At E3 2016, I sat down for a conversation with Activision’s Jacob Minkoff and Chad Findley about Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and how Infinity Ward is doing something very different with a series everyone thinks they know.
Both Minkoff and Findley were effusive about Infinite Warfare — this is clearly not just another simple iteration of the franchise to the team behind it. The creators that rocked the gaming world with Modern Warfare are attempting to rewrite the concept of what a Call of Duty game can be, without waiting years for a reboot. I’ve never been the most ardent series devotee, but I’m officially interested in this year’s game.
Their enthusiasm throughout the interview was very apparent, and it was contagious. I frankly wasn’t expecting the raw passion on display. Minkoff and Findley were two of the most genuine people I interacted with during this year’s show — and if their excitement is any indication, we could be in for a real treat on November 4th, when the latest entry in the franchise releases on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Infinite Warfare feels like a big departure for the Call of Duty franchise. Would you care to describe it, in your own words, to our readers?
Jacob: Why don’t you hit gameplay, and I’ll hit story?
Chad: Okay. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, for me, is taking the classic old-school fight of Call of Duty, but taking it beyond the borders of the boundaries of Earth. It’s still dirt and soldiers and struggle. It’s on Earth. But it’s also on other planets; it’s on moons, on spaceships, and in space. Gameplay-wise, we wanted to go off into space because we had so much more to use.
We want to keep the ground, in part, because we find that so interesting, and we find that’s why people like the game — like, the authenticity of it, and that core gameplay. You know, 60 frames a second, all those things that are necessary. Good AI, silky smooth controls, all that. But we want to bring new things to it.
And you’re leaving Earth’s atmosphere to do it. Tell me about that.
Chad: So, being able to go to space gave us new vehicles. We have the Jackal, which is the aircraft of the future; it can work both in the atmosphere and in space. And it’s a multi-role vehicle as well; you can use it as air support and you have full control of it in combat arenas. There are no rails — well, a couple of very small rails — but, like 90% of the Jackal stuff is all freely controllable, full arena combat.
You can strafe, you can jet, you can afterburn. You have multiple weapon types, and multiple enemy types. Going into space also gave us new enemy types on the ground. We rebuilt our AI system and our animation state machine system, so that we could have different enemy types. Not just humans and robots, but different styles of robots and different sizes of robots.
Just one of those changes would have roughly doubled the combat variety you find in most Call of Duty games, but you’re also combining that with a host of new settings, new context for those conflicts.
Chad: You know, taking more advantage of the weapon classes that we have, and then going to different locations was a big one. Not just staying on Earth, now you could be on an asteroid that is spinning out of control, closer to the Sun than even Mercury is. So you’re not only worried about fighting people on the ground, but you’re also worried about making sure you can get to the next safe area that has cover over you before dayfall… or you burn apart. Or doing a zero-G breach on an enemy carrier, so you can steal an enemy fighter.
There’s a lot of stuff we couldn’t have done with the old Call of Duty, with other timelines. So, we were just looking at what we were going to do, to start with, and we said, “Just screw it. We’re going to go there, and do it, and have some fun with this.”
That’s a ballsy approach to a franchise that has been so much the same, for so long. How about the narrative?
Jacob: The super cool thing from the story perspective is that in Call of Duty, you generally play as “the new guy,” right? For instance, Soap was the new guy [in Modern Warfare], and Price was his leader. But in this game, you get to be the leader, like Price. This is the first time you are ever playing as a military commander. So Captain Reyes is, in the opening moments of the game — have you seen the theater demo?
I just came from there, actually.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
Jacob: Cool. So, a few moments after that Jackal dog fight, you land back aboard the carrier “Retribution,” the ship to which you are assigned, and you discover that the Captain of the ship has been killed in the battle. And now you, as highest ranked naval officer aboard, are field-promoted to Captain. So you now command a carrier with thousands of crew, and, as you saw in our press demo with Sony yesterday, that you have control of an UPS map, where you have missions from command that you have to go do. But you can also, as Captain, choose to designate other targets of opportunity —
I noticed that. So that’s an actual feature, not just a visual gimmick?
Jacob: Yeah, so you can go off on the ship assaults, and be like, “Okay, hey look, that Destroyer over there, I could attack it. I could choose to attack it right now and get weapons equipment upgrades, intel…” All sorts of stuff.
So we’re essentially talking about “side quests” in the campaign? Tactical decisions that will have a tangible effect?
Jacob: Yes, absolutely.
Jacob: The central narrative has a linear arc, for Reyes’ emotional journey. But these side missions have their own separate storylines, all with full voice acting and performance capture and stuff, and you can get more insight into the world, world building, et cetera.
You can do a stealth mission, where you overhear enemy commanders and learn about their goals and stuff. And of course, by doing these missions you also get, like I said, upgrades, weapons, et cetera. So you can say, “Oh, you know what? Admiral has assigned us this mission over here on Saturn’s Titan, but before I do that, I want to go and attack this enemy carrier, and it will give me weaponry that will help me attack that next one.”
So, beyond exposition, there are real rewards for exploring your options between major story events. Can you give me some examples?
Chad: Sure! Okay, so the enemy tends to use energy weapons more than the UNSA does, and energy weapons are better to use against robots. You have a couple limited to the UNSA, but if you go do assaults on enemy ships they might have an energy shotgun, or an energy sniper, and now you’ll be able to take that back and use it in the course of the main missions.
These are a lot of new ideas, all hitting the franchise simultaneously. For what seems like forever, the general consensus among series detractors, is that the series never really changes. That it remains a marginal permutation of the same game, since Modern Warfare. Now you’ve taken some enormous steps out of that safe zone, and it seems as if people are making the inverse complaint. Being different isn’t being “faithful.” Your reveal, up against Battlefield 1, provoked very… shall we say, “disparate” responses.
Chad: We have been, and continue to be, working as hard as possible on making the best game we possibly can. A reveal is a reveal, right? People see a couple minutes, but they don’t necessarily know what the game really is. But now here at E3, people can see the scope, the breadth, of what we’re doing, right? That we have nonlinear mission choice, and a giant, living hub world, and that we’re going seamlessly and continuously from ground to space, dog fighting and everything…
I think that’s true. It’s a hard line to walk. People have contempt for familiarity, yet fear change. Call of Duty has also been a convenient scapegoat for the stagnation in modern shooters, even when it’s tried to change that — as with the hard sci-fi of Black Ops 3. If anything, Infinite Warfare feels like it’s doubling down on mechanical innovations to support its world. How does the team deal with all of the contradictory responses?
Chad: Well, we’re making something awesome, we know we’re making it awesome, and we’re really excited for people to get to see what we’re really making and really rock it, really understand it. Because I think once they fully see what we’re doing, I think everyone is going to be really excited.
It’s certainly more expansive than the series has ever been.
Jacob: And with no loads once you get into the game, too.
No loading whatsoever?
Jacob: None. It’s all seamless, once you get into the game.
So, to be clear: No loading screens, from Earth, to dogfighting, to the Retribution, to other planets…
Jacob: Zero. The rest of the entire experience is completely continuous.
I’d like to dig in a little more, right here. The Retribution is going to be the “giant, living hub” of this “seamless” and “continuous” experience. That suggests a whole lot more than a mission select screen. Beyond choosing your next target, what can we expect as captain of a giant space cruiser?
Chad: There’s a lot that happens in the Retribution. So when you come back from a mission — again, because it’s seamless with no loading screens — you land your Jackal aboard the flight deck, and you’re brought down into the hangar deck. And then from the hangar deck, you can see everybody preparing for the next mission. You have a deck handler who takes your Jackal from you, you go talk to the air boss — “air boss” and “mini boss” are real things on an aircraft carrier, they are responsible for the flight deck. You go upstairs to the bridge, where there is the ward room, which is kind of like a combination mess hall and lounge, where people are watching news broadcasts about the things that you have done, and you can see the crew reacting to it. The halls are kind of buzzing with people talking about the things that you have done on your previous missions.
Jacob: Or they’re fixing things, if the ship needs it.
Chad: Sure. The ship took a lot of damage, so of course you see people repairing things over time. It’s kind of a living, changing hub. You have your Operations Office, where you can speak with the Admiral, look through personnel files, enemy intel, things like that. You’ve got an armory where your Warrant Officer recommends loadouts to you, and handles your equipment upgrades. It’s a very highly fleshed out experience. The Retribution is almost a character in and of itself.
So there’s a lot going on.
Chad: Wait until you see the inside of the Retribution in detail. You saw a little bit of it in the press demo, you saw us walking across the flight deck. I would hazard to say this is the most authentic aircraft carrier you have ever seen in a video game, even though it’s a spacecraft carrier. Because we had this admiral looking at it, and all that he could offer was ” that forklift is moving too close to the tail of that aircraft, and that green is too close to” — he was looking at our flight deck like, “Well yeah, of course that’s what flight deck crew does and all of that, but that should be over there, you know?” So it’s this very authentic, gritty military experience.
Jacob: We wanted to do the setting, like I said, to really give us the tools to use and have this seamless experience, but we also love that gritty hardcore soldier, “dirt and grease” feeling. That’s why we just kept making sure we had these two pillars with us the entire time we were making all these decisions. Because if you go too far one way or the other, it does get just too stale, or it gets too “one or the other” and it feels like it’s already “been there, done that.” I don’t think there’s been any other game that’s done this combination.
It’s very Heinlein.
Chad: I can point to books, I can point to TV series, I can point to movies that have done authentic feeling military in space. I can’t point to any other video game that has done this combination before. We’ve got flying combat, we’ve got a hub, we’ve got boots on ground, and it’s all really hardcore authentic military. We have two Navy SEALs who did weapons training —
That’s something that Call of Duty has been doing since Modern Warfare, I believe?
Chad: We’ve always had military contractors — or rather, military consultants — but this time we went kind of all out. We consulted with two SEALs which gave weapon training to our actors, and also to our designers and animation team, so we could really understand how they work and move. We had a Naval Bridge Crew consultant, so that all of the stuff on the ship would be completely authentic. We had a two-star Admiral, a Surface Warfare College guy, review the ship for authenticity.
Jacob: And our narrative director and writer stayed overnight on a carrier, and —
Chad: — Experienced a real arrested landing and everything.
Jacob: We swabbed the deck with F18’s. I would say a quarter of the team has visited multiple either small amphibious carriers or submarines.
Chad: Wait until you see the inside of the Retribution in detail. You only saw a little bit of it in the press demo, you saw us walking across the flight deck.
I’m looking forward to it. Now, from the Retribution, can we talk about where we might be headed? There’s a conflict surrounding Earth, but we caught a glimpse of a mission to the Moon, and you’ve mentioned Saturn’s moon Titan, and an asteroid…
Chad: Spoilers, man! We don’t want to ruin it. But you know, we mentioned the asteroid spinning out of control near the Sun. You’re on the surface of this asteroid, right, and because you’re so close to the Sun you have to worry not just about cover from guys over here, you have to worry about having cover here during the day and night cycles.
Chad: 15 second day cycle, 15 second night cycle. Like “Oh, shit, get under cover!”
Jacob: “Go! Go! Go! GO!”
Chad: Otherwise you just burn. It’s stuff like that. Those are the reasons we wanted to go to space, because those are things that you cannot do on Earth. We want to give you new experiences that you’ve never had before.
Do we have time to chat about the Modern Warfare remaster?
Jacob: Well, even though Infinity Ward is executive producing the remaster, Raven is doing all the work on it. We don’t have much to say except that we are just stoked that we get to play that again. We get builds though, sent up every once in a while, it’s super cool seeing it, you know?
Chad: Wait until you see, like, side-by-side screenshots. I mean, you’ve been seen what we’ve been doing, but when people ultimately compare it, what you are going to realize is that they pretty much rebuilt the game from scratch.
I’ve gotta say, the clip we saw gave me goosebumps.
Chad: “WE ARE LEAVING!”
Chad: My favorite mission is “Warpig” and I just got to see it back at a build back at the office, and as that is coming by I’m like, “Oh yes! Yes!” Because it looks even better than it did in my head. Because, they really — it’s all new character models, all new visual effects, all new environmental work, all new rendering system and lighting. It’s totally rebuilt.
I think a lot of people were expecting a high resolution texture upgrade, just tacked-on for the marketing dollars. It’s a hell of a lot more than that. And the fact that you can get it as a bonus on top of Infinite Warfare is almost unheard of. A lot of people would have paid for it, even on its own.
Chad: And of course, we aren’t even talking about multiplayer and zombies yet, right? This is Infinity Ward’s first time doing zombies. And we have multiplayer vehicles, and COD XP —
Jacob: We’re not allowed to talk about that. Or we may get murdered. [laughs]
Yeah, those guys have military training, now.
Jacob: [laughing] But obviously, there is more that we’re talking about over the next few months.
Chad: So, think about it man. If you get the version of the game that has Modern Warfare, you’re getting their MP, SP, you’re getting our zombies, our MP, and our SP. I mean, come on.
It’s a lot of potential content, especially when you consider the games releasing on multiplayer content alone. It looks like we’re out of time, so I want to thank you for taking the time to talk about all of this.
Jacob: Right on, right on.
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