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Activision’s Infinity Ward studio opened its doors last week to the gaming press for the first time since 2019’s debut of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. This time, it was to show off the sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, which debuts on October 28.
Over several hours, the team’s leaders described how and why they built the new game, which is a gritty combat game but leans more toward entertainment than the uncomfortable extreme violence that was a theme of the last game. After the presentations and first-time demos of numerous levels, the executives led by co-studio head Patrick Kelly answered questions from the attending press.
We covered a lot of ground, getting answers to a variety of questions about Modern Warfare II’s campaign, multiplayer, and Warzone 2. While we tried, many of the questions were tabled until later revelations coming this year. Some of the answers we did get: We confirmed this installment will not have a Zombies mode, and Gunfight is coming back to multiplayer.
The speakers included Patrick Kelly, co-studio head, creative director; Jeff Negus, narrative director; Brian Bloom, head writer; Jack O’Hara, game director; Mark Grigsby, studio animation director; Stephanie Snowden, director of communications; Geoffrey Smith, multiplayer design director; and Joe Cecot, co-design director of multiplayer.
Here’s an edited transcript of the Q&A session.
Question: For multiplayer and Warzone, are there some distinctions between the two that you’ll draw? It seems like your multiplayer maps are getting larger. How do you still distinguish between large multiplayer map gameplay and what will be in Warzone 2?
Geoffrey Smith (multiplayer design director): For the battle maps, there are specifically what we call points of interest, POIs on the larger map. You’re kind of sequestered to that little town. You wouldn’t be playing across the full landscape.
Patrick Kelly: I can tell you that on the gameplay side of things, when we talk about this and go back and forth on it–the larger the map, we typically tend to think about – and this will make sense – the more tactical gameplay the game will have, because it’s a wider-open space. For Geoff, who is honestly the best person with geo I’ve ever come across in this industry, he’s constantly with the team thinking about engagement ranges and geos supporting those. And then those POIs, like you mentioned
The battle maps, as we call them, which are these larger maps, but not quite as large as Warzone 2–they tend to be somewhat between that slightly more tactical experience, but let’s call it more MP engagements than you’d have to make in a larger map.
Smith: I think that once you add in whether you respond or not, it really changes what you value. Those are pretty big distinctions.
Question: With lowering water graphics, do players get an advantage with being able to see each other in the water? I know that’s a tactic that players have abused in the past to see people who are hiding in the shadows. Has that been factored into the water gameplay?
Cecot: We strive to not have that. If your settings are low, we still want the same coverage, the same treatment of water.
Smith: Even when we first approached water, it was from the perspective that this should be an escape mechanic, not an attacking mechanic. You should be able to jump in the water and swim away and players aren’t able to see you. It’s been something that’s gone back and forth. Should I be able to see someone who’s out of the water? What if you give me an assault rifle and I can just shoot that person, and now he’s angry? It’s been a fine balance between the cloudiness, being able to maybe see somebody’s bubbles, but not being able to see everything.
Question: So it’s different from being able to just lower shadows and see someone who’s hiding.
Jack O’Hara: Correct. When you’re sitting underwater and you look up, there’s a reflection that happens at the surface of the water. It means you can’t just sit there and wait and then see someone. It’s much harder to see through that.
Kelly: One thing we also spent a lot of time messing around with, with respect to AI–AI is a major focus of ours, as I’m sure you’re gathering. But at what depth under the water can AI no longer see you? We’ve tried to think about those engagements and how they work, how water becomes viable cover, and how we can balance that appropriately.
Smith: You were asking if you can mess with the settings to brighten it up, right? That’s a quality pass. We need to get the fun and balance in normal settings, and then we have to look at what people can use at other settings.
O’Hara: It’s definitely at the top of our mind when we talk about using new technology. The example from a few games ago was grass. You could turn off certain graphics settings and there’s no more grass. You could just see somebody who’s prone and trying to hide.
Kelly: We also have to support people playing together on a wide range of machines. We’ve gone to town with high-end PCs and the latest generation of consoles with respect to things like god rays and everything else in the water. But we have to dial that back, as you can imagine, for things like older consoles. Making sure you don’t feel advantaged or disadvantaged is a hot topic, for sure.
Question: Is this a clean slate for Warzone? Are people starting again from zero? Or are they coming back in with all their clan skins and 200 weapons from all the other games?
PR: We’re not talking about that today. We’re going to focus on Modern Warfare 2. But I believe PR can weigh in with you on when you can expect to see more about that.
Question: Environmental moving mechanics, things like the ships going back and forth, will any of that be in multiplayer?
Smith: We’re doing experiments. That has to go through the network. That box has to be in the same place for me as it is for you, which is where it gets tricky. We’re trying.
Question: This is an easy question. Is Gunfight coming back?
PR: At some point.
Question: You talked in the beginning about the uncomfortable parts of Modern Warfare. I wonder here–in all the demos I didn’t see any soldier versus civilian possibilities like we saw in the townhouse level of Modern Warfare. Is that something you’ve deliberately moved away from, trying to make this more entertaining than uncomfortable?
Kelly: We’ve tried to have more of a focus on military operatives against military operatives. You saw that in Night War and things like that. It has a more military vibe to it. That’s something we’ve endeavored to do throughout the game. You’re definitely right that we’ve also tried to think about fun. We’re trying to stay away from the kinds of things–we want you to have a nice time playing this game. I’m not going to tell you there aren’t places in the game where there are obviously civilians, things like that. But I can tell you that you’re not engaging them. We strongly discourage it at the point of failure if you decide you want to do that kind of thing. Everything else, we want to let you engage with the environment in the way you see fit. But there’s no place for that.
Negus: Also, we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We didn’t want to just copy the previous game. We found a scenario that we were really intrigued by. We didn’t get to talk about it today. But there are situations where the player has to be careful.
Question: With the introduction of the drill charge, are the maps made with destruction in mind?
Smith: No. We’re not doing destruction. We can’t really afford it on a large scale across the map. I’m the worst person to kill everybody’s fun, but I can’t lie to you. I really feel like the design language has to–we have special effects artists that really love Jersey barriers, which are these little concrete barriers, and you can chip and dish into them. But if I can shoot that concrete, I should be able to shoot into the foundation of a house and everything else. We’re doing as much as we can–it’s better to phrase it as damage. Showing damage, showing wear, showing what’s happened without actually popping out structural pieces.
Kelly: One of the challenges–it goes back to what you were talking about before. We at one point entertained and looked at destruction. The challenges you run into, once you incorporate full destruction, it’s very difficult to create a play space where you would call it an appropriate combat space. If you can punch through walls, everything like that. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have more of a purely–I don’t want to call it just cosmetic, but where you can’t shoot holes through the walls, things like that, you also end up with the challenge of visibility. Now you have variable backdrops. You have to do other things in terms of room lighting and fill and all these other things where you’re artificially representing things and characters in the environment.
Smith: Single-player has some great destruction. We went crazy on that.
Question: Going back to technical stuff, it looked like it was PS5 code, and it looked very good. But in campaign we’re seeing people jumping across different vehicles. We’re seeing all the different platforms on the ship. In multiplayer, obviously, you’re going to have different resolutions. While it looks really good on PS5, what’s going to happen with the next generation of consoles? Both in single-player and multiplayer.
Kelly: We’re incredibly proud of how it looks on this. From the very beginning of development, we have continuously, at every milestone, had deliverables where we deliver on those consoles, on those platforms. One of the challenges that’s very easy to find yourself in around development is getting very excited about the latest generation of hardware. You go to town with it. Then at some point in the project life cycle you have to bring up the rear, so to speak, the older generation of machines. It can force some really tough things.
Speaking for myself, I’m incredibly proud of how the game looks on the old generation of machines. It’s a statement. Looking at it vis-a-vis our previous game, in every way it’s superior to that, and I think our previous game looked pretty good.
Question: In terms of multiplayer, are the next-generation consoles and PC going to have an advantage based on resolution and draw distance?
Kelly: I wouldn’t say there’s going to be an advantage. I’d say there are going to be some graphical–there’s going to be a fidelity change that’s inherent to the machine. But we go to great lengths to make sure that fairness, player to player, exists across that generation of machines. The last thing we want to see is a scenario–let me back up. When we did the last game, one of our biggest concerns at that time was players on mouse and keyboard versus players using controllers. Finding the balance on that. It’s an interesting thing, because I wish it was a linear spectrum. You can see that a very highly skilled player on mouse and keyboard is fantastic compared to controller. Everybody else on a mouse and keyboard seems to be at a disadvantage statistically, is what we see.
When we thought about this game, thinking about that wider breadth of hardware, we’ve put energy into making sure that, to your point, the visibility of geo, of enemies, of other players and all that–we don’t want to see this divide. Can we only matchmake with people on the same console? We want to see everyone playing together with everybody.
Question: With regard to CoD 2.0, does that mean you’re sharing technology and everything else with Treyarch and Sledgehammer as well?
Kelly: It does.
PR: And that’s just our nickname for it. It’s not an official name for anything by any means. It’s just what we call this new era internally.
Question: You said this was a shared engine. What engine is this on? Is it an in-house development?
Kelly: Yes, it is. What happened was, going back several years–I don’t remember right now. I’d have to think about exactly when. We started looking at this and saying, “How can we do better than we’re doing, so we don’t have multiple engines?” When one of the teams put in a really cool rendering or audio or animation feature, we had to have a bunch of people implement that in the other engine, and then again in another engine. We started evaluating that.
We ended up coming together on an engine that–I can’t say that it is any one engine. There’s a large chunk of it that’s from what you probably thought of as the IW engine. I don’t really like calling it that now. But there were large chunks from our other teams as well that got integrated into there. When you look at it, it’s one of these things where–wow, Treyarch does some things in their engine really well. IW does too. Sledgehammer does too. We tried to bring that together. Now all of us are working together on that engine space.
It’s been great, because we’re all working together in ways that we never have. We’re all working together in one engine space. Obviously there are also challenges associated with it around things like merges and branches. But I would say that net, it’s been only for the better. We end up getting the best of the best features. We have the best of our engineers in any particular area working on this technology that we’re all using.
The one thing I’d like to say, though, we’re also mindful of–I speak for myself. I also play a role on the franchise. We’re mindful of not moving into a world where we homogenize the games. My guess is, based on the questions I’m hearing, you’re all incredibly conversant in this franchise. Certainly in multiplayer games and single-player games and so on. You all know, for example, that historically a Black Ops game has had a different feel. It has different art direction and things like that aren’t in an Infinity Ward game. From my point of view, from our point of view, we celebrate and embrace that. We’re not looking to mash them all together into one thing.
Question: Is there anything to mention with regard to Infinity Ward Poland, specific to the engine and the technical side there?
Kelly: We have a spectacularly talented rendering engine there. There’s spectacular engineering talent that’s come together there. And now what’s happened is, they were so successful in Poland that other people are working there in terms of effects and animation and other areas. It’s been great having them work so closely with our engineers. It’s been a fantastic advantage for us. I appreciate you bringing that up. It’s easy to think of us as one big team distributed across the world, but it’s worth pointing that out.
Question: I didn’t see any very high-tech weaponry here. Is that one of the distinctions you’d draw between this and something like Black Ops? What level of technology or futuristic equipment are you pushing toward?
Kelly: I wouldn’t put it that way, in the sense that that’s not one of the distinctions I think about. I can tell you that for Modern Warfare, we always think about equipment that is either based on real equipment or plausibly realistic. To give you an example, going back to Modern Warfare 2, the heartbeat sensor does not exist, to our knowledge. But it felt very real. It felt plausible. That was something that conceivably may have been brought in. There are little things like that. I can also tell you that there’s equipment that exists, that we’ve researched and educated ourselves around, that is real-world equipment, that for us has felt a little too sci-fi. There are things we’ve avoided using that actually do exist, that are in use now.
But with respect to Black Ops, when I think about what the team at Treyarch has done with that–they always, for the story they’re telling, for the context of the game that they’re making, try to deliver equipment that they feel is right for the time frame, for the spirit and the tone of the game, rather than going into it thinking, “Okay, you guys are at one end of the tech spectrum and we’re at the other.”
Question: Will we see the same features with Zombies?
PR: There will be no Zombies.