One of the biggest hits of the past 12 months has been Call of Duty 4. Here, we talk to developer Infinity Ward’s Mark Rubin on the game’s success, the studio’s independent - yet publisher-owned - nature, its attitude to proprietary tech, and the horrors of Modern Warfare…
Call of Duty 4 has been a massive commercial and critical success, were you surprised by this?
Yes we were. We were very surprised actually. During development we realised we had a game that we felt would be extremely fun for everyone, that it was extremely intense and our best work to date. Now that’s one thing, when you’re making a game and you are proud of what you’re working on. But to have it actually be game of the year on like every publication, and have sales go through the roof, and to have community members and journalists raving about it like they do other addictive games; this is something where gamers' wives hate them now because they’re constantly playing, and to us that’s huge.
To take this a step further, one of the things we’ve seen is that people outside of the industry, outside of what you’d consider ‘normal’ gamers, are actually getting into this a lot, including quite a number of celebrities. We’ve had celebrities go on to talk shows, like on the Conan O’Brien show, and say ‘Yeah I love Call of Duty 4, I play it all the time’. And we had no idea any of this was happening. So basically we’re hitting mainstream people outside of what you’d consider the general gaming industry, and they’re becoming huge fans, and that’s a big thing. And it was a tough year, not an easy year to come out, 2007 had a lot of big games. So yeah, we’re ecstatic and surprised at the same time.
One of the things that struck me about the game was its hard-hitting storyline. What motivated your decision to focus on the horrors of war?
In this particular game we were allowed to create our own story because we didn’t have one already made up for us as we did in previous games. So we were really inspired to up the intensity and the extreme impact the game could have. We are a really intense group in the studio, and we wanted to bring that intensity to the gameplay, and bring some hard hitting and high impact scenes in the game. There are moments in the game where you are just shocked, you’re holding the controller and asking yourself ‘did that really happen? That never happens, you can’t kill me!’
We did a lot of things we thought nobody had really done before. We wanted to grab people by the coat and shake them, really get people interested, and I think we were fantastically successful in doing that.
Did you have any reservations from Activision about offering such a harrowing story?
The Publisher? They love us! [laughs]. No, we didn’t have any reservations. They trust us, we’ve never had a game that wasn’t a hit so I they said: “You guys know what you’re doing, so just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Now you’re skipping work on the next Call of Duty, with Treyarch on the next game. Does having a single team focused on a two year cycle, as opposed to having two teams working on yearly releases, make for a better game?
It’s not so much we think about it that way. We make games independently. If it takes two years we will make a game in two years, if it takes three we’ll make it in three.
We’ve been doing this long enough now that we’re in a really good rhythm for doing a game in two years, but as far as the specifics of one studio doing it one year and the other another year, it doesn’t really affect us. You’re going to get from us what you’ll get regardless of what others are doing.
During the production of Call of Duty 4, was there any specific investment in any tools or engines?
No, nothing new from that standpoint. We develop everything in house as we think it’s not a good development/production idea to buy a new engine because you feel that one has more bells and whistles. Any engine can be improved upon, and made to have those same bells and whistles. Our theory is to reiterate what we already do well and add the stuff that we want. We wrote our own physics engine, we didn’t use anyone else's, and we do everything in house, so we’re never thinking now we’re gonna change over to this engine or that engine. It’s our own code so only we can make it work the way we want it to work, otherwise you get what somebody else thought you might want, and not what you really want. So because of this we always develop our own tools and the such.
So you’ve recently launched new multiplayer DLC. Are you having to design anything new for this content that will keep the game fresh?
One of the important aspects of this map pack is that we’re not only adding a variety of gameplay from what has come before, but new gameplay elements that weren't in the game previously. The best example of this is with the map Creek. It’s really big outdoor map, there’s not a lot of clearing, there’s a lot of foliage and places to hide, with large changes in elevation and is nothing like anything in the shipped version of the game.
The other maps too, Broadcast is a large map also but a lot more focus on indoor areas. All these maps are based on requests from feedback from the community, another map Killhouse comes from a request for smaller maps. We had some people asking for small maps and others asking for big maps, so when we thought: ‘which one should we do?’ we thought ‘lets do both.’ So Killhouse is a great split screen map, great for cage matches and small team objectives, even six-on-six, so it’s a really intense battle.
And the final map, Chinatown, is a remake of Carentan and comes from requests from the fans who enjoyed the old Call of Duty games. Carentan was in Call of Duty 1 and Call of Duty 2 and now it is in Call of Duty 4. But obviously it has been re-worked so it is artistically completely different, not only from the original, but from anything we’ve ever done before. Chinatown doesn’t look anything like the other maps from the Middle East or Russia.
As well as the single-player element, the multiplayer has become a key part of players’ appreciation of the game – impressive at a time when Halo 3 and its community elements are relatively new. What do you think is the secret behind CoD4’s enduring appeal?
This is a tough one, I have an answer but I’m not sure it is correct. My feeling is that one of the things we do right as a developer is pay extremely close attention to the ways people interact with the game. The screen shows you what’s going on, then there’s the controller and then there is you. There is a dynamic between the screen and what you’re doing with the controller that most developers don’t concentrate on.
Everything gamers do should be quick and instinctive, and you should react instantly on the screen without any lag, and without thinking ‘oh I could have killed that guy if that stupid thing hadn’t slowed me down.’ We are very particular on how a game feels physically and visually, and make sure it lines up, and is something we as a company have done well in the past. Which I feel is one of the reasons we’re so popular, but I could be completely wrong.