The plan to reinvent Call of Duty

When he was 15, Glen Schofield walked into the office of comic strip distributor King Features Syndicate without an appointment.

He didn't know any better. He just knew the company, a division of media giant The Hearst Corporation that managed "Spider-Man," "Family Circus" and "Flash Gordon." And he had mapped out plans for a comic, thinking he could create something similar. Schofield walked into the office in New York, went to the front desk, and soon found himself in a meeting room talking about his strip.

"They were so gracious about it," he says. "They were like, 'Well, if you've got that kind of guts to come in here, we'll see you.'"

The comic didn't go anywhere, but the company's willingness to listen stuck with Schofield, who has since made a career out of going against the grain. He's a software vice president with a Jersey tan. A landscape painter who makes war games. A gym rat who clears his head by drawing — sometimes while on an exercise bike. He doesn't fit the cliche that people think of when they think of a game developer. "I've heard about it my whole life," he says, noting that when people find out he works on Call of Duty, they often assume he's a military advisor.

As the creative lead on November's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Schofield is now attempting to try something different with one of the game industry's most popular franchises — one that often takes flack for not changing enough year over year. This year's Call of Duty moves 50 years into the future and gives players a robotic exoskeleton suit so they can run faster, jump higher, tear doors off cars and do things players have never done in the series before.

It's a risk five years in the making and the biggest step Call of Duty has taken in years. And it started with two friends who couldn't stop making fun of each other.

Advanced Warfare developer trivia trailer

The bromance

To Michael Condrey, the rivalry began in the early 2000s in a conference room on Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores campus. At the time, the studio produced James Bond and Lord of the Rings games with separate teams working on each franchise. Schofield was on Lord of the Rings, while Condrey was on Bond.

Schofield sums up his relationship with Condrey in this art of the two of them.

"He and I didn't really know each other yet, but we're both kind of goofballs," says Condrey. "And so in my team meeting I had a PowerPoint of what the team was doing ... and like every fifth slide, I inserted a badly Photoshopped version of Glen in some compromised position."

"I know it caught him off guard, but it sort of started this sense of humor we share," says Condrey.

Day to day, Condrey is Schofield's left brain, a former scuba instructor who studied marine biology and planned to be a research scientist until he fell into games. Co-workers describe him as hyper organized, and he speaks with a corporate echo, using terms like "learnings" and "moving our culture forward."

Schofield and Condrey became friends and started working together in the mid-2000s on 007: From Russia with Love, perhaps best known for securing Sean Connery's license for a Bond game. It would mark the beginning of a work partnership that has now lasted more than 10 years, with 10 years of pranks to show for it.

Like the time Condrey went out of town and returned to find everything in his office covered in tin foil — and then covered in Post-it Notes. Or the time Condrey took Schofield's keyboard home over Christmas break, froze it in a garbage can in his deep freezer and left the block of ice on Schofield's desk to start the new year.

"His plant is constantly dying from something new being put in it," says Schofield.

More recently, the pair has taken its sparring to Twitter.

Such as the time Condrey called Schofield "Captain Ahab of USS Angry CryBaby." Or the time Schofield immortalized Condrey in poem:

Or when Schofield went on a recent world tour to promote Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and took a miniature 3-D printed version of Condrey's head with him, photographing it in compromised positions along the way.

"Every fifth slide, I inserted a badly Photoshopped version of Glen in some compromised position."

Leaving EA

In 2005, despite a blossoming friendship, Schofield and Condrey weren't satisfied at work. While finishing From Russia with Love, they recognized it wasn't the kind of game they wanted to make. It relied too much on marketing, too much on having a big name actor attached. They wanted to break out of that pattern.

"It was a good game, but we didn't have enough time or resources to really deliver on the vision we wanted for it," says Condrey.

Both had been in the trenches of making licensed games for years and decided it was time for a change. They wanted to put themselves in a position to focus on one game without having to worry about the baggage of a licensed title. So they considered their options and started looking around to see what was available.

"I was going to leave EA," Schofield says.

He went so far as to meet with Activision executives about a job and says he got along well with them.

"And that's how I got Dead Space," he says.

As Schofield tells it, EA asked him to stay and wanted to keep him happy. EA eventually appointed him general manager of a team at EA Redwood Shores and let him change the team's name to Visceral Games. But more importantly to Schofield, EA let him experiment with a game far different than From Russia with Love.

The game was Dead Space, a survival horror game starring an engineer in a robotic-looking space suit. Schofield led the creative side as executive producer while Condrey organized the team as the senior development director, and they say they were able to put their heads down and make it without the limitations of a licensed title. It became the most critically acclaimed game of their careers. It won awards. It spawned a franchise.

"But I kept thinking about the guys that I met down at Activision," says Schofield.

Condrey says the pair talked to numerous publishers. Schofield says he had a lot in common with the Activision team because they had all been in the industry for 20 years and had many of the same war stories. And he liked Activision's approach to marketing and public relations. Additionally, Schofield and Condrey felt it was time to start something they could build from scratch — a new team rather than a rebranded one.

The last five years of Call of Duty

Hiring spree

In July 2009, Schofield and Condrey joined Activision to start a new studio. It would be Activision's third studio to lead development on Call of Duty games alongside mainstays Infinity Ward and Treyarch, with the intent being to build a third-person Call of Duty spinoff game rather than one of the franchise's annual first-person titles.

Schofield and Condrey immediately began hiring with the intent to build a large team at a measured pace. But one problem stood in front of them: Because of contracts they had signed at EA, Schofield and Condrey couldn't approach anyone at EA to join them. Former co-workers who wanted to work at Sledgehammer had to come on their own.

The pair had the chance they'd been looking for: to start a new team from scratch and build it how they wanted, a 10 minute drive from Visceral. They just had to hope that some of their longtime allies had the same idea in mind.

"We knew that it was a very serious issue not to bring people, that they had to come," says Condrey. "... You leave, you're going like, 'Oh shit, maybe it's just the two of us. Maybe all of these ideals and all this stuff we've tried to establish — who knows if you build it, [whether] they'll come.'"

Fortunately for Schofield and Condrey, soon many did. Activision staff started fielding inquiries from team members at EA and elsewhere.

"They were telling us, 'We've hired three people,'" says Schofield. "And we're like, 'Who?' And they're like, 'Well, we can't tell you.' And we're like, 'Oh shit.' It was a nerve-racking time."

Animation Director Christopher Stone was the second employee Sledgehammer hired, and he says he was slightly hesitant about leaving up front because he has a family and had a secure job at EA. He also struggled with leaving the Dead Space franchise, but he made the jump because of the people involved. "I trusted Glen a lot," Stone says. "He's kind of like the big brother you love and hate at the same time. But regardless, I trusted him and I felt like it was the right choice."

For Schofield and Condrey, the appeal of working for Activision wasn't only about trust; it was also about structure. Part of why they liked Activision was its "independent studio model" in which studios aren't actually independent — Activision owns them, funds them and gives approval on games, but they have more freedom to manage themselves than teams at EA, according to Condrey.

"I remember at first we were like, 'Hey what kind of PCs do we get?' And they were like, 'We don't care,'" says Schofield. "'What kind of chairs?' 'We don't care.'"

Schofield and Condrey proceeded to define their own culture, something they describe as a family.

Schofield heads up the creative side of the studio, spending time on high-level ideas and story and design decisions. He's credited himself with at least nine different titles since starting Sledgehammer, ranging from general manager to CEO to game director, which he says is to help explain his role to those who aren't familiar with the game industry. "People understand what a co-founder is," he says. "A lot of people, unless you're in the industry, don't understand what a director is. So I have to explain it. But within the industry, I'll say I'm a game director and people understand that."

Co-Founder Condrey's role often veers into the creative side as well, but he leans more toward making the office run smoothly and making sure production runs on schedule.

With Schofield and Condrey leading the way, the team began growing at a regular pace, topping out at about 35 while working on the Call of Duty spinoff.

Schofield describes a prototype of the game, which the team codenamed "Fog of War." "We had a big moment in it I would love to do some day," he says, which consisted of an Indiana Jones-style run toward the camera as a B-52 crashed through a jungle and the player had to outrun it in a shallow river before diving into water.

Due to the camera angles, the scene wouldn't work in first-person, which was one reason why the team didn't carry it into its next project.

"They were telling us, ‘We’ve hired three people.’ And we’re like, ‘Who?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, we can’t tell you.’"

The lawsuit

Less than a year after starting Sledgehammer, the news came in. Activision had fired Infinity Ward studio heads Vince Zampella and Jason West, claiming "breaches of contract" and "insubordination." Many of Infinity Ward's former employees followed them out the door.

The ensuing legal battle lasted years, and it pulled in Schofield and Condrey when Activision claimed that EA tried to sabotage Call of Duty as payback for Activision hiring them.

Despite this, Condrey says one of his goals with Sledgehammer has been to establish a strong independent team within Activision, much like Infinity Ward had before things went sour.

"I think at the time Infinity Ward was one of the gold standards for the industry, right?" says Condrey. "Like a team who's been together for seven, eight years. They delivered incredible quality Call of Duty games. Historically low attrition. And so, we wanted to be able to do that here."

And in a twist of fate, while the legal situation hurt many at Activision and impacted Schofield and Condrey personally, it ended up opening doors for Sledgehammer.

First, the loss of Infinity Ward staff created an opportunity. Activision executives offered Sledgehammer the chance to co-develop the game Infinity Ward had been making, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, to fill in for the missing headcount.

Second, West and Zampella had a contract stating that no development team could make a modern or future Call of Duty game without their approval. When Activision fired them, that condition disappeared, freeing up Sledgehammer to make the game that would come after.

Shortly after the incident, Sledgehammer decided to cancel its third-person project to help an understaffed Infinity Ward on Modern Warfare 3. By the end of the game's development in late 2011, Sledgehammer topped out at just over 100 people.

The team's next project, it would turn out, would require more than twice that.

"You talk about, ‘He already swims and he climbs and he does all these things. What’s the next set of player movements that’s really going to be exciting?’"

Advancing warfare

In October 2011, Schofield and Condrey attended a press review event for Modern Warfare 3 — an elaborate affair in a fancy hotel in Palm Springs, Calif. Game publishers occasionally put these together, in part to attempt to swing favor with the media.

In this case, Schofield and Condrey went along to represent Sledgehammer. And one night during the trip, they went to dinner with Activision executives Dave Stohl and Steve Pearce. Condrey describes them as members of the Call of Duty "braintrust" or "council of wisdom," executives who have been at Activision and overseen the franchise from the beginning. Pearce is a longtime Activision technology veteran. Stohl formerly ran Treyarch and Activison's worldwide studios, and in 2014 he runs Infinity Ward. Publicly, the two are perhaps best known for comments that surfaced in the the trial between Activision and former Infinity Ward studio heads Zampella and West.

At that dinner, Stohl and Pearce presented Schofield and Condrey with a question: Did Sledgehammer want to team with Infinity Ward again for the 2013 Call of Duty title, or did they want to tackle the 2014 game on their own? The latter meant expanding to more than twice Sledgehammer's size and putting each of Activision's primary Call of Duty studios on a three-year rotation. For Schofield and Condrey, it was an easy choice.

In late 2011, Schofield drew this sketch showing various exoskeleton ideas for an Advanced Warfare game design document.

"I've made the analogy of you come to play for a championship team and coach says, 'Hey, here's your chance to take the lead.' You take it, right?" says Condrey. "We wanted to have our chance to show that Sledgehammer could be a lead studio [on one of the franchise's annual first-person games]."

Around that same time, team members back in Foster City, Calif. began prototyping from a clean slate, developing ideas for what they could do in a new game. And one of the first ideas to excite Condrey was what Sledgehammer calls the boost jump, allowing players to use a turbo boost to jump higher and move in different directions.

"Coming off the tails of MW3 where we racked our brains on how to bring new experiences to the player," says Condrey, "you talk about, 'What else could a player do, right?' When you talk about, 'He already swims and he climbs and he does all these things. What's the next set of player movements that's really going to be exciting?'"

Around the same time, Schofield and other team members had been researching future war technology and found a number of soldiers wearing mechanical suits that made them stronger. On a press trip to Europe for Modern Warfare 3, Schofield remembers settling in on that idea — if Sledgehammer put a mechanical suit or exoskeleton in the game, then the team could build plenty of new ideas into it. It could make the player stronger, able to cloak themselves, able to see through an augmented reality visor, able to boost jump.

For a franchise with millions of fans who like things a specific way, it would be a big step to take. It also would turn out to be a similar pitch to what West and Zampella were working on at their new studio after leaving Activision, but that wasn't yet public knowledge.

Sledgehammer had its hook. It just had to convince the executive team.

Before/after Advanced Warfare artwork

The pitch

Walking into Activision's headquarters to pitch the game that would become Advanced Warfare for the first time, Condrey says he felt "a little vulnerable."

Condrey refers to the office as "thirty-one hundred," shorthand for the street address 3100 Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica, Calif. For the team at Sledgehammer, it's the home base that gives it money to do things, and hand in hand, the approvals to see those things through.

For a game of Call of Duty's scale, there's not a single meeting in which someone presents an idea on one side of the table and someone on the other side gives a thumbs up or down. It's a series of meetings, each with a dozen or so representatives from Activision's senior leadership team — people representing marketing, technology, business development and other departments — led by Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg.

"We prepare pretty heavily with the creative pitch, which will come in the form of everything from concept art to [a tone video], to some pretty high production value keynote presentations about where we're going, as well as some broad guidance on sort of what it's going to take to actually make the game," says Condrey.

Then the Activision staff spends an hour or two listening and trying to poke holes in the ideas. In the first meeting, a Sledgehammer contingent presented the idea for setting the game in the future with players using exoskeletons to make themselves more powerful.

The Sledgehammer art team went through hundreds of iterations of the exoskeleton before settling on the final version.

"The first one was tough for me," says Schofield. "Because people were like, 'Do you think you went too far?' And I was like, 'Ah, shit.' I knew I didn't go too far. I knew we didn't go too far. But I knew it meant a lot of selling."

Schofield realized the team would have to spend time proving some of these ideas worked before the Activision higher-ups would buy in. Condrey describes the executive team as having a lot of "institutional knowledge" about the franchise, "which is super valuable and I tremendously respect, but at times maybe [the executive team] isn't as ready to embrace some big changes."

After experimenting with the game in its early stages, Schofield says Activision held another meeting where he again made his case.

"I remember being asked all the time, 'What's the main mechanic?'" says Schofield. "And I would say, 'Well, there's two things. It's about the advanced soldier, and the main mechanic is the exoskeleton.' And Bret Robbins, who's my right-hand man on everything creative here — he and I were getting frustrated. Because we were like, 'Well, we keep saying this over and over.' And I remember [Activision Senior Vice President] Rob Kostich saying to me, 'You really believe in this exoskeleton?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, Rob, the boost jump and everything else we're starting to do — it's the real deal.' And once Rob and then Eric gave it a thumbs up, everybody just got behind."

Concept art shows the detail put into character suit armor.

The team ended up establishing a motto of "science, not science fiction," but Creative Director Bret Robbins says the executives never expressed concerns about the game's futuristic approach competing with Activision's sci-fi shooter Destiny, which would end up shipping just before Advanced Warfare. The motto existed instead because they believed Call of Duty, as a franchise, needed to stay grounded in reality.

And Condrey says he never heard concerns during those meetings about the new movement abilities with the exoskeleton making it harder for players to go back to other Call of Duty games from Treyarch and Infinity Ward down the road. Now that they're finished making the game, though, he sees that as an obstacle for those studios to overcome.

"Could I imagine going back and making a game now without boost jump and without all the without all the movements we've done now? I think that would be really challenging," says Condrey. "I think the speed and the fluidity and the new movement sets have set a new tone for the franchise that I think it'd be hard to move back from.

Early concept art shows the origins of the game's "Walking tank."

"Now, within that, I'm a big fan of World War II fiction. I love 'Band of Brothers.' I love 'Saving Private Ryan.' So I want to play that game again. In my head, a next-generation World War II game with the production values of 'Band of Brothers' would be awesome. But I do think the way the game feels today is going to set an expectation with fans."

One thing that made the executive team nervous was the team's idea for a loot drop system in multiplayer that would allow players to earn things like special weapons and gear. But in the end, Sledgehammer convinced them.

"Our job is to be six months ahead of everyone else," says Schofield. "I believe that my job is to be controversial and come up with ideas that other people wouldn't come up with." Schofield clarifies that those ideas can come from other team members as well.

The time period for the game turned out to be another sticking point. "If you think about, 'What does the future look like in 50 years to you?' [Someone's] picturing elves and flying cars and everything, you know? You, maybe, are thinking, 'Well the cars aren't going to fly.' It's very controversial. Fiftyyears in the future, everyone has an opinion. Five hundred years in the future, it's not as controversial, because you're like, 'This is the way it's gonna look. OK.'"

Happy hour talent show

Over the course of the next three years, Sledgehammer built Advanced Warfare and grew the team behind it.

When the team revealed the game in 2014, it contained many of the same ideas from 2011, from the exoskeleton to the future war concept to the boost jump. It also revealed an aspect that came later — actor Kevin Spacey playing the role of villain Jonathan Irons — a chance for Schofield and Condrey to do what they hadn't been able to with From Russia with Love and make a game involving an A-list Hollywood actor work.

Tour Sledgehammer's office in 2014, and you'll see a floor filled with some 220 employees, approximately 50 of whom originally worked on Dead Space. The office is a short drive from most of the big traditional game companies in the area — Sony, Capcom, Electronic Arts — and it looks cleaner than most, more open.

On various walls, a tech startup-style poster displays 10 motivational phrases including "Good isn't enough," "The battle for the best idea" and "A business of passion; a passion for business."

In certain staff offices, Schofield's art hangs next to photos of team members' children. In The Foundry, a meeting room sandwiched between Schofield and Condrey's offices, a framed Schofield sketch shows the two of them holding a cupcake, celebrating the company's fifth anniversary.

Prior to Polygon's visit for this story, a handful of team members prepared sessions of show-and-tell to give some highlights of what the team created over the past three years.

Condrey starts the tour and loads a variety of Advanced Warfare trailers, including various shots of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge falling apart. Schofield received his master's degree in business administration from Golden Gate University and plans to hold an art show there after the game ships.

As part of this montage, Condrey plays a video the team created about a year earlier to show off the engine and set a visual target for what the character performances should look like. The game's Sergeant Cormack walks up to the camera. "Oh, hey. I didn't see you there. Well, like what you see? You're gonna be seeing a lot more cool stuff from Sledgehammer Games. This'll be me, totally in game. Fuckin' badass, right? We got new HD facial capture and blendshape technology. And check out these physically based skin eye shaders. Hell, even my pupils dilate. The team has done well. We gotta move out. But check out more of me and my next-gen squad in action. We're gonna blow you away." The lip-synching and pupil dilation are as good as any game has done them.

Next, Manager of Studio Communications Brian Miggels shows a piece of art the team recently dug up — a black and white "napkin sketch" Schofield drew in late 2011 as part of an early Advanced Warfare design document. It has an annotated stick-figure version of the exoskeleton detailing much of the functionality that ended up in the final game.

Continuing Sledgehammer's talent show, we meet Don Veca, who's been working in game audio since the early '90s when he started on the Genesis versions of Road Rash. He shows an electric razor he brought from home and a wind wand he bought online, the latter of which he gets up and spins around to create a spinning sound like a baby helicopter. His team recorded both of these to help create the audio for the game's attack drones, and he says the team typically starts with real-world sounds like these and then tweaks them to make them sound futuristic rather than creating them from scratch.

On the other side of the office, we see animation director Chris Stone showing portions of the available data the team captured to animate Kevin Spacey. Stone says Spacey's face seems like it was made out of rubber and points to embarrassing angles showing that off, noting that Spacey had final approval on how he appeared in the game.

For the final stop, we meet art director Joe Salud, who pulls up a series of concept paintings and "chicken scratch drawings" showing how the team created the right look for the exoskeleton. This includes the anatomy of a bear skeleton to mimic the added body mass, and a "hero shot" painting that was the team's first attempt at a fully designed version of a character wearing the suit, which included a number of loose pieces of metal that the team thought looked good but wouldn't have been functional in a real-life setting. "We showed it to the military advisors," says Salud, "and they're like, 'Oh, no way.'"

Later, the team later shows a ripomatic trailer created early in development to establish the game's tone. For copyright reasons, Activision can't release the trailer publicly, as it splices in footage of actors including Jeff Bridges from "Iron Man" as Jonathan Irons, the villain role now played by Spacey.

At the end of the ripomatic video comes a surprise — the name "Blacksmith," which an Activision representative says was a codename used for Advanced Warfare in its early days.

"I would like to think this is the first Advanced Warfare."

Under pressure

On November 3, just over five years after opening its doors, Sledgehammer will release its first game as a lead studio. Schofield and Condrey say this is where they hoped to be when they started the team. Now they have to wait to see how players react.

One concern for Activision in general is whether Call of Duty can sustain its substantial sales history. Call of Duty: Ghosts marked a down point for the series in 2013, which Activision attributed in part to the launch of new console hardware.

In late September, analyst Doug Creutz sent out a report saying pre-orders for Advanced Warfare were tracking at more than 50 percent less than for Ghosts, and more than 80 percent less than for 2012's Black Ops 2. The same day, brokerage firm Sterne Agee projected that Activision would ship 15 percent fewer copies of Advanced Warfare to stores than it did of Ghosts in 2013.

"Yeah, there is a lot of pressure," says Condrey. "It's curious, because it's a question we get asked a lot about sales. And it's a weird answer, but its true that we don't ever talk about sales." Condrey says he's more nervous about review scores.

"I was thinking about it the other day," he says. "So like the New England Patriots. Tom Brady. The winningest Super Bowl team in the past decade. Those poor bastards, they have to win the Super Bowl every year or they've failed, right? ... And so for us, it's a little bit like that. ... There's some pressure with that, I won't lie."

In the coming years, Condrey hopes Sledgehammer will be mentioned alongside studios like Bungie and Naughty Dog as the best in the big-budget action game industry. His three-year plan involves staffing up Sledgehammer from about 220 to about 250, moving to a new office to accommodate the extra headcount and going into Sledgehammer's next game with the tech and universe already built, the team already hired and a chance to spend three years executing on an idea rather than building one from scratch.

"I would like to think this is the first Advanced Warfare," he says, which would theoretically put an Advanced Warfare sequel, prequel or side story on the way for November 2017.

Three years is a long time in the game industry. Three years ago, Schofield and Condrey had just learned at a press review event dinner that they would be making this year's Call of Duty. This year's review event happens days after this story goes live.

Then they'll do it all over again.

Images: Activision, Sledgehammer Games, Glen Schofield, Shutterstock, Respawn Entertainment, Vox Media
Lede animation: Ranabir Majumder