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”