INTERVIEW: David Vonderhaar

It’s November 10th 2009, and the world has just seen Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 become the most successful entertainment launch ever.

Overnight its publisher Activision cemented itself as one of the biggest games companies in the world, while Infinity Ward turned into one of the industry’s most influential studios.

24 hours later and retailers worldwide sold 4.7 million copies of the game, and critics had given the shooter a resounding thumbs up – with a Metacritic score of 94.

So you had to feel for Treyarch – the Californian studio unfairly dubbed ‘the poor man’s Infinity Ward’ – who were not only tasked with building MW2’s sequel, but beating it.

And, using Infinity Ward’s opus as inspiration, the team not only did it, but did it comfortably.

Every developer dreams of making the No.1 selling title in the history of gaming,” says Treyarch’s games design director David Vonderhaar.

You want to make the biggest, strongest, highest-rated, most critically acclaimed and best-selling video game on the planet. We looked at Modern Warfare 2 and said: ‘What an amazing benchmark, let’s go get it’. It drives a lot of what we do everyday. It is a huge inspiration to us, and for us to even be in that league, that’s fantastic.”


Black Ops comprehensively outsold Modern Warfare 2 in its first day on sale – shifting 5.6 million units worldwide. But the hard work was far from over for Treyarch as there’s the small matter of downloadable content.

Once you have done the two-year cycle of making the main game, you have a brief opportunity to understand what you did well and what you didn’t,” adds Vonderhaar.

DLC gives us the opportunity to take a step forward and provide the experiences we knew we wanted to do but didn’t have time to make it good enough first time around.”

There’s no respite for Treyarch. Now it has done the impossible by topping MW2’s release sales, it has to do it all over again with the map packs. Infinity Ward’s first DLC was downloaded 2.5m times in one week.
But Vonderhaar says there’s little external pressure on the studio, and that the team is focused solely on producing a top game.

People don’t come by our offices and say: ‘Hey, this game sold this many map packs, you better do the same or all bets are off.’ Those aren’t conversations that happen,” he says.

The only thing that is in my control is making First Strike something people want to buy. It’s not practical for me is to go ‘Oh God, this map pack sold ten bajillion, and I need to do the same.’ All I can do is make First Strike awesome. I just try to focus on that and remain distraction-free from any business or social pressure. Nothing else is in my control and I have to remain level-headed about that.”

Indeed, it is probably for the best that Treyarch doesn’t dwell too much on the fact it has become the lead studio for retail and Activision’s most important video game franchise. But Vonderhaar says there is still pressure, only it comes from within.

The team has a constant desire to one-up themselves, so the pressure comes internally,” he explains.

Our senior level designer, Phil Tasker, is always pushing and I am constantly pushing back saying: ‘Are you crazy? That’s so ambitious. How are we going to execute it?’ And he’s saying: ‘We’ve got to do it.’ There is pressure, but it is coming from the bottom up, not from the top down.”

The First Strike map pack for Call of Duty: Black Ops is available now.

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