It’s the third round of the Call of Duty World Championships final between Denial eSports and Team revenge. The series is tied 1-1, and this match is close.
The Comeback map, a dense vortex of narrow streets and looming battered buildings, has become a slaughterhouse as close range firefights blast into life through its winding alleys and small open squares. The crowd, sitting in their hundreds on sloped bleachers just yards away from the competitors, are yelling and clapping. The tension crackles.
For two frenetic hours, in a vast tented venue on a Los Angeles rooftop, this is the epicentre of the Call of Duty world. Activision’s billion dollar franchise attracts over 30 million online gamers a month, but right here is where the multiplayer component reaches its absolute peak. And this year, the whole feel of the game has changed.
“There was a push to innovate after Modern Warfare 3 and Activision took that seriously,” claims Michael Condrey, co-founder of Sledgehammer Games, the San Francisco-based studio that’s been working on Advanced Warfighter for three years. “We went off in some directions that made people a little nervous, some of them didn’t make it into the game. But we were given the time to fail and learn.”
Of course, you have to recover from the cognitive dissonance of seeing the words “Activision” and “innovation” being used in the same sentence. But Condrey is adamant that his team, many of whom previously worked with him on EA’s intriguing sci-fi horror classic Dead Space, were given full creative freedom. He reckons the studio built and abandoned over 30 game modes before deciding on the final selection, and had radical concepts for how to change the whole shape of the multiplayer experience.
“We wanted to try something with larger scale battles, we explored some technology that we thought would be interesting,” he says. “We even looked at teleportation, allowing players to teleport from one area of the map to another. We also had this concept early on that we called perk stacking. There were perks for the exosuit and perks for the player and you could take the same perk for both to double down on them. But we found that people were exploiting this in a way we didn’t like, it wasn’t balanced.”
The evidence of this experimental process is there in every match at this championship. Admittedly, those glancing at Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer mode from the outside will probably see the same old Call of Duty. You’re still running around a series of claustrophobic maps while shooting at onscreen characters in military garb and repeatedly being shot yourself. That’s never going to change. But get closer, talk to professional gamers, try it yourself even, and the differences start to become clear.
“It’s inherently different to every other Call of Duty – and that says a lot considering that this is a series of annual games spread across three developers,” says Callum “Swanny” Swan, a pro-gamer who has just replaced superstar Matt “Nadeshot” Haag on the biggest team in CoD, Optic Gaming. “Call of Duty has always had its own charms - the way it moves, the weapons, the aiming – but I think Sledgehammer wanted to branch out. Advanced Warfare has made a huge difference to both the competitive and casual communities in terms of how to play the game. It is now more interesting to spectators, too, because of the added movement dynamic.”
The big change is the addition of exosuits. Set in the near future, Advanced Warfare imagines armies of enhanced soldiers who wear robotic metal skeletons that augment their physical abilities. In the game, you can boost jump to great heights, or click the left analogue stick down to carry out a range of jet-propelled mid-air manoeuvres in any direction.
According to Condrey, the idea of augmented movement was in the game from very early in its development. The design team had been looking into exoskeleton research being carried out by the military and in industry. The idea was intriguing but also potentially disruptive. “The boost jump was controversial at first,” admits Condrey. “It was only available in one game mode, but we were excited about it so switched it into the main movement set. People were worried about that.”
There have, of course, been comparisons with Titanfall, another sci-fi shooter that uses robotic suits. In that game, however, it’s more about gaining height and wall-running to maintain it. In AW, the exo abilities are as much about speed, evasion and attack repertoire. The whole nature of movement is affected.
Certainly though, the ability to gain map height very quickly is important – for pro teams it has had a huge effect on the tactical approach to the game. “Advanced Warfare has really changed the way we play Call of Duty,” confirms Brandon “Sharp” Rodgers of Team Kaliber. “Before, it was mostly on one plane. Now, set-ups get broken a lot more easily, because of all the jumping and flying around the map. It takes a lot more teamwork, and more trading kills. We’ve had to adapt to that.”
The ability to jump above obstacles has become a key feature of the mid-range game, allowing players with assault rifles to leap up, spot enemies from a distance and get a quick shot in. It also helps pro players combat a well-known exploit, the head glitch, which allows enemies to hide behind an object with only their head visible, but still shoot freely. As Rodgers explains, “A lot of people use the boost jump because past Call of Duty titles were always based around head glitches, you could often only see another player’s head. Now you can jump up and see their whole body, which is a lot easier to hit. Personally, I use a Bal [-27 assault rifle] so I’m always jumping to dominate aerial gunfights.”
One-on-one engagements have also completely changed in the AW era. In previous games, when you had a close encounter with an enemy, it would usually be decided by an immediate shot, the effectiveness of which would be dependent on your reactions and the TTK (time to kill) stats of your weapon. But the spatial movement afforded by the exosuit has added complexity.
“In older Call of Duty titles, you could think ‘OK, I know this guy is coming round the corner, I can prepare’,” says Ashley “Optic Midnite” Glassel, who creates Twitch and YouTube content for Optic. “Now, though, he may be coming in fast, slow, from the air, or sliding in. You don’t know but you have to counter him, while aiming and shooting. It’s fast, and it really opens up the skill gap; it’s harder to overcome the top teams who can adapt more quickly.”
According to Greg Reisdorf, lead multiplayer designer at Sledgehammer, this was all part of the plan. “Exo abilities changed our approach to map design quite a lot,” he says. “The ultimate goal of any map is to get people into combat, that’s why we have these multiple lanes, so that players can quickly locate and engage with each other. What the ex suit does is bring new tools within those lanes. We can start putting elevation into the choke point areas and really use that to get players moving around more, using more cover ... When we wanted to spice up an area, we thought, ‘OK, what kind of boost elements can we support here?’”
Reisdorf agrees with Glassel that exosuits have created a larger skill gap between the very best pro teams and everyone else. They’ve also changed the balance of play, slightly away from coordinated team movement, and toward something potentially more spectator-friendly: shooting skill. “In this tournament, we’re seeing a lot more of the slayer-style game,” he says. “It’s all about the players who are able to get more kills – their teams are getting ahead because they can win battles and really control spawns. We’re seeing more emphasis on gun skill.”
The idea of making design changes that alter the game as a spectator sport as well as an interactive experience is also there in Advance Warfare’s other big addition: Uplink. In this team-based multiplayer mode, both sides attempt to grab a mini-satellite (effectively a ball) from its spawn site, carry it to the opponent’s base area and dunk it into a hovering hoop. Two points are awarded for physically carrying the satellite though the goal, while teams get one point for successfully throwing the ball from distance. Teams are also able to pass the ball between each other, but whoever has the object is unable to use their primary weapon, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
It’s a fast, frantic and visually enthralling mode that led to some of the most dramatic competitive showdowns during the Call of Duty Championships. But according to Reisdorf, it wasn’t originally developed with spectators in mind. “When we were building Uplink, we didn’t realise it would be as great for eSports as it turned out,” he says. “We wanted to make a single objective mode with really focused combat. We put a lot of emphasis on it.”
Condrey agrees that Uplink wasn’t designed specifically for eSports, but he says the design team quickly picked up on its merits. “We were looking at the most popular requests for new modes, and all the fan favourites were all the really, really strategic, objective-based modes like Hardpoint and CTF,” he recalls. “So we started deconstructing what was going on there – and Uplink was the result. It’s such an intuitive mode, everyone can understand the sport component, and the blending of that with Call of Duty makes sense. It’s as much fun to watch as it is to play.”
The similarities between Uplink and a traditional sport are crucial to its effectiveness as a spectator phenomenon. Viewers can easily watch the progress of the ball around the “pitch”; they can see and appreciate the skillset behind passing and dunking – the conventions and tactical language of the mode are all innately understood. “It’s funny,” says Swan. “British players compare it to football with all the passing and stuff, while the Americans compare it to basketball, because of the dunks. These are all fun element for spectators.”
Vitally, the mode has been continually iterated since its inception. Early on, pro players didn’t like it. It was easy to exploit weaknesses in the design; match wins felt capricious. “In the beginning a lot of people were sceptical, but Sledgehammer has done a good job of tweaking it,” says Rodgers. “You can’t pass the ball all the way across the map anymore. Now, with the passes, the throws, the dunks, I think it’s one of the best game modes to watch, and it’s up there with Hardpoint as one of the best to play.”
Glassel agrees. “At first people weren’t excited by Uplink, but I played it at a press reveal and I said, ‘oh they’re using this for eSports’. I just knew it. It’s so fun to play and watch, especially when it’s close. The pro teams just do these crazy manoeuvres and these shots you could never spot yourself.”
Now players are developing complex passing games, as well as other interesting tactics, like throwing the ball out of play as a last ditch defensive mechanic, or lobbing it at an opponent and then shooting them when they catch it – neither of which were anticipated by the designers, according to Reisdorf.
For Condrey, another aspect of traditional sports that Uplink seeks to capture is that sense of showmanship – of consciously performing for the crowd. “In one of the Championship matches I saw one guy do an alley-oop to a teammate who then pulled a 360-degree slam. That’s exactly what happens in basketball when one team is rushing another – you get that sort of showboating. There’s a real elegance to it.”
Despite being one of the biggest entertainment brands on the planet, Call of Duty remains a secondary player in the eSports scene. Its $1m annual prize pool and hundreds of thousands of viewers on MLG TV are dwarfed by the millions who watch League of Legends and Dota 2, and the record-breaking winnings being accrued by top players on those circuits.
But the competitive CoD scene is growing, and the exosuits and Uplink mode have helped. Mike Sepso, co-founder of Major League Gaming, which shows CoD events on its online MLG TV channel, says viewing figures have shot up 400% since launch last year. “Right from the get-go in November, Advanced Warfare has been killing it,” he says. “I think some people were wary of being about to jump around, but it’s turned into a really cool part of the game. Uplink is one of the first modes that’s easy for someone who doesn’t play the game to understand whats going on. The teams have to think more about how they execute a play – they have to pass back and forth, and they have recognisable roles, like blockers and scorers. It’s just fun to watch.”
The big question is, where now? The next game in the Call of Duty series will come from another studio, Treyarch, and is likely to be Black Ops 3. If this title becomes the new centrepiece of CoD eSports, what happens to the successful new features?
“Now we’ve had the exoskeletons introduced, it’s hard to see where the series goes from here,” says Chris Marsh of specialist eSports news site, Dexerto. “If we return to just X-axis combat then it’s going to be a little bit dull I think. It’ll be interesting to see what Treyarch do but I get the feeling their hand might be forced on this one. I think that Sledgehammer delivered change extremely well.”
As the fans file out of the Championship tent, into the glaring LA sun, there’s lots of chatter about favourite moments from the proceeding weekend. They sound like any sports crowd, really. Call of Duty is such a weird phenomenon; a ludicrous mainstream barrage of twitch-kill hyper action that swallows up real-life technology and military hardware into its fantasy of violence and victory. Now Advanced Warfare has shifted it closer towards what most of us think of as a sport. It is on the verge of becoming Fifa with firearms.
- Keith Stuart attended the Call of Duty World Championship on a press trip with travel expenses met by Activision.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010