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Project Magma: The untold origin of Verdansk, the Gulag and ‘Call of Duty: Warzone’

How Infinity Ward disrupted Call of Duty and brought 100 million players into the franchise’s big, bold battle royale

Patrick Kelly remembers the pitch meeting vividly. The room full of developers and Activision executives had convened at Infinity Ward’s offices in Woodland Hills, California, in early 2018. It was time for Kelly and his longtime colleague Dave Stohl, who together serve as co-studio heads for Infinity Ward, to pitch their big idea.

The project was code-named “Magma.” And the plan was to create the biggest ever battle royale, one tied to the world of the studio’s planned 2019 release, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.” Upon completion, the project would be re-christened as “Warzone.”

“Okay, so here’s the thing,” Kelly said, reenacting his pitch to the room. “We want to have the same fidelity [in ‘Warzone’] as the rest of the game. And we want [players] to be able to go in every one of the buildings. And we want to have these [mission] contracts and we want to have really unique geo[graphy] all over the world.” Then he began enumerating the obstacles.

“And, by the way, this is going to be a massive art undertaking. And, by the way, this would be a massive technical undertaking. And, by the way, we don’t have the gameplay entirely figured out yet. And by the way ...”

The pitch didn’t stop there. It was bold. It was big. Perhaps a little too big.

“Some people were concerned, like, have you gone too far with this?” Kelly recalls of the reaction. “You know, is this too big a bite to take?

The Call of Duty franchise was already developing a battle royale mode, Blackout, which would debut later that year as part of Treyarch’s 2018 game, “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.” But Kelly and Stohl wanted a version that integrated better with the look, feel and realism they were creating with their “Modern Warfare” reboot. According to Kelly, the worry in the room wasn’t stepping on Treyarch’s toes, but rather the volume of work it would require to successfully deliver the vision Kelly described.

“[Blackout] was never the concern,” Kelly said. “The concern was like, ‘So, let me get this straight. You don’t have the tech sorted yet. You don’t have the bandwidth to do the art for the thing yet, and you don’t have gameplay entirely sorted yet.’” He then recounted his rebuttal: “But we will!”

Size matters


On March 10, 2020, Activision officially released “Warzone,” Call of Duty’s free-to-play, cross-platform battle royale that featured a whopping 150 players all competing to be the last standing. It zoomed to popularity, topping 100 million players a little over a year from its release and becoming one of the most played games on the planet.

Work began on the project in 2017, long before Kelly and Stohl’s pitch meeting, and started with the now famous map of the fictional city of Verdansk. Earlier that year, “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (better known as “PUBG”) was at the start of its upsurge in popularity and Kelly was enjoying his time in that battle royale with his son. So much so, he wanted to recreate it in a Call of Duty mold.

"The thing I started thinking about was, how long are the legs on battle royale and what are the things I love and don’t love about it?” Kelly said. “And then it went to, what if we were to do something like this? ... We started having discussions internally about [questions like] if we were to build a big space, what would that look like? What would that feel like? And we immediately came to the conclusion, we’d want to build something that was real.”

With that in mind, the team started by looking at real cities to replicate in the game. “We looked a lot at Donetsk, Ukraine, and we looked at other cities, similar cities, and we started talking about it,” Kelly said. “Originally I wanted to build Kabul.”

The appeal in Afghanistan’s capital was less the city’s prominence in recent global events, and more its benefit in terms of game making logistics.

"Warzone" topped 100 million players a little over a year from its release, becoming one of the most played games on the planet. (Activision)

“If you think about it in terms of memory, when I looked at these images and data that you had, so many structures and buildings were going to be the same texture sets, the same material sets,” Kelly said. “And it was like, okay, this makes sense memory wise.”

While it would aid requirements for memory in machines, it created a memory problem for players. “The team really quickly came back and said, [players are] never going to know where they are on the ground,” if everything looks the same.

The developers iterated, and pivoted. Rather than making buildings and other prominent features similar, as on other massive multiplayer maps, they decided to differentiate structures. They started by building a dense urban area where players could enter and ascend buildings. The cityscape grew, Kelly said. Some early versions of the map were even bigger than Verdansk’s current footprint.

“It’s funny, because it was starting to get out of control,” Kelly said. “What happened was there are some builders working on this and they just kept building, building, building. We were going to end up with this space that was going to be miles and miles and miles of city. It was like, whoa this is getting away from us here. We’ve got to rein this in a bit. And part of the reason was that we knew we were going to have certain physical limitations, you know, like how many players can you actually support in the world?”

According to Kelly and Stohl, it was the player count that ultimately determined the size of the map. The team wanted to double the standard set by “PUBG” and “Fortnite.”

“And so I was like, okay, 200 players,” Kelly said. “How big a space really makes sense?”

Beyond the skyscrapers of the cityscape that became known in the game as Downtown, they added other distinct locations, like an airport and a train station. Then, they drew from familiar multiplayer maps from the Modern Warfare franchise, an approach they appreciated in Blackout’s map. They weaved in the airplane husks of Scrap Yard, Broadcast’s TV station and the prison building of Petropavlovsk Gulag, among others. It combined eye-catching new landmarks with familiar callbacks to the Call of Duty franchise.

“So we started building the space,” Kelly said. “And we still didn’t know precisely what we were going to do with it.

Changing the game


At the time of “Warzone’s” development, “PUBG” and “Fortnite,” as well as Blackout, provided inescapable reference points for developing a battle royale. They also created a major challenge by setting the parameters of what defined the genre for players. As with most game development studios, Stohl noted, Infinity Ward’s workers are also gamers and many were fans of the existing battle royales. Some developers who were enjoying those other games were reluctant to iterate too much on the battle royale formula.

“We’re all hardcore gamers,” Stohl said. “We are all gamers, we’re all fans, you know ... but that makes it hard to do something new and different.

It was Kelly’s appreciation of “PUBG” and his time gaming with his son that provided a foundational principle of “Warzone’s” gameplay. At the time, Kelly and his son could only compete on “PUBG” using their family’s one, hardwired, high-end PC. That meant the two had to take turns. They devised a rule: No camping.

“It was so fun to watch when we had the rules of the road for each other,” Kelly said. “It’s like, we need to have that in ‘Warzone.’”

The team set out to incorporate elements that incentivized players to move around “Warzone’s” map.

“In battle royales at that time, the common pattern we saw was camp until the end. And we were like, how do we encourage players to be a bit more active and provide a strategy?” Kelly said. I had written down this thing: ‘Increasing intensity. Your life matters, but there’s opportunities to respawn.’ And that became a real big design challenge for whatever we would do.

The developers added a currency players could collect to spend at designated buy stations to purchase tools, such as AI-controlled radar to spot enemies, and airstrikes and artillery barrages to take them down. They could even buy back an eliminated teammate. It kept players scavenging throughout the round, even if they had already found satisfactory weapons and armor. The game’s respawn dynamic played another big role in encouraging players to take calculated risks.

The Gulag was a small map where two players are separated by several concrete and tile dividers.
Above the combatants, players roam around a prison-barred ring overlooking the fight.
LEFT: The Gulag was a small map where two players are separated by several concrete and tile dividers. RIGHT: Above the combatants, players roam around a prison-barred ring overlooking the fight.

Kelly wanted every player that fell in the early parts of a game to get a second chance at survival. At the time, Infinity Ward was developing the 2-v-2 mode for “Modern Warfare” that would become known as Gunfight. It gave Kelly an idea: Two fallen players get paired up against two others and fight to the death. Whoever wins that round gets respawned. Eventually, they settled on simply making it a 1-v-1 duel.

Kelly also said he initially wanted the duel to take place on King, an indoor, weapon-training area with a wooden platform in the center. The designer with whom Kelly was sketching out the respawn dynamic had a different thought.

“He’s like, ‘No, I’ve got a better idea. Let’s do the Gulag,’” Kelly said. It was a small map where two players are separated by several concrete and tile dividers. Above the combatants, players roam around a prison-barred ring overlooking the fight.

And so, one of “Warzone’s” biggest differentiators from other battle royales was born. But those differences — which also included a player’s ability to obtain their customized weapons loadouts, a mechanic introduced to prompt players to care about progression and leveling-up their in-game arsenal — weren’t always welcomed by all of Infinity Ward’s developers.

“One of the challenges in a mode where you have people playing other games like ‘PUBG’ or whatever, is the religion around, ‘Well, that’s not battle royale,’ or ‘That is battle royale,’" Stohl said.

“My God,” Kelly interjected. “We had designers going behind my back to Dave [Stohl] who would be like, ‘You’ve got to stop him! This isn’t battle royale! What’s he doing?’”

While the matter was ultimately settled according to their vision, it was not the only challenge the studio heads faced in bringing “Warzone” to fruition.

Pressure testing


Playtesters packed Infinity Ward’s offices, 60 seated in front of a variety of PCs, Xboxes and PlayStations at one group of work stations, 40 at another. Their in-game avatars were packed around a single capture point in “Modern Warfare’s” Ground War mode to test the limitations and fidelity of the software. The playtest required close coordination and had stretched well past midnight. Someone issued instructions using a bullhorn from the office floor: “Everybody throw a grenade!”

“I was thinking to myself, I’ve been in this business 25 years and here I am, throwing grenades at 2 a.m.,” Stohl said.

Configuring the game to handle a massive map and player count required the team to try to replicate many worst-case scenarios like this, instances when a large number of players all executed the same technically demanding action that would stress the game or its servers.

“You want the world to have the graphical fidelity and realism of the best parts of the rest of your game,” Kelly said, noting the many issues physics presents to ambitious game developers. “But at the end of the day ... there’s only so small a footprint you can get this content down to. And you get into this question of like, how many frickin’ gigabytes is this thing going to be?”

Ultimately, the developers compromised and reduced the maximum player count from 200 to 150. Even then, playtesting “Warzone” proved particularly challenging. Not only did they need to recruit 100 to 150 players for each test, but Kelly and Stohl discovered they needed a diversity to the lobbies as well. Infinity Ward’s track record developing Call of Duty titles meant its workers had spent years playing the game. With so many skilled players, Stohl and Kelly worried it was skewing the test results.

After some compromise, the developers reduced the maximum player count from 200 to 150. (Activision)

“Imagine what that yields from a play test point of view,” Stohl said. “Then an average Joe would come in to play and they’d just get the s--- kicked out of them ... because everybody’s like basically a pro level player.”

The combination of testing for long hours and the competitive nature of the game led to some tension. Though he maintains it never reached the point of toxicity, Stohl noticed an excess of trash talking, and worried the team was getting a bit too worked up.

“Then we’d do play tests where we’d be like ... ” Stohl began. “Nobody speak!” Kelly concluded.

Kelly wasn’t immune to frustration. Sometimes, Kelly said his squad would try to test a specific dynamic in the game, only to be killed as soon as they landed.

“I would get so angry,” Kelly said. “And there are times that you’re so stressed, you’re so tired, and I was so angry I would literally turn on demigod [boosts] for myself and be like, f--- you guys!

For all of the stress and tension, the playtests also produced some of Stohl’s fondest memories during development.

“Man, people were screaming at each other, yelling at each other and hooting and hollering,” he said. “It’s like when you’re in a room together playing, and you’re s--- talking. That makes it even more fun than it would be in the real world [when you’re playing online].”

Launch and beyond


On launch day, March 10, 2020, Stohl fretted about whether the game would hold up as the player count expanded from hundreds of testers to millions of players. Despite his concerns, the game was well received on launch. The player base climbed rapidly, topping 15 million three days after launch and soaring to some 75 million by August of 2020, per Statista. Stohl recalled how much he enjoyed watching players bring to life the world they’d created.

“[I] loved all those people sneaking up on snipers at the top of one of the buildings of Downtown or whatever,” he said. “Like, I remember the first time people started flying around with the helicopters and, you know, chopping people [up], taking out snipers in the helicopter. Like, that was awesome.”

In 2018, when the co-studio heads were pitching “Warzone,” Kelly’s rationale for pushing for the project was simple. “These kinds of play spaces are the future,” said Kelly. “And by the way, I still believe that.” The reception to their game appears to have validated that belief.

However Stohl and Kelly both said that to this day, they don’t feel like they’ve fully succeeded, and they continue to scrutinize the game.

“When a thing launches, you’re so close to it, you’re so intimate with everything with it, all you see are the flaws. All you see are the problems,” Kelly said. “I stopped playing it for a little bit because, you know, I had gotten so self-critical about the thing.

Kelly said he also closely monitored player reactions. While the game was critically well received, there have been numerous gripes about the game on social media platforms like Reddit, some more thoughtful than others. When he’d come across something super critical but also well composed, Kelly said he’d reach out to the post’s author.

“They always thought I was full of s--- when I’d ping them, that I wasn’t who I said I was,” Kelly said, noting the conversations helped him better contextualize the complaints. One Reddit user told Kelly, “The only way people pay attention [to your post] is you have to be hyperbolic. And that’s why I said it’s the worst thing that’s ever been made.”

“Oh,” Kelly replied. “I took you quite literally.”

As an ongoing live game, their labor on “Warzone” continues. Working around a schedule of six, two-month long seasons, Infinity Ward continued to add new content and modes throughout 2020. Since its release, the map has evolved throughout the course of the year, adding a train, then a subway network, and blowing the top off Verdansk’s massive, domed soccer stadium. In December the game infused weapons and character skins from “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War,” and an overhaul of the map has been rumored for late April.

While Infinity Ward has for the moment handed off most of the “Warzone” maintenance work to Raven Software — designers from which, Stohl noted, worked with Infinity Ward from the outset of “Warzone’s” development and not just after the integration of “Black Ops Cold War” — Kelly and Stohl are currently working on the details for Season 6, which will begin in late 2021. Kelly also said they have planned out “Warzone’s” “broad strokes” for “several years” into the future.

“Some things we want to do mode wise, geo wise, they take more time,” Kelly said. “So they naturally need to slot in later. But we do think about this on a multiyear basis. And I will tell you this: We’re doing our damnedest right now, to top [what’s come before].”


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