"It's been a great high for the last couple of weeks," Daniel Suarez, Activision's executive producer for "Call of Duty: World At War" told me in an interview last week. Happy is any man whose game has launched so well that it topped -- his words -- the "bajillion pound gorilla" that is "World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King" in sales in the U.K in its launch week.
Suarez and I talked about a number of things during out interview, some of which I've covered here on Multiplayer this week -- plans for upcoming DLC for the game and where the game's surprising Nazi Zombie mode came from.
The first topic of my interview, however, was how the development team at Treyarch dealt with making a game in the shadow of "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare." That was the bajillion-pound gorilla as far as I was concerned.
It's not every year that a development team puts out a game that so many critics don't expect to be better than last year's installment. How do you deal with that pressure?
"If you look at what was done for 'Call of Duty 3,' everybody goes, 'Treyarch's not very good'...Well they only had a year to do it."
Suarez said his team was "100% aware" of the main knock on "World At War" going in, the reason some gaming critics were expecting a stinker. The "Call of Duty" franchise had been threatening to veer into "Star Trek" movie or "Splinter Cell" gaming territory, flip-flopping in quality with each installment.
Last year's "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" as well as "Call of Duty 2" two years before that were seen as good "Call of Duty" games. The one in between, "CoD 3," was a critical disappointment. The even number ones were made by Infinity Ward. But installment #3 and this new one, "World at War," were developed by Treyarch. "If you look at what was done for 'Call of Duty 3,' everybody goes, 'Treyarch's not very good. "Call of Duty 3" wasn't as good as the other ones.'" You have to look at the detail of it. Why was "Call of Duty 3" rated only a mid-80 game? Well they only had a year to do it in a year that they were also doing PS3 for the first time on a launch year and also the Wii on a launch year." The new game, "World At War," he said, benefited from a two-year development cycle and an embrace of some new priorities like improving the voice-acting and pushing an M rating.
"Everybody wants to say it’s a competition," Suarez said when I pressed him about "World At War"'s airplane level, which seemed to me to be an attempt to one-up "Modern Warfare"'s airplane level. I wasn't buying his explanation that there wasn't competition. Didn't these teams have heat? I persisted that there had to be some sort of competitive urge there to prove that "World at War" could top its predecessor. "It's not like that," Suarez said. As Suarez tells it, Treyarch started with historical inspiration and then amped up the drama for reasons other than competing with Infinity Ward. "From our perspective it's never about how we can one-up the previous game. It's: 'What do we think is going to make a great game? What do we think is fun? What do we think is going to make people's jaws drop when they play it?'"
Suarez said there were three levels in Treyarch that is most proud of. Judge Treyarch by them: 1) The flight level Black Cats, for its sheer Michael Bay bombastic spectacle. 2) The street scene in Eviction, a level in Berlin that culminates in a fight in the metro. 3) The Hard Landing level that ends with a massive Pacific island firefight.
At the time of our interview I believed that one of the best measures of "World At War"'s appeal -- and one of the best ways to see if Activision had been overzealous in releasing a sequel in the franchise this year -- was Xbox Live activity. A year after its release, "Modern Warfare" consistently ranks at or near the top of the chart for most online activity on Microsoft's console. I suggested to Suarez that some people, maybe many people, just wouldn't migrate away from the "Modern Warfare" experience they love so much.
"Other iterations to 'Counter-Strike' occurred after that first one came out, but a lot of people still liked the core of what [the original] 'Counter-Strike' was. I think it's the same with 'Call of Duty' multiplayer."
"I think there's going to be a longstanding group of people that play "Modern Warfare." I think "Modern Warfare," to me, at least when I play it today, it's very much how 'Counter-Strike' was. Other iterations to 'Counter-Strike' occurred after that first one came out, but a lot of people still liked the core of what [the original] 'Counter-Strike' was. I think it's the same with 'Call of Duty' multiplayer. A lot of people come over to play 'World At War" that kind of like the setting. They like that it's a little different. It's got new maps. They like the vehicles and different perks. They may go back. They may come back to "World At War." From our perspective, all we want to deliver is a great game. It's not a competition, like 'Who's got more volume online today vs. [Modern Warfare]?'"
Typically a game developer can assume that their online-enabled sequel will eventually have more players competing in it than the previous iteration. See "Halo 3"'s online activity currently surpassing "Halo 2"'s. The prospect of the same thing happening with the "Call of Duty" franchise isn't guaranteed. I asked Suarez if he thought that online usage of "World at War" would eventually exceed that of "Modern Warfare." Shouldn't that just be a matter of time? "We'll see how the sales go," he said. "There's 10 million copies sold of 'Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare'. The hope is that if we can get close to that number… again it's not "Do we hope it exceeds the number of users online?' Look, I'd love to be number one on Xbox Live and hold that crown for a while."
Well, today Suarez may be an even happier man. The latest popularity ranking for Xbox Live usage shows that last week, "Call of Duty: World At War" was played more online than "Modern Warfare."
Victory? It's not a competition.