BURBANK, Calif. — The bones of the game were laid with drones and cameras, phone calls and questions, requirements and innovations. Rather than a fanciful brainstorm followed by code and keystrokes, as many would assume of a video game’s creation process, the latest title in the ever-expanding “Call of Duty” pantheon formed around research and revelations, groundwork for a multi-million-dollar development process representative of the modern, multi-billion-dollar gaming industry.
It’s a process that required a marriage of technological innovation and well-sourced storytelling, with the goal to produce the most realistic portrayal possible of modern armed conflict by a video game. It will culminate Oct. 25 with the release of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare," a title developed by Infinity Ward studio that figures to be one of the top-selling games — if not the top-selling game — of 2019. And its content has already been authenticated by two men who know well the game’s subject matter.
The green-tinted footage plays on the Infinity Ward theater screen as lethal silhouettes sporting night vision creep through a house. Threats are assessed and eliminated, the silence broken by the crackle of comms and the rattle of gunfire.
Mitch Hall and Steve Sanders, both retired U.S. Navy SEALs, watch a scene that looks as if it were captured by a body camera during one of their past deployments. In the back of the theater, Infinity Ward Studio Narrative Director Taylor Kurosaki and Jacob Minkoff, “Modern Warfare’s” campaign gameplay director, listen along with several others while Hall narrates the action. He explains the mechanics of the soldiers’ movements and the rationale of their lethal decision-making as the on-screen sequence reaches its climax. Special operatives from the British SAS storm the attic of a terrorist-occupied town home and spot a woman standing in the center of the room.
“No weapon, that’s the first thing,” Hall says of what his training has taught him to see. “That’s the first math problem you have. She seems, at least for the moment, compliant. And so that compliance gives us some time to do some more math and figure out if she’s going to remain compliant.”
She does not and falls to a burst of suppressed gunfire after diving for a detonator.
“I keep saying ‘the math,’” Hall continues, reminding the audience in the theater of what the soldiers in the game had encountered in the house before this scene, with nearly every person in the house proving hostile. “All those floors, you keep doing the math. She had a chance to do the right thing. Then she made the bad choice.”
If the bones of “Modern Warfare” were first set three years earlier, the action on the screen is the game’s body brought to life. It illustrates the tension of the game’s script with the tactics demonstrated by real-world soldiers, a blend the game’s creators hope brings a level of believability no “Call of Duty” game has reached before now.
Believability through a ‘big ball of light’
Infinity Ward began to infuse more reality into its creation by quite literally putting more reality into the game. Behind a nondescript door and inside a white-walled room of approximately 100 square feet in the bowels of Infinity Ward’s Burbank, Calif., studio sits a kind of teleportation device.
A cage of steel surrounds a small white platform, its exterior draped with cables to cameras and flash-bulbs. Any item placed on that platform — anything from a used cigar to a full-grown man — can be transported into the game with the push of a button.
“It’s just a big ball of light,” Barry Sloane says of his recollection of the rig. Sloane, the actor who plays the hero role of SAS soldier Captain Price, was just one of the thousands of objects teleported into the pixels of “Modern Warfare.”
The process is known as photogrammetry, a craft through which the Infinity Ward team captured high-resolution photos of an object from every angle, stitching them together to generate a three-dimensional digital replica they can then alter and manipulate using their software. The end result is a photo-realistic digital item far more lifelike than any computer-generated object.
Not only is the result more realistic, but the process is more efficient than the common practice of building a digital asset via computer generation. With photogrammetry, what used to take six weeks to create can now be scanned and refined in one, according to Infinity Ward Studio Art Director Joel Emslie. Over the past three years, everything from old tires to demolished cars to a tank have been scanned into “Modern Warfare.”
How video games use photogrammetry
To help create a more realistic environment for “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” the developers at Infinity Ward employed photogrammetry, the process of creating a digital asset using high-resolution photographs of real-world objects. For video games, in-game objects are most commonly created by developers via computer generation, building each item from its basic shape and then working down to tiny details — a time-consuming process.
Photogrammetry instead records all of that information — size, shape and details — through a series of photos taken from every angle, producing a highly detailed digital re-creation in a significantly shorter time.
First, the object is photographed from all possible angles. Infinity Ward’s rig consists of 200 cameras all connected to shoot simultaneously, allowing them to capture all the data they need in under a second.
Those photographs are then stitched together to create a three-dimensional digital version of the object.
That digital object contains millions of tiny polygons to give the object its shape, and while it results in a super-detailed asset, it also requires a lot of processing power for a computer or console to display it for the user. So, a little more work is required to scale down the detail.
The car shown here was captured using photogrammetry through collaboration with Infinity Ward partner Studio 727. The capture process was completed within three days.
Over 10,000 high-resolution photos were captured of the vehicle and then processed through photogrammetry software. After two days of processing, photos were rendered into a single object consisting of a 50 million polygon 3D-mesh.
The highly detailed model was then cleaned up for a week by an internal artist, who removed tiny imperfections in the mesh.
To make sure the game doesn’t grind to a halt, the game’s designers then scaled back the detail to ease the burden on the hardware as the screen is populated with the game’s graphics. After running the model through additional software, which takes about an hour, it produced a game-resolution, 50,000-polygon model.
Artist Daniel Wapner then spent a couple of days polishing the textures, removing shadows from the textures on the model and generating gloss and specular maps, to give the materials on the vehicle realistic responses to the game’s environment lighting. The final result is what you see here and will be included in downloadable content available after the game’s October release.
Click to interact with the object
“If you were to just build a character from scratch in software it could take six weeks to do all that work, and a lot of that time is to work on the little nuances, the subtleties, the paint chips and things. That’s what really takes time,” Emslie says. But with photogrammetry, the photography captures the details for you.
“Building a costume for real and just going out and hiking in it … or rub some old teabags on it to make it look old, that's incredibly easier to do in the physical world rather than doing it digitally, where you're using software to simulate all that wear and tear,” Emslie says.
The process also has a side benefit in terms of creativity, Emslie says. Putting hands on real-world objects and costumes brings the creators deeper into the game’s universe. Emslie compares the vibe to the early work of Industrial Light and Magic, the shop that brought the world of “Star Wars” to life in the late 1970s and early 1980s and helped revolutionize Hollywood special effects.
The prop procurement process can sometimes lead to some awkward situations, however.
There was one time when Emslie’s team drew a curious glance at the checkout counter of a local hardware store when they purchased items to replicate an improvised bomb. (“I’m probably on so many watch lists,” says Madison Cromwell, a producer at Infinity Ward.) There was also the time they grabbed a used mattress they’d spotted on the side of the road, only to be advised against bringing it inside the studio for fear of bed bugs. They scanned it in a back lot instead.
“We turn into kind of mad scientists with this stuff,” Emslie says.
Their experiments however have provided a life-like, super-detailed setting in which the plot of “Modern Warfare” plays out. But it also brought an additional challenge to the creative process. The computational power required for such sleek graphics from the photogrammetry, along with demands relating to scaling and rendering while maintaining a smooth game-playing experience, made it clear the game would require a stronger framework.
Putting bodies in motion
Work began on “Modern Warfare’s” new game engine five years ago and will continue even after its release. During that process, Activision opened an engine technology-focused studio in Krakow, Poland, to handle the task. Rendering high-def graphics at high speeds (the goal is 60 frames per second) requires a big technological lift. To that end, Infinity Ward’s developers needed new tools for the job.
“Once the studio decided to make ‘Modern Warfare,’ our engineering teams sat down with the art and design departments to discuss the vision for the game. Immediately, it became clear that it would have been impossible with the previous technology to build a game with this ambition,” says Michael Drobot, Infinity Ward’s principal rendering engineer.
Drobot’s team tinkered and tweaked and ultimately innovated. Now the engine can handle both a massive battle on a wide-open field and a claustrophobic, close-quarters encounter. In the latter, the engine permits players to angle their weapons independently of the direction the character’s body is facing so they can make better use of available cover while firing, a real-life tactic used by special forces when breaching a room.
“'Modern Warfare’s' engine can allow our designers to scale the theater of action from tiny backyard alleys, all the way to city-scale maps, while providing the same level of features, quality and immersion,” Drobot says.
Also of note was the way the team incorporated combat using night vision. Previous titles have simply tinted the screen green to simulate the effect. For “Modern Warfare,” Drobot’s team fully rendered the infrared spectrum.
“In order to mimic real-life night vision and thermal imaging devices, we decided to go all the way and replicate the physics behind it, as well as final image post-processing,” Drobot says. “We spent some time with our military consultants, tested a bunch of devices from different eras, ranging all the way from very early [World War II] models to modern 2010s hybrid thermal/night vision devices. What came out of this research was an understanding of how important those light spectrums really are, not only for visuals but also for emergent gameplay, not to mention translating the experience to our player.”
The end result mimics far more closely the real-world combat missions performed by special operatives such as Hall and Sanders.
When asked the value of night vision on the battlefield, Hall cracks, “Are you really going to make me say ‘night and day’?”
Drobot presents a more specific example of the advantage for soldiers aiming their weapons.
“The most basic example would be the NVG light illuminator,” he says. “It is a light attached to the characters’ helmet or weapons that shines only in IR spectrum. This way it is totally invisible to the human eye, thus an enemy not equipped with an IR device won’t see it — meaning your location is concealed.”
This mechanic manifests at several points in the game, particularly in the SAS townhouse scene. With the engine now allowing more realistic tactical play, story leads Kurosaki and Minkoff could better make use of the expertise provided by Hall and Sanders.
Infusing soul from SEALs
Over the course of two hours in the theater, the storytellers and SEALs take turns discussing the details and nuances that differentiate video game fantasy from the boots-on-the-ground reality lived by special forces operatives.
That’s one reason “Modern Warfare” has incorporated what Hall and Sanders repeatedly referred to as “the math.” It refers to the internal computations made to identify potential threats, a formula drilled into the SEALs’ minds during their combined 45 years of active duty service, including deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The math” helps soldiers determine when to shoot and when to stand down. But on battlefields where friendly forces, civilians and enemies are sometimes indistinguishable, it seldom yields a tidy answer.
“I sort of naively asked the question one day: ‘So, you just look for bad guys with guns, right? That’s how you determine the bad guys? The bad guys have guns,’” Kurosaki says. “And they were like, ‘Are you kidding me? Everybody has a gun. That’s no way to determine if someone is a threat to you.’”
It’s a dynamic moviegoers will recall from films such as “American Sniper” or “Zero Dark Thirty.” Kurosaki and Minkoff frequently cite those films as models for what they’re trying to capture in their game — a complex and confusing battleground in which life-and-death decisions must be rendered in seconds and where morality is continually questioned.
“We’re in a world right now where we have, you know, 18-year-olds who have never existed in a world that didn’t have the global war on terror,” Minkoff says. “They know that there’s not going to be a clean, simple end to any conflict. And so what they told us is, ‘We want characters and scenarios that are realistic and relevant to the world that we live in.’ And that is a world that is morally gray.”
And so the game will have a moral compass. If players just start spraying bullets at everyone they see, the game will fail them, according to Minkoff. Make a judgement too slowly, and you’ll be rebooting from your last saved checkpoint. It ratchets down the “Rambo” elements of past shooter games and emphasizes a dynamic similar to what SEALs and other special forces units face, albeit with far lower stakes.
“I’ve always said that it’s just as important to know when not to pull the trigger as to know when to pull the trigger,” Hall says. “Pulling the trigger when you’re not supposed to gets you into a lot of trouble. I don’t even mean by the media, or anything like that. I mean, maybe now the bad guys know where you are, or now it’s really turned into a fight where before you could have just held off.”
Video games have often focused on the entertainment-first idea that players derive satisfaction from spraying their weapons while enjoying a sense of invincibility. That’s the diametrical opposite of what Hall and Sanders faced in the field.
Previous versions of “Call of Duty” have often featured a sequence in which the player barges into a room, gun blazing, to take out the bad guys. The SEALs quickly dispelled the game’s designers of that notion.
“We were still operating under the pretense that you kick down a door and you say everybody throw your hands up and you just come in with shock and awe,” Kurosaki says. “Our [consultants] were like, 'We don’t do anything like that. We haven’t done that for years. It’s just too dangerous. Why would you throw yourself into an unknown situation? Dive right into the middle of it and then get into a big shootout? That’s not safe.’ These guys … everyone needs to come home. You know, one lost guy is an unacceptable amount of casualties.”
Hall and Sanders both hope the game produces a better understanding of what they and other servicemen and women face on the battlefield.
“I’ve seen it in other entertainment products where they think it’s super robotic, and it’s perfect and clean,” Hall says. “In fact, people are bumping into each other and you can’t see all the time and all the while you’re still making those critical decisions. … There’s a lot of calamity, if you will.”
There could be some hazard, too, in making what may be one of the most realistic first-person shooter games to date. The “Call of Duty” franchise was specifically named by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in connection with a mass shooting in El Paso this year. And while there has been no evidence to support a causal link between shootings and violent video games, it is a stigma with which the gaming industry has often been confronted, perhaps more often than other media.
“‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ is an ‘M’ rated video game intended for mature audiences,” Minkoff says, referring to the game’s evaluation from the Entertainment Software Rating Board. “And in the same way that a movie like ‘Sicario’ or ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ or ‘Black Hawk Down’ is intended for a certain type of viewer, we want to be making experiences for those types of viewers.”
The game’s realistic qualities weigh on Hall and Sanders slightly differently. In their role, they’re lending their names and service records to what is ultimately, the game’s developers remind, an entertainment product. They know there will be compromises.
“We have these conversations where we say, ‘This is what it would look like if it was done in real world,’” Sanders says. “And then of course we know the balance between real world and gameplay. So we have these conversations and we kind of just meet in the middle. … So there’s some artificiality that we take in made-up game world and then try to make it look as good as possible.”
And what are they most concerned about the game getting right?
“Operational logic … it has to make sense,” Hall says. “The characters have to be motivated about the thing they’re actively going after. …
“We're trying to make it authentic. They're trying to make it entertaining and authentic. And we finally whittle it down to something that we can both live with.”
The finished product will release next week, a final blend of pixels, drama and flesh-and-blood soldiers.
Design and development by Joe Moore and Gabriel Florit