It starts with a cork board. That is the place and moment of conception of a Call of Duty game at developer Infinity Ward: a blank slate to which hundreds of ideas — taking the form of index cards, scribbles of Sharpie ink and thoughts — are pinned.
The hundred or so employees at Infinity Ward all get a crack at designing the studio's next game. Sometimes, executive producer Mark Rubin says, the ideas they propose are as simple as "It would be cool to add this weapon to the game." Sometimes it will be an explosive action set piece or a new technical feature the audio team has been trying desperately to get into the Call of Duty engine.
Other times it's the addition of a dog who serves as your teammate and ally, and a playable character.
"It's a free-for-all, basically," says lead animator Zach Volker.
"We don't start with Call of Duty or Modern Warfare, just: 'What do we want to do'?" Rubin said of the latest attempt at the process. "And all the ideas go up on the board. It doesn't have to be related to Call of Duty. It can be anything anybody wants.
"In the past, between games, we've made little mini-games. We did an isometric dungeon crawler thing, kind of cartoony, but it never got out."
The studio has also experimented with non-military shooters, says Steve Ackrich, studio head at IW. Developers repurposed a MW3 map into something else entirely, playing with the way objects behave and making something other than a modern military shooter. Those mini-projects are greenlighted to let the programmers and designers at Infinity Ward "scratch an itch."
"We start to coalesce these things into solid ideas," says Rubin. "There's another group that says 'OK. What do we want this game to be about?'"
Sometimes gameplay concepts from those experiments work their way back into Call of Duty. But at some point, the developer hones in on its next project. Infinity Ward's latest is Call of Duty: Ghosts, the next entry in the billion dollar franchise.
"Early on, we kind of thought we were doing another Modern Warfare," says Rubin.
But Modern Warfare's major story wrapped up with MW3, Rubin explained, and rather than shoehorn Ghosts into that Call of Duty world, already ravaged by its own fantasy wars, Infinity Ward started working on a new "sub-brand."
The world of Ghosts is affected by a mass casualty event that decimates the U.S. government and its military. That cataclysmic event — which the players will see firsthand in an early chapter of the game — just couldn't exist in the Modern Warfare universe, Rubin says.
After coming to that realization, "It just snowballed from there.
"OK. We're doing a new game."
Our first look at Call of Duty: Ghosts is a listen. Audio lead Stephen Miller leads us into the ultra quiet studio where he and a team of audio engineers create the gunshots, grenade explosions and booming fireballs heard in Call of Duty games. He wants us to hear the new reverb system that's being added to Infinity Ward's revamped game engine.
The sound of gunfire in Ghosts will be affected by the player's environment. Outdoors, shots ring out with these "big, long tails" that drag out, explains sound designer Dave Rowe, offering a reminder of the sound of a round firing. Inside, that shot echoes with reverb. The shape of the space and the materials within affect the sound further. A gun fired in a wide-open hangar sounds markedly different from the same gun fired inside a concrete tube.
Those tweaks to the explosive sounds of a Call of Duty game will give players a sense of place, Rubin says, helping them connect their actions in the game with the world they're inhabiting.
Also new in Ghosts is the concept of reactive emitters. Certain objects in the environment will react to actions, like the explosion of a grenade. The force of that explosion may rattle a metal shutter or a chain link fence, giving players more information about where action is happening as well as a tighter connection to the environment.
These audio tech additions were originally cards posted to the Infinity Ward board by the audio team, although their proposals are regularly shot down. The audio team is used to being disappointed during that process, but Ghosts's' rewritten engine allowed for memory to be freed up on current-generation consoles, giving the audio team an opportunity to add some aural flair.
"We recorded everything from five pounds of black powder to 25 pounds of black powder. We recorded C4, we recorded ANFO, all kinds of different explosions."
The audio team also had the chance to record all-new weapon sounds and explosion material. They took a week-long trip to the middle of the Arizona desert, bringing hundreds of pounds of black powder, dynamite and "ANFO" ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bombs ("The good stuff," we're told.) to a safe location. Then they blew it all up, destroying walls and blowing up barrels. Those rattling explosions were recorded on more than 30 microphones all at various distances and in multiple settings — behind walls, up on hills.
"We recorded everything from five pounds of black powder to 25 pounds of black powder," says Rowe. "We recorded C4, we recorded ANFO, all kinds of different explosions — things that give different sounds based off of how the explosives actually work.
"Black powder's really slow, C4 is really sharp, so it's a real sharp crack. We can take bits and pieces from different microphones, different perspectives and use them in the sound design for all the grenades, flash bangs, any of the other big explosions that take place in the game, even some of the smaller ones can become sweeteners on specific weapons. A shotgun for instance."
The team shows us the biggest explosion they filmed, some 50 pounds of ammonium nitrate buried in the ground. The blast, a huge, mushroom cloud that circled by a smoky ring, is astounding. Infinity Ward staffers still sound excited about the opportunity to partake in all this explosive destruction in the pursuit of making video games, recounting the feel of the shockwaves from each explosion and the showers of dirt and debris that reached them hundreds of yards away.
"This is much scarier than you can even imagine," Rubin says. "By the end of the week we were all quite relieved to [get] back to normal sounds; things that weren't quite so jarring."
The dog & the gerbil
Call of Duty: Ghosts's dog is a German Shepherd named Riley. His name is a reference to Lieutenant Simon "Ghost" Riley, the masked British special forces soldier from Modern Warfare 2. When I visited Infinity Ward, the developer wasn't ready to reveal the name its dog. But it did dispel rumors that he was named Colin.
Lead Animator Zach Volker explains how Riley went from an index card on corkboard to a companion in Ghosts.
"We got a navy SEAL to come up with his dog and tell us about how dogs work with the teams and how they're trained and the experiences they go through; the technologies they use," Volker says. "Really, what came of it though, was the emotional connection, which really endeared us to the idea that we had to put a dog in the game. To hear someone saying 'I'll take a bullet for my dog' that emotional tie-in was something we really wanted to try and capture with the game."
To make Riley look and animate believably, Infinity Ward set about filming the movement of a military service dog on a motion capture sound stage.
"These dogs have been known to — if they can hit someone at full speed — just literally rip biceps out," says Volker.
Volker's desk is cluttered with stacks of paper weighted down with a replica handgun. On a pair of monitors, he's showing me video of one of the motion capture sessions that Infinity Ward held to capture the likeness and unique motion of a military service dog. Another monitor shows loops of the dog trotting and running around in a 3D animation program.
"We never mocapped an animal at the studio," says Volker. "So it was really a first of experiences on all fronts."
"To hear someone saying 'I'll take a bullet for my dog' that emotional tie-in was something we really wanted to try and capture with the game."
For three days, the technicians at Infinity Ward motion captured dogs. They started with a retired Navy SEAL service animal, capturing the movement of his running, walking, turning, sitting and barking; motions that would then be translated into animations for Riley. They even recorded the dog's barks in their recording studio, coaxing them out with the help of a handler.
"We had [a] specific type of dog we wanted to work with and that really limited our search," Volker says. "We wanted a dog that really had the skills as a military-trained dog."
Infinity Ward found what it was looking for with Roscoe, a German Shepherd owned by a handler in Southern California. Like those of their human counterparts, the real names of Navy SEAL dogs are protected.
Infinity Ward's first attempt at outfitting the dog with the light-sensitive markers tracked by motion capture cameras went "horribly wrong," Volker says. They bought spandex suits designed for dogs — which worked — but applying markers to the dog's feet was problematic. Rubber booties, their first attempt, was a failure.
"The dog looked like he was walking around in honey," Volker said. "It was hysterical; the funniest walk you've ever seen. But I was thinking to myself, 'We're not going to get a single thing out of this. This is ridiculous.'"
They settled on a combination of medical tape and reflective metallic tape attached to the dog's fur.
"Your gut reaction to a dog is, 'Oh, he's going to chew people's heads off.'"
"We were able to put little folded bits of reflective tape on his feet and on sensitive areas like his ears, jaw and face to get the fidelity we were after," Volker said. "And he was okay with it for the most part. Occasionally he would shake his head and try to shake the markers off and he would get one or two of them off every once in awhile. So we'd just reapply."
Volker shows us portions of the motion capture session with Roscoe. He, the dog's handler and motion cap technician Eric Feinberg teased movements out of the dog, capturing walks, runs, jumps, aggressive and passive idle animations. In the footage, Roscoe barks viciously at this handler as the man whips a towel and cracks a whip.
"He looks like he's going to eat your head off," Volker says, "but really it's just a game to him. He's just playing."
Roscoe was only part of the equation. To capture other movements for Riley, Infinity Ward brought in a second dog.
A Belgian Malinois, a trained biter, was brought in to capture a series of tackle and takedown motions. The biter, which we'll call "Buddy," worked with a trainer in a lightweight biting suit (outfitted with mocap markers) to capture the violent ballet of dog and target in an active takedown. Volker shows us a series of painful-looking attacks performed by Buddy, running at full sprint at his trainer, snatching his arm in his jaw and thrashing wildly.
The mocap shoot also required the assistance of another animal: a gerbil.
"One of our designers really wanted to see if we could get a sneaking behavior out of [Roscoe], like a stalking animation," Volker recalls. Roscoe's handler suggested that they bring another live animal to the set. The following day, the handler arrived with a gerbil, freshly purchased from PetSmart.
"It really was an experiment," Volker says. The dog's handler wasn't sure how Roscoe would react to the gerbil.
"We kept the gerbil in his cage initially and [Roscoe] just kind of sniffed around. He was very curious. As soon as the gerbil would fidget, he would jump back and then sneak around. Then we walked around with it and he would sniff it. Ultimately we didn't really get what we wanted, but it was pretty funny watching him.
"Eventually we took the gerbil out of his cage, just out of curiosity. 'What's going to happen with a free gerbil running around the mocap stage and the dog?' Roscoe came up and he would sniff it, but eventually nipped at it and the gerbil went, 'Ah!' and ran away. And we said, 'That's the end of that.'"
The gerbil survived the mocap session unharmed, Infinity Ward assures us. For proof, Ackrich brings him in to Volker's animation studio. He's been living comfortably in a Habitrail at the studio since his meeting with Roscoe. He's the office pet. Ackrich jokes that he's been named "Lunch."
After the motion capture sessions, Roscoe and Buddy's motion-captured animations were cleaned up by a pair of animators, who also had to create a handful of movements from scratch; things impossible to capture on a set. Riggers and 3D modelers created Riley the dog's digital body and skeleton, to which hi-res textures taken from photos of Roscoe were applied.
Infinity Ward then set about bridging the gap between reality and fantasy, recreating "how dogs are really used and how we wanted to use them in the game," Volker says. Early on, the developer expected service dogs to serve as something like a weapon.
Players will be able to issue commands to the dog, having him cause distractions or take down enemies.
"Your gut reaction to a dog is, 'Oh, he's going to chew people's heads off,'" Volker says. "When we started to talk to the handlers, really the dogs were a communication device." They sniff out explosives and track human scents, warning a team of Navy SEALs about imminent threats.
"We then had to wrestle with the expectations of what our fans thought a dog would be [like in Call of Duty], and what a dog really does. If we did what a dog really does, would fans think, 'This is kind of boring. He's just sniffing around everywhere and telling us things.' So we had to play with that balance of that. Realism is not something we shoot for here. We shoot for what we call, 'believability.'"
In Ghosts, players will be able to command the dog and see through a flip-up camera mounted to Riley's back, offering a "third-dog perspective." Players will be able to issue commands to the dog, having him cause distractions or take down enemies.
Riley is outfitted with gadgets based on technology really used with military dogs. He has vibrating sensors on the right and left side of his head and an earpiece that allows for remote commands.
Walking into the new Infinity Ward offices in Woodland Hills, Calif., we're struck by the silence. It's a cold, stark contrast from the bombast of the developer's signature series. Everything is clean, cold and shades of gray. It doesn't feel lived in. It is nondescript, save for a backlit Infinity Ward logo and a massive image of a masked soldier stickered to the wall behind a receptionist.
Infinity Ward has only been here for four months. The company built a new studio from scratch, moving from its former Encino location to Woodland Hills. Unlike Call of Duty series co-developer Treyarch, they were never located on Activision's Santa Monica campus.
After Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired from Infinity Ward, taking some 40 employees with them (nearly half the studio), the developer set about the task of rebuilding. It hired dozens of new employees, returning to its former strength, and steadied itself for the next-generation of consoles.
After Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired from Infinity Ward, taking some 40 employees with them (nearly half the studio), the developer set about the task of rebuilding.
Now, the developer is bigger than it's ever been, says Ackrich. More than 125 people now work at Infinity Ward, with its numbers swelling to 150 when contractors and other developers are factored in.
It needed a bigger space to hold all those people. And the Encino office couldn't handle the strain of the growing studio.
"We were running out of electricity and AC," Rubin said. "Our server room used to run at 85 or 90 degrees every day. It was just so crowded in there. We'd have outages and it would get up 100 degrees in some of the rooms. When we started getting next-gen dev kits and started plugging that in and we had circuits breaking down. That was a sign that, yeah, we should move."
In 2010, after the release of Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward founders Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired by the studio's owner, Activision, over breach of contract and insubordination. In the wake of their departure, dozens of employees followed them out the door. West and Zampella become embroiled in a lawsuit with their former publisher, a legal battle that had potential financial implications in the billions, and made neither party look good.
West and Zampella would later form Respawn Entertainment and begin development on TitanFall, a multiplayer shooter coming to Xbox One.
Activision and West, Zampella and other former Infinity Ward staffers eventually settled their suits against each other. But Infinity Ward was left gutted. West and Zampella were replaced on an interim basis by Activision chief technical officer Steve Pearce and head of production Steve Ackrich. Ackrich remains at Infinity Ward as studio head.
Infinity Ward was left with a hole in its organization. It tapped Sledgehammer Games to help finish Modern Warfare 3 and went on a hiring spree, bringing in visual and effects artists from the Hollywood industry.
The new Infinity Ward is slick, but not ostentatious. Beyond the cool hallways where executive offices and audio teams work are wide open spaces, bordered by clusters of offices that hold visual effects artists, animators and programmers. A massive room filled with rolling whiteboards, coffee tables with whiteboard tops and partitions serves as a communal area for impromptu design meetings. One rolling whiteboard we see, before it's noticed, moved and turned around by a staffer, holds a massive list of ideas for new multiplayer perks.
This is where Infinity Ward holds testing sessions that Ackrich calls "Kleenex tests." They'll bring in someone off the street — often, someone who notices that an Infinity Ward staffer is wearing a Call of Duty t-shirt — let them play the game for a few hours, solo, get their feedback and excuse them. The gamer is not invited back.
On the Friday we visit Infinity Ward, the developer is having its "Friday Night Fights," when employees get together for a team multiplayer session. They're playing Call of Duty: Ghosts's multiplayer, which Rubin says is highly R&Ded, highly iterative.
At Microsoft's Xbox One reveal, Infinity Ward announced the involvement of writer Stephen Gaghan. He's best known for two movies, the drug crime epic Traffic and political thriller Syriana. Now he's working to bring Call of Duty: Ghosts's story to life.
Gaghan is embedded at Infinity Ward. He has an office at the studio. He plays ping-pong and eats team dinners with the crew. His involvement is not superficial.
"We've worked with Hollywood talent for years now and even though we're local," Rubin says, "there's still this standoffishness between the two industries on the talent side."
Not so with Gaghan, he says. He's "one of the guys."
Gaghan's involvement began when "one of the guys over at Activision met him at a baby shower," according to Rubin. "They just started talking and he got really interested in the idea. They introduced us and we just really hit it off. The guy's been amazing."
Rubin says that collaborations with Hollywood talent in the past haven't gone so smoothly.Writers they've worked with in the past have phoned in their participation, glancing at scripts, providing notes and cashing a check. Gaghan's been involved in Ghosts throughout the development process. The writer and director sits with the team, Rubin says, watching how levels are built and set pieces are constructed.
Rubin says Gaghan's involvement will help Ghosts deliver a more digestible, more coherent story than past Call of Duty games, which often treat storytelling like an intel briefing.
"We've worked with Hollywood talent for years now and even though we're local, there's still this standoffishness."
"We want a more coherent story," he says. "Being able to stay with a single character throughout the game is really going to help with our storytelling. And he's bringing a lot more human emotion to the character's than we've had in the past.
"It's a challenge because you're in a game where, generally, most people just wanna shoot stuff, play the level and experience the 'Oh my god! Call of Duty moment!' So it's hard to tell a story with that. A lot of writers we've worked with in the past don't get it. They don't understand that we're [making] a game and [we want to tell] a story at the same time. They just want to tell a story."
The story is one of connections. In addition to the emotional bond between soldier and dog, the game will tell the story of two brothers who witness the cataclysmic event that radically alters the world in Ghosts, and will later go on to serve together in the same unit.
The developers at Treyarch have invited the media to its offices multiple times to see its World at War and Black Ops games, but we've never had a peek behind the curtain at Infinity Ward for a Modern Warfare game.
The behind-the-scenes look at Call of Duty: Ghosts is not Infinity Ward's typical approach when talking about its games. Infinity Ward, as it was three years ago, felt more guarded. Now that it's made a break from its former studio space, the Modern Warfare franchise and legacy technology, Infinity Ward feels like a different entity.
At the end of our visit, Rubin takes us into a theater to show off the fruits of Infinity Ward's labor.
We head into the studio's demo theater, where Rubin walks me through a technical explanation of Ghosts's new sub-D and tessellation rendering features. Both are designed to boost the fidelity of Call of Duty's engine, offering smoother surfaces on game assets like rifles and a spike in the polygon count and detail of the game's environment. There are new lighting and visual effects, like the ability to realistically render the backside of a waterfall and the bounce of light off rippling water — effects many players will likely never see, much less fully appreciate.
Someone within Infinity Ward put those new engine features on a corkboard at some point. It was an idea they were excited to see implemented. Later, in an underwater gameplay segment Rubin shows us, in which the Ghost brothers targeted an enemy submarine with a remote controlled torpedo, a gunfight in the ocean breaks out. It's a battle fought with APS underwater assault rifles — a firearm designed by the Soviet Union. A cool weapon some Infinity Ward staffer wanted to get in the game. A card on a corkboard. An idea they wanted to work on.
The level, titled "Into the Deep," feels immediately familiar, and if you paid only casual attention, might consider it a Call of Duty level like any other. It's packed with those "Oh my god!" Call of Duty moments. Underwater gunfights. Huge explosions. The world seemingly falling apart around the player in a mad scramble to escape the chaos.
But then there are moments of beauty, and subtle detail, like glints of light peeking through the ocean surface above. Schools of fish that an effects artist slaved over. Then a hint of a genuine emotional bond between brothers.
Most visible, however is a studio earnestly trying to make big blockbuster games, while retaining its heart and soul and its identity.
Editing: Brian Crecente, Chris Grant, Russ Pitts
Video: Adam Barenblat, Tom Connors, Pat McGowan, Jimmy Shelton
Image Credits: Activision, Infinity Ward, Polygon
Design/ Layout: Warren Schultheis, Arthur Gies, Russ Pitts
Camera Gear Provided by: BorrowLenses.com - Camera and Lens Rentals