console equivalent. To create COD: Finest Hour it set up Langteau and Allen’s new venture, Spark Unlimited, a few miles away in Santa Monica.
During Finest Hour’s development, Spark would balloon to more than 100 employees. But Tony Rowe was one of the original 28. A veteran level designer of both Medal Of Honor:
Frontline and its PS1 predecessor, Underground, his was a belt-and-braces job: creating a bigger, better WWII game from the ground up. “We had to be better than Medal Of Honor, otherwise what was the point of all the hard work?” Rowe says. “The biggest change we wanted was to show the war was fought by more than one person. Most gamers of the era found themselves in the boots of the same American and British male heroes again and again, but the war was fought by many different people of many different backgrounds. This would be WWII as experienced by all the major Allies. In the Russian campaign you’d be accompanied by a female sniper. There was a Libyan ally fighting with you in the North Africa campaign. And the American missions centred on the Black Panthers, the 761st Tank Battalion, an all-African-American armoured group from when the US military was still segregated.”
To create so many different levels, Rowe and the other designers would work independently, finding their own historical research and creating initial drafts for each section of the Finest Hour campaign. “The missions were divided evenly among the team based on skills and interests,” he says. “For example, one of our designers, John Castro, always added nicely animated ambient background objects like bobbing sea planes on coastal waters, so he often got levels that suited those kinds of elements. We’d break off on our own to study the history we were recreating and take a first pass at the story beats for each level. After that, all the designers would get together and discuss how to improve the preliminary versions of each of the levels, maybe things like altering the pacing or adding explosions. A concept artist would create storyboard images for the big or complex moments while the animation and audio teams added notes about assets they would need.”
However, RenderWare Studio, the engine Spark had chosen – against the advice of Activision – proved slow and sometimes incapable of handling Finest Hour’s complex levels. “We were using the game editor for more complex tasks than it was ever designed for,” Rowe explains. “It could take half an hour or more just to start the software. And Lord help you if it crashed, which it often did.”
Designers, rather than focusing on their own sections of Finest Hour, were crossing between levels, helping each other. The division of labour was becoming less clear and, as more and more staff trickled into Spark, Langteau began to question what the studio was creating. “Medal
Of Honor was all about truth and authenticity,” he says. “We always loved, and did right by, the veterans. And that was true to an extent on COD, but also, we were trying to build a Medal
Of Honor killer and had to work out what that would mean. Our conversations with Activision were about how to make it more fun, make it bigger and better, how to get more fans. We were trying to launch a franchise and had to be careful not to harm the name.
“The first playable character in the game was originally Tanya Pavelovna, the sniper
from Stalingrad. But Activision refused to open a firstperson shooter with a female character. We cited other successful games such as our own
Medal Of Honor: Underground and the obvious Tomb Raider, but they feared a loss of sales to young males and wouldn’t budge. We had to design a new character just for the first level.”
When the 28 Frontline developers resigned and formed Spark, it was to escape the auspices of an interfering publisher and continue producing credible war games. Now the studio and its founders were back where they started, working long hours, under a demanding publisher that was telling them to keep up with Zampella and West. The relationship between Spark and Activision was beginning to break down. “Activision was very collaborative and helpful until things got rough,” Langteau says. “It’s a big company, and it had a lot of money invested in us, and eventually the thumb would come down, and people would start saying, ‘You promised this and we want that.’ We were already coming off a gruelling schedule on Frontline – we’d started Spark only weeks after leaving EA, and there’d been no downtime. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy about that, even though people’s marriages were falling apart and they weren’t seeing their kids. On the weekends, Activision had representatives who would drive by our offices to see how many cars were in our parking lot. There was a lot of pressure.”
Concerned that Finest Hour was falling behind schedule and below standard, Activision sent dozens of its own programmers and designers to Spark’s offices. In the meantime, the GameCube port was farmed out to another LA studio, Exakt Entertainment. Compared to how he’d started, as a designer drafting his own visions for Finest
Hour’s levels, Tony Rowe was in a very different position. “Most of my level building work was on the first North African mission,” he tells us. “It was meant to be a quiet, stealthy level about meeting a contact and slipping past the Germans undetected, but none of that worked, so I redesigned the mission as a surprise raid on a German outpost and fuel depot. I added a battle with a half-track and some panzers; a machinegun strafing run, by your squadmates in their Jeeps, rounded the experience out. To help with those missions, Activision brought in designers from Shaba, a studio in San Francisco, and Treyarch. We were appreciative to have the outside assistance – without it, the second Africa mission would’ve been cut – but little did we know we were training our replacements.”
In 2002, Spark had signed with Activision to produce three games: a console COD followed by, potentially, two sequels. By November 2004, and the release of Finest Hour, that deal was in doubt. Finest Hour enjoyed mostly positive reviews, and decent sales, but the relationship between developer and publisher had long since soured. What was once a hopeful partnership became a protracted legal battle. “After we finished, I took a much-needed vacation to Hawaii,” Rowe says. “Upon my return, I learned Activision was no longer working with our studio.”
“I don’t think anybody felt they had made the best game they could have,” Langteau continues. “I think there was a sense of, ‘We had to cut a lot, we had to shape a lot.’ But ultimately it was fine. We did a good job. However, after we had delivered the final game, Activision just kind of left. Our final payments and royalties didn’t materialise, so we filed a grievance suit.”
Spark contested that it hadn’t received the money owed for completing Finest Hour. Activision countered, claiming royalties had been cut to cover the cost of additional development – it even claimed Spark had represented itself fraudulently by claiming it had the talent and experience to create a triple-A console game in the first place. In 2007, after two years of legal jousting, the two companies settled out of court.
After splitting from Activision, for three months Spark’s staff worked on concepts and pitches, accepting in lieu of wages a stake in what the company might one day become. Through Codemasters, it released a war shooter, Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, in 2008. Another shooter, Legendary, followed eight months later, then Lost Planet 3, the final entry in Capcom’s thirdperson shooter series. In 2015, after 13 years in business, Spark closed.
Langteau left the company in 2008. He now writes children’s books and occasionally works on movie scores with his old friend Michael Giacchino. “On Finest Hour, we were applying pressure to our own employees because this was our first game and we wanted to be good right out of the gate,” he concludes. “Everyone was talking about us. Everybody put the pressure on themselves. And it created a real sadness, a malaise. It was a huge weight.
“In the time Spark was around we saw a lot of companies come and go. But we were always trying to find ways to stay alive. We’d be getting calls from headhunters trying to scalp our employees because they’d heard we were going out of business, and I’d just scream at these people, telling them they had no right to be telling our staff we were going to close down. It was only around the time of the major economic downturn in the US that I realised Spark could save some money if I wasn’t there. It seemed like the right time to go. Still, I can’t say I’m thrilled when I see a COD ad. There’s a twinge in my stomach. We were cut out of the success that we had helped create.”
At five o’clock in the morning, Spark team members sit down with an early build of Call Of Duty: Finest Hour