Kevin Spacey in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Above: Kevin Spacey in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: Building a large team seems pretty tough to do at the same time as you’re making a game. I don’t know what the average number of people making the game was, but if it was very small at first, it’s very large here at the end.

Halon: The recruiting team—it really talks to the core values. We wanted to get like-minded people, people who cared about the franchise. Some people might be great at these things, but if they didn’t have that desire to come in and tackle the big challenges — how do we come in and work on a franchise that’s known so well by so many people and carry that forward? That was important in growing the team and making sure that the leadership and directors all shared that passion.

GamesBeat: Did you approach the project with certain priorities in your role, things you wanted to do?

Halon: For Advanced Warfare in particular, we rallied around this concept of the advanced soldier in the game itself. More in terms of hiring, there’s a point where you start fully understanding what your game is, and then you can start tailoring that to hiring. Early on, you may be a little more general, still focused on some high-level goals. We really want to focus on the top 10 percent of the industry, people who have pedigrees, people who want to come do something great and have the same goals. How are we gonna make this game look as realistic as possible? How are we going to make it play better, faster, more fun than before? As we started honing the pillars of the game, we tailored that to interviewing and making sure that those things all lined up.

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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Above: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: What are some of the pluses that make it easier and minuses that make it harder to do something like this? It sounds like building the team in the process of making the game makes it harder, but then you’re building Call of Duty, which is more familiar.

Halon: For sure. Right away, people can glom on to some of these goals. That’s good, instead of having to introduce something brand new. Some of the challenges with the expectations—There’s a lot of pressure and stress that comes with that. We all know this is a huge deal for us. But again, as the team grew we started getting a lot of momentum – the levels we were starting to produce, the physical lighting coming on, certain Advanced Warfare mechanics coming online. When the team itself is saying, “This is really exciting. We’re starting to have fun with it,” that confidence snowballs.

Salud: One of the biggest challenges we faced on this project in particular was the first year of preproduction. Just trying to figure out how to make this game different, how to meet these expectations that the fans have for us. What is the design? And on top of that, the new technical things we were going to introduce. How do we accomplish this technically?

The team had to go through a metamorphosis, so to speak. We’d been making games in a very specific way before. Next-gen comes along and then it’s all different. People are going to challenge you on what next-gen means. That’s a good thing, because it inspires a healthy dialogue. It wasn’t just, “Hey, let’s make the same game we made before.” We said, “Let’s break all the rules. Let’s walk over the line.” That was a challenge.

From a team dynamic standpoint, it could be a frustrating challenge. For the first year we’re saying, “Where are we going?” We were trailblazing. It was exciting, but at the same time very frustrating.

GamesBeat: As far as the new consoles, did you consider it an easier transition than the past? Using x86 technology was supposed to make things simpler.

Halon: There’s something to that. But every transition is unique. A lot of the team had been through a transition before, but for some people, this was their first. Globally, it had pluses and minuses as well, and expectations. It takes us a while to fully understand what the hardware is capable of. We might have set some targets and had to adjust.

Salud: We did use our previous experiences from other generational transitions to anticipate what this might be. But we’re not fortune tellers. We probably got a certain percentage of our assumptions correct and some a bit off the mark.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Above: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: What about the question of making what you do different from Modern Warfare and Black Ops?

Salud: From the art standpoint, I wanted to have a completely different look. I wanted to distinguish us as—the fans out there could see that this is clearly Advanced Warfare stylistically, as opposed to Black Ops. A lot of that had to do with the rendering, with the color palettes. The design of our characters and the design of our world, we tried to differentiate those.

Halon: On the design side, we wanted to push the bounds of things like core movement, the stuff that hasn’t change in a while. But we also wanted to maintain it so that the combat felt really solid and crisp, what the franchise is known for. Across the board — single-player, multiplayer, co-op — everything in there is going to be changing the way that you approach combat interactions. As that started to develop, we layered in new kinds of weapons, new grenades, things that would impact that second-to-second choice-making when you’re in combat.

GamesBeat: I saw some of the game. I can’t help thinking there’s some Dead Space influence in there.

Halon: The narrative has been really important. As storytellers, we’re certainly influenced by things we’ve done in the past, but also by what’s been going on now. We’re all inspired by a lot of great TV shows out there. We look at pacing and character and how much they put into that stuff. We wanted to make sure that’s a part of the campaign experience.

GamesBeat: How much of the original vision did you hit?

Halon: Games will certainly diverge. You need to adjust to things. I’d say that certainly on our key pillars – the advanced soldier – we’ve been very true to that concept across the board. It’s always fun, as we start to wind down, to look back at some of our early design documents and design goals to see how they line up. I don’t have that all lined up today, but it feels pretty solid.

One thing we do well here is capture a lot of our early development. Most of that will never be seen outside of Sledgehammer, but we do a lot of pre-visualization, even within levels. Early levels being blocked out, we have videos of that, to kind of capture the playthroughs.

Salud: It looks like a time-lapse video.

Halon: As a post-mortem, when we start working on our next thing, it’s good to look at some of that and look at where we ended and try to analyze. How can our process improve? How close were we to our convictions and our goals from early on?

GamesBeat: I remember in Call of Duty 3 in 2006, when they’d have a cutscene where you’d be sitting on a tank while someone was talking to you. You’re looking ahead and their back is to you. You could just sort of see their head move — OK, that’s an indication that they’re talking to me. That was one of the tricks they used at the time, because they couldn’t do faces and lip movements well. Do you think you’ve gotten to a complete photorealism, or are there still some tricks you have to use to convince people?

Salud: We follow a lot of similar tricks they use in the film industry. A lot of it has to do with the camera. We’ve changed our camera to behave like a real camera. It has things like exposure and depth of field and bouquet. We try to add imperfections, because in the renderer, since it’s a computer, everything it does is going to be naturally perfect. If it draws a line, it’s going to be the most perfect line you ever saw. What we have to do to make it feel more realistic is add imperfections.

The camera does a lot of that. We’ll overexpose or underexpose the shot. As far as tricks I like to use, I like to tap in to things that are already programmed into people’s heads – things they see in the movies, or when they search in Google images. What do those images look like? They’re all shot with iPhones and things like that. There’s a particular color response in things like that. People feel like that looks real. That’s what we try to do. There’s still some development time left. That’s what’s left to do.