In the beginning, there was Infinity Ward -- that's where Activision's "Call of Duty" franchise started back in 2003. It has since become a yearly phenomenon, with the latest chapter alone -- 2010's "Call of Duty: Black Ops" -- selling more than 23 million copies and 18 million downloadable map packs since its release. Infinity Ward now trades back and forth year-to-year with "Black Ops" developer Treyarch, but this year marks a special occasion: IW is collaborating for the first time with a franchise newcomer, Sledgehammer Games.
Sledgehammer brings an assortment of talents to the table, with a team made up of "Dead Space" and "Ratchet and Clank" development veterans. CEO Michael Condrey spoke with Comic Book Resources this past weekend at Activision's Call of Duty XP fan event in Los Angeles about being the new kid on the "Call of Duty" block.
The soft-spoken studio head has a laid-back charm, the kind of guy you'd want to hang out with and -- you guessed it -- play "Call of Duty" with. He seemed very relaxed amidst the weekend's gathering of series fans, arguably the largest such group yet assembled in one place, even in the face of pressure from fans and media alike to -- well, to not screw it up.
"The interesting about this for us was, it was the first time I was really involved in a true co-development relationship," Condrey told CBR News. "A lot of the industry is going to various studio models where they have support. Big projects take a lot of people. This one was two teams, very passionate, very talented, and we really just merged those into one virtual studio. So it was truly a co-development. That means both studios contribute to every part of the game, campaign, Spec Ops, multiplayer, character design, audio, it's all intertwined with the idea that the best ideas surface and that's what's gonna make a great game for fans."
A healthy competitive streak exists nonetheless amidst all those feelings of camaraderie, but it sounds more like the good-natured back-and-forth of brothers in arms than it does like one studio trying to outdo another.
"There's a lot of multiplayer being played between the studios, absolutely," Condrey said, chuckling. "Infinity Ward has some really great MP players and, I'll be honest, Sledgehammer does too. One of the guys on my team just hit his 11th prestige on 'Black Ops,' so he's no slouch. Guy Beahm, my community manager, is near competitive level. So we've got some good players in our studio."
Surprisingly, in-office fragfests are the only competitions the studios are concerned with, at least from Condrey's perspective. Many will point to the big showdown between "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" and "Battlefield 3" as the marquee fight this holiday season, but the CEO doesn't see it that way.
"When you think about competition this year, I think about tons of games I want to buy. I want to buy 'Gears of War.' I want to buy 'Uncharted,'" Condrey said. One journalist shouted out "Skyrim," the much-anticipated release from Bethesda Softworks. Condrey nodded in approval. "Right? Another great game."
"My approach is to think about this sort of like film. When have I ever gone into the summer going, 'There's too many great movies.' As a consumer of films, great films, I want to see 'em all."
Unsurprisingly, "Battlefield" went noticeably unmentioned until later, when a member of the press drew attention to the absence of the competing title from our discussion. Condrey responded in careful, measured tones, never once using the word "Battlefield" -- again, no surprise -- but clearly speaking from an honest, knowing place.
"I think the best way to describe it is, 'Call of Duty' is founded on some principles in design that are pretty focused: epic cinematic sequences, best-in-class multiplayer, 60 frames per second, all this stuff you guys already heard about. So we're staying true to that," Condrey explained. "We know where we're going in November and our convictions about what the game's gonna be in November for the fans and what they wanted is going to make it great. So I would say that we're in a race to our finish line, we're focused on our goal line, and it feels like other people want to jump into the race with us and focus on what we're doing. That's up to them, right? We're focused on bringing a worthy successor to 'Modern Warfare 2.'"
Electronic Arts, the publisher of "Battlefield," has taken what can best be described as an aggressive strategy in dealing with the competition posed by "Call of Duty" this holiday. The company's public stance has been very attack-oriented, with people as high up in the company as CEO John Riccitiello flat-out declaring the EA title offers the stronger experience.
Activision boss Eric Hirshberg addressed that sort of "mudslinging" approach in his Gamescom keynote address last month, and the methodology espoused by these words resonated deeply with Condrey. "I thought it was really respectful of him to get up in front of that audience and talk about the idea that this industry is better than that," Condrey said. "We need to be true to our fans and true to ourselves, and any energy other than that is wasted.
"We're focused on doing whatever we can to make 'Modern Warfare 3' phenomenal for the fans, and we're not going to be distracted with tearing other people down or worried about where they're going, or not celebrating when they do something great."