The trailer for the next Call of Duty, November's Call of Duty: Ghosts, makes it all seem so pleasantly straightforward. New Call of Duty! From the people who made the one that made this series a phenomenon. Not quite.
But not completely wrong, either.
Infinity Ward, the studio founded in 2002 by Jason West and Vince Zampella still exists and still makes Call of Duty games, including the new Ghosts. West and Zampella, however, are long gone, as are more than 40 other developers who created 2007's blockbuster Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and 2009's Modern Warfare 2.
In 2010 West and Zampella were fired by parent company Activision for alleged acts of insubordination. More than half of Infinity Ward, including the studio's top designers and programmers, left in a show of solidarity.
Coverage of the 2010 drama at Infinity Ward depicted a studio thoroughly gutted of its top game creators, one stripped of key talent. Yet, on schedule and with the help of other Activision studios including the new Sledgehammer games, Infinity Ward released a new Modern Warfare in 2011 and is prepping Ghosts, without major Sledgehammer help, it seems, for 2013.
So, what exactly is Infinity Ward? And how much continuity is there, really, between the creators of Modern Warfare and the Infinity Ward of today?
"There was about 40 of us that stayed," Ghosts executive producer Mark Rubin recently told me on a day I'd just been shown some footage of the new game. "I was there from Call of Duty 2. We have guys that were there from the [Infinity Ward predecessor] 2015 days."
Deciding to stay or leave back in 2010 wasn't easy, he recalled. It was an emotional time. And a strange one.
"It's just that we had to make calls," he said. "We had to make decisions. It's hard to leave a game that you love and that you poured yourself into so much. For a lot of people that was the choice they had to make."
Half of the team walked. The split may have been 50/50 in terms of headcount, but not in terms of job duties. A list maintained by online writer Cynical Smirk shows the imbalance, striking through senior developer after senior developer from the Modern Warfare 2 credits. (The list was last updated in 2010; some of the key people who left to join West and Zampella's new studio Respawn Entertainment, makers of the upcoming Titanfall, have themselves left Respawn, West and top CoD game designer Todd Alderman included.)
Infinity Ward's top Modern Warfare 2 level designers and programmers may have been gone by mid-2010, but other key people did stay, Rubin told me. "We had myself, the producer, we have our whole audio department from lead down to the lowest person," he said.
"Our art department was almost wholly untouched in some areas." Lead level, character and environment artists left, but non-lead artists stayed. "In animation, one of our most senior animators is still there.... all the IT guys there. One guy who was the first employee at Infinity Ward [is still there]. It was a mix."
The fact is that most of the developers at Infinity Ward joined the studio after Modern Warfare 2 was made. That's partially because of the departures and partially because of how IW handled life after the split.
"We were faced with an obviously a weird challenge," Rubin said, reflecting back to those days in 2010 when Modern Warfare 3 was supposed to be in development while half the studio was leaving. "And what we wanted to do—and of course it all happened at the beginning of Modern Warfare 3—so we're like, 'Ok, what are we going to do? What are we going to do? How do we solve this?' And I was like, 'Well, let's work with another studio, an outside studio and sort of co-develop.'
This is where the idea to tap Sledgehammer for help came from.
"I was talking to various people at Activision. And I said, 'I don't want some people to come in and be like, "Oh, they're the outsourced [team,]"' because an outsourced company isn't going to put that same passion into it. And so I really kind of wanted to go after a synergy between the studios, so that they were as invested as we were.
"That allowed for us as a studio to grow, and, actually, we're bigger than we've ever been. We're about 125 people. Actually, studio-wise that's probably not very big. For Infinity Ward standards that's pretty big. That allowed us to hire at a good pace instead of an, 'oh my god we need to put bodies in' and we didn't want to do that.'"
New team, new Call of Duty. The marketing line is deceptive, to an extent, as marketing lines tend to be. Ghosts isn't quite "from the creators of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series", but they're not some meager interloper studio either.
In fact, they have some big ideas for the new game, which is set about 10 years in the future in a damaged version of the United States.
New characters, new setting, new graphics engine.
Still 60 frames per second.
Still a big cinematic campaign and online multiplayer, plus some new stuff, like this, from Rubin: "In general, what we've done is create an environment where you as a player move through that world more smoothly and more naturally than you ever have before." No more running and getting stuck behind a wall. "Now, just run and sprint, hit a button and mantle. You can still fire your weapon as you mantle. You can just flow through the level like never before."
And lean! "What's cool is the lean is that it's contextual lean... If I'm near the wall and lean I'll just lean a little bit out; if I'm further away, I'll lean more. If feels comfortable. You don't feel awkward while you're leaning."
Look for more about Call of Duty: Ghosts this weekend, as Activision and the new Infinity Ward show a lot more of the game in action during a mid-day Sunday online event. We'll have coverage here.