Sledgehammer Games' Michael Condrey and Greg Reisdorf talk War mode, Divisions and challenge you to "1v1 me, bro"
When Sledgehammer Games first revealed Call of Duty: WWII back in April, its focus was primarily on illustrating how the new game was taking the series – now in its 14th consecutive year – back to its roots. That first glimpse was entirely focused on capturing the gritty tone of the single player campaign and showing that the series was starting to put its futuristic future soldiers behind it. The term "boots on the ground" is used a lot by everyone on the team to describe the experience that they're trying to build – and while that's clearly a carefully choreographed PR contrivance, the intent is to clearly separate what's coming from what we've been playing for the past 10 years.
Regardless of how cinematic and authentic the single player campaign ends up being, the true test of any Call of Duty is in its multiplayer offerings, and Sledgehammer chose to focus almost entirely on this aspect during its E3 presentations this year. Although studio general manager Glen Schofield had teased some of these new features in that initial reveal, we have now been able to dig into a little more detail on the game's new asymmetric narrative-based "War Mode," as well as the new Divisions, which serve as an overhaul of previous games' create-a-class and perks systems. There are five Division classes in WWII: the basic Infantry, the shotgun and grenade-brandishing Expeditionary, the SMG-toting Airborne, the sniper-focused Mountain, and LMG-wielding Armored Division.
We spoke with Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey and multiplayer designer Greg Reisdorf about the studio's approach to multiplayer, and how it would potentially borrow ideas from its contemporaries. High on our list of questions is how the new Headquarters area fits into the overall game. This new feature is described as a "social space" and includes two different competitive areas – a 1v1 arena, and a firing range.
You hinted at the new Headquarters social hub back in April, and that fueled speculation that you were looking to build something comparable to the Tower in Destiny. Is that how you'd characterize it?
Michael Condrey: It's a little different than that. Headquarters is our biggest innovation for the year, I think. It's a focal point for everything that you do in War, in TDM in Dom and building your career. It's a social space for 48 players to share and party up. We've been thinking about this kind of thing for a long time. In Advanced Warfare we wanted to really try and bring your character to life – before that there wasn't really a focus on character customization – and that really started six years ago. Then, after we'd done that, we wanted to evolve the way that people could be a part of the community outside of the core competitive space, away from combat.
Greg Reisdorf: It's right on a button press out of the lobby. You just hit a button and you're in Headquarters. You can walk around and do whatever, and your match timer is still counting down. You're still in matchmaking while you hang out in this area. It's still there in the corner counting down while you're in the 1v1 pit or the firing range. You can do all that kind of stuff while the matchmaking is still working away in the background.
So it serves the same purpose as the skirmishes in Overwatch?
Greg Reisdorf: Kinda, but it's also designed so that at the beginning or the end of your evening, when you're totally just drained and you want to chill out, it's an area where you can just socialize.
Michael Condrey: Actually, I wouldn't call it the skirmish in Overwatch – I'd call it the cities in World of Warcraft. It's where you go when you're ready to be outside the combat experience. It's like going to Orgrimmar in WoW – you go there to socialize, to get your mail, meet your friends and party up. It's where the community congregates. From Headquarters you can launch any part of the multiplayer experience: you can launch zombies, you can engage in your daily missions, pick up your daily briefings, go to the theater to watch any esports broadcasts that are going on...it's really the nucleus for everything.
The 1v1 pit is new, and it's not the only example of that kind of gameplay making a comeback this year – Quake Champions has it too. Are you modeling it after something like a speedball pit at a paintball field?
Greg Reisdorf: The 1v1 is kinda like speedball, yeah. You basically sign into a queue and it's a survival game, so if you keep winning and winning and winning you can just take out everyone that comes along. Everyone in Headquarters can watch if they want to. The leaderboards are right there in the world.
So did you make it because people just end up shooting each other anyway when they hang out in spaces like this?
Michael Condrey: Well, yeah – they do tend to do that. Some people are really competitive, and some are really social. We wanted to make something that could be both. If you want to show off your user generated content, like your emblems, you can do that – but the 1v1 pit is really about our core community wanting somewhere to show individual skill. You can go in there and say "I'll take anyone on with this particular weapon," it's almost like a game of pickup basketball.
So you're really looking to emphasize individual skill and provide an opportunity to spotlight that?
Michael Condrey: At the studio we have this giant whiteboard where just organically we'd have people sign up for these 1v1 challenges. This was way before we really had the whole 1v1 thing in development. But it was just this recognition that Call of Duty is fundamentally about being competitive. You trash talk, you challenge people. "1v1 me" was almost kind of a meme for people calling each other out – "1v1 me, bro" – but now we actually have that built into every lobby. You can earn rewards for it, there'll be challenges, leaderboards. We have that for the virtual firing range too. That's right in Headquarters too, and again – it's ultimately a celebration of skill. Everyone can sign up and challenge each other.
How does the matchmaking for Headquarters work? What dictates who the 47 other people you're socializing with? Is it all based on existing parties and friends lists?
Greg Reisdorf: There's all kinds of cool stuff we're doing with matchmaking, and that's why the beta in August and September is going to be super-important for us with this one. The headquarters has a completely different matchmaking system than the normal TDM matchmaking. We're still working all the details out, but we're really trying to weight that right, and the beta will definitely help.
At the end of the day Call of Duty became about "me" – my score streaks, my KD, my performance, me being on the final kill cam. WWII is the complete opposite.
Outside of Headquarters, it seems like the 6v6 War mode is the single biggest change to Call of Duty multiplayer – instead of being just a variation of two teams going at it, there's some real purpose to what each side is doing. How is it going to work?
Greg Reisdorf: Once we knew the game was going to be World War 2-themed we knew we needed an Axis vs. Allies attack and defend kind of thing. We knew we needed linear objectives and we needed a story that we could tell within that kind of structure. That was the basic inspiration. Then we just got more and more creative and started coming up with specific combat ideas – stuff like building a bridge to get a tank across the river so that the tank can take out the flak guns. We really wanted something that would build out a narrative that would work alongside the fact that we have the different divisions with different skills.
Michael Condrey: For us, we've all seen the evolution of Call of Duty. Part of it has been the Modern series making you a Tier 1 soldier, and then with us with Advanced Warfare we made you a Tier 1 soldier of the future, and the outcome was that it all became about you as a super soldier. Multiplayer became about your individual success. Lone wolf stuff. It was about how you could compete and dominate. Even in the objective-based games that are supposed to drive teamwork. At the end of the day Call of Duty became about "me" – my score streaks, my KD, my performance, me being on the final kill cam. WWII is the complete opposite. It's the common man, common woman thrust into situations that really require teamwork and your squad to come together. The idea behind bringing this linear war mode to life was to reinforce true teamwork and strategy.
So how's it going to play out? We saw some of this in the E3 demo, but honestly everyone was just running around not really knowing what they were supposed to be doing.
Michael Condrey: I remember at the beginning of this game we talked about whether we show D-Day. It's so iconic, but it's also been shown a lot of times in other forms of media. We wanted to do it because it marked the beginning of the Allied forces pushing back the German war machine. We had this fascinating conversation where we started to think about it differently. We realized that we'd never seen D-Day from the Axis perspective, because they're supposed to lose, right? But – can you imagine being a conscripted Axis soldier in the pillbox on the morning of June 6? That lead us to wanting to show both sides of these really strategic conflicts.
In terms of how that would look – well, the abstract is basically this: The Allies had to land on the beach, get to the wall, then they had to take out the pillboxes, get to the road and get into the hedgerows. That was their mission. They were supposed to do all that in three hours, and it took them 12. The opposite view of that was the Axis defending the beach, defending the bunkers, pulling back from the pillboxes and then retreating. So it really was an attack and defend thing over these really strategic objectives, and this really informed how the war was going to play out. So that's how it informed War mode – as the Allies you're attacking, while the Axis are defending. The win-state for the Axis in this scenario would be holding the beach, the first front line. That was our "holy shit" moment for thinking about this – the fact that we could build these iconic moments as asymmetric attack and defend missions.
Greg Reisdorf: That's where the teamwork really comes into play too. You're watching those choke points and we've built these custom maps so you absolutely have to work together to get through them. There's just no other way to do it. You have to call out to you team mates, and really coordinate. The different divisions are really important too. Placing smokes in the right place, locking stuff down with your LMGs, there's tons going on constantly.
Michael Condrey: The bridge battle we're talking about here really illustrates the need for that teamwork. From the Allied side you have to build the bridge – and that requires you to actually get to it to start with. There's absolutely no way that you're going to get there and hold the bridge if everyone's running shotguns and small machine guns because the Allied forces have MG nests on overwatch they have snipers in the back, so you've got to have an Airborne guy that can throw smoke, you got to have an Armored guy that can lay down some heavy fire, and frankly you need a couple of Mountain division guys to snipe things at a distance.
Are you going to coach teams on team composition like Overwatch does at the beginning of these matches? Call out the need for snipers, or whatever?
Greg Reisdorf: We're always talking about ways to make things better, and we're still in development so we're looking at lots of things like that.
Michael Condrey: The cool thing about War is that it's part of the overall multiplayer ecosystem, so it's your character that you're playing. Everything you do in War or Team Deathmatch or in Headquarters all feeds into your progression. We don't ever want to be restrictive and force people to play as a different role.
We're really primarily in the European theater, but there's a real opportunity to explore Axis versus Allies across the globe over time.
So are you locked into a particular class for your character?
Greg Reisdorf: You can play as multiple divisions as you play through – it works like loadouts, basically, and you set things up in whatever way works for you. Then, when you're playing you can mix and match. When you're going through, the composition is on the fly. You work with your team to decide what you need and when, and then you just need to hope that you've brought that particular loadout with you. There's meta strategy for what you bring into a game, and then the tactical strategy within the match itself.
Michael Condrey: Create-a-class and player progression was something we really wanted to explore. There are five Divisions total, and each one has unique training which gives your player different skills – weapons, character look and so on. You will progress in each Division in different ways, which should unlock a bit of an asymmetrical play style. In the matches you can choose between the different divisions. Based off how far you've progressed in each, there'll be different levels of proficiency, obviously – but whatever mode you're playing in we'll give you access to the Division that best matches your play style.
Every other game these days seems to be pitched as a service that can last indefinitely. With War mode you could potentially keep adding to it indefinitely, right? New scenarios, battles – there's certainly plenty of material to draw on.
Michael Condrey: The great thing with the canvas of WW2 is that it was a global conflict. There are so many different opportunities for finding these iconic battles. We're really primarily in the European theater, but there's a real opportunity to explore Axis versus Allies across the globe over time. We've not really talked about our post-launch plans, but reaction has been fantastic to War mode. You're right, if people love it as much as we do, we'll want to keep adding to it.
Are you going to support clans or guilds inside the game the way Destiny 2 is?
Michael Condrey: We haven't talked about clans yet.
Greg Reisdorf: There's a lot that Headquarters has to offer, and it's definitely where we'll see people party up together. There's a lot of detail that we'll talk about later about that. Headquarters is really the thing we want to lean on for that coordination between players.
This interview has been edited and condensed.