Sledgehammer Games is one of Activision‘s major game development studios, producing games such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Call of Duty: WWII. But the studio suffered some big blows when its founders left in 2018, and rumors surfaced last year that it was having trouble working with Raven Software to create the next Call of Duty for 2020.
We don’t know what’s coming this fall, particularly as the pandemic plays havoc with the schedule for new games and platforms. But Activision Blizzard announced last week that the next premium Call of Duty title is on track for the fall. And while working from home isn’t easy, Activision Blizzard said that it hasn’t put the game behind schedule.
Meanwhile, Sledgehammer Games has about 200 people working in its studio in both Foster City, California, and Melbourne, Australia. It plans to add 100 more workers over the next year.
Sledgehammer cofounders Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield left the studio in 2018, during a time when PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was shaking up the first-person shooter market with its battle royale mode. After the founders were gone, they went off to start their own studios. Condrey started 31st Union in San Mateo, California, while Schofield started Striking Distance Studios in San Ramon, California. All three companies vied for candidates, and dozens of people left Sledgehammer.
But Sledgehammer Games stabilized with new management, and Andy Wilson, a former executive at 2K’s Hangar 13 studio, joined Sledgehammer Games as chief operating officer. We spoke with Wilson in an email interview about how the studio is bouncing back and hiring more people.
In an interview with GamesBeat last week, Kotick said, “I think we’re changing the trajectory in the interest in Call of Duty. I think it started last year with [Call of Duty: Modern Warfare] launch and mobile. And I think Call of Duty: Warzone did a good job of bringing back lapsed Call of Duty players but also introducing new players.”
In other words, the official party line is that Call of Duty fans shouldn’t be nervous. Here’s an edited transcript of the email interview with Wilson.
GamesBeat: Sledgehammer had a number of departures when the founders left and started their own studios. How has it dealt with this or adapted to it? Did you have to take any unusual measures to get more people to stay, stabilize the studio, and then grow its numbers again?
Andy Wilson: Our industry tends to see a lot of movement in general. The gaps between projects usually coincides with a larger number of people deciding to make a change. That said, the story of the last year for us has been one of solid growth. We’re not looking in the past. We are excited about where we’re headed and our focus is on looking forward. In my case, since joining SHG, my focus has been squarely on the future and so one of the first things we did was celebrate the studio’s 10th anniversary to launch an initiative called “Decade II.” The point was to treat that moment as the first day of the second age of Sledgehammer Games and not just a celebration of what came before, because for all the studio’s success, we could see there was so much we could do going forward: culturally for certain, but also in terms of structure, the move to more than one project, the continued growth of the team in Melbourne, and so on. The great thing about Decade II, Day One was that was actually the end-point of months of solid work to establish a clear plan for the future. The result is a team and studio with a clear roadmap and an enormous opportunity ahead of it, with a lot of great new team members signing up for the journey. Even since California and Australia enforced full remote-working, we’ve had well over 2,000 applications for our open roles. The icing on the cake is that we’ve also seen numerous people return to the studio of their own volition and their feedback on the positivity taking place here has helped to validate a lot of the thinking.
GamesBeat: Are you folks hiring? What kinds of jobs? What locations?
Wilson: Sledgehammer Games is entering a period of growth across both of our main studio locations: Foster City, California and Melbourne, Australia. We’re now a multi-project studio and we’re looking for a substantial number of new team members to join us. We’re looking across every discipline and various levels of seniority. It’s a pretty exciting time for our studio.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have?
Wilson: We’re currently over 200, and we plan to add upward of 100 new Hammers over the next year.
GamesBeat: Why have the different locations in the first place?
Wilson: There are huge benefits to having studio locations in different parts of the world. First, it opens up multiple talent pools for us and gives us access to people who we otherwise might not be able to bring onboard. Then there’s the amazing diversity of thought you get from having one team spread over different cultures and countries. We believe that’s essential to make truly global games. Another important consideration is the way games are released and played now. The launch is really just the start, as games are being played around the clock, it’s a great advantage to be able to cover more of the 24-hour cycle for things like live operations and support. Finally, there’s a certain momentum you gain from having the baton passed constantly between a team in one location finishing their day just as another is winding up for theirs.
GamesBeat: Are people still quite spread out beyond those two locations?
Wilson: We have always had people who work remotely. We decided long ago that we need to be accommodating when members of our team experience life changes that mean they would otherwise have had to leave Sledgehammer Games. We have also made a number of new hires since the stay at home orders came into force, so we’re adding additional people to the team who won’t be based at one of our permanent sites until sometime down the road.
GamesBeat: How are you proceeding with the hiring, given the coronavirus impact on meeting in person?
Wilson: Obviously, you lose something from not being able to sit in the same room as a person you’re interviewing, but we’re lucky that technology has reached the point where the impact is relatively minimal. For instance, when I first emigrated to Canada in 2011, video calls back home were laggy and low-res, whereas now I can have an HD meeting with zero lag and tens if not hundreds of people in attendance. We’re able to have substantive conversations through video conferencing software and although it’s a little more awkward than in-person, we’re all getting much better at it as the weeks go by. Humans adapt pretty quickly, and I think there’s been a very quick acceptance that this is the new norm for the time being.
GamesBeat: Are studios prepared to operate remotely for a long time?
Wilson: Going into this, for a studio of our size and given the scale of the projects we work on, we were not initially sure it was possible to be prepared enough. Some of that is the speed at which the situation escalated, but we’re a few weeks in now and it’s actually quite incredible how quickly the team has hit its stride. We’re even seeing some people report that they are faster and more efficient, but this depends on individual circumstances of course. We’re also seeing communication go through the roof and we see ways in which this situation will end up improving and strengthening our studio in the long run. It’s a strange new world, but for as long as it lasts, we intend to embrace it.
GamesBeat: How do you set up studios to be ready for that? How do you advise other studios on how to make this happen?
Wilson: There were three phases, at least initially: preparing and planning, triage after the initial transition and then fine-tuning to get as close to business as usual as possible. For us, we put a lot of planning upfront into the transition from in-studio to work-from-home. Things like timetabling the flow of people and equipment out of the studio, making sure we had clear lists of requirements on a per-person basis and so on. We were hit by a very sudden escalation in the Bay Area when the shelter-in-place mandate was put in place. We were about a quarter of the way done getting people out of the studio when the call came, so we had to increase our speed significantly. Luckily our IT and Ops teams were flawless in their rollout, and they got the job done so effectively that we were all situated at home 24 hours later having our first ever remote playtest. I did not think that we would be able to get on our feet so quickly and I’m very glad to be working with such an effective team of people.
In terms of the triage phase, we surveyed the entire team after about two days to find out where all the pain points were and then just started working through them methodically. Once we got people unblocked, we decided to keep a daily triage call on the books to make sure that we were responding to issues as close to ‘live’ as possible. We’re now just down to a few issues a week where people experience isolated problems that we’re able to get on top of pretty quickly.
For the “fine tuning phase,” there are some things we’re doing that I would recommend for mid-size and larger teams in particular. We’ve moved our weekly team meetings onto an events-based video conferencing app capable of streaming hi-def video. Our IT director sits as “master of ceremonies,” switching mics and cameras on and off remotely for each presenter, and increasingly we try to show game content and progress updates via video, so that we simulate our real team meetings as closely as possible. [Studio head] Aaron Halon and I also hold a weekly AMA-style Slack Q&A, where we encourage the team to ask anything and everything on their minds. We’ve seen some really interesting things come of that. Firstly, way more people are engaging with us and with each other than at regular “in-person” team meetings. Some of the feedback we’ve had is that the social introverts on the team find it a far less intimidating way to interact and certainly over the weeks it has evolved into something really fun, a mixture of serious questions and general banter. We also had one question where a member of our team had been struggling recently with the isolation of being at home, so they used it as an opportunity to speak up and to ask for advice. The response from people on the thread was overwhelmingly supportive and so we’re also seeing it as a way to keep a sense of community. It was a really heartwarming moment and a reminder that we’re all fundamentally vulnerable but also very resilient. The summary point is that communication is paramount and we’re finding some great ways to not only establish new forms to suit this strange new situation we find ourselves in, but also improve on what we had before.
GamesBeat: How do you hire someone without the physical meeting?
Wilson: I would almost turn that question round and ask, “In this day and age, why do you have to meet someone in-person in order to make a hiring decision?” The only real difference in terms of getting to the fundamentals comes from the fact that it can be a little awkward to have conversations with people for the first time over video. We’re getting a great deal more used to it though! There are certainly some things from the candidate perspective that it’s harder to simulate, such as seeing the physical space you’ll ultimately be working in, grabbing lunch for a more casual conversation mid-interview etc. That said, thanks to the great work our internal Brand team has done showcasing our people through our SHG Developer Profiles, there are plenty of assets we can use to reveal the studio and team to prospective hires.
GamesBeat: Where does diversity come in?
Wilson: So many teams talk about diversity and just drop it in as a buzzword or write flashy blog posts that sit and gather dust. If you truly believe in diversity being positive to your team and studio, then it’s a lot of hard work to do it properly. First there’s the “why.” That one is pretty simple. We make games for global audiences across boundaries of culture, ethnicity, gender and sexuality so our development teams are stronger if they reflect that. I’ve said this in a previous life while working on a title with a very sensitive narrative, but the risk we add to our games being tone deaf is amplified if we all look and sound the same.
Then there’s the talent pool itself. We want to hire the best of the best wherever they are and whatever their background is. I don’t believe percentage targets are helpful, I believe they are a symptom of the fact your outreach and public face is failing in some way, so the best approach is to do things to prove you are open and welcoming and then find ways to speak directly to all of those different groups. For example, we are building strong university outreach programs to help proactively mentor and grow the next generation – university students are a naturally more diverse bunch to begin with. We’re also building partnerships with various groups representing different aspects of the development community, some of which you’ll start to see us shouting more about in the coming months. The net result of all of this is that by focusing on tangible action, you can organically build a bigger and more diverse talent pool, leading to a stronger overall team. Throwing around buzzwords doesn’t cut it.
GamesBeat: Does a Call of Duty game require a diverse staff to make it the best it can be? Why?
Wilson: I think any game or franchise with a global audience will be stronger if it is built by a team that reflects multiple aspects of that audience in its makeup. There are so many subtleties to building games, small touches and flourishes that can potentially generate affection and loyalty towards your game from a wide variety of people. We’re not here to make games for a very narrow section of society. Diverse development teams are stronger because all of those different perspectives and backgrounds generate thought and conversation that would not otherwise occur.
GamesBeat: How do you do things that were physical, like mocap?
Wilson: With mocap specifically there is a big challenge as stages are closed and acting talent can’t travel. There are some creative solutions, such as looking at facilities in countries who are in a different stage of restriction to us, but obviously the phase of development you are currently in is going to play a part as well. Ultimately, this is where we really lean on our production teams and our partners at the publisher to come up with creative solutions to these problems and so far, we’ve not been disappointed by the results.
GamesBeat: How long can you work remotely?
Wilson: We are ready and prepared to work this way indefinitely if we have to as the safety of our team is our highest priority. Obviously, we are keen to get back to our studios in Foster City and Melbourne as soon as possible as we miss seeing each other every day, but we’ve resolved a lot of the bigger problems that make working from home tough. We will continue our push to optimize everything. We’re only going to get better at this from here on in.
GamesBeat: For those working at home, I know that rendering art and uploading it can’t be that easy. Is that still a challenge, or has technology moved forward? I know that AWS enables people to use cloud-based tools where the rendering is all in the cloud. Is that a staple for the work flow now?
Wilson: Certainly data requirements for modern triple-A development are high and so working from home does present additional challenges, as most people don’t have access to the kind of bandwidth we can get from our studio locations. More than anything it requires a bit more discipline around things like the times of day you pull builds or submit changes, but our experience so far has been pretty good overall. We’ve worked at the individual team-member level to assess their specific situations and done things like pay for internet plan upgrades and provide bespoke equipment where it would be helpful. Our IT and Ops teams did a frankly phenomenal job in getting the team up and running so quickly. There are also many things both Sledgehammer Games and Activision have done on the back end to improve and optimize our own infrastructure to better serve the teams. We have a solid pipeline of improvements that will help us to work more effectively both at home, and eventually back in the studio.
GamesBeat: I heard that mo-cap and performance capture are much harder to do now, as you can’t gather people in a capture studio so easily. Have you figured out a work-from-home solution for this?
Wilson: We’re actually attacking this problem from two different angles. First, we are fortunate to have a Sledgehammer director who is currently based in a country where there is no Shelter in Place order in place. This allowed us to gain access to a local mocap stage locally, where we were able to get some really great work done, while adhering to social distancing guidance. Additionally, we do have a portable mocap suit that we were able to get out of the studio along with all the other equipment we provided the team with, so with that we’re also able to do a lot of rapid data gathering.
GamesBeat: For those who are at home and having a tough time, is there a way to communicate with them and help ease the burden?
Wilson: We talk about technical hurdles a lot, but mental health is a bigger and certainly more important challenge, more so the longer the current conditions persists. We’re putting a lot of time into reaching out across the team and making sure that we speak to people directly. In addition to 1-to-1 meetings, Aaron and I use our team-wide Slack Q&A to talk to team members, and we’ve also seen people across the studio helping out team mates who need to interact and talk. The most important thing we can do is make ourselves available, as sometimes people feel better just by having the chance to talk things through. Everyone has different situations at home and on top of that this whole situation is so unprecedented that even people with great situations at home are having occasional down days. The lack of social contact and simple everyday routines is tough, so we’re encouraging everyone to take a deep breath, take it day-by-day and focus on their health and well-being above all else.
GamesBeat: Is there an understanding that some people might not be as productive at home, such as parents with young kids?
Wilson: We understand that a number of people have really tough balancing acts when it comes to work and family. Having two parents in full time work as well as young kids to take care of piles on a lot of pressure (both emotional and logistical) and we have to let people manage their time accordingly. We have people who’ve chosen to work non-typical hours that fit their needs better, for example. The last thing anyone in that situation needs is the added stress that comes from feeling like they are falling behind, and we’re trying to regularly remind people to work in a way that takes some of the pressure off. We’re trusting people to manage their time, figuring out ways in which the studio can support and placing an emphasis on work prioritization rather than trying to get every last thing done. We’re also firmly past the stage where people get embarrassed by having their kids appear unannounced in the middle of meetings, so that should hopefully help.
GamesBeat: Are there some very different roles between the locations?
Wilson: With a multi-location studio it’s important that each team has a mandate that they feel they can own autonomously, while still under overall project direction. In the most extreme example, that means if we had one location go completely offline for some reason then the other location could continue to operate unaided for an extended period. Rather than focus on having different types of roles in the different locations, we put our effort into making sure each team has every role they need to deliver against their mandate. Our Melbourne team started out very engineering-heavy, because the founding team there were engineers, but as the studio team has continued to grow we’ve added other disciplines and specializations, again with the team’s project mandates as the reference.