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Why Call of Duty's zombie mode shouldn't have happened and almost didn't

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Call of Duty's infectious take on zombie warfare was "lightning in a bottle," "a signature moment for the franchise," a reinvigorating, beloved bit of surprise development.

It was also almost killed once it was discovered.

"When you think about it, Call of Duty zombies shouldn't exist," said Mark Lamia, the studio head of Treyarch.

Lamia took to the DICE stage this week to talk about the birth of the-now expected cooperative zombie mode in every release of Call of Duty.

The mode bubbled up during the second year of development of 2008's Call of Duty: World at War, during what could only be described as the least opportune time possible.

In 2008, Treyarch was given their first shot at a two-year development cycle on a Call of Duty game. World at War was designed to be a gritty, dark World War II game, the third such one created by Treyarch. World at War came on the heels of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a game that launched the franchise into the modern era.

It was also a turbulent time in the studio, Lamia said.

"We were still struggling to find our voice," he said. "We still lacked confidence. We wanted World at War to be a turning point in the franchise, we wanted to establish our house style. We were determined to make a very different Call of Duty, leaning into the darkness of war, making what we would become the grittiest World War II game of the franchise."

On top of that, the studio was working with a lot of new technology and design challenges, Lamia said.

By the second year in development, the team was behind schedule, stressed out and crunching hard.

And it was from that stew of stress, sky-high expectations and increasingly difficult goals that something unusual happened.

"Imagine my surprise when i learned that a small team had started taking our cooperative work and were prototyping new modes," Lamia said. "Imagine my surprise again when I found this team starting prototyping a Nazi zombie mode, and then finding out people from other departments had starting pitching in to help out."

Lamia gave a bullet point list of all the reasons this was bad:

  • The team had tough development goals
  • It was new technology
  • They were behind schedule
  • They were crunching
  • It was a late stage innovation
  • Unapproved
  • Unscheduled
  • There were expectations they game would be a best seller
  • It was an established franchise
  • Zombies as a genre were clearly already off the radar

"When I first heard about it, I was like 'We're what?'" he said. "As studio head the classic management thing would have been to insist that the team stop getting distracted and to focus on delivering what we were supposed to deliver.

"Some felt I needed to make that decision then or jeopardize development of World at War. I almost did and it would have been the biggest mistake of my career."

Instead, Lamia said he "calmed down" and played the game.

Once he did, he said, he knew he had to get the mode into the game.

They thought it would be a disgrace to the franchise.

Instead of trying to push the mode on Activision and other stakeholders, he let the game's popularity spread organically through the development team, then to Activision and finally to executives, all of whom were "infected" by the game's fun.

"It reinvigorated my studio and it was going to introduce a great new addition to the franchise," Lamia said.

While everyone who played the mode seemed to love it, there was still some internal pushback at the idea of including it in the game.

"Some people in the franchise leadership were opposed to zombies and the idea," he said. "They thought it would be a disgrace to the franchise.

"There was a fear of doing something so off with such a successful brand. It was inconceivable and arguably irresponsible."

Even the marketing and public relations staff, who also thought it was fun, wouldn't touch it.

"Any attempt to market a Call of Duty zombie game would have been impossible," Lamia said. "We would have been a laughingstock. They would have thought we jumped the shark."

So they made a deal: no marketing of the mode, and it would be an Easter egg in the game, only available after beating the campaign.

"This choice may have truly been the planting of the seed of its success," Lamia said. "Making it an out-of-the-way experience that not everyone would get but only the most committed, the faithful would experience first."

It's always OK to innovate.

Because of that decision, the hardcore fans of the franchise were the ones who helped spread word of the mode. And because that was so fan-driven, it created a level of communication between developer and player that helped shape the future of the mode, Lamia said.

When zombies became so popular that fans asked for the mode to be unlocked immediately, Lamia said they knew it was a success.

"We knew we had something special, that we had captured lighting in a bottle," he said.

The result of the experience didn't just introduce a new mode to the franchise, but also changed the way Treyarch interacts with fans and make games.

A big lesson was that it's always OK to innovate.

"It's OK to touch a butterfly's wings, just don't do it with sticky fingers," he said. "Zombies proved to us there are meaningful and significant opportunities in even the most established franchises in entertainment."

The bigger lesson:

"We learned to follow the fun, to listen to fans and develop a dialogue," he said. "The conversation we have with our fans continue to impact us to this day. To our fans around the world, we look forward to carrying on that conversation with you in the future."