Inside Infinity Ward: how the house of COD was rebuilt after its foundations crumbled

Infinity Ward

Head of studio Steve Ackrich (left) and executive producer Mark Rubin.

There’s a common assumption online that Infinity Ward no longer exists, that the team behind Call Of Duty 2 and the Modern Warfare games walked out in mid-2010, took a cab a few miles down the road and founded Respawn Entertainment. This, says head of studio Steve Ackrich, is not the case.

“We lost some exceptionally talented people, there’s no denying that,” he says. “But this is Infinity Ward; Infinity Ward is here in this building. Yes, we lost some talented people, but in a number of different ways we brought new life and new blood into the studio to try new things.”

Infinity Ward was founded in 2002 by Vince Zampella, Jason West, Grant Collier and 19 other refugees from Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault developer 2015, Inc, but the new Infinity Ward’s story really begins on March 1, 2010, when Zampella and West were dismissed by Activision for breach of contract. A fair rate of staff turnover is normal at a developer employing well over 100 people, but by the end of May some 46 employees had followed the pair of studio heads out the door. Modern Warfare 3 had been in development for about six months and the effect on production was dramatic.

“It was a confusing time,” says executive producer Mark Rubin. “It was a lawyer thing, and lawyers were doing their lawyer business, and for us it was just confusion. There was a period of coming to grips with and understanding what was going on. We didn’t expect to lose as many as we did, but we had a significant number of people who stayed as well.”

Allegations of spying and hacking by Activision gave everyone reason to leave, and job offers from Respawn gave many an even better motive to walk away from the studio, but still over half of its employees stayed put. “Everybody was figuring out for themselves where they wanted to go,” says Rubin. “For some, there was a strong sense that Call Of Duty was the reason they came to Infinity Ward, and that was something they didn’t want to give up on. Some people, right from the beginning, knew how they were going to handle the situation. For others, it was a bit more internal struggle, and so we had a significant number of people leave.

“For those who stayed, you could see a change in attitude as everyone said, ‘OK, this is a business thing, we’re not going to try to speculate too much; let’s get back to making games.’ Even with that distraction, we had to make a game, and for a lot of us that became our lifeline.”

Infinity Ward was left with a team of just over 50, including many of the leads and even the studio’s first-ever recruit. Steve Ackrich and CTO Steve Pearce took over the running of the studio and recruitment began almost immediately, but Infinity Ward lacked the manpower to make Modern Warfare 3 in time for its November 2011 release. Activision turned to Sledgehammer Games, which abandoned an in-progress COD adventure game to help finish Modern Warfare 3.

“Never having done multistudio development before,” says Rubin, “production had some challenges: working out how schedules were going to work, who was going to talk to whom. Just that basic, really. We ended up doing a lot of flights. We had a lot of guys who basically were on chat programs all day long, and we also had some guys who Skyped all day with their counterparts at the other studio. We struggled in the beginning to find our footing with the two studios, but once that picked up it actually ran really smoothly. It was a surprise.”

By October 2010, the studio was back up to something resembling full strength, but recruitment continues to this day. Rubin and Ackrich call Infinity Ward a ‘studio of leads’; developers in management positions at other studios have joined the team in subordinate roles, apparently just to work on the next Call Of Duty. “It’s definitely not for the irresistible pay cheque,” says Ackrich, laughing. “A lot of our guys have put their heart and soul into projects that haven’t got this much attention. I think COD is a chance to have their efforts recognised.”

The new Infinity Ward – half new at least – moved from Encino to Woodland Hills, California, in January this year. The studio space was built to sketches and specifications chosen by Rubin and Ackrich, and little expense was spared. It’s a colossal space, all grey concrete and white plaster; the receptionist occupies a lobby 50ft or more from the nearest work area, and developers in a hurry commute from office to office on folding scooters. “In part, we moved here because of our growth in staff,” says Rubin. We’ve gone from about 60 on COD2 to about 125 now, but it’s also because if everyone plugged in their devices at the old place, we’d lose our power.”

Rubin would have liked to lose the pillars supporting the ceiling in the meeting area, but at $250,000 per column, he figured they could stay. The communal hub is surrounded by individual rooms for the singleplayer team, multiplayer team, programmers, and artists; a 10ft graphic of Price from Modern Warfare stares down on every meeting; and the space receives a direct video feed from the testing lab, where visitors play new builds of Infinity Ward’s current work in progress, Call Of Duty: Ghosts.

“[When we moved,] we allowed every department to set themselves up how they liked,” Rubin explains. “So the multiplayer guys have one big room, because for them there’s a lot of talk and debate, but other guys need more heads-down time. The singleplayer guys are all in two-person offices; most of the coders are in two- and one-person offices. We funnel people through the same central area and meetings happen naturally. It works for us.”

Since Infinity Ward is a ‘studio of leads’, everyone can be trusted to manage their own time. Which means that Infinity Ward’s team makes its own hours, explains Ackrich. “If you impose a certain schedule, people become resentful of that. They understand, as studio leads who have built games before, how to hit milestones and hit game quality. But they also have to manage their life. We leave it to each person to determine how they’re going to do all the work they need to do to get the game done.”

It makes sense, then, that when work began on Ghosts, Infinity Ward did what it has always done and took input from its experienced team. “We put up boards on the wall,” says Rubin, “and everyone writes up all their ideas for little features and big features on cards. The teams then start to go through and review each of those cards – ‘There’s no way you can do that,’ or, ‘This idea doesn’t work with this other idea’ – and gradually the cards start to disappear.”

And while Call Of Duty has become a shorthand reference to some for the kind of focus-grouped, tested-to-death games that so many players affect to hate, Rubin insists the approach to development is the same today as it was back on Call Of Duty 2. “We started making these games long before we had 30 million people playing,” he says. “We made what we wanted, which was a small arena shooter that was fast paced, felt good, and had a bit of an RPG element to it. We’re still making the game everyone wants to make, but it just so happens the game became the popular thing it is.”

The cards and ideas board might have survived since COD2, but Ghosts is like no game Infinity Ward has ever made. For the first time, the studio is working with scalable assets initially rendered at what the studio calls “cinema quality”. Jake Rowell, a character artist with 20 years of Hollywood movie experience behind him, explains to us how, for most games, you’d build a chair from simple shapes and a recyclable leather texture that fits the demands of the art budget. For Ghosts, the team will instead build a chair model with a colossal polygon count to capture the smallest of details, then scale it down to game quality. It’s a process that Rubin describes as “artist intensive”, and it might be hard at first to see the point. It means that the studio has versions to fit different platforms’ specs, of course, but all the time the studio is banking highly detailed assets that will still be useful a decade from now.

“I think the first big mindset change for us was realising that the more we can do to future-proof against transitions, the better,” says Rubin. “We’re not trying to make a game for the next gen or the current gen. We’re trying to make a game for the gen after that. That’s different from the past, where we wanted to be platform agnostic; we wanted a game that was the same on every platform. What we’ve done now is create a game that’s going to look great on every platform individually.”

Infinity Ward’s revamped engine is built to be just as scalable. Fragments of the old code remain, but it’s so different that the studio’s calling it a new engine. “Everything from the animation systems to art pipeline systems to the way voiceover and sound work to UI and tools have changed,” says Ackrich. “Every aspect of it has gone through a total rework while maintaining development so people could stay productive. Next-gen systems are a moving target, so it was important for us to be able to scale to whatever that hardware is capable of.”

The trauma of Infinity Ward’s two great transitions – the leap from PC to console, and the loss of so many people so suddenly – has defined the studio’s ethos, and it seems that safeguarding against unpredictability is precious to Rubin. “COD2 was our first console game and it was a significant learning experience for the studio,” he explains. “From our perspective, we’re looking at doing the same thing we did with 360 on the next gen. We’re looking at blowing everyone’s socks off and being the game that drives console sales.”

There’s no doubting Call Of Duty has that power, but its rebirth has meant a drastic change in the studio’s culture. “One of the PR guys called us the Howard Hughes of game development,” says Rubin. “We had always been insular. Nobody knew anything about us, no one knew how we worked, we never did GDC talks, we never opened the doors. That’s another one of the things that’s changed. We realise people are interested in what we’re doing here and we realise there are fans who want to hear about what’s going on.”

“[In the past,] the studio listened but didn’t actually respond,” explains Ackrich. “We had one spokesperson [Robert Bowling], and that was the only face anyone saw, so it was information through a straw. It’s a huge community and we’ve been wrestling with how to let them know we’re listening, and then how to respond to them when we do something based on what they said.”

“We tap [Activision’s other studios] for their expertise pretty regularly now, too,” says Rubin. “It’s something we’ve got much better at. With what happened [with Modern Warfare 3], with bringing in Sledgehammer, that forced the studio to reach out in a way we never have before. A lot of the guys have worked here for so long that I know their opinion on any given topic, but you bring in a new studio and now you get some cool, unexpected things going into the game. In that sense, it was actually a really fun and enjoyable experience.”

In almost every other sense, it wasn’t. “[Ghosts] is almost the hardest game I’ve ever had to work on, just because of the added generational requirements,” says Rubin. “But the last game was definitely harder than this one. So, you know, even a console transition wasn’t as hard on us as the last game.”

Still, the doubters will continue to doubt, and Ackrich doesn’t have an answer for them at the moment. “It’s not a matter of what we would say to them; there’s nothing we can say. We have to prove it, we have to continue putting out great games. In every discipline, we’ve hired some exceptional people – some great engineers across the industry, some great visual effects guys who came from across Hollywood, some strong designers who have shown their value in other studios. In every discipline we’ve brought on great talent. We’ve done all we can, and now it comes out in the games.”