FOSTER CITY, Calif. — It takes an army to make a Call of Duty game. That’s why, over the past five years, Sledgehammer Games has staffed up to 225 people who have taken over an entire floor of a big office building hidden away south of San Francisco. Now the company can finally come out of the shadows and acknowledge its contribution to the canon and lore of Call of Duty. Its new game, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, is set 40 years in the future, and gamers can experience it starting Nov. 4.
The game is the 11th major installment in a modern combat series that generates more than a billion dollars in revenue annually for Activision Blizzard, the publisher. Sledgehammer’s job this year is to deliver a game that keeps that tradition going.
“With three years and a new engine and a new generation of hardware and a new brand, you’ll see this is not the same old Call of Duty,” said Michael Condrey, the cofounder of Sledgehammer, in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat at the company’s headquarters. “We had the people, the resources, and the time. This has the scale and the scope of the equivalent of four Hollywood movies in it. It has hundreds of hours of multiplayer gameplay. It has full cooperative mode. It takes an army of industry vets to create this kind of content.”
For the first two years, Sledgehammer learned how to work on Call of Duty with Modern Warfare 3, a 2011 game they helped Infinity Ward make after that studio’s founders — Jason West and Vince Zampella — had a nasty legal fight with Activision. Half of Infinity Ward’s employees left to work at Respawn Entertainment, the new that Zampella and West created. They built Titanfall, which debuted on the Xbox platforms this year.
The change in plans meant that Sledgehammer had to drop its plans for a third-person action-adventure version of Call of Duty and work instead on first-person shooters in the main franchise. When Modern Warfare 3 debuted, it won tons of awards and saw huge sales. As its reward, Sledgehammer earned the opportunity to create a new Call of Duty intellectual property. I recently went to tour Sledgehammer and saw heretofore unseen levels in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. It was all in the name of convincing me that this Call of Duty is the best yet.
“We really upgraded the characters with a new facial system. We are lighting the game in a new way. All of it is new,” said Sledgehammer cofounder Glen Schofield in an interview. “It’s next-generation, and it’s 40 years in the future. There is really nothing you can borrow. This game had to be done from scratch. This is really a brand new franchise within Call of Duty. It’s a new intellectual property.”
Life’s curve ball
Making Advanced Warfare wasn’t in the original plan.
“We started as a Call of Duty studio. They wanted us to do Call of Duty meets third person,” said Condrey. “Take the best of the character action-adventure space like Uncharted and the fictional world of Call of Duty. But life threw a different curve ball at us.”
“When things went crazy with Infinity Ward, they needed help with Modern Warfare 3. We brought it up to the team. We thought about it for a week or so. We all made the decision, and unanimously decided to do it,” Schofield added. “We didn’t jump in the middle. We were there day one on Modern Warfare 3. We split the work with Infinity Ward.”
During the two years making Modern Warfare 3, Sledgehammer solidified its company culture. As it took over the whole floor in an office building in Foster City, Calif., the company built open work pods where four people could work in the same area. The founders wanted cross-functional collaboration among artists, programmers, designers, animators, and other staff. They create their own state-of-the-art sound rooms for musicians and sound experts to use on site.
Having three years and making the transition to next-generation consoles has made a big difference in what Sledgehammer could deliver with new twists in story, single-player campaign, cooperative play, and multiplayer.
“We’re really grateful because we had a chance to go after the next-generation experience and really innovate,” Condrey said. “It was time to give you a new experience.”
“We want to make sure that people realize it’s not a turn of the crank,” Schofield added. “The amount of research we put into this game is insane — the books, the articles, the scientists we talk to, the trips we’ve taken, the people we’ve brought in.”
After consulting with Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Activision, Sledgehammer went off on its own to make Advanced Warfare and a world set 40 years into the future. One of the first prototypes the company created was a “boost jump” using an exoskeleton suit. That enabled soldiers to jump to the top of a building or punch someone 20 feet backward in a melee. While it seems like sci-fi, the exoskeletons are in the research stage in the military now. The team consulted with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and NASA.
A narrative experience
A lot of Sledgehammer’s experience with storytelling goes back to Dead Space, a 2008 survival-horror sci-fi game that Condrey and Schofield built at EA’s Visceral Games studio. That game has a slower pace and a single protagonist who wanted to reunite with his girlfriend. And it was a success. Sledgehammer took what it learned to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which has a single character named Jack Mitchell as its main character. He starts out as a new recruit at the beginning, and he’s a veteran by the time it ends.
“We saw an opportunity to deliver a really amazing narrative,” Condrey said. “We were inspired by films like Black Hawk Down and games like what Naughty Dog with The Last of Us.”
Schofield said that gamers have complained in the past about how the Call of Duty stories are difficult to follow, especially since these have switched from one character to another throughout the game.
“The story was something we focused on a lot of time on. It was written by Sledgehammer Games,” Schofield said. “It’s not just a military story. It’s about friendship and working together with the guy in the fox hole. It’s personal stuff. Emotional times. It’s about life, family, pain, and loss. We made sure we didn’t have a nation-state as the enemy. Is it going to be China? Is it going to be North Korea? Who’s going to be fighting us? Ripped from the headlines, we saw the growth of the private military corporations in Iraq and Afghanistan. You play one guy through the game, Private Mitchell. He becomes a hardened veteran. He’s even narrating.”
Then the developers landed actor Kevin Spacey as the voice actor for the lead villain, the head of a private military corporation.
“We saw this rise of great TV, with The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and House of Cards,” Schofield said. “We wrote the story with Kevin Spacey in mind, not knowing we would get him.”
When Spacey showed up at Sledgehammer, the team was shocked. Schofield said that Spacey inspired everyone to be more professional. Other veteran voice actors like Troy Baker (The Last of Us, BioShock: Infinite) and Gideon Emery (How to Train Your Dragon 2) also joined the crew.
Aware that stories in shooter games were often easily skipped or forgotten, Schofield said the team worked hard to build storytelling into each level, such as audio logs that convey some of the backstory, or conversations between soldiers.
As for Mitchell, Schofield said, “This is a guy who’s a patriot, but he’s just joined the military. He’s kind of green. What’s going on here? And he’s thrust into a crazy situation right away. But he’s an everyday guy. How does an everyday guy deal with all this stuff?”
Building Sledgehammer and Advanced Warfare
Meanwhile, Sledgehammer was hiring people from major game studios such as Visceral (Dead Space), Valve (Half-Life, Portal, Dota 2), Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us), Crystal Dynamics (Tomb Raider), and EA. That included Dead Space veterans like art director Joe Salud and Aaron Halon, the director of product development.
“We wanted to get like-minded people, people who cared about the franchise,” Halon said.
The first year of preproduction was hard because so many of the new employees were new. Some people were inclined to do what they did before; others wanted to break all of the rules.
“From a team dynamic standpoint, it could be a frustrating challenge,” Salud said. “For the first year we’re saying, ‘Where are we going?’ We were trailblazing. It was exciting, but at the same time very frustrating.”
Fortunately, the technology of the next-generation game consoles, based on x86 processors from Advanced Micro Devices, was familiar because it was the foundation for PC games.
“Globally, it had pluses and minuses as well, and expectations. It takes us a while to fully understand what the hardware is capable of,” Halon said.
They dwelled on making the graphics for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions as good as possible. Among the tasks: Capturing the performance of actors so completely that it seemed like the animated human faces in the game were really like videos of human faces. Call of Duty has always pushed the edge on technology, but they often make a trade-off for the sake of preserving speed in the combat. But in this game, the developers felt they didn’t have to make that trade-off.
“We’re trying to cross the line of what’s believable and realistic,” Salud said. “We’re trying to immerse you more. One of the visual tools for doing that is fooling your eye into thinking you’re there. Giving you at least that impression. If that impression comes through, you’re not going to be concentrating on the graphics so much. You’ll just enjoy the experience. You’ll feel like you’re really there.”
That level of realism also forced the team to take the rest of the environment, like the area around the Golden Gate Bridge, more realistic.
“We had the art team go out to the Golden Gate Bridge and do a lot of color grading tests,” Halon said. “For other, more exotic locations, we would find proxies. We’d go on a ship or something like that for things like the later part of the San Francisco levels.”
Fortunately, Activision decided to give Sledgehammer as high of a budget it needed to do this.
Making the future believable
Condrey said that the team also had to make sure that its technology of 40 years in the future had to be grounded in today’s reality of military research. Some things were totally unbelievable, so the team took it out. One example: a teleportation grenade. It could transport you instantly. But it doesn’t exist.
But they did include military realities like drones, vertical wall climbing, directed energy weapons, hover tanks, hover bikes, “smart grenades,” and heavily armored soldiers who guard checkpoints.
“The U.S. government just started speaking publicly about something called the Talos project, which is essentially an armored exo soldier of the future,” Condrey said. “They say it’s battlefield ready in two years. It’s working now. If you look up the Talos system, it’s like the AST. A little smaller.”
An AST is truly a tank-like character. It’s a lot like a mech, but it clearly resembles a soldier from today, rather than something fanciful from the future.
Salud said that the team tried to make everything look like it was based on today’s reality.
“Everything goes back to what is relatable,” he said. “The design of it, there’s a couple of layers in there, but it boils down to everything being based on function. What’s it supposed to do? Then we think about, okay, what technology is currently out there? Then we extrapolate from that. Especially for the exo, we’ve talked to military advisors. We’ve hired concept designers who have worked on things like this before.”
The environment of the future is deadlier than ever. That means that expert players will be able to take out new players more easily than ever. The designers recognized that and made sure there was a foil for every powerful weapon.
As far as the difficulty goes, Schofield said, “We think we made a game for everybody. So many people will play one game a year, and it’s this game.”
“Part of the experience is about mastering the game. For some, this is their first Call of Duty. It has to be a great introduction to the experience, and something challenging for the experts,” Condrey added.
We’ll find out soon just how good a job Sledgehammer did with its extra year of development time. Activision will reveal multiplayer details soon, and the game will all platforms at once in November. However it turns out, Sledgehammer has had a very unique journey as a brand new studio in charge of a AAA game franchise. But it’s already clear that the founders and developers have poured their heart and soul into this project.