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


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

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