No Russian: the modder who went on to make Call Of Duty’s most controversial set piece
Mohammad Alavi is responsible for some of the most intense and memorable campaign levels in Call Of Duty history, but he almost never entered the industry at all. He was on the path to becoming a doctor, earning bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biology. On the side, he enjoyed making maps for firstperson shooters, starting with Duke Nukem 3D and continuing with Quake, Half-Life and Counter-Strike. As a part of the Internet’s then-thriving modding scene, he soon became a contributor to some of the more prominent mods of the Half-Life era, including the original Natural Selection and the ill-fated Half-Life: Nightwatch. But the idea of working on games professionally never struck him as viable.
Then, just as he had sent his last applications to medical school, an issue of PC Gamer magazine changed his life. The issue contained a feature on modders and mod teams, and prominently featured were screenshots of Alavi’s maps. “I’m flipping through this magazine, and all of a sudden I see all my levels,” he recalls. “I never took it as a serious career path; I didn’t think I was good enough. Once I saw that, though, I guess it gave me confidence.”
On the next page, Alavi saw an advertisement for Florida’s Full Sail University. “I got my acceptance to medical school, but I lied to my parents – I told them I didn’t get in. I was like, ‘Well, I didn’t get into medical school, so here’s a backup plan!’” he laughs. “They were pretty pissed for a while there.”
After graduating from Full Sail with a degree in game design, Alavi moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of finding employment. He ended up getting hired by Infinity Ward just after the studio had completed Call Of Duty. “It was the combination of the programming I’d learned in school and all the stuff I’d done on those Half-Life mods that got me the job,” he explains.
Alavi’s first professional levels were for Call Of Duty 2. Among other things, he created the darkly humorous potato-throwing grenade tutorial. But he really started to push the boundaries on his studio’s next game, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
The first level of that title, Crew Expendable, is set on a cargo ship listing in a stormy sea. Alavi proposed a complex sequence for the end of the mission that had the player racing to escape from the ship as it broke apart and sank. “All my leads were like, ‘No, there’s no way you’re going to have time to do that, especially not with our engine. We’ll find the nuke in the container and fade to black,’” Alavi says.
Such concerns were understandable: the design called for players to rush through the tilting ship’s cramped corridors along with multiple friendlies – easily a case where you could get caught behind one of the NPCs or run right past them. Controlling the situation so that players felt in danger without overly complicating the escape attempt (the dramatic effect would be ruined if it had to be repeated over and over) required level scripting at the most detailed, granular level – not something the studio’s bosses felt they could afford to spend time on with their tight schedule.