We speak with the creative director of Raven Software about how the Gulag came to be and what's next for it.
Activision's battle royale game Call of Duty: Warzone is currently lighting up the charts, and you can view its latest patch notes here. With 60 million players and counting, the game is performing strongly in its own right, and it's also fuelling the growth of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which recently became the most popular Call of Duty game in history.
One of the defining features of Warzone is the Gulag. Players who die on the battlefield are sent to the Gulag, where they face off against other players in one-on-one battles for a chance at redeploying. It's a simple enough idea that is resonating with players.
Developer Raven Software led the effort to create Warzone and the Gulag specifically. We spoke with creative director Amos Hodge about the origins, design, and response to the Gulag.
Where did the idea for the Gulag come from in the first place? Hodge said the team, from the very beginning, wanted to create a way for players to return to the battlefield after death.
"Single-life game modes do a fantastic job of adding tension to the gameplay. But they are also unforgiving and can encourage an overly cautious playstyle. After all, one unlucky move and your game is over," Hodge said.
Another key consideration was that Raven wanted to ensure that the redeployment mechanic was not dependent on teammates. "Not all players have a full squad working together as a well-oiled machine. And there is a certain poetry to a player earning their own way back into the game," Hodge said.
Concurrently with Raven's development of what would become the Gulag, another team was working on Modern Warfare's 2v2 Gunfight mode. It was "showing strong signs of promise," Hodge said, and this helped encourage the team to realise its vision for a new way of cheating death.
"With our high-level goals in mind it was a small jump to prototype a mechanic where players had to fight their way back into the game," Hodge said.
As players know, the Gulag is based directly on the mission "The Gulag" from Modern Warfare 2 (which can you play again in Remastered fashion right now). "We wanted to keep the look, theme, and mood from the MW2 campaign, but we need to make sure the combat space was symmetrical to keep both players on equal footing. The end result worked perfectly," Hodge said. "It feels like the Gulag from the campaign and the layout feels balanced."
Hodge also shared some new insight on ideas that Raven had for the Gulag that didn't make it through. He said Raven toyed with the idea of allowing players who successfully win their 1v1 Gulag match to redeploy with their full loadout or their Gulag loadout. The team also thought about taking everything away from players. But the team ultimately decided to go with a pistol. "The pistol was enough so the player wasn’t defenceless, but wasn’t so strong that the Gulag player could drop onto active players for easy kills," Hodge said.
The developer also spoke about how Raven is planning additional changes to the Gulag in regards to starting weapons. However, the overall goal is to keep the number of weapons limited so players can familiarize themselves with them. Hodge also told us how the very existence of the Gulag changes player psychology and behavior to be more daring and courageous, because they know they can (potentially) respawn.
Check out GameSpot's full interview with Hodge below, and keep checking back with GameSpot for the latest. There is much more to come for Warzone, as Activision recently promised it will deliver new seasons of content, game modes, and more.
GameSpot: Now that you're a few months in, how are you feeling about the release overall and the stamp you've made on the CoD brand?
Amos Hodge: We are excited with the performance of Warzone. I started in the games industry to make fun experiences and share them with as many people as possible. To see people having fun and enjoying something I helped create is an experience unlike anything else.
The great thing about multiplayer games today is that we get to continually update them. We gather feedback, we build new content, and we continually grow the game. We are always looking for the next thing to take Warzone to the next level.
The Gulag is what we're here to talk about, and it's one of Warzone's more unique and innovative features. Can you talk about your inspiration for this going back to the beginning?
We knew from the beginning that we wanted a way for players who had been eliminated to get an extra shot at coming back. Single life game modes do a fantastic job of adding tension to the gameplay. But they are also unforgiving and can encourage an overly cautious playstyle. After all, one unlucky move and your game is over.
It didn’t take much discussion to arrive at a few high-level goals. First, we didn’t want a mechanic that was dependent on your teammates. Not all players have a full squad working together as a well-oiled machine. And there is a certain poetry to a player earning their own way back into the game. Second, we wanted to focus on what CoD does best, and that is gun play.
At the time, 2v2 Gunfight in Modern Warfare was being developed and was showing strong signs of promise. With our high-level goals in mind it was a small jump to prototype a mechanic where players had to fight their way back into the game.
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Can you share any stories from Gulag's development that speak to how you iterated on the idea before landing on what fans are seeing in the final game?
Immediately we realized that once a player was in Gulag, the wait time before your fight was comically long. We decided to create six different Gulag locations, so we could spread players out and shorten the wait time.
As time went on Gulag started to feel a little repetitive. It was a small simple map and you saw it every game. We created three different Gulag layouts to keep things feeling fresher longer. In total, we have six Gulag locations with three different layouts.
We also iterated quite a bit on what players have equipped when they came back from Gulag. We tried giving them their full loadout, we tried letting them keep the Gulag loadout, we tried giving them nothing, and eventually we settled on a pistol. The pistol was enough so the player wasn’t defenceless, but wasn’t so strong that the Gulag player could drop onto active players for easy kills.
In terms of the design, I recently played the MW2 Remastered Campaign and it seems Warzone's recreation of the Gulag is incredibly faithful to that. How much did you want to change and keep the same?
This was the perfect opportunity to connect our fight for your life mechanic into CoD lore. It grounds the mechanic into the CoD universe. It was paramount that we recreated the feeling of Gulag from MW2.
What were some of the design principles you followed when adapting the campaign's Gulag for a multiplayer environment?
We wanted to keep the look, theme, and mood from the MW2 campaign, but we need to make sure the combat space was symmetrical to keep both players on equal footing. The end result worked perfectly. It feels like the Gulag from the campaign and the layout feels balanced.
What do you want the player to feel when they are in the Gulag? I know I feel tense and on-edge, given the stakes and the 1v1 nature….
It was important that we sell the concept of being captured and fighting for your freedom. We wanted the mechanic to feel grounded and part of a single continuous experience.
We wanted the player to feel tension as well. But not just the normal tension of a 1v1 fight. We wanted the tension of knowing your team was still fighting and you needed a win to get back to them. It’s an added social tension.
What are you hearing from players in regard to feedback about the Gulag so far?
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Players love the chance to come back into the game and it feels fair. Players can be bolder in early combat and one mistake doesn’t have to be the end. It keeps the in-game player count higher for longer giving players more time and more combat engagements.
Are you planning any updates for Gulag in the future, like different starting weapons or a change in layout for the prison itself to keep things fresh?
We are looking at changing up the Gulag starting weapons for future updates to keep things fresh. The goal is to maintain a small set of weapons so players can get familiar with them.
From a gameplay perspective, how do you think it affects the player psychology of the overall Warzone experience to know that dying on the battlefield doesn't mean your game is over?
Players are more willing to take risks and complete contracts. Gulag lessens the sting of that first death and shifts the focus to a 1v1 battle. Your Gulag battle adds to your chance of winning. And who doesn’t love coming back for revenge?
Do you have any numbers, or anecdotal stories, about how many people have returned to the battlefield from the Gulag and then gone on to win a match?
One of our guiding principles in Warzone has always been a focus on player stories. This focus is what contributes to the sandbox feel of Warzone.
Winning Gulag feels great. But it feels even better to win Gulag, then buy your teammates back and go on to win the game. Almost everyone has a Gulag comeback story. That is one of the keys to its success.