We write about FPSes each week in Triggernometry, a mixture of tips, esports, and a celebration of virtual marksmanship.
There’s been at least one new Call of Duty game released every year since 2003. It’s one of the most successful entertainment products in the world, with Modern Warfare 3 grossing a ludicrous 775 million dollars in five days. The number of discarded CoD-branded Doritos packages and Mountain Dew bottles could be stacked to the moon (probably, I don’t know, just guessing). And yet you'd think no one likes it.
No matter what Call of Duty tries, as ESL associate producer Charles Watson pointed out in a tweet, it's met with hostility every year. CoD has a terrible image problem, especially on PC, where its concurrent player counts aren't keeping up with the competition (go try to find an Advanced Warfare match). I still enjoy new CoDs, as much as I criticize them, but it's safe to say that we're collectively tired of them. I don't know if Activision can win back the sort of admiration CoD had from 2003 to 2007.
I know what I would do, though. As someone who has never made a game and doesn't have any idea how to, I know exactly what I would do. To be exciting again, especially to PC gamers, Call of Duty has to stop being Call of Duty.
How I would ruin Call Of Duty
If I were directing a Call of Duty, I’d start with a weird choice of writer. Mark Boal, who’s known for The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and contributing to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, is clearly a good writer, but I’d go after someone like True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto (which I probably only say because grumpy Colin Farrell is fresh in my mind). Or I’d hound Charlie Brooker (Screenwipe, Black Mirror), Fran Walsh (Dead Alive, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit), Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida), or Bryan Fuller (a bunch of Star Trek, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal). I’d get someone you wouldn’t expect to write a war movie to write a war game.
And I’d insist we say something more interesting about war than ‘are you willing to rip out your lungs and replace them with cyberlungs?’ I’d go to the Burma Campaign. Then the future. Then the First Barbary War. I’d pull ideas from Spec Ops: The Line, The Thin Red Line, and other things with “the line” in their titles (except maybe Walk the Line, but some Johnny Cash couldn't hurt). I’d kill every character with a speaking role. I'd break the fourth wall constantly. I'd make Leo Tolstoy a playable character. And then Leo Tolstoy would die in a space mission.
I’d make sure my gameplay designers were willing to be weird, too. It's not enough to write an interesting story, but then put the players in tried-and-true 'guy whispers in your ear to take the one on the left' scenarios. Call of Duty campaigns are all 'do this' and 'do that,' but they're the most fun when they give me some room to move, where I can make my own decisions about how to handle a situation. “We’re not making a movie,” I’d write in big letters on a whiteboard, even though I hired a filmmaker to design the story. I’d demand there be multiple solutions to every problem. I'd make not shooting anyone a viable option. We’d miss every deadline. They’d say I don’t know how to make a game (I don’t). I'd be fired.
But if I could keep going, I’d bring the multiplayer back to the basics. Good ideas introduced in CoD 4—the ideas that had me obsessed with it for months—have been added to and iterated on and it's out of control. CoD 4’s unlock system was just about leveling. It was easy to set goals (I worked hard for the Barrett .50cal and was ecstatic when I unlocked it), and loadout decisions felt a lot more meaningful—they weren’t overwhelming, at least. I'd probably write some stupid team-wide email about efficient game design.
I’d slow it down, too. Ghosts' fast time-to-kill, crowded maps, and circular spawns weren’t much fun for me. I was constantly taking a couple shots to the back with no time to dance, no window for a comeback (maybe I've gotten slower, to be fair). I used to play Team Hardcore in CoD 4, where lethal bullets were the point, but back then I felt like I had more room to maneuver. My favorite maps were Overgrown and Crossfire, where I had this sense of playing guerrilla warfare, hiding in grass or fighting my way down a street. Today’s CoDs feel more like blood-soaked spin-cycles, and that sense of ‘playing war’ has diminished.
I’d make big maps—not Battlefield big, but bigger, more war-like and less arena-like. I’d make them rectangular instead of round, sort of like in that first Medal of Honor reboot, which failed, yeah, but had some good ideas. I’d include all kinds of ballistics modeling that no one wants. There wouldn’t be any drones or ‘system hacks.’ They'd tell me I have to include jetpacks, and I would say that I am but I totally wouldn't. Just guns, grenades, and the constant feeling that war is futile.
The end of CoD
At this point we’re over a year late and well over-budget (it doesn’t help that I hired David Lynch to write a dream sequence and insisted we motion capture an elephant). It’s the first time Call of Duty has missed a year since 2003. Somehow, I haven’t been fired, so I go on to make sure players can host their own custom dedicated servers. It’s really important to multiplayer shooter communities that they have the chance to, you know, build communities, I say. And so is moddability. Look at the most-played shooters today: if they’re not free-to-play, they’re probably moddable. My game isn’t going to go the way of Titanfall and Evolve. To hell with that. I insist we need to include a map editor and other mod tools, and we add another year or so to development.
By the time we're ready to reveal it, it's been a few years since any Call of Duty has released (assuming another developer didn’t have one cooking, which they would have, but this is my design). It’s now E3 2019, and investors are furious as I take the stage at some conference or other, but having waited so long, the players are eager to see what we've been doing.
“This. Is. Call of Duty,” I say to a rapt audience. There’s an explosion of smoke. The lights shut off. A giant screen above the stage flickers on and we see the 3D rendered faces of Sigourney Weaver and Michael Keaton arguing about the UN Security Council or whatever, with interspersed scenes of soldiers past and present scrambling through mortar fire and screaming at the audacity of the sun for shining on them. We finally land on one soldier, bloody and bruised, reaching a vista of fire and smoke. "The people really aren't for war," we hear a woman say. It's Jeannette Rankin, the only US congressperson to vote against entering WWII. "They just go along." Inception horn. Explosions. Some dumb title like 'Call of Duty: Forever At War' fades in. The crowd cheers.
CoD: FaW releases in November to critical acclaim (the word ‘masterpiece’ is used in every review). It's everyone's game of the year. Someone mods in all the maps and weapons from CoD 4 and Black Ops 2. Its concurrent player count dethrones League of Legends and Dota 2. Gabe Newell gifts me his knife collection as thanks for my contribution to video games. Activision lays off my 800-person team, and no one ever makes a Call of Duty again.
(Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 releases on November 6. The new multiplayer specialists look kind of cool.)