Interview: Modern Warfare 3’s creative director discusses blowing up the world, carefully

As part of VentureBeat’s Modern Warfare 3 coverage leading up to our definitive review and the game’s release on Nov. 8, I had the chance to sit down with three of the pivotal members of the Call of Duty team to discuss the upcoming game, complain about Veteran difficulty, and talk about developer Infinity Ward’s take on Nazi zombies.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 is poised to go head-to-head with EA’s recently released Battlefield 3 for the first-person-shooter blockbuster crown this holiday season. With Battlefield 3 claiming a mammoth five million sales in its first week, the biggest ever release for the publisher, co-developer Sledgehammer Games has no small expectations to live up, especially considering last year’s Call of Duty title accumulated over $1 billion in revenue. So how is the game? Here’s our edited interview with Bret Robbins, creative director at Sledgehammer Games, whose last gig was the original Dead Space.

VentureBeat: You were telling me that you mostly worked on the single-player portion of Modern Warfare 3.

BR:That’s right.

VB: Obviously, World War III is not a thing that many games have tackled. How do you go about taking on such a delicate subject matter while still providing the requisite entertainment?

BR: You blow up a lot of cities, is what you do. We’re creating a huge, like a summer blockbuster story and experience. You try to go for the biggest and craziest moments and set-pieces and locations you can come up with. You try to do it in a very believable and authentic way, so it feels like this could actually happen.

VB: Speaking of that, blowing up everything is kind of like the Independence Day route, where it’s just like a popcorn movie. Modern Warfare is, like you said, much more believable, much more realistic. Yet the Resistance crew (Insomniac Games) can’t even blow up one church in England without suffering a huge negative backlash. So how do you go about destroying the entire world without those kinds of repercussions?

BR: Without getting sued by everyone? Yeah. Very carefully, is how you do it. How do you go about blowing up the world…? You just come up with scenes and moments that would make sense within the story. So you don’t do it just for the sake of blowing everything up, just for the fun of it. Does this make sense? Should the characters actually be here at this time? Does this fit the plot? You want it to be exciting, but you also want it to make sense. It can’t just be gratuitous, it can’t just be fantasy. It needs to be real missions, things that you think could possibly happen, given the extraordinary circumstances that you’re creating. So it’s always walking that fine line of believability and insanity and crazy action.

VB: Each Modern Warfare game has incrementally upped the ante, so to speak. The first one had an atomic explosion where the helicopter crashes and you have a couple of minutes where your character just crawls out and then dies. The second game had No Russian and not one but two playable characters die. How do you go about topping that without blatantly making it seem like you’re trying to top yourselves?

BR: What you don’t do is say, we’re just doing this to top ourselves. Like you say. It needs to be something that’s authentic, that actually moves the plot forward. We have some moments in the game that I think are pretty shocking, that push the envelope a little bit. But like I said before, it’s not a matter of trying to be gratuitous about it, doing shocks for shock value. You always want to push yourself and see if you can push the limits of the medium, and storytelling. We’ve got such a big audience for this game that we want to deliver something that’s memorable. Experiences that people are going to be talking about the next day after they played it, talking about with their friends. It’s really a matter of creating something unique.

VB: Aside from No Russian, there’s typically not been a lot of civilians, non-military characters that get wrapped up into the scenes and levels in Modern Warfare games, even when fighting on neighborhoods and at burger joints. Now that you’re going on a global scale, has that changed at all?

BR: Yeah, I think… We wanted to show, certainly in some particular cases, we wanted to show the effect of war. What happens if a modern American city gets attacked? What would that be like, what would you see? If you were walking down the street, what would happen? Civilians are part of that, innocent people are part of it unfortunately. But at the same time, it’s really a soldier’s story, it’s about how the soldiers, how the professionals, the elite professionals would react to that kind of situation. What they would do, believably. We worked with a lot of military consultants, guys that really know what they’re doing and how they would respond to these crazy situations. We just do it as realistically as we can, based on what they would do.

VB: Did you get a chance to play Homefront?

BR: I did not play Homefront, unfortunately. Sorry.

VB: There goes that entire line of questioning…

BR: [laughs] I know it, I know about it, but I don’t…

VB: It had some interesting similarities with the whole world war kind of thing going on. They did a big emphasis on innocent people, non-military people dying, stuff like that…

BR: Gotcha. We have some of that, but…

VB: No spoilers, I understand. The other thing is Veteran difficulty. Typically, whenever an Infinity Ward game comes out, no matter how many controllers I break, or how many pillows I scream into, I have to beat it, I have to have those achievements for beating it on Veteran. It’s like a badge of honor, you know? But it can also be pretty frustrating. You’re just running around and then you die without seeing where it came from. The enemy AI has this sixth sense. How do you go about balancing Veteran difficulty in line with the story that you’re trying to tell, and still make it a fun experience?

BR: That’s a big challenge, to make sure it’s not too frustrating. I think if you bought the game and went straight to Veteran, you better be pretty good at the game to do that. It’ll be a slower game and absolutely more challenging. I think you’ll still enjoy the story and enjoy all the moments just as much…

VB: Especially since you’ll play them like 20 times…

BR: [laughs] Exactly, you’re gonna see them a lot. We just do a lot of game balancing. We bring a lot of players in, we have them play, we record how they play, we keep the maps so we know where they died and how often they died, we do that on every difficulty level. We do that on Veteran as well. I personally do a lot of the game balancing, so if I’m seeing an area that’s clearly where people are dying 50 times, we make it easier. I want it to be challenging, I don’t want it to be impossible. The main thing I don’t want you to do is to ever stop playing. I want you to play all the way through, I want you to see all the great stuff we created, I want you to get to the end of the campaign and see how the story wraps up and everything. I don’t want you to play on Veteran and just get totally frustrated and throw the controller down. So it’s a balance. We basically do a lot of testing to make sure everything’s tight and playable and fun.

VB: I hope so, otherwise you’re gonna have an e-mail from me on Nov. 8th…

BR: I hope it’s a good one, when it comes.

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