BURBANK, Calif. – The bones of the game were laid with drones and cameras, phone calls and innovations. Rather than a brainstorm followed by code, the latest title in the “Call of Duty” videogame pantheon formed around technology and well-sourced storytelling — its content authenticated by two men who know well the game’s subject matter.
Mitch Hall and Steve Sanders, retired 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 as Hall explains the mechanics of the soldiers’ movements and the rationale as they watch special operatives storm a terrorist-occupied home and spot a woman.
“No weapon, that’s the first thing,” Hall said. “That’s the first math problem you have.”
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. Infinity Ward began to infuse more reality into its creation by 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 cigar to a man — can be transported into the game with the push of a button.
“It’s just a big ball of light,” recalled Barry Sloane, the actor who plays the hero role of Captain Price and was just one of the thousands of objects teleported into pixels.
The process is known as photogrammetry, a craft through which high-resolution photos are taken of an object from every angle, generating a three-dimensional digital replica that can be manipulated with software. The end result is a photo-realistic digital item far more lifelike than any computer-generated object.
With photogrammetry, what used to take six weeks to create can now be scanned and refined in one, said 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.
“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,” Emslie said.
However, the computational power required for such sleek graphics, along with demands relating to scaling and rendering while maintaining a smooth game-playing experience, demanded a stronger framework.
Work began on its new game engine five years ago and will continue 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 requires a big technological lift. To that end, Infinity Ward’s developers needed new tools for the job.
“Immediately, it became clear that it would have been impossible with the previous technology to build a game with this ambition,” said Michael Drobot, Infinity Ward’s principal rendering engineer.
His team tinkered and tweaked and ultimately innovated. Now the engine can handle both a battle on a wide-open field and a claustrophobic, close-quarters encounter.
Over the course of two hours in the theater, the storytellers and SEALs discuss the details and nuances that differentiate video game fantasy from the 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. “The math” helps soldiers determine when to shoot and when to stand down. But on battlefields, 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? … The bad guys have guns,’” Kurosaki said. “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.
So the game will have a moral compass. If players just start spraying bullets at everyone they see, the game will fail them, Minkoff said. Make a judgement too slowly, and you’ll be rebooting from your last saved checkpoint.
“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 said.
Previous versions 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.
Kurosaki said, “Our [consultants] were like, ‘We don’t do anything like that. … 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.”