Infinity Ward had three years instead of the usual two to make Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. So it decided to add a Zombies co-op mode to the game, and in doing so, it took some huge creative risks.
While Infinite Warfare is a serious epic that delves into the future of military combat in space, Zombies in Spaceland goes in the complete opposite direction. It has nothing to do with Infinite Warfare, except that both share many of the same weapons. Zombies is an example of taking creative risks in a blockbuster franchise where you just don’t expect it.
Zombies in Spaceland features four campy heroes from the 1980s. They’re unlikely combatants, and the whole style of the game is goofy. You can make zombies dance on a disco floor and then cut them down with laser beams. When you die, you can go into a 1980s arcade and play old games, such as Activision’s Pitfall.
I talked to Lee Ross, senior producer at Infinity Ward and one of the creators of Zombies in Spaceland at the Call of Duty XP event in Los Angeles. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. (See more of our Call of Duty XP coverage here.)
GamesBeat: How would you describe this, from the top? What were you trying to do?
Lee Ross: Zombies in Spaceland is a trip back in time. We’re taking players into a sort of space-themed theme park from the 1980s. The characters you portray are common ’80s movie stereotypes. We have the jock, the rapper, the Valley girl, and, of course, the nerd. We also have a DJ, who resides in the park and informs players about what’s going on. He gives some Easter egg hints, but also mixes up tracks on the soundtrack and plays some popular ’80s tunes. It’s a fun place, but with a post-apocalyptic theme.
GamesBeat: So no relation to Infinite Warfare.
Ross: Absolutely none. We share weapons and equipment with the campaign and multiplayer, but otherwise, Zombies in Spaceland is its own beast. It’s a completely different experience than you’ll see in those modes.
GamesBeat: So you have futuristic weapons in the ’80s?
GamesBeat: Was this easy to do, or was mixing the themes a little difficult?
Ross: This whole experience has been a great challenge for us — but a very rewarding one. We were able to create something that — coming from campaign or from multiplayer — this feels like a completely different game, a completely different experience. For fans, when they get a chance to try that, it’s refreshing to have a different piece of art to look at. You’re blasted with all this future stuff, and then all of a sudden, “Hey, what are we doing 30 years ago? I’m seeing VCRs and Rubik’s cubes.”
The challenge for us was to create something authentic to that time period, whether that’s the character archetypes or all the way to this theme park that felt like it belonged in Anywhere, USA in the 1980s.
GamesBeat: Is this one of the things you can do with three years to develop a game? Go off and do something completely different?
Ross: It’s certainly afforded us the chance to do that. Having the three-year development cycle, aside from being able to build something as big as Zombies in Spaceland — the map really is massive, and fully interactive — it gives you a lot of time to flesh out your ideas. Sometimes, there’s the challenge of time, as you race to get something done. For us, it’s afforded us the ability to take a second and third look at things, really polish them to a level that we might not have reached if we had just one year. From the cinematics to the characters to the dialogue to the scope of the location, the sheer number of weapons, the music tracks, it gave us a lot of time to massage that into a really great place.
GamesBeat: How is it different from Treyarch’s Zombies, beyond the obvious difference in setting?
Ross: We don’t take ourselves very seriously with Zombies in Spaceland. We wanted to have fun, first and foremost. That’s part of the setting. Being in a theme park, it’s interesting that we’ve gone to the “happiest place on earth” and turned it on its head, bringing zombies along for the ride. It’s allowed us to create our own weapons, our own set of traps that don’t feel like they belong in any other game. They feel like they belong in Spaceland.
We’ve introduced some new features, some of which you’ll be able to see on the show floor today. We have something called the Afterlife Arcade. Normally, when you die in Zombies you go into a spectating room. You watch one of the other three players, and then when the round ends, you respawn into the game. In Zombies in Spaceland, when you die, we catapult you into an ’80s-themed arcade. It has fully functioning carnival-style games — basketball shooting, skee-ball — and it also has some classic Activision 2600 games you can play, like Pitfall 2.
If you play and score enough points within these games, you can earn your way back to life before the round ends. Instead of just waiting for the team to bring you back, you play these parlor games and hang out. We keep players engaged the entire time they’re in the experience. Whether you’re dead and hanging out or you’re on the Spaceland floor shooting zombies, you always have something to do.
GamesBeat: There’s a whole zombie zeitgeist out there now in all kinds of games. Was it interesting to navigate where you wanted to be relative to all the other zombie games out there?
Ross: The interesting thing for us—once we landed on the location and the time period, it was, “OK, how crazy can we get? What can we do that’ll make people scratch their heads and think, ‘Huh, zombies doing that?’” As an example, one of the traps we have in Spaceland is a dance floor. When you activate the dance floor, music starts playing. The disco ball spins. It attracts zombies to the dance floor, and when they get there, they all start breakdancing. And while they do that, the disco ball shoots lasers out and tears them apart and burns them up. We hired professional breakdancers to come in and mocap all this for us. That’s just one small bit we’ve put a spin on.
GamesBeat: Do you get to play as a zombie?
Ross: No, you don’t get to play as the zombies. But you’ll definitely get to shoot hordes and hordes of them.
GamesBeat: What sort of variety of human characters do you have?
Ross: We have four characters you get to play. Each of them has somewhat unique abilities. We’ve given each of the characters their own melee attack. We have the jock, played by Ike Barinholtz. The rapper is played by Jay Pharoah. We have our Valley girl, played by Sasheer Zamata, and then we have the nerd, who’s played by Seth Green. Seth, we wanted to make him feel sort of wimpy. When he attacks a zombie with his melee attack, he has this wimpy slap he does. The Valley girl, we wanted to take one of those old movie phrases and turn it on its head — “gag me with a spoon.” She literally takes a silver spoon and shoves it down a zombie’s throat as her melee attack.
GamesBeat: How fast did you make your zombies?
Ross: There’s a good mix. We have the slow, lumbering zombies, where it seems like it’ll take five minutes for them to get to you. You feel like you can run away from them in a second. But then we also have these zombies that are jogging or sprinting at you, that can chase you.
We also have different types of zombies in the park that have different behaviors. We have clown zombies, which just run at you all the time. They’re waving their hands frantically and screaming and laughing and their shoes squeak while they come at you. Then, when they get to you, they explode in a ball of fire and confetti.
GamesBeat: How challenging did you want to make it? How hard is it to get to the end?
Ross: Difficulty is always a fine balancing act. We don’t want to alienate people who’ve been playing Zombies for a long time. They want a challenging experience. They like Easter eggs they have to discover and work together to unlock. But then you also want something for people who are coming in the first time. This might be their first Zombies experience, so you want the core mechanics for them, the base-level experience — using in-game cash to buy doors, buy weapons from the wall, boarding up windows, things like that. But we want to hide the richer storytelling elements behind the traditional system Zombies has always had.
As far as challenge goes, it’s a challenging experience. To make it all the way to the very end of this tale we’re telling in Zombies in Spaceland, players will have to work for it. But we give you a lot of things at your disposal to bring the challenge level back down. The ball is in your court, so to speak.
We have something called fate and fortune cards. You can unlock these through natural progression. The more you play, you earn experience and your character levels up. When you start out, you can use three cards, but if you progress far enough, you can eventually have five. You set these up in the front end. You get to decide from this large list of cards you can earn or purchase over time, which five you want to bring into the game. Each gives you some unique abilities.
In a cooperative experience, if you and I were playing together, I could use a card called Lifelink. By using that card, whenever you and I are together, a little beam connects us that gives both of us a 25 percent health increase. Obviously, that benefits the player, makes them feel a bit better. We also have things like a card that allows you to shoot a zombie anywhere and still deal headshot damage.
We’ve brought back the perk system. The perks are still available to buy with in-game cash in the park. You can buy Tough Enough, which we’ve themed all around candy. Because this is a sort of movie inside a game, we wanted to theme it around a movie theater experience. You eat this concession-stand junk food and get different abilities. Tough Enough gives you double your health. We have another one called Trail Blazer, where as you slide around the park, it leaves a trail of fire on the ground that burns the zombies if they walk through it. It’s a great wall for defense. Going back to the difficulty question, it’s a matter of educating players on what’s good for them to do, what they have to use, and putting that all together to fortify themselves and the team.
GamesBeat: What are some things players are going to find out this weekend? Do you have any more details still to come?
Ross: There’s definitely a lot yet to show. We’re just scratching the surface on Zombies in Spaceland. We’ve built Easter eggs that are sort of plain, right up in your face, but we’ve also built some that will take the whole community putting it together and figuring out what it all means. We have a park robot. His name is Neil. He’s disassembled to start. When you find his head and put it back together with his body, he comes back to life and he’ll offer players some challenges. If you complete those successfully, he rewards you with park tickets, and those allow you to get some of the futuristic weapons from campaign and multiplayer. We have one weapon that’s a portal generator. You throw it down, step inside, and it zaps you to somewhere else in the park.
GamesBeat: Any other things you’d like to mention?
Ross: We haven’t shown the cinematic yet, but I think it’s a very different take than anyone’s seen so far with Zombies. Players should look forward to that. It’s really different, but it’s a lot of fun. It keeps the theme going with what we’ve done for Zombies in Spaceland so far.
GamesBeat: Where do you think this kind of creative license has come from? The Far Cry guys really went crazy with their DLC as well. Do things like that help you say, “Hey, we should go for this?”
Ross: We have a pretty small team. We’ve been together quite a while. We actually built Extinction for Call of Duty: Ghosts, so we’re used to cooperative experiences. Because we’re such a tight group and we’ve been working together so long, there’s really no idea we won’t listen to. The team stresses hearing everybody’s passion out and trying to figure out where that fits into the mold.
We have some really crazy ideas. Once we get past the prototyping stage, getting it into the game, and seeing how it feels, we spend time polishing it into something that eventually feels like it belongs there like it was always supposed to be there. The disco ball trap is a perfect example. Before anyone came to the table with that idea, we didn’t have breakdancing zombies in the game. Then someone said, “What if we made the zombies dance?” Before we knew it, everyone started pitching in bits and pieces that all ultimately became this feature we have.
There is no idea that we’re not willing to listen to, and we have great support from Activision and Infinity Ward leadership. They see what we’re trying to accomplish, how we’re trying to veer in a different direction. They’ve been absolutely supportive of the direction we’ve followed. No matter how crazy the idea—at first they might scratch their heads, but when they get to interact with it, they say, “This is the right call.” So it’s okay for us to be a little bit crazy, and that craziness brings something different to the franchise. It’s the differentiator between us and other experiences.
GamesBeat: From everything you’ve described, I would have guessed that the art style would be a lot more cartoony, like Garden Warfare. Did you discuss coming up with a style that was more real or more comical?
Ross: Yeah, absolutely. Where we ultimately landed, we wanted to look really graphically awesome, just like the campaign and multiplayer. The character models in those experiences are phenomenal. We wanted to match that. We wanted our zombies to look gory, falling apart. You can see the pores in their skin, all those little details. But what stands out is our color palette. It’s bright and brilliant in comparison to everything else. That goes back to the 1980s, a decade full of neon. Those rich pinks and baby blues and things like that, it helps bring a very comfortable, happy mood to the experience, even though it’s this post-apocalyptic world.