Friday, October 19, 2007

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare AU Interview

Infinity Ward on destructible environments, scripted sequences and why they're not interested in Live Anywhere.

( Australia, June 13, 2007 - On his recent trip to Australia to unveil Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, we cornered Infinity Ward's Studio Head Grant Collier and refused to let him go until he answered our questions. As you'd know if you read IGN's full preview, the game is shaping up really well, moving the series effortlessly from a World War II setting into the modern day. It's a different beast in some ways, but in others - the pacing, the intensity - this is Call of Duty through and through. Have a read; Grant has some interesting things to say.

IGN AU: How has the game design process changed now that you've gone from making games based on World War II to an original setting with a whole new conflict?

Grant Collier: It created challenges, but these were challenges that we were actually looking for. We really wanted to make a much more story driven game, and when you don't have the Nazis you're required to create a bunch of back story for your villain because we want it to be a black and white sort of struggle. So you've got to build up a bad guy early on in the game, in some of the first few missions, make him do some really horrible stuff, because we don't want 'he's a really bad guy' in the manual, we want to use the missions to drive home the point that this guy and his lackeys are all really really nasty guys. So it created story-telling avenues, and it was just sort of like the story was actually there, and we were like archaeologists knocking the dust off it, and all the blocks fell into place and it really came together.

IGN AU: Is it set now, or slightly in the future? Are you going to specify a time frame?

Grant Collier: We just say present day. Three years from now it would still be present day.

IGN AU: You mentioned during your presentation that some of the mission structure, the narrative structure, jumped into the past, flashback style. How will that work in the wider context of the game?

Grant Collier: We brought Price back. I mean, we killed Price in Call of Duty one, and we brought him back in Call of Duty 2 so we thought 'what the heck' let's have him come in in modern day. And we use that to kind of bring to light a relationship that's been going on throughout history between Zakhaev and Price. They've been each other's arch enemies for a long time. You are actually part of a failed assassination attempt on Zakhaev and you maim him, and you're there with Price so he's had it in for Price for a really long time. And that tension comes up through the dialogue and through the game, and those flashback settings are used to paint the history that they have together.

IGN AU: Whereabouts will the flashbacks be set? In the modern setting you obviously have the conflict in the Middle East - the coup, and the Russian civil war…

Grant Collier: The flashbacks, I believe, are in the Ukraine.

IGN AU: So the main game will be jumping back and forth between those two major conflicts as you play through and the story advances?

Grant Collier: And there are other locations too. It's a global conflict.

IGN AU: That's actually one of the most impressive things about the footage we've seen to date - just how many different settings are on offer. Are you shooting for that kind of variety chiefly to shift the gameplay up? I can imagine, for instance, that the level on the cargo ship would play pretty differently to moving through a town in the Middle East.Grant Collier: One of the things that we wanted to do early on was we wanted to change locations. When you're stuck in one location for a game, the entire time, I think that's kind of a boring thing, and I think a lot of our designers think the same thing. So being able to rapidly redeploy to multiple locations quickly and keep the continuity of having just a few characters that the player gets to really know, is something that we haven't been able to do in the past. I mean, if you wanted to be in a winter area, we would do Russia. And then if we wanted to be in the desert, we would change nationalities and go with British in North Africa, and we couldn't keep the same characters. So this is something that we really wanted to do, and modern combat allows you to. When you're using elite divisions you're able to really move from location to location, and you're able to keep those characters, and we can keep the game vibrant and very exciting. The challenge for us wasn't really a gameplay challenge, for us that's pretty easy. The only thing that we obviously wanted to stay away from in a present-day setting was doing any kind of jungle warfare, that was the only thing, because it really sucks to get shot from someone you can't see - someone shoots you from a bush and you shoot back into the bush? That's like, not even remotely fun.

IGN AU: But can the same apply for this, in terms of shooting through walls?

Grant Collier: No, that's fun. (laughs).

IGN AU: Sure, it's fun to shoot someone that way, but can the AI shoot you through walls? That could be frustrating.

Grant Collier: Yeah, it did at first, but it got really lame really fast, so we stopped that. You can do it in multiplayer, but the AI will not shoot you through the walls.

IGN AU: You've said that the scripted sequences in the Call of Duty games are in place of static cutscenes. Instead of stopping to watch, you play through - the cutscenes become interactive. Now that you're focusing quite a bit on characters and storyline in Modern Warfare, are you going to take a similar approach or will you have cutscenes?

Grant Collier: We're not going to have cutscenes - the action will always be going on and you can choose to run past the dialogue. And if you just want to bulldoze through, I mean you'd better have it on easy, but if you don't want to pay attention to the story elements of the game you can choose to bulldoze past them. You will not be forced - ever - in an Infinity Ward game, to have to participate in the story if you don't want to. We want you to, but if that's not the way you want to play the game…

IGN AU: Sure. Moving on, you've mentioned that hitting 60 frames per second is hugely important to the team, and it brings up an important aspect of game design - trade-offs. Why have you decided to go for a higher frame rate over more destructible environments?

Grant Collier: Well, we've always had the hard peg of 60 frames per second, and during development we push that up, and we go 80, 90, 100 frames a second, and then we start to add a bunch of candy in there, and once the pile of candy gets up to the point where you dip under 60 frames per second, then that's when we pull back. We really feel that it's really hard to get a player immersed in the game, to make him believe - I'm actually there, I'm in that conflict, I'm no longer holding a piece of plastic in front of a screen that's flashing lights, y'know. I'm sweating, I'm starting to swear, I'm actually dodging bullets in my seat, that's a wonderful thing. Once you can get a player in that situation, we don't want to do anything to break that, and if the action starts going off and then everything starts to chug and you dip down - when you're at 60 frames per second normally you can't notice if it goes to 30, but if you shoot for 30 frames per second and a bunch of stuff happens that you didn't expect, it's going to dip. There's lots of games that you see when the action chugs down - they pegged 30 frames per second and a bunch of stuff happened that they didn't expect, and that's why it went down, but when you're at 60, you're never going to get under 30.

IGN AU: From a game design perspective, do you think that really extensive environmental damage is just a bit of a gimmick anyway? For instance, Battlefield Bad Company, they're really shooting for full destructibility - blowing buildings up, that kind of stuff. Do you think there's a danger that too much destructibility could break the level design and lose the pace that you're trying to create?

Grant Collier: Yeah, it - well, I don't want to speak bad of anyone else's game, but…

IGN AU: It just seems like it's this big emerging trend and I'm curious to get your thoughts on it…

Grant Collier: Well, let's just say that… everyone demanded that we had to have physics back in Call of Duty 2, and we just had some special case physics, we didn't have the robust physics engine we have now, and everyone's like 'if you don't have physics you're screwed'. Call of Duty did great when we didn't have it. And actually, everyone right now is demanding sandbox gameplay and total destructibility. We personally don't think that it's that fun, I mean, 'go anywhere! Do anything!' That's just - I think it's a buzzword, it's a badge, it's a bullet-point option, but a lot of games they get in there and they try to do that and then they're like 'okay we have the sandbox, now why don't we try to make the game fun'. And total destructibility, you can really ruin the gameplay. There's so many spectacular moments that you have when you funnel the action into certain corridors - that's the reason why, with Counter-Strike, Dust was so huge. You had these two chokepoints and there was constantly battles going on there, and today Dust is still being played and it's like, nine years old. It's not fun because you can blow up everything, it's fun because you know where the action's going to be and there's races against time to get to that action. So I think right now it's a fad, and the fad will pass, we're not going to be bite on in it - we want the game to be fun first, and destructibility comes second.

IGN AU: In terms of keeping people immersed in your world, where do you guys stand - for Call of Duty 4 - on squad mates that can't be killed, that kind of stuff? Do you think those kinds of things reveal the artifice of the world a little?

Grant Collier: Um, yep, yep they do. We really try to limit that, and that's one of the challenges about telling a story… and we really hate games where when the guy dies it says 'mission failed'. I mean, it's one thing when the tank dies to have mission failed, but always having to baby-sit a guy? So you're weighing the scales again - let's move the game forward but let's not punish the character for looking after his own ass. You can manipulate the game to be in a situation where you've got every tom, dick and harry shooting at you, and you're making sure you're pushing your AI character out into the open, and he's getting raked by bullets, but you really have to kind of manipulate those scenes I think, for the most part. Because friendly fire is not tolerated in Call of Duty, so it's a balancing act, and y'know, I wish we had a better solution but we don't have one right now, so that's just the way it goes.

IGN AU: Tell us about the engine the game is running on. Are there any technical areas you'd like to highlight that are particularly cutting edge?Grant Collier: Yeah. Well as far as character detail is concerned, from what I've seen from the other next-gen games that are coming out, I think that we have the most highly detailed characters out there. The shadowing of the characters, the self shadowing of the characters, the particle system, the lighting system.

IGN AU: This is a proprietary engine?

Grant Collier: Yeah, this is all proprietary. I don't know if you noticed but in situations where the enemies aren't matching you in technology, they're going to use other things; we want them to be intelligent. So when we were in a dark area, they would launch off flares to illuminate the player, and even with the lighting engine, it works in conjunction with the character model so you'll see the light wash across, not just the area and the ground, but the view model, and shadows will move across the view model. So, the lighting engine, the shadows, the self shadowing, the particle system, the procedural clutter that we have around, y'know, I think all of those are really cutting edge. I'd say physics engine, but everyone has a physics engine now.

IGN AU: Speaking of enemies using flares, is there going to be a big technological disparity between the good guys and the bad? Are you essentially fighting against a guerrilla group, or are they really well armed too?Grant Collier: Yeah, they're really well armed too. I mean, they have different levels of preparedness, but you saw the friendlies coming in on helicopters, but also the enemies will redeploy using helicopters. Some of their troopers will have night vision, some will have gas masks, so they'll be immune to teargas, just like the SAS will be immune to teargas. We definitely want the player to feel that he is fighting a credible threat, and that it's a technically savvy enemy also.

IGN AU: You mentioned earlier that you actively rejected Microsoft's Live Anywhere strategy. How the hell did they take that? Were they edgy about it?

Grant Collier: We said no and they didn't call back.

IGN AU: (laughs) So what were the discussions like?

Grant Collier: Our rep left us a message saying 'hey, want to talk about this, Live Anywhere, it's big, it's cool', and I thought, well yeah, if you're playing online poker, but who wants to be playing an RTS on a console and have some guy on a PC clicking and dragging all his troops, attacking your base while you're sitting there with your thumb sticks. So I think for FPSs and RTSs, no way, but for, y'know, card games or Tetris or something like that. There are games that I think it's cool for, but there are other games where I don't think there's any point. So they just didn't respond.

IGN AU: That was it huh?

Grant Collier: Yeah, we just said no way.

IGN AU: Do you get the vibe that they're not pushing as hard for that kind of feature these days?

Grant Collier: No, just that maybe they wouldn't apply the same pressure on us that they would other developers.


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