When Sledgehammer Games was given the opportunity to develop its own entry in one of gaming’s most successful franchises, the top brass immediately recognised there was an opportunity to take the series in a different direction.
“It came down to taking the fan feedback coming out of MW3, looking at the three year development cycle, and saying ‘Hey this is our opportunity to usher in a new era’,” says Sledgehammer Games co-founder and head of development Michael Condrey.
The brief was to deliver something special on new-gen, with the paucity of available new-gen console information offset by a three-year development window – a luxury not usually afforded COD studios. “With the time we had and with a new hardware generation upon us, we wanted to take some chances,” Condrey says.
The studio began by thinking hard about what franchise watershed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare brought to the franchise, and the ways it could bring about a similar seachange. However, despite the extra time afforded it, caution was advisable. “In my experience in development, sometimes you’ll see people have a habit of biting off more than they can chew, and they get to the end and there’s not enough time to make it great,” Condrey adds.
That’s where Aaron Halon comes in. A director of product development at Sledgehammer, he's the self-titled “no” guy – a yin to Condrey’s yang. “When [Condrey] wants to add stuff I’m the counterbalance to that, saying ‘No, we can’t do that’,” says Halon with a smile. Fortunately, the design backgrounds of many of Sledgehammer's producers and directors make them well-suited for such a task. “I think that’s been an important key thing with Sledgehammer,” Halon adds. “We have to figure out easy ways to say no without shutting off creativity or ideas.”
According to Halon, pre-production is one of the toughest times decision-wise, as everything is wide open. Prototyping can sort the wheat from the chaff, but often a team remains divided with regards to what should make it in to the game. He’s seen other studios refuse to make the tough calls in the hope of eventual consensus, and the game invariably suffer as a result. “I think it’s way stronger if the call is made: ‘Hey you know what guys? We’re going with this, we’re gonna make it great’.”
It’s clear that the long working relationship shared between Condrey, Sledgehammer CEO Glen Schofield, and creative director Bret Robbins is a huge plus in this regard. “It’s great, you develop shortcuts, know what the other person is thinking, what they want,” says Robbins. “It just makes things really efficient and easy.” Of course, Sledgehammer can also call on Infinity Ward and Treyarch when it needs advice. “We’re our own unique studios that have our own goals, but ultimately that helps,” Robbins adds. “We’re all trying to push and also learn things from each other.”
Sledgehammer isn’t just hoping to push the series forward in a gameplay sense. At the core of the studio are a number of key ex-Visceral staff, and the lessons they learned creating comparatively narrative-heavy games like Dead Space have carried over. “We’re a team of storytellers,” says Condrey, who cites the great acting performances found in Game of Thrones, True Detective, and House of Cards as recent inspirations. Robbins agrees. “I’m very interested in telling a great story – those are the games I like to play, I like to experience that myself,” he says. “So I want to create something really memorable that people enjoy.”
This commitment to story has meant discarding a number of Call of Duty staples. Gone are the multiple protagonists, dropped in favour of a clearer narrative arc and – the studio hopes – better identification with the game’s hero. “When you start to jump around you can potentially lose track of who you are and why you’re important to the story,” says Robbins. “A good story has a main character. Maybe it seems unusual for the franchise, but it’s not that unusual for games or movies.” One main character also means the story is much easier to follow. “In a bad movie you do but in a good one you’re never wondering, ‘Why are they doing this?’” Robbins adds.
Another huge goal for the studio was making the sub-series’ characters “super compelling”. Previously, between-level interludes in Call of Duty have been all disembodied voices, confusing schematics, and impenetrable intel. These have all been discarded in favour of fully-rendered, character-driven performances. “That’s been great,” says Robbins. “Not only are the movies beautiful, but it really helps with the story.”
It's also meant everything is now driven through the characters rather than plot. “If you’re hunting down someone it’s because the character wants to, not because the plot is telling us it’s important,” he adds.
At least one outsider is impressed with the result. The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal was briefly brought on board as a story consultant two years ago, and recently revisited the studio to see how things were shaping up. “He was pretty blown away, he was really happy,” Robbins says.
Despite Advanced Warfare’s 2054 setting, Sledgehammer is very concerned with making it feel as plausible as possible. As such, the game’s directed energy weapons, smart grenades, and exo-suits are all based on existing tech or research. “It wasn’t going in the game if we couldn’t find the research,” says Condrey. “Everything you see in the game, there is either a piece of technology that already exists today, or there’s research that’s happening today.” He singles out the US government’s Iron Man project, as an example: “We are the science not the fiction in science fiction.”
Of course, not everyone agrees on what things will look like in 40 years, and the studio is mindful of that, too. “Although we do all sorts of over-the-top crazy stuff, you want all the details to be mired in realism,” says Robbins. That may seem at odds with the law of the sequel – to go bigger, faster, and more ludicrous – but Robbins doesn’t believe that’s the way to go.
“There is always this pressure to outdo yourself, but you can’t just top yourself over and over until it becomes absurd,” he says. “We do have some moments and setpieces that are bigger and crazier than anything that’s been in the franchise before, but a lot of it is thinking about what you wanna do differently. Some of the most memorable experiences don’t necessarily involve something huge blowing up – it could be something emotional, it could be something really, really small.”
People latch on to smaller things just as strongly as they do the bigger ones, he adds, citing the grenade switching in the trailer as an example. “That small feature gets called out as often as some of our huge moments do.”
Crossing the line
After three long years of experimentation, it’s clear Sledgehammer is exhausted but also elated to be placing people in front of the game for feedback. It’s also clear the studio is proud of how well it has fulfilled its initial brief.
Condrey calls the exosuit alone “pretty transformational”, and it’s hard to argue, even with Titanfall on the market.
And although many of his teams are still in crunch, the end is finally in sight. “We’re post-alpha and there’s a handful of features still coming online – very few – so right now it’s all about bugs, polish, and tuning,” says Condrey, before comparing the studio to a marathon runner crawling across the finish line.
He’s hoping there is still some energy remaining, however. These final months can make a world of difference.
“Nobody wants 20 hours of a 60 rated game,” says Condrey. “It’s not quantity, it’s quality. I’ll take eight hours of a 90 rated game every day of the week. That was our focus.”
When asked if he believes Sledgehammer has succeeded, Condrey is confident.
“I like to think of this as the stickiest, most reward-based Call of Duty to date.”