Infinity Ward wasn’t in the best shape after its last game, Call of Duty: Ghosts, which debuted in 2013. The studio’s founders had departed in a fractious lawsuit with Activision. Critics didn’t like the game, and Infinity Ward had needed help from another new studio, Sledgehammer Games, to get the game out the door.
The two-year cycle for making Call of Duty games had reached its breaking point as Infinity Ward had been required to make a game that ran on the older PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, as well as the then brand new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles.
Dave Stohl, a veteran of the franchise who had previously run all of the studios for Activision, stepped into the job of running Infinity Ward. He recruited new leaders like Jacob Minkoff and Taylor Kurosaki from Naughty Dog to make Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
Stohl was able to give the team three years to make its next Call of Duty game because three studios were able to alternate the yearly task. Stohl never criticized Ghosts directly, but it is clear that the game’s lack of a sequel shows that the storyline didn’t really go over that well.
With this title, Call of Duty has branched away from modern warfare and into science fiction. The developers wanted to do something different, and Stohl encouraged them.
It remains to be seen if fans will like Infinite Warfare as much as past titles. But I have played the whole single-player campaign, and I consider it to be one of the better single-player campaigns in recent years, with a strong story that matches the outsized gameplay ambitions. After I played, I sat down with Stohl for an interview, delving into the decisions that he and the team made along the way.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare debuts today on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC. Check out our review of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and our interview with narrative director Taylor Kurosaki.
Editor’s note: This story has some spoilers, but we’ve tried to minimize them. We recommend you read this after you’ve played the campaign.
GamesBeat: What was the transition like for you, coming to Infinity Ward?
Dave Stohl: I ran Treyarch for a lot of years. Then I went back and ran all the studios. It was fun, because we could do a lot of strategic stuff. I kicked off the Destiny project. I’d been probably the longest-running head of studios at Activision. I did it for seven or eight years. It was time to go back. I was looking for somebody to go to IW, and then I decided to do it myself. Scratch that development itch again.
GamesBeat: They had a lot of transitions around that point, when Mark left.
Stohl: And Joel and Scott had left Neversoft. We kind of put the teams together. Hired a bunch of new guys like Taylor and Brian Horton. Rock and roll.
GamesBeat: What was the goal at that time? Was there a set of marching orders you could give to people – here’s what we want?
Stohl: It wasn’t so much marching orders. These guys had been working on Modern Warfare, on Ghosts. A lot of them had been on other projects. There was a desire among a lot of the team when I got there to do something different, to really mix up the formula. That was part of the impetus for—when you’re in the Call of Duty franchise, you’re either doing not enough or too much, you know what I mean? People really wanted to do something different. There was so much passion on the team for doing this game.
I felt like my job was to help them realize that vision, and to bring in talent that could strengthen the studio in the departments like narrative, where I wanted us to raise our game. We found a lot of great people to achieve that.
GamesBeat: Some people criticize Call of Duty as the same thing every year. And yet when you go from year to year, the sales aren’t always the same. They fluctuate a little. It seems like when you change things, it does reflect how people receive the franchise.
Stohl: Sure. There’s continued interest in Black Ops. That’s a strong sub-IP of the franchise. People are fans of that particular style of Call of Duty. The game is a bit different there.
GamesBeat: Was there much discussion about diverging along different storylines at that time? When each studio went off in a different direction?
Stohl: It’s not so much about studios as it’s about each game. We didn’t set out to make a Black Ops game. The guys wanted to work on building a new sub-franchise, something different. I think you’re right in that it’s good to have ideas that build greater differentiation between these paths. Making Infinite Warfare was also about saying, “Let’s do something that has its own space.” No pun intended. Give it some room to breathe as a concept.
And we had three years to do that. Ghosts had been a two-year title. I wasn’t at the studio during Ghosts, but I feel like it was a two-year title in a hardware transition. A lot of franchises just didn’t come out that year. I think they did an excellent job of getting that game done on a very short time scale, having just made Modern Warfare 3, and getting it done on multiple generations of hardware.
GamesBeat: It seems like that made it evident that three years would provide more breathing room.
Stohl: Also, we started to have the teams to do it. We put Sledgehammer together and those guys got up and running. As the Activision studio guy, I helped work between the studios. Sledgehammer and Infinity Ward worked on Modern Warfare 3 together. After that, we had another team that was experienced at making Call of Duty. They made Advanced Warfare. We started to have teams where we could fill every year with high-quality Call of Duty games.
GamesBeat: There’s this mythical Call of Duty: Roman Wars project, which got a fair amount of discussion.
Stohl: I can tell you this. I’ve never heard of it. Before I was at Infinity Ward I was running all the studios. Hear it from me right here. It never happened. It sounds awesome, though.
GamesBeat: The internet seems to outvote you on that one. [Laughter]
Stohl: Well, you can tell them, I’m definitively the only person in the world who would know. I can tell you right now, that did not happen. Maybe somebody made a funny little movie or built a level or something–
GamesBeat: I know the guy who claims he pitched it.
Stohl: Oh, everything’s been pitched. But if they did, I never heard about it.
GamesBeat: The characters in this game are more complicated than we’ve come to expect. They change.
Stohl: That was the goal.
GamesBeat: I like how you stay with the same characters through the whole campaign. It tells a much deeper story. A lot of times in past games the characters feel a little more throwaway. Sometimes it seems like their purpose is to die.
Stohl: Or to get you to a location, yeah. Not only did we want you to go through the story arc, we wanted you to feel like you were in charge. You weren’t just a guy following the crew through the story. It was important that we stuck with Reyes. You’re reflected back by the characters around you. I feel like Salter, Omar, and Ethan (also known as ETH.3n) are such a great crew to have around you. ETH.3n’s obviously become one of the more popular characters. He was very well-executed.
GamesBeat: A lot of the humor comes from a robot.
Stohl: That’s tough line, I’ll tell you. Doing a robot, a talking robot, that’s a tough line to walk. It’s been done so many times in pop culture, in entertainment. We’ve created a robot, I think, that does his own kind of thing. He’s not like any of the others.
GamesBeat: Are these some of the day-to-day things that you think about as a studio head? Or do you stay above a lot of those decisions?
Stohl: There are tons of story execution things that I don’t ever see or get involved with. But when we’re talking about things like tone and what Call of Duty in space would be like—not just as studio head, but as somebody who’s been with the franchise for a long time, those were important things for me to weigh in on, I felt. But Taylor’s infinitely better than I am at story execution and character and all that stuff. That’s not my bag. When it came to doing a Call of Duty take on a space game, that’s where I would weigh in.
GamesBeat: Taylor mentioned that the Jackal controls are very Call of Duty, even though you’re flying. The way you control it, you’re using a lot of the same buttons.
Stohl: We tried a lot of different control schemes. One of the things Call of Duty is known for is that core feeling – the way weapons feel, how snappy the game is. People have a lot of motor memory around how the movement system works. When found the version of running-walking-sprinting that worked in the Jackal, and then came up with the lock-on mechanics, we were really excited. We were able to achieve letting people fly anywhere with a control scheme that felt comfortable, but also create some of the cinematic drama in the dogfights with the lock-on spline chasing. We could do a little of both.
GamesBeat: It seemed like there was something a little easier about the space combat, compared to, say, flying the biplanes in Battlefield One. There’s a little less verticality.
Stohl: In some of the Jackal missions, there are times you can do more up and down. But it was important to kind of keep stuff on a plane. You can get very disoriented. This is more of a cinematic experience than a flight sim. We try to keep things on a level plane. In some of the more challenging Jackal assaults, like when you’re taking out the destroyers, they’re at different heights and you can take yourself—I don’t get seasick, so I can flip upside down and do all kinds of stuff. But for ease of accessibility we kind of keep stuff on a plane.
GamesBeat: People mentioned that they didn’t want to make the [multiplayer] maps too vertical, because that starts to confuse beginners too much.
Stohl: We know that people are very comfortable with the control scheme. We have a version of the Black Ops III style of movement. It’s slightly different. We maybe toned it back a bit. On a lot of the maps, yeah, we’re a bit less wall run, vertical-focused. It’s more like a traditional map, but with opportunities for wall running. That was our formula.
GamesBeat: It seems like a lot of these decisions made it more accessible, opened it up to the biggest possible audience.
Stohl: With Zombies we played a little bit of—we know Zombies is very popular, and it’s also a very challenging mode. I think we wanted to make a Zombies that was fun and cool and would get people interested because the theme was more accessible, and then try to ease people in, make the beginning a bit more accessible. Of course, for Zombies, you have to have all the crazy cocktail of quests and stuff going on in the levels. One of my big hopes for this game—the campaign is great, the multiplayer is great. But getting more people to try out Zombies would be great.
GamesBeat: I liked how you could melee the robots. It’s very satisfying.
Stohl: We spent a lot of time on them, on how the NPCs would react to weapon hits. Legs coming out, arms going back, that kind of stuff. We tried to make that feel very satisfying.
GamesBeat: It was hard to figure out where to shoot them. Shooting them in the head is harder to do. Shooting them in the leg, they slow down, but they can still crawl at you.
Stohl: I love that in Zombies, too. Shoot their legs out and they still come crawling after you. I think the correct answer is “yes,” though. Just shoot them. But shooting the zombies’ legs out sometimes helps you in challenges. Sometimes people will keep a crawling guy around to stop the next wave from coming in. If they still want to do other things they’ll just have one guy crawling around. There’s a lot of strategy in there. But I think we got our NPC reactions and those robot melee reactions a lot better this time.
GamesBeat: I don’t think I encountered a bug the whole time I was playing. Mafia III, in about 35 hours, crashed on me 20 times. The three-year development cycle seems to help with that.
Stohl: This is Call of Duty, so we keep super on top of it. We do title updates to make sure multiplayer is solid. We have that part down, hopefully.
GamesBeat: At this point, it seems like people have calmed down about the shift from the modern setting to science fiction. I’m curious about what it’s been like for you to follow that over time.
Stohl: It’s interesting to see how people—there’s certainly a passionate core to this franchise that will talk about that kind of thing. We made a smart decision at E3 to say, “Yeah, this is the game.” With our gameplay piece we showed at the Sony thing, that calmed a lot of it down. In a way, I think that emboldened the team. We wanted people to play the campaign so badly, because it’s different. We really hoped people would like it and get it, instead of just talking about space or not space. We wanted them talking about the narrative and new kinds of things like side missions and flying the Jackal around.
Now I think people will start talking about those things, judging the game on its narrative and character development and side missions and combat, rather than the initial reaction to the setting. But I’ve been with this franchise a long time. Smaller things than that have caused that core to go crazy. Just adjusting a shotgun in MP, aim assist, snap targeting—everything causes the core to get in an uproar.
GamesBeat: Does it still feel like the franchise has a lot of creative room for the future?
Stohl: I do think so, yeah. With all three of these teams, there’s a lot of places to go. I’m excited. For a franchise that’s been around this long—obviously I’m in the enviable position of knowing what else is going on. But based on everything I know I’m very excited about the future.
On top of all that—I’m not a super-competitive MP guy. But I’m so excited about esports right now. From an esports point of view, the franchise is just at the beginning. With huge prize pools, playing at the Forum, it’s crazy. That was awesome.
GamesBeat: I talked with Minh Le, the creator of Counter-Strike, not long ago. He brought up an interesting challenge for esports. If you don’t change a game, it’s good for esports athletes to adopt and get used to it and become masters at it. But if you change a game every year, maybe a different crop of champions emerges every year, which is potentially difficult for following players over time. I don’t know if you find your Arnold Palmer out of that process. A sport wants to stay the same, but gamers want a game that’s fresh.
Stohl: That’s right. It’s one of those awesome challenges for the franchise. We work with the esports guys every season to craft what that rule set will be. We have to strive to create some predictability within the esports side. It’s also important for people to relate to the mode that they’re watching. But yeah, with such a big audience, it’s important that we also innovate in the game.
That’s something we’re thinking a lot about. Even within the game, there are esports modes like Uplink. Uplink is fun to watch. It’s not a big public playlist mode. It’s designed for esports, in a way. People can and do play it, but it’s something we build and deliver year after year because it’s an esports mode. But yes, you’re right, that’s a tough thing to figure out. I can’t tell you all of our solutions yet, but we definitely think about it.
GamesBeat: Some players are going to be tempted to skip all the side missions. What do you think they’ll be missing out on?
Stohl: You get a lot of upgrades for doing them. Also, if you’re going to play on a harder level, it’s good to get all those upgrades done before you go back and try a harder difficulty. To your point earlier about places where I would weigh in, I think we could have put all of the side mission content into the linear path, but I felt like it reinforced the feeling of Captain Reyes as someone who’s in charge. You can choose to do something or not.
We motivate you to do it because of a cool upgrade path, but you don’t have to do it. Maybe you replay it again once you find out that ship assault is really cool, or you can get something from doing a certain Jackal thing. I like that exploration. I think it’s more modern than just the linear campaign. Even though there’s some cool content that potentially people won’t play, once people start talking about the game, you can still go back and do it.
GamesBeat: Did you design this with another three-game series in mind?
Stohl: Here’s what I’ll say to that. Obviously I hope this game is wildly successful. We spent so much—defining a new universe is the absolute number one hardest thing I’ve done. Not personally. I didn’t do it all myself. But I was talking to some of the guys earlier. It’s so hard to say—notice we never put a year on it. If you put a year on something, well, why do you still have trash cans? You wouldn’t have trash cans in the year such-and-such.
Everybody’s perception of what the future would be like is totally different. Getting concept artists and designers and everybody to create a cohesive universe was really hard. I talked to a guy who worked on Minority Report, a production designer. I think that was set in 2050. He had to get everybody thinking 2015, because 2050—your imagination goes way outside the box.
We had a bunch of guys, great concept guys. A guy named Aaron Beck, who came from WETA in New Zealand. He was the robots and gear guy. If you notice, he did some neat things with the Marine suits. There are these pressure cuffs right here on the Marine suit. He’d use a silhouette. Imagine a soldier in Vietnam with his sleeves rolled up to here. He’d take that silhouette and make these similar-looking silhouettes, but with all these advanced materials. We were always trying to ride that idea, that this is a bunch of new stuff, but it’s also grounded in something you’re more familiar with.
That’s generally where our aesthetic and our universe came from. You’re in space, but these ships still have very Navy and NASA cues. It’s not some gleaming white version of the future. That’s where we eventually found our groove, these familiar industrial and military pieces set in a more fantastic universe. Then it all jelled together.