What exactly is left of Infinity Ward? The FPS studio that invented the Call of Duty series and birthed the Modern Warfare phenomenon was left in ruins three years ago.
A dispute between the publisher and its studio founders over Modern Warfare 2 royalties and planned defections to EA saw 46 senior members of staff quit the team.
It forced Infinity Ward to team up with another Activision studio, the new Sledgehammer Games, to finish Modern Warfare 3. Online reports suggested this was the start of the end for Infinity Ward, bereft of leadership and doomed to a future of ‘co-developing’ the series it created.
But it wasn’t.
“Early on with Modern Warfare we decided we need to bring in someone to help us make that game,” says Infinity Ward’s executive producer Mark Rubin, one of the few long-serving members of staff to remain at the studio.
The plan, he explains, was to use partner studio Sledgehammer as cover while Infinity Ward returned “to full capacity at a pace that made sense to us. It wasn’t a situation where we went out and said ‘Shit, we need 50 more guys, go out there on the street and hire them.’ We were actually able to hire the people that we would have hired even if the Modern Warfare 2 thing hadn’t happened. We are now a fully fledged team. We are actually bigger than we have ever been before. That is the strangest thing for us, because with games getting harder and harder to make, it is taking more and more people. So this is something that would have happened regardless of that situation at all.”
Silver linings, then as the upheaval dovetailed with the ramp up for Call of Duty: Ghosts. This is not just a fresh start for Infinity Ward, but a new sub-brand in a series that celebrates its tenth birthday this year. Oh, and it was the crown jewel third-party game in this week’s Xbox reveal.
Ghosts still looks like Call of Duty; it’s still a cinematic war-based shooter, but with new visuals and a new story, penned by action Hollywood writer and director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic/Syriana).
He’s not the only Hollywood specialist to join Infinity Ward.
“These new guys do everything at cinema level,
so they create these art assets which are beyond
next, next, next, next gen. Beyond PC right now.
It is these really big cinema-quality assets. And
what we can then do is pull them down onto the
various platforms so they are always the best
that they can be for that platform. So you never
have an average looking game.”
Mark Rubin - executive producer, Infinity Ward
“Because we are in LA, a lot of the new talent we were able to bring in was a lot of cool CG guys,” boasts Rubin. “We hired these two guys, who are amazing, and are basically the top two CG guys in the whole of Hollywood. These are the guys that did the faces and bodies of Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. They did the Beowulf movie. They did the CG parts in The Animatrix. These guys are the kings of lifelike characters in CG. And they work for us now.”
And these new movie industry recruits have already made significant changes to how Infinity Ward operates, says Rubin, especially when it comes to next-gen.
“These new guys do everything at cinema level, so they create these art assets which are beyond next, next, next, next gen. Beyond PC right now. It is these really big cinema-quality assets. And what we can then do is pull them down onto the various platforms so they are always the best that they can be for that platform. So you never have an average looking game. A lot of little techniques and things that these guys have been doing into Hollywood for years now, we are bringing into gaming.”
Call of Duty has always been the closest a video game has come to replicating a real popcorn Hollywood action movie, and Infinity Ward is continuing down that path. Not just with talent but with this new engine, which includes ‘Sub D’ tech licensed from Toy Story creator Pixar.
“This tech has a pretty material effect on the way the game looks,” says Rubin.
But without its founders, is Infinity Ward really the same studio that has driven the Call of Duty behemoth for ten years? Zampella and West may have been difficult employees, but their track record was flawless. From inventing the Call of Duty series in 2003, to building Modern Warfare in 2007, the duo were leading the greatest first-person shooter team on the planet.
Yet Activision has faith in this new-look Infinity Ward. The studio has been challenged to take Call of Duty into the next generation, and this time without anyone's help.
“Infinity Ward has set the gold standard for this genre in the last generation and, make no mistake, it is going to set it again in the next generation,” says Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg. “Ghosts will showcase what is possible on next-gen. It will be a leap forward for the franchise and I think it will be the best Call of Duty we have ever made.”
One of the biggest decisions Infinity Ward has made for this next gen Call of Duty was to abandon the Modern Warfare brand. Ghosts is a new game, with a new engine, new characters and set in an entirely new Call of Duty ‘universe.’ Was that a hard decision for the studio to make?
“Not a hard decision, but a long decision,” says Rubin. “We don’t get a chance when making a game to think about the next one until we are done actually making that first game.
“So when we finished Modern Warfare 3, we had this big brainstorming session that lasted for weeks. Everybody gets to come up with ideas of what we want to do, not just what game we want to do, but moments in games.
“We all really knew we wanted to continue making Call of Duty. We could have done something else,” he insists. “But we wanted to make Call of Duty and we wanted to create a new universe, or a new story at least. We wanted new characters and new experiences.
“The easy thing would have been – as we had finished the arc of Modern Warfare 1, 2 and 3 – to start a new arc within that same universe. That was the first step. But due to a lot of the changes we wanted to make with this new world, it really dictated out that we needed to make something that wasn’t Modern Warfare.”
“We all really knew we wanted to continue making
Call of Duty. We could have done something else. But we wanted to make Call of Duty and we wanted to create a new universe, or a
new story at least. We wanted new characters
and new experiences."
Mark Rubin - executive producer, Infinity Ward
For all the new Hollywood talent and technology, Ghosts stays true to the Call of Duty tradition.
A trailer shown during a press briefing in Los Angeles last week depicted a cinematic underwater assault on a submarine complete with the usual spectacular set-pieces we’ve come to expect from the series. And although there are gameplay additions (from dog companions, to earthquakes during multiplayer matches), the biggest change to this Call of Duty is in how it looks.
“From a gameplay standpoint, we never felt hindered by the generation or the consoles or the tech,” continues Rubin. “We always felt gameplay isn’t tech-dependant necessarily. But this new tech allows us to make those worlds that we are playing in more realistic.
“We always try to make it so the player always feels naturally involved in the world around them. The more realistic and natural the environment, the more the player’s imagination melds with that game.”
The Ghosts graphics engine certainly looks impressive. But it won’t don’t do anything to convince the sceptics that this isn’t just another Call of Duty with a new lick of paint.
Changing Call of Duty too much is not an easy task. This new Infinity Ward team has the unenviable job of moving Call of Duty forward, keeping it fresh and surprising, whilst also satisfying that massive core fanbase.
In the words of Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg, that in itself is probably “the hardest creative assignment of them all.”
But even those Call of Duty critics have to admit that the game does have cinematic appeal. And in Infinity Ward, the franchise now has a studio that has true Hollywood-level talent.