My dad had a great metaphor for this kind of work. He said, ‘You know, you pack your boat, you put all your food and fuel and everything you think you're going to need in there. You get your maps and charts. You pick your team. Then you put your boat out there and you raise your sails ... and sometimes the wind blows and sometimes you just sit there in the lagoon.' And we just kind of sat there in the lagoon."
- Jason VandenBerghe on Call of Duty: Devil's Brigade
Five months before the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a small team of developers began work on a top-secret, third-person Call of Duty spin-off. Set in Italy during World War II, Call of Duty: Devil's Brigade would feature squad-based mechanics, exploration, and a grim story about a team of skillfully trained killing machines.
By contrast, the development team was tame; mostly friendly and ambitious industry veterans. Early on, the project had everything going for it: top talent, the publisher's financial support, and the blessing of original Call of Duty developer, Infinity Ward. In March 2008, nine months into development, Devil's Brigade was unceremoniously canceled.
Jason VandenBerghe looks like a death metal rock star. His long black hair goes past his shoulders, and at public events he's known to sport a cowboy hat and lean on a cane. He is a big man and has a proportionate personality.
In 2005, VandenBerghe left Electronic Arts for Activision, following former co-workers Scott Bandy and Trevor Jalowitz. They were hired to salvage X-Men: The Official Game, which had gone bottoms up at Activision's internal development studio, Z-Axis.
The founders of Z-Axis had left years earlier, taking their buyout money and running. A series of GMs kept the studio afloat in the interim, but the team never fully recovered. Firm leadership was in short supply. Wisely, the last of these GMs made a push for talent, hiring the guys from EA, along with people from brand name studios like Eidos and LucasArts. Bandy took over the role of GM, while VandenBerghe and Jalowitz became Creative Director and Executive Producer respectively.
"I DON'T KNOW THAT I'VE BEEN WITH A GROUP OF PEOPLE THAT I FELT MORE COMFORTABLE WITH."
Says VandenBerghe: "What I learned to do at EA, and what Scott learned, is to find people who are cultural cancers and find a way to convert them to the light side of the force. Or find them somewhere else to go. So in order to survive the whole X-Men process we had to get really good at that. And we did."
On May 16, 2006, Activision released X-Men: The Official Game. Panned critically, the movie tie-in did manage to ship alongside X-Men: The Last Stand - a modest accomplishment for a troubled project. "A lot of folks left after that," says VandenBerghe, "because Z-Axis had kind of died on the way to making that game. We went through this crucible that forged us into a group of folks that weren't going to tolerate anyone that was going to be socially disruptive." The rehabilitated team chose a new name: Underground Development. All they needed was a game.
GM Scott Bandy is a history buff with an affinity for World War II. He pitched the team on "The Devil's Brigade," a band of American and Canadian soldiers that fought in Italy and France at the war's tail end. The group liked the unusual mix of soldiers in the brigade: America's most troublesome troops and Canada's most decorated. They were tough, but smart, careful, yet inhumanly ruthless. After the war, they would inspire the formation of the Green Berets and CSOFC, the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. "They were superheroes," says VandenBerghe.
FANS WERE CAUTIOUSLY SKEPTICAL ABOUT MODERN WARFARE'S PLANNED SHIFT TO PRESENT DAY
Activision had previously shown interest internally for expanding the Call of Duty brand into third-person action adventure, and the World War II setting proved comfortable. In mid 2007, Call of Duty still took place exclusively in that era. On gaming forums, fans were cautiously skeptical about Modern Warfare's planned shift to present day.
A squad-based shooter in WWII seemed to be a logical fit. The game was codenamed Codaa, short for "Call of Duty Action Adventure," and Underground Development received the go ahead to begin initial work on art and design.
VandenBerghe hired designers he felt fit Underground Development's revitalized culture. Non-bootlickers, as he put it - people perhaps smarter than him. Kyle Brink came on as Lead Designer. James Schomer and D. Aarron Steelman served as designers. James Portnow handled sound and a variety of other duties.
The other teams were equally stacked with talent. Art Director Steve Ross hired a lineup of experienced artists, while Bill Chinn and his engineers carved time away fromQuake Wars to be involved. The designers refer to them as the silent heroes. With little time, they made it possible to begin building the world. Even the folks at Activision picked up on the quality of work by Chinn's team.
"I don't know that I've been with a group of people that I felt more comfortable with than I was with that group," VandenBerghe says. "We had an enormous amount of trust and experience. And Scott really knew how to set up a really great cultural environment and how to defend his people."
They were given resources and room to do what they wanted. The team bonded by playing the yet to be released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
"We got in the closed beta," says VandenBerghe. "And it shut the studio down for like a week. Finally, the producer come by and goes, 'All right, this ends now. Yes, this is amazing. Yes, this is going to change the world. Get back to work, people.'"
They weren't creating a full game, or even a demo, per se. It was a vertical slice, a 12- to 15- minute segment of the campaign. Here's how VandenBerghe explains what happened in the playable excerpt:
The Vertical Slice
"There was a German general who was in charge of holding Rome until the American and European forces got there. They never intended to hold Rome [permanently]. All they were going to do was blow up the bridges, and then pull back. The Devil's Brigade was sent in first to secure those bridges - to make sure they weren't blown up [by the Germans].
"AS IS APPROPRIATE AT THAT STAGE, A LOT OF IT WAS HACKED TOGETHER."
"And that was the inspiration for the mission. [The stage] was a piece of ground coming out of a sewer onto a low beach next to the Tiber River underneath one of the bridges. Using the squad controls and vaulting skills, the player would sneakily secure bridges and set explosive points, ultimately clearing a path for the massive American military."
Over the course of the mission, the solder mantled the bridges, performed stealth kills, and issued squad commands. The pace was slower and the strategy more calculated than in other Call of Duty games.
"Special Forces guys do lots of crazy athletic stuff that goes far beyond the run/duck/shoot stuff you saw in shooters of that era," says Kyle Brink, the Lead Designer of Devil's Brigade. The demo incorporated squad commands and parkour moves.
"As is appropriate at that stage," says Brink, "a lot of it was hacked together and would have been rewritten during full production." It was intended to convey to Activision's executives both how the game would feel and what the studio was capable of. It was modest, but given more resources, it was understood the team would create set pieces on a more spectacular scale.
The Big Ideas
"THEY PULLED A THOUSAND MEN UP THAT CLIFF."
"[The vertical slice] didn't have a whole lot of [cinematic moments]," says Schomer, "but I think a lot of that was planned. We were aware of the cinematic nature that Call of Duty was trending towards. But it was not part of the original demo. It was a ‘this is what we're shooting for' sort of thing."
The final game would open with the assault on Monte La Difensa.
"[The Devil's Brigade's] first action," says VandenBerghe, "was to scale a 1,500 foot cliff at night in the rain, and flank the Germans from behind in their mountain retreat. First thing! You're up on ropes. And there's lightning. You look down, and the entire brigade — a thousand men, they pulled a thousand men up that cliff."
In the actual assault, the Devil's Brigade, battered by rain and enemy artillery, carrying weapons, gear and 50lb boxes of additional supplies, ascended the mountain before sunrise. The battle was expected to last four to five days. It lasted two hours. Capturing that level of grandiosity and intense action was the development team's goal.
First hand accounts from the actual soldiers provided inspiration for other facets of the game. One book in particular became a bible: The Devil's Brigade by Robert H. Adleman and Col. George Walton — the latter actually served with the brigade in Italy.
Schomer recalls the anecdote of how the brigade, officially called the 1st Special Service Force, got their nickname.
"They were positioned a couple miles outside of the German trenches," says Schomer. "But not along the main fighting routes. They were such a small squad; they couldn't really fight during the day and expect to win. They were outnumbered."
"THEY GOT A BUNCH OF STICKERS [THAT SAID] IN GERMAN, 'THE WORST IS YET TO COME.'"
Schomer laughs, then continues, "So, [in America] they found a factory that made stickers. I kid you not: they got a bunch of stickers printed up that were just black stickers with white text that said, in German, ‘The Worst is yet to come.' And they would go through these trenches unscrupulously slitting everybody's throats. They would slap these stickers on their faces and helmets. So the German's started calling them the Black Devils. We had a lot of talks about how we would position that for dramatic showcase, how can we involve the player in placing these stickers and stuff like that."
Schomer adds, "I don't think we had any over the top sequences a la the current Modern Warfare where you're blowing up entire submarine vessels."
The designers also discussed expanding the campaign to cover events in the Mediterranean and Sicily. They loved learning the Brigade's history, but they knew not to lose sight of the present goal.
"We were more focused on demonstrating that we had the chops," says VandenBerghe.
The Review Process
"There are two processes [for getting a game published] in the games industry," says VandenBerghe.
"This is the longshort of it: One is the green light process, where you work, they take a look at it and then they give you a go until the end of the project. And that doesn't work. Companies in the industry have been shifting to something like a stage gate process. You have a series of meetings along the way where progress is reviewed, and you can be canceled at any one of those."
Devil's Brigade operated on the stage gate system. Says VandenBerghe: "The feedback would come from the producer who was assigned to talk to us, or the VP of studios. But it was kind of a collected opinion from a group of people we didn't interface with very much." None of the designers could say if Activision CEO Bobby Kotick saw the project. "Bobby has a big, big business to run," says Brink. "It'd be really inefficient to show him every pre-pro game in the stable."
"BOBBY HAS A BIG, BIG BUSINESS TO RUN."
Underground Development also made an effort to get Infinity Ward's blessing.
VandenBerghe says: "IW had a longstanding, well known frustration that they didn't control their own IP. We met those guys. There was no hostility. They gave us the source code. They were receptive and willing to discuss the possibilities. We were off to a good start. I'll say it this way: No one ever pointed to a target on our head and said, ‘Those guys have got to go.'"
The project rapidly gained momentum. The team worked well together, and stage gate meetings were resulting in positive feedback. But Activision and its relationship with the Call of Duty brand were beginning to change.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's release in November 2007 was a tremendous success, helping Activision surpass EA as the number one video game publisher in the world. For the first time in 15 years, the company was on top. And they owed a lot of that to MW's developer, Infinity Ward. Activision had also announced in December of 2007 that it was to merge with Vivendi Games. There was growing concern amongst Underground Development that Devil's Brigade was in danger of being lost in the shuffle.
Says Schomer: "Our studio owner, Scott Bandy, was so forthcoming with all the information about what was going on, making sure that everyone was appraised of every step of the process. So that it wasn't really a shock, so that nobody felt like they'd been stabbed in the back. It was one of those things. ‘We're coming up on this and it looks like things maybe go this way because of X, Y and Z. And it's nobody's fault. Everybody actually likes it. But it may not happen.'"
"Being perfectly honest," says Schomer, "this was one of the few unreleased titles that just sort of didn't make it because of the confluence of unrelated bad things. It was no one entity or one person's fault. There was no drama. Everything was going pretty smoothly actually."
"THERE WAS NO DRAMA. EVERYTHING WAS GOING PRETTY SMOOTHLY, ACTUALLY."
Brink says: "Here's what happened: We were ready for our final green light just as the merger with Vivendi/Blizzard was announced. As is normal in a merger, you do everything you can to clean up your balance sheet. A studio that isn't in full production on a title with major revenue attached to it, which is about to ask for tens of millions in development dollars, is a great candidate for closure at that point. Was this also a way to keep IW happy after they had just produced Modern Warfare and made a hojillion dollars? Perhaps, but nobody ever put it to us that way."
"And the thing is," says VandenBerghe, "if the IW guys say they want to control the Call of Duty IP, they don't even have to say our name. We just got sideswiped. And that happens. I don't begrudge them for that."
VandenBerghe cited other problems, too: the overhead from working in San Francisco, the lack of pedigree, and an unproven game. "[Underground Development had] no chain of hits," he says. "So there was no compelling reason to pull the trigger on [Devil's Brigade] if they could keep finding good projects for the studio."
"It turned out to be one of those things where it was easier for everybody just to not put it out," Schomer says. "Even though the green light process had gone through. Even though everybody thought it was a great idea."
"WE JUST GOT SIDESWIPED."
VandenBerghe and Schomer both remember the team handling the news unusually well.
"You got to remember," VandenBerghe says, "I cut my teeth at Electronic Arts. From 1999 to 2005. What I watched happen there ... you very quickly orient yourself to ‘sometimes bad things happen to good people' or you get the hell out."
During the merger of Activision and Viviendi Games, Underground Development was set to close, but they would go on to create Guitar Hero Van Halen, and even move to Santa Monica. Not until 2010, would they actually close for good.
"They wanted to preserve the organization," says VandenBerghe. "They wanted to get some value out of that. And they had Scott Bandy. The guy's a powerhouse, a Titan."
According to Schomer, on the day Devil's Brigade was officially cancelled, Scott Bandy gathered the team and said:
"We're probably not going to be able to keep everybody on. I don't know when that's going to be in effect. I don't know when I'm going to have to lay people off. But what I'm going to do now while we still have resources to do it is I'm going to offer severance packages if you want them. If you don't want them, I'll keep you here as long as I possibly can. Basically, until my pockets run dry. While you're here, if you want, I'm talking to all the other Activision studios, and I'm going to be flying you out there for interviews. I'm setting these up so you can stay inside the company if that's something that's interesting to you."
"Scott went way, way, way out of his way to make sure everybody landed on their feet," Schomer says.
"SOMETIMES, THE WIND BLOWS AND SOMETIMES IT DOESN'T."
Schomer got an offer at Treyarch, but accepted a Systems Designer role at Cryptic Studios. He's currently working at LightBox Interactive on Starhawk for PS3.
"I'd never seen anything like that," says VandenBerghe. "Scott redefined for me what loyalty means. And it changed me. Watching him defend us in that organization raised my own personal quality bar about how devoted to my people I need to be. And I genuinely was inspired by him. Just don't get in his way!"
Jason VandenBerghe is now a Creative Director at Ubisoft. Kyle Brink stayed in San Francisco, working on Iron Man 2for SEGA as Creative Director. He recently moved to New York City to work on second-screen entertainment for Viggle as Director of Product.
Scott Bandy and Trevor Jalowitz are still working together, now work at Activision Minneapolis. Bandy is the VP of Production and Jalowtiz is an Executive Producer. Bill Chinn and his prized team eventually left Activision to form Mercenary Technology, a top-shelf work-for-hire squad of engineers.
"Out of all the things I miss," says Schomer, "it's the environment I miss the most. It was a bummer to lose the project, but the biggest shame is just not working in that setting anymore."
"It really is what you hope and dream and wish for in the industry," says VandenBerghe with a smile. "And then, sometimes, the wind blows and sometimes it doesn't."