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Sledgehammer Games is five years old, and it’s finally getting its turn in the limelight as the new studio working on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which debuts on Nov. 4. This is the latest in Activision’s Call of Duty first-person shooter series that has generated billions of dollars.
Created by Dead Space co-creators Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield, Sledgehammer Games was born as a Call of Duty studio. It started working on a third-person combat game, but it left that project to work with Infinity Ward — mangled by the departure of its founders and a civil war with Activision — to build Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. After that game debuted to huge sales in 2011, Sledgehammer went to work on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
The team didn’t approach Advanced Warfare as one more Call of Duty. It took three years to build something new from the start, with a new subfranchise, a new setting 40 years in the future, and new technology worthy of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. We got a rare tour of Sledgehammer Games in Foster City, Calif., and interviewed Condrey and Schofield about the making of their studio and the game.
“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.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Condrey and Schofield.
GamesBeat: What was the vision for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare?
Glen Schofield: We want to make sure that people realize it’s not a turn of the crank. 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. We’ve painstakingly gone over everything. We hope that gets across in the craftsmanship and the personalization and everything we put into this. This is something brand new.
Michael Condrey: For us, we started this game three years ago. One of the first prototypes we came up with was the boost jump through the exoskeleton. The exo’s been the heart of this game for almost two years, long before it was popularized by Elysium and Age of Tomorrow. Nowadays it seems like it’s everywhere. But for us, it was the drive behind a lot of creative decisions in single-player and multiplayer.
For multiplayer in particular, it’s pretty transformational in how you play. It’s faster, with more movement. I wish you could see it. We have an amazing franchise with tremendous lore and fiction. We’re really grateful because we had a chance to go after the next-generation experience and really innovate. It was time to give you a new experience. We went after innovation across campaign, multiplayer, cooperative. We saw an opportunity to deliver a really amazing narrative. We were inspired by films like Black Hawk Down and games like what Naughty Dog with The Last of Us. We introduced the exoskeleton and the boost jump. New ways to play with the controller. It’s faster. There’s more things for the player to do. We want to make multiplayer the stickiest and most reward-based experience you’ve ever seen. That’s a bold statement. The narrative was a big opportunity.
Schofield: With three years, we had a lot of time to come up with a good story and game design. The story was something we focused on a lot of time on. It was written by Sledgehammer Games. 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.
We saw this rise of great TV, with The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and House of Cards. We wrote the story with Kevin Spacey in mind, not knowing we would get him. He’s one of the best actors in the world, and he really helped us deliver a great story.
Schofield: Instead of designing levels like you expect from a war game, we’re designing vertically. We’re designing for crawling and all these new things. Climbing on walls. Drones. The hover bike or the hover tank. It’s not only changing the way you play it. It changes the way we design a level. That’s going to be different for the player.
GamesBeat: You were making Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare at the same time you were building a new game studio. What was that like?
Condrey: We started in this building on a small corner and grew out this space. Now we have the whole floor. We fell in love with this space because of the open and collaborative nature of the space. The team is all here together. It’s transparent. We move fast.
Schofield: You see five or six guys gathered around a screen. Everyone around them wants to see it too. It kind of keeps everybody in touch. Ideas are thrown out. We hoped that would work, and it has.
Condrey: We build pods of cross-functional developers, with an engineer sitting with an artist sitting with an animator sitting with a level designer. It’s about empowering a group to do the best work of their careers. The old style of high walls and locked offices doesn’t work anymore. An artist doesn’t have to wait until a programmer frees up.
GamesBeat: Did you try to do this at Visceral Games?
Schofield: We started taking some cube walls down where we could.
Condrey: The culture was too ingrained. People were resistant to it. It required us starting our own studio to make it work. We developed Modern Warfare 3, and as we expanded, we knocked down a bunch of walls.
GamesBeat: How quickly did you start working on Call of Duty?
Schofield: That’s what we built this to do.
Condrey: We finished Dead Space. Five years ago, it was the two of us. Five years later, it’s 225 people. It’s crazy. It’s been a remarkable five years.
Schofield: We started work. Within six months, we had a prototype of a third-person action adventure game.
Condrey: We started as a Call of Duty studio. They wanted us to do Call of Duty meets third person. 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.
Schofield: 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. We didn’t jump in the middle. We were there day one on Modern Warfare 3. We split the work with Infinity Ward.
GamesBeat: It took you in a very different direction?
Condrey: Obviously, Treyarch has awesome experience. Mark Lamia and his team are awesome collaborators. Modern Warfare 3 got action game of the year that year. That took up the first two years. It shipped in 2011. We had to re-establish that we could do great work. We ran hard that first two years. It was some of the hardest work we’ve ever done.