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Activision Blizzard’s Infinity Ward studio unveiled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II today, with presentations on the title’s campaign missions and multiplayer design. While the game tries to push gameplay forward, it isn’t trying to push the controversial edges of war violence in a video game.
We saw the presentations at an event at Infinity Ward’s headquarters in Los Angeles and saw developers play some of the missions. Then I spoke with various leaders about the title, which is a sequel to the record-setting Call of Duty: Modern Warfare from 2019, which was a reboot of the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from 2007.
I noticed in the presentations that the game didn’t have any extremely controversial moments, such as the military-versus-civilian encounters from the 2019 game that raised a lot of concerns, my own included. In that game, there was a level where soldiers had to clear a townhouse, bringing them into conflict with both terrorists and civilians. I ultimately gave that game a good review after I finished playing it, and it went on to be on of the biggest sellers to date in a series that has generated more than $27 billion in revenues to date.
The new game doesn’t have the “No Russian” scene where an operative has to play along while terrorists gun down civilians at a Russian airport, from what I’ve been told, in the original Modern Warfare 2 game.
The game is inspired by real world events that shape the world we are in, but it is in the end an “entertainment adventure,” said Patrick Kelly, head of Infinity Ward, in a presentation. The leaders I interviewed echoed that notion.
Infinity Ward is the lead studio among nine Activision Blizzard studios working on the game. I spoke with Jack O’Hara, game director at Infinity Ward, and Mark Grigsby, studio animation director. We talked about a variety of topics related to the game, but we left some material for later revelations.
The game debuts on October 28 on the consoles and the PC. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: When Patrick was talking about staying on the side of entertainment, what did that mean to you as far as executing on that?
Mark Grigsby: From an animation perspective, we have military advisors. We speak to them about, say, what would they specifically do in a certain situation? Sometimes it works and sometimes it feels like we could probably nudge it toward something more like an entertainment, Hollywood style. We take those findings and say, “Well, there’s something cool we saw in the movies, too,” and implement that there. To me that’s the entertainment side.
GamesBeat: I was just playing the multiplayer, with the snapshot grenades. That’s fun, but it definitely falls on the side of fun as opposed to something hyper-real. Would you say that means you lean toward something less gritty in the overall storyline, or is there some other thing that affects the narrative and stirs it more toward entertainment?
Jack O’Hara: The best way to summarize it is we don’t want to put something in unless it’s a meaningful part of the story. We’re not looking to be gratuitous anywhere, to just do something for shock value. It has to be part of the story. It has to be logical in the world at that moment, as you play through it. When we look at that, we’re asking, “How is this entertaining to someone in that moment?” And they can feel a range of emotions. But overall they should come away entertained, and not the opposite, basically.
In some moments, if we were to make it so close to the real world, it might no longer be fun. That’s why multiplayer, for example, makes you – for lack of a better word – a super-soldier. You run faster than a normal person could. You don’t get tired. One time I remember an animator put a strip on the ground and was trying to show how fast a Call of Duty character runs versus a real human being. We were trying to race them.
GamesBeat: It felt like you get over a pain point if you all start using the same engine on the Call of Duty franchise.
Grigsby: Just not reinventing the wheel every time.
O’Hara: And, to be quite frank, being more ambitious. That’s the part that I love the most. We have folks looking at it now. We have folks looking at six months down the line, a year down the line. That many smart people working on it all at the same time together, it’s a lot of firepower.
GamesBeat: Does it feel similar to something like the launch of the Xbox One era, where you had to straddle two different generations? I wonder how long you might think about addressing two generations of hardware, because at some point the older platform holds things back.
O’Hara: Anything like that, where you have a broad range of hardware, is always tough. The difference between now and the transition we had at the time is that a lot of the architectures of the consoles are very similar. Similar technologies. For us it’s a scaling problem. When we use, for example, photogrammetry to record our assets, from the moment that we’re doing that photogrammetry, we’re capturing and creating different levels of detail that will go into PS5, PS4, high-end PCs, low-end PCs. We start from the ground up where the engine has to be scalable. That lets us start from a place of, “Here’s how it looks here, and here it looks even better.”
GamesBeat: Vanguard had some advances in destruction, but are you maybe dialing that back for this one?
O’Hara: We’re definitely dialing it back in multiplayer in the sense that we’re–you heard Geoff talk about it. Philosophically we like a little bit more of the consistency. We’d love to go to a world where everything is destructible, but from a design language perspective, it just gets a lot more complex. We do have some stuff that we’ll probably go into more detail around in a few months. There’s a system called the persistent damage layer we’re looking at, which adds a way of having some very minor cosmetic stuff. It looks great and carries forward the story of how some combat has happened in this space. But we can dial that up and down without necessarily impacting gameplay directly.
GamesBeat: Is there a temptation now to go toward making only modern games and nothing World War II, given the sales we’ve seen recently?
O’Hara: For us, for Infinity Ward, Modern Warfare is part of our DNA. We’ll just start with this and see what happens.
GamesBeat: It felt like single-player does have some contrast to multiplayer. Everything in single-player seemed pretty dark and gritty.
O’Hara: It’s a balance between both. In multiplayer you always have a balance to find between what looks really great, looks really contrast-ey, and what gets in your way in terms of gameplay. A lot of it, though, is just when we look at spaces, approximations of the spaces that we find in the real world, we look at what the lighting would be like in the real world as well. It’s always a balance.
GamesBeat: If people say, “I’m a big Modern Warfare fan and I’m glad they didn’t change it much,” do you have a reaction to that versus people who say, “I’m bored with this, I wish they’d changed a lot more”? How much do you want to keep fans happy with something that was extremely popular versus tweaking it if you find enough things that will draw them into the new one?
Grigsby: The saying goes, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. That’s appropriate in certain popular things, especially when the majority of fans liked it. I’m a big proponent of that, coming from the animation perspective. I always let the team know, yes, enhance things, make things better. You don’t want to change it just to change it, but if it’s awesome, find ways to improve it. That’s the way we operate. It’s always looking at what’s the next evolution of the things we work on, but not destroying what people loved.
O’Hara: It’s definitely an innovator’s dilemma kind of thing. You’re trying to build upon what you did. We always want to build something people love. We want them to come back and feel familiar, yet feel like there’s new things to discover.
GamesBeat: Does the addition of Mexico bring something, a different sensibility?
O’Hara: In anything we create, we always want to be aware of any sensitivities and make sure we’re taking everything into account. When you talk to the narrative folks, they’ll be able to give you, for lack of a better word, a lot more of the backstory that makes this an important part of the campaign. And especially a better look at some of the characters, which we’re very enamored with. We feel like they’re a strong addition to our pantheon of characters, essentially.
GamesBeat: The CIA character, what does she bring into the missions?
O’Hara: Laswell has always been more in retreat, a bit, than necessarily on the front line. I’m trying to remember what you saw today. But there are definitely parts where you’ll see her come into the world a bit more. She’s a CIA person, so she’s in the shadows.
GamesBeat: Does it feel like you had as much time as you could possibly have to make a Call of Duty game?
O’Hara: I’ve never worked on a single game where I thought, “This is the perfect amount of time.” That’s simply because, by the nature of it–somebody comes in with a new idea every week. We’ll be a couple of weeks to ship and someone will have a great idea.
Grigsby: “That’s the best idea in the world!”
O’Hara: But that’s just the nature of the job. Since we shipped the last game, we’ve definitely been able to establish this one and make what we want.
GamesBeat: If there is coordination with Warzone, what would you say [you are doing so you aren’t] reinventing any wheels as well?
O’Hara: A lot of it starts in the same place, where we look at–here are the vehicles we’re going to make. This is the way we want them to drive. These are the dynamics we want. These features, getting out on the rooftop to shoot, or popping the tires and spinning out. When we do that we start from the perspective of–okay, this is going to be in both games. We want it to shine in both games. What are the features that are important for both games? We look at where the overlap is and where there might be some differences. But most of the time it’s full overlap. You just want to make the best thing you can. You make it fun, basically.
Geoff talks about this a lot. When you start thinking about the way we set up combat spaces and things, in a lot of ways it’s a lot of the same shared DNA. You’re talking about engagement distances. Close range, medium range, long range. In Warzone you add another layer of extremely long range. How do you want players to approach moving across a space?
GamesBeat: Can you hijack a helicopter?
O’Hara: We’re hotly debating that one right now. You can grab onto the skids. Do we want to push that further? We’re debating it. I’m on the side of, you should be able to hijack it. You can throw a charge on there and then the pilot has to jump out. That’s been a lot of fun in playtesting. “Oh, time to get out!”
GamesBeat: It seems like you would want to take the vehicles out of the more linear missions that you have. Do you do that a lot in other parts of the game?
O’Hara: You’re chasing down someone in what you saw today, so they dictate where you’re going by virtue of needing to stop that person. But yeah, in other modes you can basically–I chase Grigsby down in a car all the time.
Grigsby: That’s the fun part of it. You can make your own fun, your own narrative with those vehicles. It’s awesome.
GamesBeat: When you throw a decoy down, it seems like that’s something you have to very carefully look out for.
O’Hara: It deflates and goes away. That’s your sign. Joe’s team looks at it like–you make a thing, and then you want to make it resilient to where the players can use it however they want. You also want it to–the best way to describe it is something that works logically.
Every piece of equipment they make–if you throw the mine down in the water, it deploys with the floaters and floats. They make things resilient. We do it in playtests. You just try something out and think, “I expected it to do this.” From there we just make sure it does that. That way, when the players are playing they’ll just be able to do all kinds of magical things.
GamesBeat: “No Russian” was the big issue with Modern Warfare 2 last time. Did you want to deliberately go away from that particular kind of mission this time?
O’Hara: To me, we’re very deliberate about what we’re putting in. If we feel like it serves the story, or it serves what we’re trying to do, we’ll put something in, something that might be more edgy. But if we don’t, then there’s no need to be gratuitous with that kind of thing. There’s always a part of it where we want people to think about the story. We don’t want them to just be on a ride, essentially. Right now there’s nothing that I would say matches “No Russian,” though, in terms of what we’re trying to do.
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