The Human Story Behind Call Of Duty's Zombie Mode

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Jesse Snyder, the creator of Call of Duty’s Zombies mode, sacrificed sleep and faced internal pushback when making the now-iconic undead mode for the game. In the process, he also realized he’d rather make less realistic games, not the gritty simulation fare of Call of Duty. Now, he’s the creative director at NantG, and this week at GDC, Jason and I interviewed him about his past and future on Kotaku Splitscreen.


In the second half of the episode (34:45), we talked to Andrew Maximov, the CEO and founder of Promethean AI, which is a software tool aimed at making video game artists’ lives easier. Maximov describes this tool as a (robot) junior artist who helps with the grunt work, allowing the human artists to focus on the grander creative details.

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Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt below:

Jason: So you left Treyarch right after that? Right after the game shipped?

Jesse Snyder: Yeah, pretty much. I started on Black Ops 1, and the final catalyst was my wife’s mother’s fiancé had died in Vietnam. And so now here I am working on-they were saying it was going to be this Vietnam game, and I was really uncomfortable with that. And I’d even had some uncomfortable conversations even working on World War II games, where my wife’s grandfather fought in Bastogne, and I’d worked on a Bastogne level, and so he’s asking me about it. And I didn’t know it, right? And then I felt like I was walking into this trap, and I felt really embarrassed and bad. It’s like, I’m making money for companies off of things that these people did.

Jason: That’s a weird thing to grapple with. I was in the office the other day and Stephen Totilo my boss, who sits across from me, was watching some trailer of some military shooter, and even just hearing the sounds kind of creeps me out. The weird glorification of military shooters has never quite sat right with me. What was that like to grapple with?

Jesse: For me, it wasn’t so bad. It was just one more thing. Like, okay, I want to go be doing something else. And that’s really why I wanted to go. Part of it was Zombies, doing crazier stuff like that. I’ve always been into games that are just more interesting, rather than trying to be sim type stuff. Although, that being said, one of my favorite games is Kerbal Space Program.


Maddy: Which is exactly like reality. As we all know.

Jesse: Yes!

Jason: Then you went to 343... and you were like, “We’re gonna put zombies in Halo.”


Jesse: [laughs] Yeah. “Hey, I have an idea for a mode. Take the Flood...” We were joking about that a lot.

Maddy: This idea just followed you at every job you ever had after that? It’s the zombie guy!


Jesse: “Just do zombies again!” You say that, but what ended up happening at 343—I’m cutting out a lot of stuff, but because I had worked on Call of Duty, they expected, “make it like Call of Duty” type design. And I was like, “No, I came to work on Halo! You don’t understand!”

For more, listen to the entire episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.



So, I had the pleasure to do QA on World at War and the DLC (...go ahead, try to find my name, there’s at least a hundred people credited...), and damn if the Zombie mode wasn’t a massive breath of fresh air when we got to pl- er, “test” it. Even just the first level, simple as it was, you had people figuring out the strategies, working out the call-outs, people shouting out reloading, getting enthusiastic when you’d finish one of the high-end waves.

I mean, sure, we were *testing*, but, uh, it was a new feature added late in development, we had to be *extra* vigorous in making sure that it was all fine, and if that meant spending an hour or two in this really exciting game mode in the best environment for 4 man coop (everyone sitting near each other)? Damn it, that’s what the job calls for!

Oh, and yeah, the Peleliu Ray Gun stuff... we were less amused by that. When we found out about it, QA kinda had to scramble in response. QA isn’t in the habit of pressing the use key on every single piece of the environment (we tend to have bigger issues), so we had to spend kinda the entire day spawning the ray gun and firing it at *everything*, looking for anything that might go wrong.

...and the leads were kinda hoping that it would crash the game or something, just so that there’d be something to rub the developer’s face in, saying “This is why you tell QA things!”

There weren’t any real problems with it, thankfully, but still, twas an odd day :).