Mak­ing his­tory

How a team of fu­tur­ists went back in time to make the most in­trigu­ing Call Of Duty in years


How a team of fu­tur­ists went back to WWII to make the most in­trigu­ing Call Of Duty in years

This time, as the say­ing goes, it’s personal. It’s the end of our in­ter­view, and Glen Schofield, stu­dio head at Sledge­ham­mer Games, has asked us to wait while he gets some­thing from his of­fice. He re-emerges with a pic­ture frame: in­side are the medals his grand­fa­ther re­ceived for his ser­vice in World War II. There are medals for each of the the­atres in which he served; there are Bronze and Sil­ver Stars, and a Pur­ple Heart. In the cen­tre of the frame is a pic­ture of one be­ing pinned to his uni­form by a com­mand­ing of­fi­cer. It’s taken from a dis­tance, and side-on – an unusual an­gle, Schofield says, but not for this CO, who in­sisted on be­ing shot from his best side.

This is Call Of Duty: World War II in mi­cro­cosm. Schofield and his fel­low Sledge­ham­mer stu­dio head Michael Con­drey made their name as fu­tur­ists: from the alien hor­rors of Dead Space to the boost-jump­ing ex­oskele­tons of Call Of Duty: Ad­vanced

War­fare, the pair have spent the past decade sketch­ing fu­tur­is­tic uni­verses into ex­is­tence from scratch. Now, they’re re­turn­ing to the past, to the con­flict on which Call Of Duty’s rep­u­ta­tion was formed. It’s a process that has turned them from fu­tur­ists into his­to­ri­ans; it is a job that has in­volved a cou­ple of years of metic­u­lous re­search of one of the most bloody con­flicts in his­tory. But there is also an emo­tional con­nec­tion, a personal one, a fam­ily one – some­thing felt not just by Schofield, but by most of the stu­dio, and many of the game’s likely play­ers.

With that comes, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, a sense of duty: to make not just a block­buster videogame, but to do so while show­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate re­spect and rev­er­ence for the sub­ject mat­ter and the peo­ple who were af­fected by it. An even greater ne­ces­sity than usual to get it right. This is not ex­actly the sort of thing Schofield and Con­drey had to think of when they were com­ing up with cool ways to shoot the limbs off aliens in Dead

Space, or dream­ing up funky types of tac­ti­cal grenade for use in Ad­vanced War­fare.

“In the games we’ve made pre­vi­ously, the chal­lenge was to re­ally get the play­ers in­vested emo­tion­ally in these things that weren’t

real,” Con­drey says. “The con­flicts, the characters, the tech­nol­ogy – you had to work re­ally hard to get peo­ple to re­late to them and be­lieve in them, be­cause they were made up. For this game, with the wealth of re­al­ity that we have be­fore us, the can­vas is so rich it’s about mak­ing sure we can de­liver a piece of en­ter­tain­ment that’s also re­spect­ful and au­then­tic. It’s al­most the op­po­site prob­lem.”

It has re­quired the op­po­site so­lu­tion, too. Dur­ing the mak­ing of Ad­vanced War­fare, Schofield and Sledge­ham­mer sought out pro­fes­sional fu­tur­ists to help them un­der­stand what tech­nol­ogy would look like 50 years in the fu­ture. Here, they en­listed the ser­vices of Marty Mor­gan, a World War II his­to­rian, who has in­ter­viewed over 2,000 vet­er­ans and civil­ians af­fected by the con­flict, and these days spends six months of the year giv­ing his­tor­i­cal tours around con­ti­nen­tal Europe. He was Sledge­ham­mer’s guide as Schofield and Con­drey trod in the foot­steps of the sol­diers whose story they in­tend to tell through the prism of a block­buster Call Of

Duty cam­paign. They went out there look­ing for de­tails, cer­tainly; for the feel and heft of WWII weaponry, for in­stance, the han­dling model of a half-track ve­hi­cle, or sim­ply to take pic­tures on lo­ca­tion, since pho­togram­me­try is a key tech­nique in the de­vel­op­ment of the game.

Yet there was more to it than that. “We went out there not just be­cause we wanted to go and scan every­thing,” Schofield says, “but be­cause we wanted to get a sense of, ‘What does it feel like to be in Nor­mandy or Aachen at ten be­low with snow com­ing down?’”

“There’s this the­ory of how the brain works,” Con­drey adds. “You’re wired to pat­tern match; you’re wired to build a model around things that you’re fa­mil­iar with. The best ex­am­ple is if you were to paint a lake. You’re go­ing to paint it blue, right? That’s gen­er­ally wrong – most lakes aren’t blue. If you look through a pin­hole at the wa­ter in a lake you’ll re­alise it’s maybe blue-green, or grey, or green-grey.” By vis­it­ing, in turn, ev­ery lo­ca­tion that would fea­ture in Call Of Duty:

World War II’s cam­paign, Con­drey and Sledge­ham­mer were giv­ing them­selves that pin­hole view. Con­drey re­calls stand­ing in the Hürt­gen for­est in the driven snow, when both he and Schofield spot­ted that the ground un­der­foot wasn’t pure white: it was stud­ded with pine nee­dles. “It may seem like a tiny thing, but it’s an ex­am­ple of that pin­hole-

like view of what it looked like when, in 1944, ter­ri­bly un­pre­pared, in can­vas win­ter clothes, these sol­diers were hold­ing the line. These fox­holes are ten feet from the road. They were de­fend­ing against a ten-mile con­voy of Ger­man tanks. You’ll never get that from read­ing a book.”

And while the con­flict may be more than 70 years in the past, World War II’s mark on these ar­eas re­mains. Schofield found a roll of barbed wire hang­ing from a tree; trails of com­mu­ni­ca­tion wire were still in place; a gi­gan­tic King Tiger Tank re­mains to this day in the mid­dle of a bat­tle­field, too heavy for trucks to re­move. Days be­fore the pair ar­rived in Hürt­gen, the body of an Amer­i­can soldier was found un­der ten feet of earth. An es­ti­mated 200 more are still buried there. Schofield re­calls be­ing hum­bled by Bel­gian mon­u­ments to al­lied sol­diers; by the end of a tour of a con­cen­tra­tion camp, Con­drey re­mem­bers be­ing so over­come with anger that he wanted to punch some­one. The pair went to Europe on a re­search trip. They came back with some­thing very dif­fer­ent: an un­der­stand­ing that telling a story set in World War II is about much more than ac­cu­rately repli­cat­ing some of the con­flict’s fa­mous bat­tles. “We didn’t think it would be as dense with his­tory as it was,” Schofield says. They just had to look through a pin­hole.

The re­sult is a game that bears all the hall­marks of Sledge­ham­mer’s painstak­ing re­search, cer­tainly. Lo­ca­tions, weapons, ve­hi­cles and ob­jects are brought to metic­u­lously ac­cu­rate life through pho­togram­me­try and au­then­tic mod­el­ling. Al­lied and enemy forces move real­is­ti­cally in bat­tle thanks to the in­put of Mor­gan, the hired his­to­rian, who stayed up into the small hours the night be­fore our visit to write a memo ex­plain­ing why a pro­posed bomber for­ma­tion sim­ply wouldn’t have hap­pened in World War II. Yet COD: WWII also seeks to cap­ture the hum­bling rev­er­ence that Con­drey and Schofield felt out on tour across the Western Front. And it aims to re­flect the deep bond that formed be­tween sol­diers – not the tierone su­per-sol­diers of re­cent Call Of Du­tys, but young men who’d never held a ri­fle – who, put in such dire sit­u­a­tions, man­aged to find the re­solve to carry on.

That’s no small task for a game whose story, for all its in­tended emo­tional com­plex­ity, must none­the­less fit into the break­neck-paced con­fines of a COD cam­paign. To meet that de­mand, Sledge­ham­mer has tripled the size of its nar­ra­tive team. It has sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved the strik­ing per­for­mance-cap­ture tech­niques that put Kevin Spacey in Ad­vanced War­fare: now the process in­volves scan­ning more points of con­tact, cap­tur­ing a wider range of emo­tions, greatly over­haul­ing skin-shader sys­tems and blend­ing every­thing to­gether more be­liev­ably than be­fore. It has also meant spend­ing a lot longer in the cap­ture stu­dio – some­thing Schofield be­lieves is key to get­ting the cast to prop­erly play the roles re­quired of them. “The en­sem­ble cast has been work­ing to­gether for over a year,” he says. “We were cast­ing for about six months, and I felt like we got it right. But a year later they’re re­ally act­ing like a pla­toon. They’re talk­ing over each other, there’s real emo­tion – it’s not like they’re act­ing all the time.” The dif­fer­ence is such that Sledge­ham­mer in­tends to re­turn to parts of the script recorded ear­lier in de­vel­op­ment, and have the cast per­form them again.

The story will tell of Ron­ald ‘Red’ Daniels, played by Trans­form­ers star Josh Duhamel, and his pla­toon, be­gin­ning at the D-Day land­ings and push­ing on­wards through the Western Front. In an­other personal touch, the main pro­tag­o­nist gets his nick­name from Schofield’s fa­ther, who died dur­ing the game’s de­vel­op­ment; the nick­name was be­stowed on Schofield Sr by his Pur­ple Heart-win­ning dad. As tra­di­tion dic­tates, perspective shifts will let you oc­ca­sion­ally see the con­flict through an­other fac­tion’s eyes, in­clud­ing a stint in con­trol of the fe­male leader of the French Re­sis­tance. Fa­mil­iar stuff, per­haps, but Sledge­ham­mer’s in­tent is that play­ers will feel the deep bond be­tween Daniels and his band of brothers, and find the over­all arc of the nar­ra­tive more emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing than the tra­di­tional whizz-bang of a COD cam­paign.

Where this game might have the edge on its sta­ble­mates in that re­gard is in a com­mit­ment to story that goes far be­yond the cast of characters and the bat­tles in which they fight. “There are lit­tle things,” Schofield says. “Let’s say you’re run­ning through a house. In the old days we’d put a cer­tain number of pic­tures on the wall; we’d have a kitchen ta­ble and plates. Well, no more. Now, we’re like, ‘Who lived here, and for how long? Why’s there just one din­ner plate and a loaf of bread?’ We asked for sto­ries, for every­thing. Ev­ery­body in the team now knows, ‘I’d

bet­ter have a story for what I’m work­ing on. It’s got to fit.’ Then, ev­ery­body starts to di­rect them­selves. And that al­lows us, know­ing they’ve al­ready gone that deep, to know that we can go even deeper.”

Such en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling will also fea­ture in the mul­ti­player com­po­nent, which in ad­di­tion to re­vis­it­ing bat­tle­fields fea­tured in the sin­gle­player cam­paign will also ex­pand to dif­fer­ent fronts. A stop on Con­drey and Schofield’s re­search trip in­formed one such mul­ti­player map, but with the mode’s finer de­tails be­ing held back for E3 – and a beadyeyed Ac­tivi­sion rep sat in the in­ter­view room – specifics elude us. Yet we do man­age to get some in­for­ma­tion on our big­gest con­cern with the game’s mul­ti­player. With ev­ery pass­ing year, our re­flexes grow slower, and

Call Of Duty’s mul­ti­player seems to get faster. Given the re­cent dip in sales fig­ures, we as­sume we’re not alone in feel­ing that COD mul­ti­player is no longer made for us. Does the re­turn to orig­i­nal se­ries values, and the heav­ier, slower weaponry of World War II, mean that Sledge­ham­mer will slow the pace of the mul­ti­player com­po­nent?

“It’s the fast-ac­tion ex­pe­ri­ence you’re used to, and gritty and vis­ceral,” Con­drey says, briefly fall­ing back on the mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als while he works out what he re­ally wants to say. “But cer­tainly, the boosts and thrusts and abil­i­ties that we in­tro­duced in

Ad­vanced War­fare and you’ve seen in other games that are around… fu­ture tech­nol­ogy and ex­oskele­tons are just not ap­pro­pri­ate for this game. You can imag­ine try­ing to find a bal­ance where it feels strate­gic and ap­pro­pri­ate to the time pe­riod, while still main­tain­ing the fun of mul­ti­player. It’s more grounded, and more strate­gic, and I think you’ll find it’s not as fast.”

It will also feel a lot more man­age­able than in re­cent Call Of Duty games, whose ex­panded movesets re­quired ex­pan­sive map de­signs, and so made it fre­quently feel im­pos­si­ble to cover all the pos­si­ble an­gles of at­tack. “The feel­ing of be­ing able to iden­tify your lanes and threats is so dif­fer­ent when you’re grounded,” Con­drey says. “We spent a lot of time on map de­sign, and there’s a lot of fun­da­men­tal rules about sight­lines and en­gage­ments. But it’s trans­for­ma­tional when you [no longer] have to worry about an un­seen threat from the sky.” The re­turn to grounded, more read­able com­bat, and to such an iconic set­ting, should in the­ory mean

this year’s Call Of Duty has a wider ap­peal than the fu­tur­is­tic flights of fancy that we’ve seen in re­cent years. Yet it also ex­poses a ten­sion that lies at the heart of mak­ing a new game in such a pop­u­lar se­ries. There is a large, pas­sion­ate base of play­ers who com­mit hun­dreds of hours to the game ev­ery year, and to whom a developer must nat­u­rally cater. Yet

COD is, de­spite its re­cent slide, still one of the best-sell­ing se­ries on the planet; there is a wider au­di­ence to con­tend with, too. How do you make a Call Of Duty game for peo­ple who like Call Of Duty the way it is, while still ap­peal­ing to ev­ery­one else?

“It’s a fun and in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge,” Con­drey says. “How do you in­no­vate, but not alien­ate? How do you ad­dress the needs of the core, while also un­der­stand­ing that there are guys like us, who’ve been play­ing games for 20 years? Or who are 20 years old them­selves, and just com­ing in? I find that re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing in the stu­dio be­cause we have de­vel­op­ers here who are in their mid-40s, who’ve been hard­core gamers for 25 years, and then we have mil­len­ni­als, who come in with a new perspective, on so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and the things they’re look­ing for in their games.”

Schofield cuts in. “There’s an easy an­swer, and it’s one word: qual­ity. If you make a qual­ity game, you can get peo­ple from all ages, be­cause they’ll talk about it. Hav­ing won Ac­tion Game Of The Year [at the DICE Awards – for Dead Space, made when Con­drey and Schofield were at Vis­ceral Games, and Mod­ern

War­fare 3, which Sledge­ham­mer co-de­vel­oped] we know what the bar is, so we push our­selves at it. That’s the eas­i­est an­swer, and the hard­est thing to do.”

It is also crit­i­cal. Not only for Ac­tivi­sion, which in its re­cent fi­nan­cials ad­mit­ted that sales of 2016’s In­fi­nite War­fare had been dis­ap­point­ing. Nor just for Sledge­ham­mer, which nat­u­rally wants to see its hard work pay off. For Mor­gan, the his­to­rian whose work on this game has been so thor­ough and in­sis­tent that he jokes about there be­ing a dart­board some­where in the stu­dio with his pic­ture over the bulls­eye, Call Of Duty: World War II has a much more vi­tal role to play.

“I worry that [World War II] is be­ing pushed into the realm of su­per­fi­cial­ity,” he says. “The liv­ing mem­ory of this con­flict is re­ced­ing very quickly. Just this past week, three vet­er­ans that I’ve in­ter­viewed have died, and that hap­pens ev­ery week.” He re­calls a re­cent his­tor­i­cal tour of Ger­many with a fam­ily whose fa­ther was keenly in­ter­ested in WWII. On the fi­nal day, on the drive back from Ber­lin to the air­port, the fam­ily’s 16-year-old son asked Mor­gan what the wall he’d been talk­ing about so much was about. “By the time we got to the air­port I thought, ‘Wow, I just ex­plained the Cold War in a cab ride.’ It re­ori­ented me in my un­der­stand­ing, and be­came a cau­tion­ary tale to my­self – there are go­ing to be more and more young peo­ple who, through no fault of their own, are just not fa­mil­iar with the sub­ject. My grand­fa­ther fought in the war. I had a great un­cle who was at Pearl Har­bor. I was around the war, and vet­er­ans, for most of my life.

“And now we’re bring­ing the sub­ject mat­ter to a very large au­di­ence of peo­ple who have no liv­ing mem­ory of the war. They can’t re­mem­ber an elderly grand­fa­ther who fought in it. There’s no con­text aside from what they might learn about it, and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in the US just sort of ab­di­cates re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sub­ject. I’ve writ­ten two books; no­body read ’em. We’re liv­ing in a world where peo­ple read less and less. What’s go­ing to re­place it? Projects like this, that have strong emo­tional themes, and also strong ed­u­ca­tional themes.”

It’s easy – and of­ten tempt­ing – to be cyn­i­cal about a new Call Of Duty. Ac­tivi­sion and the studios that make it are damned whether they do or don’t. Seek to in­no­vate on the formula by mov­ing the ac­tion into the fu­ture, ex­per­i­ment­ing with move­ment and weapon sets, and they are ac­cused of aban­don­ing the se­ries’ values; go back to the past and they are deemed to have run out of ideas. Yet we end our visit to Sledge­ham­mer with lit­tle to be cyn­i­cal about. When a man like Mor­gan, who has de­voted his en­tire ca­reer to a sub­ject that is now lit­er­ally dy­ing, de­scribes this game as the best his­tory text­book ever made – we had, to be fair, just asked if it was the most ex­pen­sive one – you can’t help but take his point.

“I’m not say­ing that be­cause I’ve be­come a Sledge­ham­mer Games zom­bie who just spouts off pro­pa­ganda,” he says. “I say it be­cause one thing we al­ready def­i­nitely know is that this is go­ing to be big. Band Of Brothers was re­leased in 2001; Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan was re­leased 20 years ago. There was no so­cial-me­dia uni­verse back then, and now there is. I have this loom­ing sense that this is go­ing to be big. It may be the big­gest thing that has ever hap­pened for this sub­ject.”

Al­most ev­ery­one on the dev team has a personal link to the con­flict. Sledge­ham­mer plans to pay trib­ute to staff mem­bers’ rel­a­tives who fought in the war in the end cred­its of the cam­paign Game Cal­lOfDuty:WWII Developer Sledge­ham­mer Games Pub­lisher Ac­tivi­sion For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Re­lease Novem­ber 3

Photos of Con­drey and Schofield’s re­search trip, which has in­formed ev­ery part of the game – even the Zom­bies mode. “There’s some re­ally au­then­tic stuff in there,” Schofield in­sists. “There’s back story that’s based on real events.” Con­drey, in­trigu­ingly, says the mode will be “unique to our Dead­S­pace sig­na­ture”

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