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Redesigning Call of Duty

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From WWII to modern war and beyond

Don’t call it a reboot.

"It’s a loaded term. I wouldn’t use that term. I would look at it … how would you define what Modern Warfare was, or Black Ops? What would you call those games to the franchise? That is how I would refer to this."

That’s as close as I could get to talking with Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s narrative director, Taylor Kurosaki about the studio’s previous, lackluster game: Call of Duty: Ghosts.

For any other franchise, the game would have been considered a hit. But Call of Duty has been around for 13 years, and for nearly half of those years, the games coming out of a mix of developers have broken one record after another.

Ghosts wasn’t record-breaking. And while it received generally positive reviews, it also received quite a bit of criticism about what some felt was a stale campaign and an experience devoid of the sort of innovation that typically sets these games apart.

It’s clear in talking to Kurosaki and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare writer Brian Bloom, that the game is meant to prove something, or re-prove something.

A history of war

While Ghosts was developer Infinity Ward’s last title, it’s been three years and two Call of Duty games since we’ve seen something new from the studio that created Call of Duty and later turned it into the mega-hit franchise it has become.

It was 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from Infinity Ward that seemed to change everything for first-person military shooters, creating a subseries of Modern Warfare games. Then Treyarch followed that with its own successes.

Treyarch wrapped up the last of the World War II games for the franchise with World at War (which introduced, for the first time, zombies into multiplayer) and unveiled a new line of Call of Duty titles with Black Ops.

black ops 3 logo

With the Modern Warfare storyline wrapping up neatly in 2011’s Modern Warfare 3, and a core group of Infinity Ward members having left Activision, it looked like it was time for a new subseries to kick off.

Many saw Infinity Ward’s 2013 entry Ghosts as that new storyline within the franchise, but this year’s news that Infinity Ward was making Infinite Warfare, not Ghosts 2, all but killed that notion.

Kurosaki and Bloom declined to comment on Ghosts, though they seemed to agree it’s now considered a one-off experiment.

"I can’t speak to what the intentions were when the team was working on Ghosts," Kurosaki said.

Infinite Warfare

News hit in 2014 that Infinity Ward had landed two major new hires to help work on the game that would become Infinite Warfare. Kurosaki and Jacob Minkoff, both key developers from Naughty Dog who worked on titles like The Last of Us and the Uncharted series, came over to try their hand at working in the military milieu.

"We want to tell first and foremost a classic war story in the great tradition of the genre that Brian and I are both huge fans of," said Kurosaki. "This is my first foray into Call of Duty and telling a war story. I’m so taken by the rich history of the genre."

In looking at how to create their first story for this new take on Call of Duty, they looked to classic military film, according to Kurosaki. Movies like Saving Private Ryan helped frame what the team was going for, he said.

While Infinite Warfare takes place in a distant future where Earth is in a guerrilla war with space colonists over natural resources, it’s still designed to be more of a military tale than science fiction. It's a game that, unlike the Call of Duty titles that have come before it, is designed to tell a story of the burden of leadership.

"Everyone was interested in this setting," Kurosaki said. "It afforded us a lot to do from a gameplay perspective. The setting was something we as a team were all united behind. Brian and I and Jacob Minkoff — the design director at Infinity Ward — the three of us set about looking to tell a classic story set against this more futuristic backdrop."

While Call of Duty games include examinations of conflict during World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and modern settings, they all seem to rely on the concept of the new guy, the fresh soldier, to inject the player into the experience.

That’s done deliberately, Kurosaki said.

"As a game designer you need to tutorialize your player on mechanics [and] the universe they are occupying, and take them through the story and lead them through your game world," he said.

Kurosaki called Call of Duty’s traditional reliance on the player as a new guy a "gimme."

"You can have a more seasoned leader tell you where to go and what to do," he said. "It’s every player’s first experience playing this particular version of the game."

In trying to place the player in the shoes of a battlefield leader, the Infinity Ward team created a very different sort of story for the franchise.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

The importance of leadership, the good and bad decisions you make as a leader, can only be driven home by the consequences typically felt by other characters in the game. That makes those characters and the way you feel about them all the more important in Infinite Warfare.

The story and the game are designed to pull out the intricacies of character through the deadly pressures of both war and leadership.

"The setting of space puts even more pressure on our characters than even a traditional battlefield would allow for," Kurosaki said. "In space, there is no gravity. In a lot of cases, most cases have no breathable atmosphere.

"Take the worst of the world wars and put that in an environment where you can’t breathe, and up is a relative to where you are floating."

Writer Brian Bloom said this game’s story is in many ways falling back on the basics of wartime storytelling.

"Characters are thrown into conflict and resolve those conflicts," he said. "War is an incredible background, environment and foreground to navigate those waters. This is not about double and triple crosses, and double and triple agents, and chips in your head, and being a zombie fighter.

"This is a story about the burden of making choices."

Science and fiction

Spaceship dogfighting.

Ask someone who follows Call of Duty about this upcoming game, and more than likely, the ability to fly and fight in space will be one of the first things you hear about.

It’s a massive leap forward for a franchise that started so grounded in the realities of World War II, and that can be off-putting to some.

Bloom and Kurosaki came to our interview seemingly prepared to address that perspective.

In a momentary pause during the ebb and flow of the interview, Bloom recalled a recent discussion the development team was having.

"We were talking about ‘why space,’" he said. "There are incredible mechanical systems and features that are available with that environment. When we talk to top gun pilots about the future of war and warfare, they look up above their heads and point to space.

"For better or worse, that becomes ... I guess we’re the standard-bearers of the war fantasy."

Despite a setting that includes Earth, outer space and more, Bloom says Infinite Warfare is still very much a boots-on-the-ground experience.

"You are still flanking enemies as you move on your targets and objectives," he said. "That’s not something we’ve lost sight of at all.

"We’re just wrapping that all up into a game where space is also your enemy."

Despite the game being set far down the line of future warfare, Bloom said its design language is rooted in modern-day vehicles and military might.

"We are looking at the ascendancy of those vehicles and those weapons," he said. "But it remains gritty. You should get a sense of rocket fuel, and sort of smell it and feel it. This is not that clean future that has somehow jettisoned from reality. This is gritty, grounded. Nowhere near the get-out-of-jail-free card some science fiction offers you.

"We are firmly rooted in the past and present, and offering literally a vision of the future, and hoping it becomes an integral part of Call of Duty’s continuing saga."

The next branch

It’s unclear what Call of Duty: Ghosts started off as: stand-alone game meant to be a placeholder between Modern Warfare and whatever came next, or the beginning of a new chapter for the franchise. But there’s no confusion over the goals set for Infinite Warfare.

"We want to establish our own new subfranchise," Kurosaki said. "Our own new branch of the Call of Duty tree. What we are developing here could certainly support multiple games. We’re trying to develop a very rich world that we’re not even close to exhausting."

Starting from scratch, without the ability to rely on history or even the relatively solid predictions of military experts, is a huge undertaking, Kurosaki said.

"I’m sure that the Infinity Ward team felt the same kind of tremendous burden when they went from World War II to modern warfare. It’s an entire world with new weapons, vehicles, AI, under-the-hood stuff. We’re doing the exact same stuff here. This is as much of a sea change.

"It’s the kind of herculean task that someone wouldn’t want to do each and every time out."

Bloom calls it cooked from the raw, especially the enemy of the game.

"We can’t kind of ape and build a story around something pulled from a headline today," he said.

This refashioning of the universe and everything in it for the new Call of Duty comes at an opportune time. Both Kurosaki and Minkoff come from a studio known for its storytelling. Uncharted and The Last of Us are to storytelling what Call of Duty has almost always been for multiplayer shooters.

"The opportunity to work with Taylor and Jake, knowing that they were going to bring something to the table here, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Bloom said. "It only sweetened the pot for me."

Uncharted, Last of Us ... Call of Duty?

In fashioning a compelling story, in creating a successful narrative-driven single-player game, it’s not a competition between the story and the gameplay, Kurosaki said.

"Gameplay is the personification of the narrative, and the narrative is the support, the glue that holds the gameplay together," he said. "I’ve never made a first-person shooter before; it’s a very interesting challenge. As a player you don’t really get to occupy the shoes — or the boots, in this case — of a character like you can in first person."

Nor should the multiplayer of a game, no matter how popular, be completely removed from the campaign, according to Kurosaki.

"I think when you are playing multiplayer, all of that should be framed by the experience you had in the single-player," he said. "The single-player is the toehold into this new story universe."

the last of us

The same was true for the games he worked on at Naughty Dog, where single-player was obviously king.

"Having the multiplayer without the single-player portion, it loses something; you lose your context," he said. "I think of my work here as incredibly important both in terms of telling war stories, meaningful stories, and with creating meaningful characters. Rich characters that are believable, that have a life before the events of our story and relationships [that] extend before the events of the story. That’s the stuff that is interesting to me."

In bringing this approach to Call of Duty, Kurosaki said that he sees this as an opportunity to infuse and support those big set pieces and action moments with an even deeper, more meaningful story. A narrative that’s richer, that has characters "you’re going to love to want to occupy the boots of."

Gates of Fire

From his perspective, his fresh eyes on the franchise, Kurosaki sees a series of titles that reflect the original notion of what Infinity Ward created when it developed the very first Call of Duty. And that defining thing for the franchise had nothing to do with time in history or setting.

"It was fighting alongside squadmates and allied troops and having realistic NPCs who were fighting alongside with you," he said. "For me that was the real aha, light bulb moment when I played the first Call of Duty. You had these characters you had a bond with."

Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty wasn’t defined by World War II or modern warfare; it was defined by those brothers in arms, fighting alongside friendly troops through terrible times.

"We think we are again redesigning what Call of Duty can mean to players," Kurosaki said. "That’s an exciting thing for us, to be part of redefining what the franchise is. We want to honor the roots of the series while retaining all of that stuff that we as fans love. We want to be good stewards of pushing it forward.

"A war story like Gates of Fire has almost as much in common with Black Hawk Down as it doesn’t. It’s a war story about warriors doing their jobs and what those extreme pressures do to these brothers in arms in the moment. That notion can transcend any settings."

The goal for Infinite Warfare is, in many ways, to prove that. To prove that Call of Duty can transcend time and place, and that this latest take on warfare is worthy of the franchise name.

"If we were the next thing in that rich history in the Call of Duty of Modern Warfare, of Black Ops," Kurosaki said, "if we were the next in that lineage, I’d say, ‘Mission accomplished.’"