There are certain places you’d expect the developers of a well-known military shooter to look for inspiration. Previous titles in the series, war movies, other shooters … that’s more-or-less it. What you perhaps don’t expect is for the team behind the latest Call of Duty title to count among their influences an elegiac cooperative indie game about the meaning of life. You don’t expect them to play Journey.
But according to Michael Condrey, co-founder of Sledgehammer Games, the San Francisco studio behind Call of Duty: WWII, that’s exactly what they did.
The next instalment of Activision’s military behemoth takes the action back to the second world war, returning to the origins of the series. But of course, to avoid this merely being a nostalgic exercise with an HD makeover, Sledgehammer had to imbue the project with at least a few new ideas. One of these is a fresh element of multiplayer called Headquarters, a combination of Destiny’s social space and a pre-match lobby system. The studio toyed with a similar idea several years ago via the interactive lobby area in Advanced Warfare, where players could decorate their bunks with medals and achievements – but WWII has a much more sophisticated implementation.
HQ is, like the Tower in Destiny, a safe online social space, where players can congregate between play sessions to meet, communicate, show off achievements and take part in mini-games. There’s a 1 vs 1 area where you can challenge another player to impromptu combat in an enclosed gladitorial arena (which other players can gather around to spectate), and a competitive shooting range so several people can get together to take out static targets for points.
“Headquarters is the biggest innovation in CoD this year and I think it transforms how we come together as a community,” says Condrey. “It began when we first started Advanced Warfare – we had the idea that we wanted you to be emotionally attached to your character. Prior to that you had no avatar, you had no way to invest; you had a way to customise your gamer tag and show your rank progression and KDR (kill/death ratio), but there was no way to represent yourself; we brought character customisation into AW and gave you a virtual lobby, and HQ is an extension of that. You have a character that embodies you in multiplayer, and now you have a space where you and 48 other players can come together off the front lines to be social. It’s a living world, like the cities in World of Warcraft.”
But why? Why spend so much development time on a supplementary service? For Condrey, the aim was to change the way Call of Duty works as a communal experience. Perhaps looking toward the Sherpa system in Destiny, where veteran players guide newcomers through their first raids, he hopes to foster a more benevolent atmosphere. “We wanted to incentivise behaviours that weren’t just about your competitive prowess, your KDR and your rank,” says Condrey. “We wanted to try and instil good social practices.”
There is, in what he says, a tacit admission that the CoD community can be rather unapproachable. Of course, there are around 30 million people regularly playing the game, so you can’t draw too many generalisations, but the stereotyped CoD fan is a teenage boy, swearing at newbies, and (at least on public servers) just out to act as a lone wolf, desperate to get the highest kill rate possible. Condrey does not acknowledge that directly, but what he does do is intimate that improving the social experience – the sense of being in a world with other sentient human beings – is going to be an important part of its survival going forward. The hardcore CoD audience is falling every year – they need new blood, and that means a new approach. Which is where Journey comes in.
The classic PlayStation game from indie studio ThatGameCompany featured an anonymous coop mode that would often drop another player into your world, as you explored the desert wastelands making your way toward the culminative mountain destination. There was never any backstory or in-game exposition, and if another player arrived there was no overt communication system – but since the game was released in 2012, there have been thousands of stories from players who forged deep, personal and highly emotional connections with their coop partners. People have developed languages out of sounds and movements, they have tried to help each other through the puzzles and dangers of the world, and after the game’s wrenching conclusion, they have looked up each other’s gamer tags and made contact. Journey provided a lot of lessons to the development community about how to encourage relationships between players; it was about giving them minimal tools, but then encouraging contact. It was about just putting them in the same space and giving them things to discover together.
“I loved Journey, I loved the concept,” says Condrey. “We have a great community, but the social side is so competitive – we let players come together to show off about KDR and who got the last killcam, but we never had an avenue to really share and reward the types of behaviours that Journey rewarded; we thought that would be really refreshing.”
One element of HQ then, is the ability to share customisation achievements with other players. If you’ve designed a cool logo, it can form part of your identity here. “Not everyone in our community wants to be the top tier guy in Hardpoint,” says Condrey. “We know that some people are just really exceptional at emblem editing, that’s what they do – now there’s a place where they can do that and show those off and get rewarded. It’s transformational.”
Sledgehammer is also seeking to incentivise friendly behaviour through a new points system. “One of the things in HQ is what we call a social score,” says Condrey. “It represents the number of commendations other players give you for being a good member of the community. Maybe you’re not the best Domination player but it could be that you’re friendly, welcoming and helpful in HQ and you’re good on the firing range – I can commend you any time I see you, I’m up-voting you as a person. And the higher your social score, the more rewards you get. Hopefully those systems instil the right community behaviours.”
This isn’t the only lesson Sledgehammer seems to have taken from indie development. While developing new ideas for their projects, the company also holds regular game jams, a mainstay of the independent sector. It’s something we’re seeing more of from mid-tier developers like Bossa, Sumo and Double Fine but it’s not a culture we associated with blockbuster games. Yet this is, apparently, how Call of Duty’s newest multiplayer mode, War, came into being. Here, players get into two teams and go through a series of differing objectives, the attacking side pushing up through the map, blowing up ammo stockpiles, taking key locations and repairing bridges, the other side trying to prevent their progress. Battlefield’s Rush mode and the Operations option in Kill Zone 3 have both been mentioned as possible influences, but according to Condrey, it came out of a game jam held at the start of development, to try and find a new style of CoD multiplayer engagement.
“We were trying to capture this concept of “Big War” – of truly epic battle scenes. We started prototyping and thought, could we have a player vs player battle set during the Normandy beach landings? What about 128 players vs 128 – what would that look like? Well it looked like a game running at two frames a second, so that didn’t go far. [During the game jam] lead multiplayer designer Shaun Soucy worked with a very small team and wanted to take this concept of large squads and linear objectives; he wanted to tell a story with, say, a Hardpoint followed by Domination match followed by an SD match across a German battlefield. The team then crafted unique maps rather than stitching together sections. They only had three days to work on it and it was really rough but there was a spark there.”
Meanwhile another game jam team had the idea of including a scorestreak training area in the HQ. Here players can experiment with any of the scorestreak rewards available in the game, setting them off against incoming AI soldiers. “It was such a small idea, but it made sense,” says Condrey “New players have a whole bunch of content that they never get to experience; there are these high-end scorestreaks that almost no one earns, or you finally do get one, but then don’t know what to do with it and don’t use it wisely – that’s frustrating.”
Aside from the dynamics of social interplay and game jam protoyping, Sledgehammer has also found itself aligning with indie games’ mentality on the importance of diversity and inclusion. The company drew criticism from certain quarters of the fanbase when it was revealed that players will be able to use their custom game characters in multiplayer; even if that means having women fighting, or having people of colour on the German side (which was, historically, very rare though not unheard of).
Condrey is unrepentant about this. “The divisions represent you in the game, they’re your choices,” he says. “Whatever gender or nationality you feel represented by, it’s about you going in to war. In multiplayer, that may mean some of the character choices you make won’t be completely historically accurate, but we wanted you to feel represented. Half of all gamers are women, we’ve been open advocates of pushing for diversity of representation. You see it in Rousseau our French resistance leader and you’ll see it in multiplayer. We’re determined: if you feel represented by an ethic female character, then absolutely when you’re put on the Axis side, you will remain that character.”
Call of Duty is not going to transform into some experimental game design laboratory – it’s too big for that, and really, people come here to do one thing: shoot each other, preferably in a historically accurate context. There’s a reason Journey fosters a sense of sharing and benevolence – the game is exquisitely tranquil and non-violent. It’s the anti-Call of Duty. But Sledgehammer’s approach to development challenges assumptions about the mainstream industry, that it is just some soulless, highly enclosed content factory. The people who work on CoD games don’t exist in a creative vacuum. It may seem odd that they have taken ideas from Journey, but there is a universal truth about creativity: when you see something extraordinary, something beautiful and effective, it is difficult not to be inspired and to respond.