With Call of Duty: Ghosts out the door and life at Infinity Ward having significantly changed after a difficult restructuring, development of the game's Onslaught downloadable content pack took place in a new period of openness for the studio. Executive producer Mark Rubin, who has been with Infinity Ward since Call of Duty 2 and witnessed some tumultuous times at the studio, believes this restructuring has been a huge help.
"We integrated into our outside assets more than normal," Rubin tells me. "Most of the time, studios are very insular, and they have some external art outsourcing company, or third-party middleware guys. But that is really the big thing that has changed as far as Infinity Ward goes: integration into a wider group of studios and outside help. And that system being Raven and Neversoft, who were a part of development, as well as a lot of people from central tech at Activision. It's something that I feel like as a company in general, we're one of the only companies that can do that well--put multiple studios on things like that."
According to Rubin, it's one of the few ways the developer has been able to make the amount of content Ghosts contains across its single-player, multiplayer, Extinction mode, and Squads mode. The recently released Onslaught DLC, which brings four new multiplayer maps, a new weapon, and a new map for Extinction mode into Ghosts, continues this trend.
"There's no B team in this," Rubin tells me. "This is the same guys that made the main game. They're not shifting over to a new game or anything. They're working on this DLC and have been since before launch and the game went into certification."
Despite the immediate shift toward creating content for Ghosts' four-part season pass DLC, Infinity Ward is still able to respond to feedback from the main game by reflecting it in the design of Onslaught's new maps. Rubin tells me that the DLC pack is strongly geared toward the reaction of hardcore Call of Duty fans to Ghosts' less traditional, more open map design.
"For some people, they just didn't catch on to that," Rubin elaborates. "They couldn't get their groove on. In the same way that verticality [in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2] added a dimension upward, this changed the way you approached the horizontal."
What those fans were missing from Ghosts was a more typical Call of Duty map, in which you are funnelled through three distinct lanes. "There were a few of them [in Ghosts], but not as many as normal," says Rubin. "So this first map pack is geared heavily toward those small-medium, fast-paced, frantic, classic-style Call of Duty maps. It is definitely something that I think a lot of the hardcore guys, who've played these games since they've been coming out, will appreciate."
Beyond the verbal feedback from Ghosts' players, Infinity Ward can generate heat maps to see where players are being killed most often, as well as see which of the two maps are more regularly voted for in the post-game screen. "But without that verbal feedback, it doesn't become as relevant or useful," says Rubin.
Beyond their physical layout, the maps in Ghosts' Onslaught DLC bear striking visual character, giving each of them a strong personality. One map, Fog, even contains numerous references to classic slasher films to go with its spooky smog-filled atmosphere. "We do feel that we can have a bit more fun with DLC maps than we might on full SKU maps," says Rubin, but adds that the line between a fun map with interesting character, and something that would logically fit within Call of Duty's more grounded multiplayer mode, is a fine one. It isn't easy for Infinity Ward to figure out what works within those constraints.
"It really is just the designers coming up with ideas," Rubin continues. "Going online and trying to find pictures of places to give them inspiration. Artists will listen to some of the ideas and create concept art. Then, we'll start to funnel that."
Though Onslaught is shipping with four new multiplayer maps, Infinity Ward created seven over the DLC pack's development cycle. "The others aren't polished or finished, but they got a decent way ahead," Rubin says. "We've rejected maps because we felt like they went too far. We want people to feel like it's a really cool location first. Something they haven't seen before. Then, on top of that, we want to give something that's really interesting, so that people might want to explore the map itself."
We want people to feel like it's a really cool location first. Something they haven't seen before.
After initial inspirations and pieces of concept art, Infinity Ward quickly creates a grey-box version of the level--a map that contains the basic layout, but with only flat, untextured surfaces. Once the grey-box map exists, everyone who is available in the studio has a chance to playtest it. "The cool thing is, for DLC, not as many people are crunching on game stuff, so there are a lot more people in the playtest," says Rubin.
This feedback can extend beyond the basic layout to the feel and character of the map, too. Rubin elaborates: "We had a level, and it was going a certain way. It was fun, but we didn't feel like it felt interesting. We gave it to some of our concept art guys and let them do paint-overs of whatever they wanted. 'Think of anything, just do paint-overs!' And we came up with a new idea that's completely different from what it originally was from a visual standpoint."
But it's Ghosts' Extinction mode that offers the most significant gameplay departure from previous Call of Duty games, and it's something that Onslaught is building upon with its new Extinction map, Nightfall. Though Extinction owes much to Call of Duty: Black Ops' Zombies mode, which spawned a significant following within the Call of Duty community itself, Rubin believes Ghosts' take on Black Ops' wave-based multiplayer to be its own beast.
"Zombies come toward you, and you don't know which direction, but they come slowly at first and just keep coming," he says. "There's a specific style of shooting them. But aliens, they're swarming at you from different directions, they're coming at you from higher elevations, they're jumping, they're moving in a much different manner than the zombies. That gives you a very different gameplay experience than zombies, even though it feels like it falls in the same category."
Nightfall adds two new aliens to the roster, including a stealthy enemy called the Phantom that can cloak itself. Unlike the return to the three-lane design of Onslaught's multiplayer maps, Rubin says Nightfall's new aliens were not created as a response to perceived absences in Extinction's enemy lineup at launch.
"The goal at the beginning of that was to give the player new locations and new gameplay mechanics," he continues. "A new alien is a new gameplay mechanic. Coming up with ideas of how to change the gameplay, it wasn't so much reactionary as it was just designers being designers and trying to create new experiences within this cool world."
Nightfall also continues Extinction's narrative, which Rubin says "takes the player on an experience that they may not have thought about." It's true that a story hasn't typically been what players swarm to Call of Duty's multiplayer modes for, given the complete lack of any in the past. I've always thought of Call of Duty fans as having something of a short attention span, so I wondered if that characteristic would be at odds with a desire to experience Extinction's narrative. So how does Infinity Ward design a multiplayer story for such a player?
What you want is to keep the player engaged enough that they want to finish.
"If I had an answer to that, I'd be doing GDC talks about it," Rubin laughs. "I think, for us, it's pacing. What you want is to keep the player engaged enough that they want to finish. There's no science to that. That's a designer going with a gut instinct. They're crafting stories that will not only keep you engaged and be interesting during that map pack, but also end in cliff-hangers that will keep you interested in the next one as well. We've also taken the amount of information and spread it out, so you learn something in the first pack, and then more in the second and third pack, about what's going on in the Extinction world that we've created.
"As far as keeping the short attention span, it seems to be something we do well. I don't necessarily have a good reason why. You look at how many people play our game constantly, and they honestly will play the game until the next one comes out. So we're doing something right!"
Infinity Ward will continue to absorb feedback from the community, with the reaction to the Onslaught DLC likely to inform some of the content in the game's upcoming second DLC pack, Devastation. Beyond that, anything is possible. "We're working on a few [maps] for the second DLC, but we have no idea what the third and fourth are going to look like," says Rubin. "Marketing would love for us to have this nailed down way early. We keep telling them this is not going to happen. So that's a funny conversation."