Making a massive game like Call of Duty is normally no easy task. Doubly so in a pandemic while planning for next-gen console hardware.
Activision’s Call of Duty is one of the biggest game franchises ever. Last year’s edition, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, made more than $1 billion for the gaming giant within two months of launch.
Producing a massive game like Call of Duty is never easy, especially when preparing for new, next-generation game console hardware. Throw in a global pandemic and things don’t get any better for creating a follow-up installment that also works as a showcase for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
“We had literally had no idea how we were going to do any of this,” says Mark Gordon, co-studio head of game developer Treyarch, one of the makers of this year’s Call of Duty game. Subtitled Black Ops Cold War, the ’80s-set shooter debuted Nov. 13.
The company previously shut down its offices and switched to remote work on March 13, just as the pandemic was beginning to cause shutdowns around the US. “We had about a day and a half to prepare, so everyone got their equipment ready to be transported” and made the shift. At the time the game was still far from final, with Gordon describing it as “pre-alpha.”
In a regular year, that would be expected, as the game’s near-annual installment doesn’t normally ship until the fall. This year, however, required some creativity to get the finishing touches in place particularly as, Gordon notes, “most of us had not worked from home for any extended period of time.”
Motion capture and voice acting were done remotely. One member of the development team did the motion capture from his house while others scanned in items to be used in the game from their garages. This collaboration spanned Treyarch as well as other studios working on the game, including Raven Software, a developer that is frequently involved with the making of the Call of Duty franchise.
“There’s just a ton of real awesome ingenuity that’s come out of all of this.”
While this helped with building the game, developing for next-generation systems included working on new features such as the ability to play in 4K HDR (with ray-tracing for more realistic lighting and reflections) or at faster 120 frames-per-second speeds, the new Xbox and PlayStation’s faster solid-state storage and the PlayStation 5’s new adaptive triggers.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into communicating” with Sony and Microsoft, Dan Olson, a principal software architect for Treyarch, says on the process of developing for the new video game systems. “It’s a long journey, but we’re pretty happy with where we ended up on that.”
The Call of Duty team had plenty of development kits but did run into a problem with TVs and finding the space for displays that could do 120Hz refresh rates. The smallest TV with a 120Hz refresh rate was 48 inches.
“Not every team member can have the luxury” to have a large TV taking up space in their homes, says Eran Rich, Treyarch’s director of technology. Rich notes that some people were working from their bedrooms or in the “corner of their kitchen.”
The company ran weekly surveys to check in on employees, with Rich saying that most responded that they were working as efficiently as they would be in an actual office.