Call of Duty "transcends entertainment in such a massive way"
Sledgehammer COO Michael Condrey talks to us about working on MW3 and the exciting DLC "season" in progress
Headquartered in Santa Monica, California, Activision Blizzard, Inc. is a worldwide pure-play online...
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 defied all odds last year, setting a new entertainment sales record for the third consecutive year. In just 24 hours, the game grossed $400 million in the US and UK, and went on to gross $1 billion throughout the world in 16 days of availability. Now months later fans still can't get enough, even though some in the business believe Call of Duty could be fading. The truth of the matter is that the brand has been taken to new heights, and between Call of Duty Elite, a Call of Duty XP show, and tons of DLC content, Call of Duty is truly its own phenomenon.
The recent successes certainly would not be possible without the efforts of Sledgehammer Games, which stepped up in a time of great need for Activision. Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey believes that MW3 has shown what his studio is capable of achieving and he's thrilled to be fueling the franchise with added DLC content - a unique collaborative process between three different developers under Activision's wing.
GamesIndustry International recently caught up with Condrey to discuss the Call of Duty momentum, the pressures and opportunities of next-gen consoles, and the increasing reality that one studio can't do it all on a franchise.
Q: With Call of Duty blowing away everyone's expectations again since last November, have you been able to take a step back and reflect? What has this whole ride been like for you, coming from the Sledgehammer side, and being asked to work on Call of Duty, being asked to step up because Infinity Ward had people leaving?
Michael Condrey: I'm glad you asked. I mean, it has given us a chance to reflect. It was a really remarkable two years and it was a real honor to be a part of it. As you know, Call of Duty sort of transcends entertainment in such a massive way. To think we had a chance to play a part in that. The developers at all the studios involved, in particular Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer, I can't tell you how much passion and dedication was poured into making this the absolutely best game possible. To have it be received well by the fans, to see that sort of interest, the level of engagement…man, it's rewarding beyond words. Was it exciting/challenging/harrowing for two years? Absolutely, the bar was higher than ever. For Sledgehammer Games in particular, a brand new studio, our coming out, if you will - our reputation was going to in some ways be built on how well this game was received.
"I don't want to sound like this is a clichéd statement in any way. This is as genuine as I can be; Activision has been fantastic in supporting us"
Now we have a chance to sit back with a humble pride, be pretty thankful. Now we're in the DLC season and continue to support it, and we have people that are really very vocal about what they want to be doing more of and less of, and we have that dialogue, which a lot of games don't have. A lot I've worked on in the past, I worked hard and am proud of what I did in the past, but the community just wasn't there. This is a fantastic community, so yeah this has been a special run for Sledgehammer Games, absolutely.
Q: Is there something about the game that you wanted to be able to implement, that you didn't have enough time for, something you are addressing now with DLC?
Michael Condrey: Someone asked me recently about my take on the idea that DLC now represents content that should be in the box. What I can say hands down, in no uncertain terms, is the studio has poured every last bit of value that they could to put out the best experience in November. Everything that we've delivered since has been new ideas, new innovation and things that we've wanted to do after November. We held nothing back, but it's a massive game. The campaign is an eight-hour blockbuster and I'm really proud of that. We put a lot of time into making that into what it became. Multiplayer...Spec Ops, survival and mission modes... man, we could not have gotten anything else in.
But having a chance to now have a little bit of time and dialog with the community around what they want more of, [there are plenty of ] new ideas. We hear about everything from tuning the weapons to new weapons to multiplayer maps to different size multiplayer maps to new themes to new mechanics, new innovations in mission modes. So it's nice to have this time to really innovate.
Q: Now that you've had the opportunity to work on this, do you feel like Sledgehammer will be pigeonholed into becoming one of the studios that does nothing but Call of Duty? Is that a concern for you? Maybe you'd like to branch out at some point and work on some other IP and have creative vision on other things besides the shooter genre?
Michael Condrey: Pigeonholed? No. We came to Activision; we left Dead Space, and great roles at EA to be part of Call of Duty. I've been a fanatical fan of the franchise for over a decade. To contribute to it, to be a part of it, we came to do Call of Duty. As I think you remember, our first endeavor was sort of an attempt to bridge those two, to take Call of Duty into this action-adventure space in a cool and interesting way. I've done FPS in the past; I've worked on FPS for years. It's a genre as a gamer I play a lot, and as a developer I really enjoy. I don't want to sound like this is a clichéd statement in any way. This is as genuine as I can be; Activision has been fantastic in supporting us. I know if the time ever came down the road that if we wanted to go do something different, try something new that they would be behind us. For right now, I think that the studio is really excited to continue supporting what is arguably the biggest franchise in our industry.
Q: Have you thought about what might be possible with next-gen Call of Duty? The Wii U is going to be out later this year and beyond that Sony and Microsoft will have something in 2013. Does that kind of get your creative juices flowing about what the technology would allow you to do?
Michael Condrey: Yeah, it's interesting. With every generation, you get to into that place in your current generation where you're really efficient with your hardware; you finally know how to maximize the hardware and technology. That's a really great place to be for a developer because you get to focus on the "what," like really the creative iteration of the "what" in the game and less on the "how" and that's nice. With any generational leap, early on in the cycle you start to focus on the how. "How do I get to do this on the hardware?" because you're learning it and it provides a challenge. At the same time, it's exciting. It offers new innovations and more horsepower and all of those things. It's sort of having one foot in each. In some ways I'm like "Man, what we've got right now is really amazing and really powerful, we know what we're doing and we can create and iterate better than before."
What's coming next is super exciting. I was in presentation a couple weeks ago, and it reminded me. They are calling this the eighth generation. The next generation will be called generation 8; there have been eight hardware transitions and with each one it brings unique opportunities and challenges. I think the future for the industry is exciting, but at the same time I'm really proud of what we've done with this one.
Q: You're in a unique position, and so is Infinity Ward, working on a franchise that's become more than a billion dollars. Activision is pumping huge resources into it and that's a position that most developers are not in. With the next round of consoles, the budgets are going to have to go up yet again. I'm wondering if the industry can sustain this. Stepping back from Sledgehammer for a minute, do you have concerns about other developers and the industry at large given the financial patterns we're seeing?
Michael Condrey: [It used to be] if you were a top 10 title, you were going to be successful for the year. Now it narrows to the top five titles where the industry and fans are spending the most time, right? So if you think top five and what games came out this year, I mean holy crap. Call of Duty, Portal 2, Gears of War, Batman, Uncharted, and Skyrim. Dude, there are probably 10 games that should qualify as top five games. If the economics can't support ten top five games, it's going to force some changes in the model. I think that will bring challenges, but that's where in the past we've seen the most innovation. People try new things; they are forced to try new things. You get cool new offshoots; we're seeing it now.
There's amazing things happening on iOS, freemium models and the social games. Across the industry, it's as exciting as I've ever seen it in terms of innovation and trying new things out. I think there's always going to be a place for blockbuster triple-A titles, and Call of Duty is one of those. There's always the summer blockbuster movies we all can't wait to see. I think it's when you get stuck in that middle place - where you are not a moderately successful title, but an inexpensive title - it's a tough place to be right now, no doubt. And it might get tougher. We're fortunately not in that space, and we think that Activision is going to do everything it can to keep the fans engaged and the games innovative as possible to help maintain that position.
Q: So from your perspective on Call of Duty, is this something where it will continue to be a collaborative effort, or will Sledgehammer sort of create completely on its own? Or are you going to continue with Infinity Ward? How does the next project work for you?
Michael Condrey: I think the reality of developing this massive a game - by massive I mean the value proposition to the amount of time you can play it to the production values of each piece to the support from the company - it is a game that demands excellence in every aspect. I think it's going to become increasingly challenging for one studio to do it all. Personally, that's just my honest opinion. Sledgehammer did the co-dev with Infinity Ward, which I think was great. I think it resulted in a better game because we worked together; we brought complementary talents and a sort of collaboration to push each other forward. Right now, we're looking at how we make the best possible game for the fans. If that's one studio being focused and delivering it, that's great. If it's bringing the best talent from all the studios like we're doing now for DLC - we got us and Raven and Infinity Ward all working together - at the end of the day it's got to be an amazing game that's super fun for the fans. I'm good with either model. I would love to have Sledgehammer games lead, and I would be honored to work again with Infinity Ward.
Q: Has there been any talk of Sledgehammer helping out with this year's Call of Duty, handled by Treyarch? Have you been asked to do anything on that one?
Michael Condrey: Right now Sledgehammer Games with Raven and Infinity Ward are 100 percent focused on DLC, really blowing out best-in-class, biggest, most ambitious DLC season, so that's where the attention is. We've got a lot to come; this will be the biggest DLC season ever for Call of Duty, and the fans are going to really enjoy that. So that's where we're at. And with all the studios coming together on DLC we have more offerings and better offerings, so the collaboration on DLC I think is pretty special.
Q: When I met with Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirschberg at DICE, he referred to Call of Duty as the NFL of video games. Activision doesn't worry about the annualized schedule, and the fans keep coming back. Do you look at this as having Call of Duty seasons?
Michael Condrey: It's interesting to me - as a gamer, I couldn't wait. This was our first chance to develop with Infinity Ward. That was awesome, but I've been buying Call of Duty as a fan for over a decade. A majority of my time has been on the other side; it has been the fan experience. I don't know how you felt, but every year, I could not wait. When Modern Warfare 2 was done, I would have given them $50 the next day to get Modern Warfare 3. I said the same thing about Uncharted, right. The minute I finished Uncharted 2, I wanted Uncharted 3 because good content that hooks you, I mean that's awesome, whether that's a sports season (and I'm a big football fan and look forward to pre-season every year) or a game or TV show. Are you a fan of Walking Dead?
"For a team to deliver something as big as MW3, it is draining, absolutely. To think that that same team can immediately just jump straight into post-ship support and patches and DLC, that is not sustainable. You cannot burn a team for that hard for that long"
Q: I am indeed.
Michael Condrey: So when you think about that, this year was interesting. They split the season in half. Rather than have the full season, they took a mid-season break. I don't know about you, but I could not wait to get back to it. The anticipation was [palpable.] I like to think Call of Duty is in that place, where it represents something that is emotionally powerful to gamers, and they can't wait for the next one.
Q: So does that mean from the studio perspective that you never get any rest?
Michael Condrey: In all honesty, game developers are some of the hardest working people I've ever known. My entire career has been one great opportunity to the next without much rest. Whether that's changing franchises or in the same franchise, it's the one thing that gets overlooked sometimes. It's just how much passion and hard work developers put into doing something they believe in. You see it sometimes through all the social channels, and you'll get vocal minorities who are really critical. I'm all for constructive feedback, but if they walked a mile in the shoes of a developer or knew how hard they worked... So yeah, every year is exciting and fun and demanding, and rewarding and Call of Duty is no different.
The bar is much higher and that puts a certain level of anticipation around it. But you know, the good thing is that the DLC season is going well. Everyone pushed hard for Modern Warfare 3 and now we're in this cool, creative season for DLC. It has a different cadence and it lets people try new things, so it's a rewarding time right now.
Q: With the old model where you didn't have the DLC, you would work on a video game for two or three years, and then you'd go on a vacation. Now you really can't go on a vacation, since it's a year-round service.
Michael Condrey: No, post launch support, DLC, community engagement, you can't. It's true. It does demand a different level of dedication. But I can tell you that the teams are working as hard as they've ever worked to do those things, to get the updates out, to make sure the tuning is right and to offer a compelling DLC. It definitely changes how you approach it and I think that's why the collaborative studio model works. For a team to deliver something as big as MW3, it is draining, absolutely. To think that that same team can immediately just jump straight into post-ship support and patches and DLC, that is not sustainable. You cannot burn a team for that hard for that long, and so for teams to go and new teams to come in and add new ideas and bounce ideas, to be able to spread that across Sledgehammer, Infinity Ward and Raven is a win for studio and the fans.
Q: Thanks Michael, good talking with you.