Mark Rubin is under an extraordinary amount of pressure. He’s executive producer of the world’s biggest shooter, Call Of Duty: Ghosts, and the series’ millions of fans (not to mention its critics and rivals) are watching developer Infinity Ward’s every move. Being the biggest FPS in town has brought with it success, but also ever greater criticism; it has become almost fashionable to belittle Call Of Duty’s towering achievements as a juggernaut of an entertainment brand, and its importance to the industry.
With that weight on his shoulders, Rubin could be excused for appearing a little tense; in person, he’s quite the opposite. Perhaps it’s his experience in the spotlight that lends Rubin his assurance – he has been part of Infinity Ward since Call Of Duty 2, working on the ‘next gen’ 360 and PC version of that game while another team developed the Xbox and PS2 iterations. This generation is different, though. Ghosts is cross-gen and Infinity Ward is creating one game, then using internally-developed tools to spit out a different version of Ghosts for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Treyarch, meanwhile, is building the Wii U version, as it has a team that specializes in Nintendo platforms.
Rubin insists that, despite its long-running relationship with Xbox, Ghosts has no lead platform. “There’s obviously a business side and a marketing side of it that is separate from development that has its own priorities,” he says. “Xbox has been a phenomenal partner to work with over many years.”
And he’s confident, no matter what some might say, that developing a cross-gen game in this way doesn’t necessarily mean compromise. “I don’t think it’s holding next gen back,” he says. “The way I look at it is the first game on a next gen console is the hardest one to make. It’s like a first date. There’s a lot of figuring out what’s going on and very little knowledge of each other. The second date, of course, gets much better, but the first date’s kind of awkward.
“Take for example Call Of Duty 2 and the way that game looked even compared to even Call Of Duty 4. It’s a significant leap forward. So I think we’ll see something similar – I hope, as a games developer in general, not just of Call Of Duty, to see massive leaps forward as the generation gets more mature.”
Some have suggested that, compared to new contenders like TitanFall and Destiny, Ghosts looks a little conservative. But creating another game in the world’s biggest series of shooters come with a pressure all of its own. Change its formula too much, and you alienate that gigantic existing audience; change too little and you’re accused of treading water, or worse, laziness.
“Yeah, there is a lot of pressure there,” says Rubin. “It would, in a sense, just be easier for us to go just make a brand new game that isn’t Call Of Duty, that doesn’t have any limitations. That would be the easy way out.
“It’s actually much harder to know that you have something that’s very important to a lot of people, and a formula that people really love as it is. To change that every year is something that’s a huge challenge for us internally, but it drives a lot of our passion. We end up becoming our own biggest critics – when we ship, we postmortem what we did right and what we did wrong. We really tear it apart. That drives us to keep going on the franchise, and not take the easy way out, in a sense.”
Just as players could eventually tire of playing incremental updates to a well-honed formula, franchise fatigue exists in game development too. We speak to Rubin not long after Ubisoft Montreal’s Patrick Plourde’s GDC Europe talk, in which he said that several senior members of the Assassin’s Creed team, after years of work on the publisher’s biggest property, jumped at the chance to work on something smaller and entirely new.
Side projects like this exist at Infinity Ward, too, they just don’t ever talk about them. Rubin recalls one such prototype built around the time of Modern Warfare 2, “a top down, isometric, sort of Diablo clone but with a sort of whimsical silly theme.”
“Yeah, sometimes developers need a little outlet for other stuff and we try to encourage that where we can because sometimes cool ideas come from that,” says Rubin. “That game in particular – it never got hugely far – was pure fun. We let developers do something fun and if it turns out to be something really interesting and new then we can try to get some people behind it and do something with it.”
While it’s unlikely that we’ll see any of these ideas turned into a separate game, Rubin says these dalliances – exploring or returning to ideas that didn’t make it into the final game – all feed into the next Call Of Duty. The series’ gradual transformation from annualised release to persistent online service will only quicken with the arrival of Xbox One and PS4, and those offcuts could yet find an audience through DLC or other updates.
As the series has grown, managing that community of players has become more important than ever, and Rubin remains resolute when we move on to discuss the darker corners of the Call Of Duty fanbase. We ask whether the angry mob which directed its ire at Treyarch’s David Vonderhaar recently has ever made the studio think twice when making changes to the Call Of Duty formula.
“We have to stand our ground,” says Rubin. “We have to be designers. An interesting analogy would be as a parent – if the kids got their way on what they ate for dinner every night, it would be ice cream and cookies every night. We have to use our talents and abilities as designers to collect and interpret what the various community members are saying.
“A lot of the time you’ll get one guy saying ‘I want blue weapons’ and another will say ‘I want red weapons.’ We can’t do both,” he continues. “We have to say neither of you are wrong or right. We‘re going to make that call – some guys will be upset if we do this, and someone else will be upset if we do that. We don’t let it drive us nuts.”
Rubin would like to see a stronger stance on bullying and abuse in online games, but acknowledges that with the scale of these communities, the problem that won’t ever be solved. “If you have 10 million plus people a day playing, we’re not going to get it 100 per cent and we’re not going to get every single person,” he says. “But it’s still something we put a lot of effort into, and that’s very important. Gaming is entertainment, y’know? This is not politics, I’m not curing cancer, I’m not doing anything important from that perspective. It’s supposed to be fun, and I severely dislike when people bring hate and anger into what is supposed to be a fun environment. I enjoy playing whether it’s losing or winning – I try to win, but I’m not a jerk about it, and I wish more players were like that. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Rubin says his studio, alongside Sony and Microsoft, continues to fight that particular battle, but while online abuse is an important issue, we shouldn’t let it colour the conversation around Call Of Duty. The series has bigger battles ahead, most immediately with Battlefield 4 later this year and then on into 2014 and beyond when Destiny and TitanFall arrive. It is under greater scrutiny than ever before, but Infinity Ward remains the studio to beat, and in Rubin it has a leader unlikely to crack under the pressure.