While much of the attention this holiday season will be the start of the "next-gen console war," on the software side there may be no bigger showdown than Call of Duty: Ghosts vs. Battlefield 4. During his days as EA CEO, John Riccitiello seemed to be obsessed with dethroning Call of Duty from the shooter market, and even after leaving the company Riccitiello still felt strongly that Battlefield would achieve that goal this year. If you ask Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin, however, that's really just an executive and marketing perspective.
Speaking with GamesIndustry International, Rubin said he actually very much enjoys seeing what other high-profile shooters are doing. It's more about developer camaraderie and elevating games as a medium together than it is a competition.
"It's less antagonistic, from a developer's side - sure marketing and stuff is all [about that] but on a developer's side it's like, 'Oh, did you see that stuff they're doing? That's so cool!' We could do something that's like this and that and we get excited about seeing that kind of stuff. So from a developer's side, it definitely pushes us [to do better]. But it pushes us in a - I don't know if other studios feel this way - but I hope in a sort of camaraderie type sense. 'Oh, those guys are doing awesome stuff. Let's jack up our game.' But not like two opposing teams. Rather, like the same team pushing in the same direction," he explained.
"I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we're all successful"
"We all want gaming, in general to be awesome, because if gaming isn't good, then we all lose our jobs in a sense. So for us, I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we're all successful."
Interestingly, Infinity Ward plays psychological games with itself, so the studio doesn't rest on its laurels. When a big franchises repeatedly breaks sales records, it's easy to become self-assured, but Rubin wants to ensure that doesn't happen.
"Every year, every time we made a new one it was the same thing [in terms of competition], and I like that. I think that's the part that keeps us hungry, that keeps us... we don't want to feel like the top dog, necessarily. We want to feel like it's a struggle every time. We want to feel that almost 'Rocky moment', which is kind of a weird thing to say, but we do want to feel like that. We want to feel like we've got a huge challenge in front of us. We can't just phone this in and ship a game and expect it to sell. We actually really have to do harder work this year than we did last year," Rubin stressed.
One of the big things EA DICE has been stressing with Battlefield 4 is how next-gen is going to drive emotions and connect players with the in-game characters. Rubin agrees that this is a key element and he said that Ghosts will seek to offer that emotional connection on a couple fronts, with the military dog and the two brothers in the game.
"We actually didn't make that big of a deal about the dog - it was just in a trailer and all of a sudden the internet blew up and made the dog became this sensation... People are so in love with the dog. They're already emotionally invested. It's amazing how many Twitter messages I get saying - in all caps - if you guys kill the dog, I will never play another...and I'm like, ooh, you're emotionally attached..."
As for the two brothers in the game, Rubin noted, "We're really trying to push - paying attention to just those two guys the whole story through and their emotional story and have the world have an emotional impact on it." Rubin emphasized that the storyline has benefited enormously from Hollywood veteran Stephen Gaghan, who's completely embraced the video game medium.
"He really is looking at this in a way that I've never seen a Hollywood writer look at it. He looks at writing for a game as an amazing chance at an artistic challenge as a writer," Rubin said. "One of the things he described was... he goes, 'As a writer, this is like art film. Basically, think about it. Your main character, your main star of your movie, is never seen and never talks. And so you have to craft a story that deals with that.' Think about it. If you took a game, our game, and you put it into a film where the main character never talked, never spoke, you never saw him - it would be like one of those black and white crazy French films. So he really loves the challenge of it and he's been really engaged with everything."
"There's a disconnect between Hollywood and the game industry. They have two different languages. And they haven't in the past talked very well. And I think that's changing," he added.
One of the big challenges for Infinity Ward this year is not only to launch another top selling Call of Duty experience, but also to ensure the current-gen versions are just as impressive as the next-gen SKUs. After all, the bulk of sales this holiday will still be for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
"Having an agnostic start, even before next-gen came out, really helped us get into this. We're not making one platform and then porting. All the platforms are actually made at the same time. When somebody checks some work in, they have to make sure every platform works and that that check doesn't break on one platform... The other part of it is, the new engine that we created is across all platforms. It's not just next-gen. So the current-gen is actually getting a lot of benefit out of this new engine," he said.
"I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event."
Rubin also described how Infinity Ward made "a semi-dramatic change on our pipeline internally" when it comes to art assets. "What we've done with this generation change, especially for the art pipeline, that being the biggest difference, is we're making our big art assets at cinema quality, not even PC quality, but above next-gen. It's at this really amazing looking cinema quality asset. What we're doing, we use that and we create assets for each platform that are the best for the platform. So now every platform, instead of having a sort of average art asset, they're getting the best asset for that platform," he said.
A project the size of Call of Duty requires a massive amount of resources, but Infinity Ward likes to keep its size fairly small for a AAA studio. Rubin explained how the difficult past with Vince Zampella and Jason West leaving (followed by around half of the staff) actually forced Infinity Ward to reevaluate its ways and in the end, the entire studio is stronger for it.
"I've been at the studio since Call of Duty 2. It was, on a personal level, a pretty rough time. And the cool thing was for those of us who decided to stay, we were looking at having to do a new game with Modern Warfare 3 and to rebuild the studio, so we had to figure out how to do that," he said. "It could have gone in any number of directions. We could have hired on a bunch of people quickly, just really mass higher and bulk up. We could have grown slowly and hired a bunch of art outsourcing companies and outsource a lot of the work. But these outside companies aren't personally invested in the game; you give them a list of stuff to do, they do it and send it back. What we decided on - and Activision was great about supporting what we wanted to do - we found a studio in Sledgehammer who could be as passionate about the game as we would be if we did co-development. That actually worked out really well for us."
"We were able to make Modern Warfare 3, and make it at the level and quality that we would expect, and not have to do the ballooning growth, and instead we were able to hire over time. That hiring process continued throughout Modern Warfare 3 and into Ghosts, and now we're at the largest we have ever been. We are at 125 people, which is actually a medium to small studio nowadays for the size of the title. If you look at most other studios they are around 300 or 400 people. We feel 125 is the culturally right number to be at."
Rubin said that the slow rehiring process actually let Infinity Ward tap into some Hollywood CG talent, and it also made the studio realize that for the long-term, working with other studios is ultimately beneficial.
"When we set out to rehire, and we said let's make sure that bar is really high, it actually opened some interesting new doors for us, and particularly in art, animation and effects. By being in LA, we've ended up having to really tap into the Hollywood CG talent, and we've actually gotten a number of guys who've never done games - they're all film guys - but they bring just a different level of quality and some new tech ideas. A lot of the tech that you see in the new engine is based on feedback from them with things like Sub-D (subdivision modeling), which is something that Pixar developed years ago and Hollywood's been using for years but always in a pre-rendered state. For us, having it real-time in engine was a big feat for us and something we're really happy with," he said.
"And from an industry standpoint games are getting harder to make and they're taking bigger and bigger budgets and bigger teams, and so this gave us an opportunity to sort of retool some of the structure internally. I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event. It forced our hand to go down that route, which in the long run turned out to be good for us. I think we are much more capable now of doing these big projects. We are only 125 people and it does take more than that to make these big games, so one of the things we learned from MW3 is how to work with outside studios. That's something we've never done the past. The previous games were all very insular, and that's not really possible now. Working with outside studios like Sledgehammer was a difficult transition but now we've gotten past that learning phase, and so on this game we're getting a lot of help from other studios, Raven and Neversoft."