Mark Rubin worked on Call of Duty games for nearly a decade. He was executive producer at Infinity Ward, the creator of games like Call of Duty: Ghosts, until early 2015. After he left, he experienced that surreal feeling of shifting from being the head of a 260-person game studio to being a fan.
He suddenly went from having no time to play games to playing games all the way through to completion. Rubin is still a heavy-duty gamer, playing games like Marvel Heroes 2016 and spending a lot of money in the free-to-play online game. In fact, he proved to be such a good fan that David Dohrmann, the CEO of developer Gazillion, invited Rubin to join the company’s board of directors.
When I interviewed Rubin in 2013, he was deeply immersed in the Call of Duty life. Rubin is still in a state of semi-retirement, but he’s on the fence about coming back into gaming. We talked to him for a long time about Call of Duty, Infinity Ward, and Infinity Ward’s newest game, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, from the new perspective of looking at it from the outside in. It turns out that we caught Rubin at a time when he could be much more chatty than when he was running things at Activision’s Infinity Ward.
Here’s an edited transcript of the first part of our interview. We’ll run part two of the interview on Friday.
GamesBeat: What’s it like going from being a developer to being a fan? You’ve gone from the developer of the biggest game in the world to just another player. What’s that like?
Mark Rubin: A major upgrade. [Laughs] I worked at Infinity Ward for almost 10 years. I started on Call of Duty 2, launching on the 360 with a team of about 70 people at the time. I left Infinity Ward a little less than two years ago when it was 260-plus people, after a massive change in what the franchise had become. It was a great time for me to say, “I’ve done this a long time. I want to take a break.” It was a pure sabbatical. I told my friends I was retiring because it sounded cool, but really I knew I was just taking a break from development.
GamesBeat: What was the job like by that point? I imagine it was very different from where you started.
Rubin: Yeah, the job had transitioned a lot. Especially as the team got bigger. I transitioned more to studio management, managing bigger-picture stuff. I ended up doing the architecture for the new studio. A lot more business-side stuff. I handled a lot of the PR and marketing. I was the head person on our marketing initiatives as representative of Infinity Ward. Activision would have their people and I’d be the voice for the developer.
It became a much bigger job. It felt more like riding the horse than leading the horse. Early on we were leading this horse to go somewhere, not realizing how big it would become. Then all of a sudden we were riding this horse without much in the way of reins.
GamesBeat: Did you enjoy the hands-on work more than management?
Rubin: I did, I did. At the time, though, honestly I felt—I was always excited about what I was doing. I enjoyed new challenges. Instead of doing the same thing for 10 years, I did get to do different stuff over that time. At Infinity Ward I did all kinds of different things. On Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2 I helped out with menu work, writing scripts. It could have been anything. There wasn’t a set, “you do this.” I enjoyed working that way. “I’m working on a video today at the color correction site, going through frame by frame so it blends well.” All kinds of stuff I’d never done before, I got to do. For me that was really exciting, even though it wasn’t hands-on with the game itself all the time. I always had new and interesting stuff to do.
But it did get to a point where it was—I’d been doing this thing for 10 years. It felt like a weight, a bit. It was a very overwhelming presence, to be a part of Call of Duty. Having a chance to just relax—in my exit interview at Infinity Ward, the HR person said, “You haven’t taken a vacation in six years.” That sort of defines my experience. It was always going, always in a rush, always in challenge mode. Making a game every two years—Infinite Warfare is Infinity Ward’s first three-year game. Ghosts was the last Call of Duty that was made in two years.
GamesBeat: Did you feel like you’d burned yourself out? Or was there a particular triggering event for you?
Rubin: There was definitely a bit of burnout. Part of it was the life balance issue. I wanted to make sure I was healthy and having a good life outside of work. It felt like I was just working. Which is super common among game developers. It’s something fans don’t realize so much, how much effort developers put into the work they do.
GamesBeat: How old are you now, by the way?
Rubin: I’m 45. I’ve only been working in games about 13 years, though. Not including the two years I’ve been off. I worked about 10 years at Infinity Ward, and then about three years at Stainless Steel Studios.
GamesBeat: What was your previous career?
Rubin: The long story is, when I went to school, I majored in political science and international studies with a minor in history. Then I went back to school and got a degree in biochemistry. I was a biochemist in a cancer research lab for four years, with the idea that I’d go try to get a PhD, maybe an MD/PhD, and continue in the research field for biochemistry.
The problem was, as a biochemist trying to come up with cures for cancer, I made eight dollars an hour. Eight dollars an hour is not enough to pay for school, or anything else. I had to make a change to something that made more money. I ended up becoming a salesperson at an IT wholesaler. Pretty crappy job. In the end I became an account manager for government contractors, and then went and worked for a contractor for a while as a project manager. That’s where I started to develop my skills as a producer for software development.
Then my dad got sick. I quit my job and moved home to take care of him. When he passed away, I had to think about what I was going to do, where I would go back to work, and I really gave it a lot of thought. I wanted to do something I loved, that I was passionate about, instead of just wasting my time. I took a job as a QA tester and worked my way up from there to associate producer, and then producer. Then I made the move – pure luck, really – to Infinity Ward, early on their second game. The rest is history.
GamesBeat: When did you become a serious gamer?
Rubin: All the way back to the very beginning. I was an early adopter on the PC side. My first computer was a TRS-80 model three, if anyone remembers what that was. It’s an old, old single-block computer with just green text, no graphics for the most part. Just ASCII art. From there on we always had computers in our house. I had consoles as well, but I split time. Most of my friends were always like, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Genesis. I was split between the two. I loved consoles, but I loved the PC as well, before it was really considered a gaming platform. I continued along that line, starting back in the late ‘70s.
My favorite type of game back then was flight simulation. I loved the old-school flight sims – Microprose, Full Spectrum, the heyday of flight simulators for PC. Chuck Yeager’s, there were all kinds that came out back then. Along with the old-school first-person RPGs, like Bard’s Tale or the Dungeons & Dragons games. Those were my bread and butter.
GamesBeat: What did you think about the trajectory of the Call of Duty series, from the early days to what they eventually became?
Rubin: That’s probably a longer discussion than we can delve into. It’s an interesting set of questions. Has it changed? What’s changed about it? Yes, there’s this massive crowd, massive group of people who play the game and have a voice about the game, and it always varies. Every kind of person plays Call of Duty. There are casual players who only play Call of Duty. Or Call of Duty and Madden, or Call of Duty and FIFA in Europe. But they play as many hours or even more than a hardcore gamer, what you would consider hardcore. It’s an amazingly diverse group of people playing Call of Duty, which wasn’t necessarily the case back in the day.
What I hope we did—it’s a hard thing to direct, going back to the runaway horse, but I feel like we did a decent job of directing the core components of the game. A super cinematic summer blockbuster type of single-player game. A really fun, competitive, fast, high-performance multiplayer – perfect framerate, low latency. And on top of that, extra content. If you look at the Call of Duty games, the amount of content we put into them is stunning. It’s multiple games in one, easily, with Zombies and everything else. We’ve done a good job at maintaining that framework and finding interesting new ways to make that framework feel new every time.
GamesBeat: It’s an accomplishment that it hasn’t run out of gas yet. If you look at so many other franchises, there were times when Battlefield slowed down, or Assassin’s Creed had to skip a year. This one has kept going.
Rubin: It’s crazy. Everyone used to ask, “Do you think Call of Duty is going to die this year?” What I’d say is, “If Call of Duty sold half of what it sold last year, it would still be the best-selling game of the year.” We were selling 30 million units a year. Battlefield was somewhere between 10 and 15, or lower, I’m not sure. Eight or 10 or 15 is already an amazing number. It just highlights how different Call of Duty was.
GamesBeat: Now that you have some distance, how do you feel about your last project, about Ghosts?
Rubin: I never want to say anything bad. I will say that it was definitely the hardest game to make. It had the most backed against it. It was a launch title on two new consoles at once. We maintained all the work for all the other platforms. It was the last game to have to be made in two years. We had two years to make a new game — not a continuation of a previous game – with a new engine on that many consoles. It was the hardest push we ever made.
I think we did a good job. There’s a lot to it. As a developer, we always look at our titles and think of everything we wanted to do, or do better. That’s a hard perspective to break away from. I still hear from a lot of people who love Ghosts. We also get a lot of people who hate it. But that’s true of everything we’ve ever done, though. Even Call of Duty 4 had the same. People didn’t like Modern Warfare. They wanted WWII back. It’s tough.
Call of Duty: Ghosts did phenomenally well sales-wise. The DLC did phenomenally well. I was proud of our guys for trying some really new and interesting things. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t, but they tried new stuff. As a fan, as a gamer, a lot of that stuff you might not realize was such a big deal.
One of the main complaints on multiplayer was that some of the maps just weren’t familiar. They weren’t built in the way Call of Duty maps are normally built. But that was on purpose. We wanted to try something new, try these organic, open maps rather than the typical corridor maps you normally see in Call of Duty. That was a conscious choice. Did it work out? Personally I didn’t think so, but I’m glad we tried. I’m glad we put the effort in to try something new and interesting.
GamesBeat: Do some of these discussions still resonate for you? Which way to take the franchise, which way to take the story, which way to take multiplayer?
Rubin: The interesting thing about Call of Duty—we make one every year. You would think, in the last 14 or 15 years or whatever it is now, that we would have covered the gamut of what Call of Duty could be. But I feel that we still haven’t even hit half of that.
I’ll do this little shout-out for Battlefield, I think going to World War I is really cool. That’s a great step, an interesting direction. It shows a new setting that we haven’t really seen before. It does seem to feel a little bit like World War II with different weapons – that’s some of the negative feedback – but other than that it’s really cool what they’ve done.
Call of Duty, we’ve done World War II. One of the things our devs would joke about a lot is they worked on World War II games longer than the war itself lasted. We’ve done the modern setting. We’ve done the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. Now we’re in the future. To be honest, it all seems like it works as a normal progression. We’re getting further forward in time. Infinite Warfare took a big leap forward in what it’s trying to do.
Maybe—this is not something I know. This is just my thinking as an outsider. But the future of Call of Duty could go in a different direction again. They could go backwards as far as the time frame. Or in a totally different direction altogether. The great thing about Call of Duty is that formula we created still works. It doesn’t matter what time frame you put it in.
GamesBeat: What was that weird idea we heard about? A Roman thing?
Rubin: Yeah, I saw that. It could work, maybe? It would be very different. If you switch over to pure melee—I guess you could do bows and arrows. But that would be a challenge. In general, I think Call of Duty still has a lot of room to play in as far as where and when they set their world. And I think there are possible non-historic — non-realistic, I should say – settings that they might want to try one day, whether it’s fantasy or something else. That’s always a possibility. I think people would be super afraid of something like that. It would be a difficult discussion. But the point I’m making is it’s open to visiting those types of worlds. Whether or not they will is a different story, but the formula would still work.
GamesBeat: What’s it like for you to be a Call of Duty fan now?
Rubin: It’s going to be interesting. In the last two years I’ve taken a bit of a break. I did a lot of catching up on games I hadn’t gotten the chance to play. This fall is going to probably be the first time I really get back into playing Call of Duty again. I’m super excited about Modern Warfare Remastered. I already have a group of friends together to play the heck out of that. That’s still my favorite experience with Call of Duty, Call of Duty 4.
I’ll be playing Infinite Warfare in general, too. I worked on it for a year. I’m excited about what I’m seeing. The new story trailer looks great. It’s weird to see a trailer and know that I didn’t have anything to do with that trailer or with the content in the trailer, but I know where it came from and how it was made. I know the behind-the-scenes without actually being able to see it. I know how it was done, everything about it. That’s a weird experience.
When I saw trailers that I made, that we made, they didn’t look the same to me. They didn’t feel as exciting, because I’d frame-by-framed over them and seen them in every format. Just having a trailer come out that I hadn’t seen before, having that fresh experience, was a lot of fun.
GamesBeat: What games did you pick up in the interim? I assume you played the Marvel game.
Rubin: Yeah, I’ve been playing the heck out of Marvel Heroes. I’ve spent a lot of money on that game. I’m a huge fan. I’m a Marvel fan in general, always reading the comics. I’ll digest anything Marvel I can find. For me, Marvel Heroes is just a staple. I have a couple of games on my desktop that I always play, and Marvel Heroes is one of them. That was part of the excitement of joining Gazillion. I was a fan of the game.
Other games I play a lot of — Star Wars: The Old Republic. I love that game, because I love Star Wars. Star Wars and Marvel are my two favorites. I’ll play almost anything Star Wars, anything Marvel. Old Republic and Marvel Heroes are my two favorites there.
GamesBeat: You’re playing games that have a pretty big time commitment there.
Rubin: I have the time now! [Laughs] I have the ability to actually play some games, which is crazy. I’m finishing single-player games. Alien: Isolation and Mad Max were two of my favorite games from the last year or two. Actually having the time to finish them was amazing. Almost every game I played in the last 10 years, I only played for an hour and then I had to stop.
GamesBeat: I put in about 70 hours on Mad Max. I wasn’t nearly finished.
Rubin: Yeah, yeah, I’m the same way. I finished the whole story, and now I’ve gone back and started a new playthrough. I’m going to get everything. That’s my directive this time. The first playthrough, I did a lot of stuff, but I was mostly just doing enough to get through the story. Now I’m going back and collecting and hitting everything. I’m not letting anything go untouched.
GamesBeat: I just looked at it and thought, “I have so much to do.” I never got to finish it. It’s a different kind of feeling when you get to finish games.
Rubin: Very different. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about as far as “retiring,” taking time off.