In this in-depth Q&A we chat with Treyarch’s Noah Heller and Richard Farrelly about the studio’s work on the latest Call of Duty game, the WWII-set World at War…
How does your collaboration with Infinity Ward work? When did you start working with them, and how did they factor in the development of World at War?
Noah Heller: We began working on World at War after we finished Call of Duty 3. During the course of Modern Warfare development we were taking builds and we were getting involved in the game, and after Modern Warfare shipped we were providing builds to send back to Infinity Ward for comment. There is a degree of collaboration that exists there because the goal is to not let anything out the door that is Call of Duty unless its very high quality.
Call of Duty 3 was a great game with a review average of 82/83, and was created in eight months. That’s startling and was a great effort by the team. But now they’ve had time to polish the build and iterate on the game they wanted to make. The player doesn’t know how long the game took to make when they sit it in the box, all they know is if it is high enough quality and with extra time we can make sure of that.
We do trade builds back and forth we do share thoughts studio to studio and team member to team member. Both teams are separate; they have their own game they want to make. But neither team is comfortable with a Call of Duty being on the market that isn’t a great game. It’s what Call of Duty is all about. It has to be the best shooter, it has to be the best WWII game. Modern Warfare has to be the best Modern Warfare, We didn’t choose the World at War name lightly. We chose it because this is the premiere World War II game, this isn’t a dumb catch phrase, it is the World at War, that’s what WWII was.
Call of Duty 4 was a shorter gameplay experience in terms of playtime – seemingly iterated and edited down for quality. Are you taking a similar approach with World at War?
Richard Farrelly: As a franchise and as we progressed, we’ve discovered what works and what doesn’t, especially by reading the reviews. We’ve only been given a certain amount of time, especially with the next-generation, so we have to pick and choose what goes in. So we focus on what we’re delivering and making sure it is quality.
Heller: The point is that you don’t make 12 features that are okay, you make four or five that are awesome. And frankly we’re going through this now, there may be levels that will end up on the cutting room floor because we don’t want to put a level in that’s weak. We’re a really harsh internal critic with that, and gone are the days for Call of Duty where features that are okay are shoved in at the last minute.
Has the critical and commercial success of Call of Duty 4 put extra pressure on you to deliver?
Heller: The challenge right now for us is that there are a lot of people brand new to Call of Duty with Call of Duty 4; half the people that bought Modern Warfare had never played a Call of Duty game before. So we need to make sure we come along with a Call of Duty game that lives up to that polish that potential, and offers something brand new for the player to do.
We didn’t want to make the same old World War II game and players don’t want to buy the same old World War II game.
Farrelly: I have the pleasure of working with a team of guys that are some of the best in the business, and they’re very, very passionate about games and shooters and the Call of Duty franchise. We all love Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare we’ve all played it and we’re aware of the level of quality that is there. We’ve also played every other game on the market and compared ourselves with them, so we know that when we ship we have to be the best in class, and we’re going do everything we can to do that. And having a two year cycle will help us to do that.
Heller: Just look at the games that have come out over the last 12 months. BioShock, GTA IV, Modern Warfare of course… what all these games have is a lot of love and polish, and maybe we’re somewhat of an underdog team. Call of Duty 4 comes along and it is a fantastic game, so how can we live up to that? How do we do World War II after that? We want to show people what we’re capable of. People will grumble at this and that, but the proof will be what we put in the box and the quality level in that.
You’re sharing the engine with Infinity Ward; what’s it like to use in comparison to something like, say, the Unreal Engine 3?
Farrelly: Our team has had a lot of experience working on that engine. A lot of our guys have been working on it as far back as Call of Duty: United Offensive, which is in fact a similar toolset to what Call of Duty 4 uses. We’ve been working on Call of Duty for longer than World War II lasted and the toolset has evolved over time, so we’re very comfortable with this stuff!
And so when we got the Call of Duty engine and all the tools from IW it was like putting on an old pair of gloves. It’s great because we got this engine that has already shipped quality with all these great features, and not just gameplay features, but the lighting and the sound as well. IW gave us a really good foundation with which we can build our own level of quality, with the fire technology, the water technology, with the plane-based weaponry and so forth.
Heller: I’ve worked on plenty of engines in my career, including Unreal. And I’d say the big difference with this engine is how close it allows designers to get their vision into the game. You’ll be startled to see how close the concept art is to what was replicated in the game. If an artist wants to make a bottle in the game, he designs it and hits a button and a minute and a half later it is in the game.
Farrelly: Rapid Iterations have really allowed us to polish, polish, polish really quickly. And we’ve managed to get more content than we’ve ever managed to before, polished to a level of quality that’s astounding.
What was behind the decision to stick with the classic World War II setting? Modern Warfare moved away from it – and many developers think it’s a tired genre now…
Heller: Our task was simple, we want to be the best shooter in whatever genre we’re in. Call of Duty 4 was by far the best Modern Warfare shooter out there and there’s a lot of Modern Warfare games out there. We want to be the best in class WWII game. We’re getting rid of the number on Call of Duty, we feel World at War is a strong name and will carry the thing far. And there’s stories in WWII we haven’t told yet. This team has made a lot of WWII game, but we haven’t shown this story. As I said before, Call of Duty 4 was the first Call of Duty for many gamers and we want to show them what we can do with WWII.
Farrelly: We felt we can tell these new stories. But we knew we had to approach the WWII genre different as it was getting a little stretch. We had to hit the reset as to what people would expect from it. We took a lot of tips from the success of Modern Warfare, in terms of how they presented the game, the pacing, the different approach for the music and the way the characters speak in the game… right down to the level of maturity of the content. Which really sets a different tone for any WWII game.
Heller: It’s about getting rid of some of the old trumpets and patriotism of classic WWII games and getting into the gritty realism. Not “Hey Sarge, shall I take that hill?” “Go Get it boys!” but rather “Get up on that fucking hill because that gun’s ripping us to shreds.” That’s what war actually was, and that would be a disservice to the genre.
Farrelly: I had the pleasure of interviewing the veterans, and I really learnt that when these guys got down to it they didn’t care about King or Country or what was right. They just wanted to keep the guy next to them alive, the same guys they went through basic training with. And that’s one of the aspects we want to get across, in our rapid, condensed story.
Are you going to try and address what you think has gone wrong with previous WWII games?
Heller: It starts off with throwing out the rulebook. The music for example, the classic WWII music is lots of trumpets and orchestra and sweeping scores. In this game we’re dealing with much more modern sounding elements. Music is created procedurally, as you get into combat it changes, and you get into different areas it changes, on the fly. And that’s one element of it.
Another is with the video, you might want to show some historical footage, some people getting butchered and tanks rolling in. And there’s no need for a cheesy narrator, just show it in an engaging.. Take the opening torture scene as well as another element, Call of Duty would never have shown a torture scene like that before, and we didn’t do it for gratuitousness. There’s frankly scenes we’ve changed to avoid gratuitousness. Instead we showed that to develop character, motive and reason. We treat it like a movie would, we need to know why these guys hate these guys and why these marines are pissed off and trying to get their man off. And we can’t tell that story without building motivation.
Farrelly: We needed to ask, what would gamers expect from previous incarnations of this genre, and how can we do that differently. Can we approach that from a different angle to make it more exciting or contemporise it?
Heller: We could have shown you guys the same old game. We could have shown you Modern Warfare with World War II people in it. Or we could show you the stories we wanted to tell. The only option we had was the latter.
Farrelly: We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. But a two year cycle now enables us to test the game and make sure what goes in the game is real quality. We want to make the best game ever made.