Call of Duty WWII Zombies was revealed around San Diego Comic-Con, with a cast that includes actors from Daredevil and Doctor Who. But the more interesting takeaway from the reveal was that, as opposed to the more humorous and outlandish entries in the Zombies offshoot, WWII’s Zombies mode will be aiming for darker, horror-focused experience.
Sledgehammer, the development studio behind the upcoming series entry, was founded by a team well-known for their collaboration on the Dead Space franchise. And talking with the Cameron Dayton, Sledgehammer’s creative director, and John Horsley, development director, it sounds like WWII will play to the developer’s strengths: gritty, dark, horror. In the interview below, we discussed Zombies announcement, how secrets play into the franchise, and how the team is working to make both WWII and zombies in general feel fresh for a modern audience.
GameSpot: World War Two, zombies–I don’t think anybody saw this as a surprise, but it must be exciting every time you get to work on another Zombies.
Cameron Dayton: Yeah. There’s a legacy, and here’s the fun part of the legacy. It started with a Nazi Zombies seed, I guess you could say, and all these other talented studios have taken it and done their own thing. But to get to go back to the roots with the advances in technology and in narrative and even in our own audience, it’s opened up a whole lot for us to go with. We are incredibly excited to be on this.
John Horsley: You mix the horror pedigree we have from some other activities the team has done and mix it up with the Call of Duty. It’s been really, really awesome.
It’s a stellar cast every time, but this time in particular it’s one that’s going to be close to a lot of people’s hearts. David Tennant is just such a fun actor who has such a wide-ranging pedigree. What was it like working with him on this project?
JH: He was great. Cameron worked with him to make sure his voice fit the character and the character fit the actor; everything came together so we had this seamless expression of a personality. He plays Drostan Hynd, a professor of sorts and an art historian…he likes art somewhat too much. He’s also an art thief and has been given an option to join the Allied efforts to recover stolen art for the of humanity. He’s excited about this opportunity and also somewhat put out about it.
CD: Well, he’s excited but it is a better option than going to jail, which is the alternative he was given. There is something fun about creating the stories for games. You’ve got to stay agile. The technology might tell us next week that a character I created is not going to work because we can’t do blue skin or whatever, and so it allows us to be able to customize a lot of our characters with the actors that we are going with.
With a fantastic base like David Tennant, we were able to build around what was working best in our sessions with him, and he jumped in with both feet as well. It allows us to completely build this character, to tune it, if you will, to the actors. And this happened with each of the people that we have on our cast, which is a lot of fun.
How do those decisions come together? Do the actors or agents reach out to you for these or do you request specific talent?
CD: We put a list together of the people that we want, and it’s funny because if this had been ten or 15 years ago, the list of who we could approach, I think, would have been a lot smaller. Games have finally stepped into this realm of entertainment where it’s known as a big thing. And when these actors realize that you’ve got a movie where people watch for two hours versus a game where they’re playing hours and hours every single night, it’s a much broader and deeper type of fan engagement. We really haven’t had many problem in finding the actors we most wanted to take these parts.
Games have finally stepped into this realm of entertainment where it’s known as a big thing.
With a guy like David Tennant, are there going to be any nods to his tenure as Doctor Who? Or are you trying to stay away from that kind of pop culture references?
CD: Yeah, when we decided to go stylistically real-world and real characters, we can’t see him pulling out a sonic screwdriver and talking about the Time Lords. However, there are some subtle nods and very hidden away in some of the Easter Eggs that could be construed in certain ways. That’s as far as I’m gonna get into it, but I have no doubt that the fans will find and catch and broadcast those when they find them.
The Zombies experience has become such an intrinsic part of Call of Duty but how do you coordinate the Call of Duty core game team and the Zombies team?
JH: The Call of Duty franchise is a large and complicated beast. We are essentially a team of teams. You’ve got a core technology team, a character team. We’ve got a marketing, PR, logistics, IT, there’s a lot of people who need to do all their jobs for it to happen. We have a dedicated core team on Zombies that handcrafts the assets that we see in the game. So they do it all day, every day. Very passionate about it, very focused on it. That’s where we get the quality and the kind of expression of art that you want to see. We really represent a larger team of craftsmen who do all the lighting, all the animation, all the characters, all that.
CD: The nice thing being at Sledgehammer, it’s not like we are in this little ivory tower–or ivory graveyard. The single-player team, the multiplayer team, we meet with them regularly to make sure that any innovations that the teams are doing, we’re taking across and of course, we’ve got the elements of loot and these other bits that we need to be very aware of across the franchise.
JH: We coordinate with other studios, and other division groups as well. It’s a big effort.
Because you have that rotating schedule of developers, is there any kind of competition, or is it more collaborative between groups?
JH: We are big fans of what they do. If anything, we’re just friendly rivals trying to improve the craft and to make it better each time, we do that for the fans. Not so much as a service or competing with the other studios. We recognize the quality of the previous and we try to match or beat it. That’s the name of the game.
CD: It’s a case of who can raise the bar. Maybe “raise the bar isn’t the right thing;” it’s “putting the bar in a new place.” Our focus on horror, our focus on the more grounded realism of a Zombies game has been a challenge unique to our team. We consider the other teams very much our allies.
JH: It was easier in this case, anyway, since we had a back-to-the-roots, back to World War II, we carved out our own original storyline. So it was something that was wide open that we could explore and didn’t require too many guardrails about accidentally interfering with other teams’ future plans.
Along that line of reinvention, you guys are starting fresh. This is a new Zombies storyline; you are not beholden to some of the other stories on the zombie franchises that you’ve done previously. What drove that decision to say, “We want this to be a fresh story?“
JH: I think a lot of it was matching with the World War II game. Our single-player game is this grounded, historically based title. We’ve joked about this, but our Zombies mode is game that’s happening in the shadows of the universe that the single-player game exists in. It’s not going to be an entire departure from single-player when you look into our game.
Now, granted, we step into horror, we step into the supernatural elements of that. Our philosophy is that if you want fear to really grab you, it needs to come from some place familiar. It’s that twist that gets scary. Being chased by zombies in cartoon ice cream land is a lot less scary than being chased by zombies in your backyard. It’s something that we feel has really worked out for the team.
Thinking about that horror theme, is that a core focus for Zombie’s experience versus the gritty realism of the World War II portion?
CD: I think it’s a little bit of both. The gritty realism is that you’re in a world where you can see the texture of the wood and the nails and the brick and mortar around you; when something crawls out of the dirt right in front of you, then it’s a little more frightening. And that was something that we tried to keep as one of the pillars of the game. This feels like something that’s not entirely impossible that you could imagine while you are walking down a dark road.
Thinking about big horror games this year, Resident Evil 7 has probably been the best-received so far this year, and it used VR to great effect. Have you experimented with VR in Zombies?
CD: You know what, that wasn’t really on our radar as much right now, you know. The type of game we’ve got, it’s such an arena wave-based sort of thing. We wanted to stay true to the heart and soul of the type of game it was so that hasn’t been a direction or anything.
Secrets are a big part of the Zombies franchise, and it came up, during the SDCC panel that the QA testers haven’t even found some of the secrets that you guys have put into this. How much are you thinking about that beforehand, and how much just comes up naturally in the development process?
JH: We centrally have several layers of content in the game and a lot of it is designed for entertainment and fun–you’re scared but you’re having fun. So it’s a really nice mix for us; a sweet and sour kind of palette. Then there’s the hardcore layer of secrets that are designed to challenge, to really press the hardcore to uncover it all. And then there’s a layer below that. We think it will make it one of the hardest, secret-laden zombie games released.
We think it will make it one of the hardest, secret-laden zombie games released.
CD: We found out that a better way to tell the story for our game was to make the main beats not mysterious things you need to uncover. You go through these elements searching for Marie’s brother, Klaus, and uncovering what’s beneath the Bavarian town, and how you’re going to defeat that horror. That stuff is fairly on the top level.
But as you go along, you’re gonna see little hints, little flashes of something else, something deeper. Klaus has been trapped in this town for long enough to use the elements from his father’s toy store to start building out some secret traps and ways that he’s helped preparing the way for his sister when she comes. Once you open up that little cornucopia of dark mysteries, it presents an entirely deeper level of the Easter eggs and they’re all tied through the narrative. It’s not just a case of, “You’ve hacked in behind the game and so you have access to the stuff.” It is still part of the story.
JH: We have, in some respects, a very fact-filled universe. It’s period correct weaponry, its World War II, and the themes and storylines–everything matches up. We pair that with fiction in a nice way. All the hardcore has to go in the nice fiction package. Unfortunately, Klaus has been busy. He’s gone insane; he’s a little deranged, and so he creates problems for players who have to unravel his puzzles.
How do you hope–or expect–players to spend their time when you do have so much to do in a Call of Duty game? It’s not just that single-player experience but the multiplayer in Call of Duty and then also Zombies?
CD: That is something that we have definitely dug into. If you’ve got ten minutes to hop in, and you just want to shoot a bunch of scary things, it’ll be entirely rewarding that way. However, there are these layers and this depth through the story and the mysteries. We’ve created a game that will be appealing for those who just want a quick drive through experience and for those who want to sit at the table and get the seven-course meal.
What are you guys doing to make these ideas feel fresh? The feedback, from our audience especially was kind of surprising, how excited they are about World War II. This is the setting that people got burned out on year ago, and it felt like almost every game was set in WWII. And zombies is something that has never left us in video games. What will make people excited to come back into this type of world?
JH: The fans’ reactions are really positive, which has been really, really great to see and hear. In our efforts, the thing that’s going to be interesting and fresh–we’ve got a thematic change and its actually scary. It’s probably the scariest experience we’ve ever provided in Call of Duty. At least I hope so. And we didn’t really talk at length about in the trailer, we got more to release later on but we’ve done things to make it more cooperative. We’ve done things to make it more rewarding.
The conceit is that the Nazis have found some relic that allows them to renew energy into the undead and bring back soldiers. They’re bringing back these Nazi soldiers, and they’re doing so for war. That’s enabled us to create zombie designs that are built for gameplay because they’re built for war, right? These aren’t just zombies eating your brains, these are soldiers built for the battlefield. So we haven’t released the full roster of zombies yet but you’ll see that it introduces new mechanics and new ways to interact with zombies.
That’s the easiest thing for players to get behind: killing zombies.
JH: Well, Nazi zombies, what’s not to kill? [laughs]
CD: And to kill without the twinge of conscience. That’s the funny thing. I really think that at it’s core, the appeal for the zombies is the ability to use cool weapons and to use your military prowess and to not have to think about it and that’s what’s fun about zombies.
These aren’t just zombies eating your brains, these are soldiers built for the battlefield.
JH: And we’ve done things as well, in the kind of social aspects of zombies, which is really a cooperative experience. The others are adversarial. You have other teammates, but you’re opposing other players. Ultimately, the players are all on the same side, all opposed against this array of evil, deranged Nazi zombies. We’ve done things to reinforce what it’s like to come together as a team, survive a wave, and then work as a team, separate, come back. We pushed that around a little bit so that’s some fresh stuff there too.
CD: We’ve really encouraged the sharing of resources and a lot of things that, again, we read though issues that were problematic for past players, and the easiest and best thing should be getting stuff back and forth between your teams and playing together. So, it was something that we focused on.
There’s still a lot more to be revealed before the game releases, but what else do you want players to know now?
CD: There are these fun elements that we are jazzed about for our game, and it just kept coming back to the one thing–we believe we have built the scariest zombie mode that has ever been created. I mean, we know they are testing the game upstairs because we’ll hear these shouts and screams and somebody is yelling bad swears upstairs and whereas there are those who know where all those scare moments are, who know what’s about to happen, still get scared playing that and while, yes, there’s certainly a lot of crafting and building towards that, and a some very sober thought in that direction, we think we hit that magic target where there’s some fantastically terrifying moments in this game that are going to surprise everybody.
JH: We’ve had thrill moments where our hairs raised up and we got scared. So there is plenty of stuff for them.