Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s Three-Year Journey to the Call of Duty Championship

Sledgehammer Games co-founder and studio head Michael Condrey shares insights on development, collaborating with the eSports community, and the big event.

by Scott Lowe on February 18, 2015

In just over a month, the best Call of Duty teams in the world will face off at the Call of Duty Championship, presented by Xbox in Los Angeles in pursuit of a $1 million prize pool and the title of world champions. For the 32 teams set to compete, it’ll be the culmination of months of fierce competition and hard work, but it’ll also be a landmark moment for Sledgehammer Games, which spent more than three years bringing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare to life.

I sat down with Sledgehammer Games co-founder and studio head, Michael Condrey, to discuss the development process, eSports, and the Call of Duty Championship.

 

How early in development did the team start thinking about eSports?

"One of the foundational pillars we started with for Advanced Warfare almost three years ago was making a game that satisfies both competitive players and the general population alike. We looked at the success that Treyarch had embracing and engaging with the eSports community and watched as eSports as a whole—even outside of Call of Duty—grew rapidly. eSports was a priority, but we also have found that both audiences want a lot of the same things. They both want great movement, well-designed maps, balanced Create-a-Class and weapons, and a great game experience. We looked at it as an opportunity to engage early and often with the eSports community, and using that as one of our development focuses, it made the game better for all of our fans."

 

What were some of the first eSports-centric features identified right away that they wanted to include in Advanced Warfare?

"We were fortunate in that we have a strong contingent of near-competitive players on the team that play regularly. When we started on Advanced Warfare, we took some broad looks at what we thought were opportunities, like bringing back objective modes like Hard Point and Capture the Flag, as well as Ranked Play. We wanted to offer meaningful rewards for Ranked Play, which you can see now with the Ranked Play-exclusive armor and gear that’s tied to your division."

 

What's it been like having Ray Lussier—a former pro player—working with the team? What kind of insight has he been able to provide?

"Oh man, having Ray involved has been fantastic. Having guys coming in from the outside that treat Call of Duty as a competitive profession offer incredible perspective. Ray has been able to help us in two significant ways. One, he came in with fresh eyes—he didn’t have three full years on the product—so he was able to come in and see some things that we’d become accustomed to in a new light. He has been able to break down and deconstruct the experience through the eyes of the competitive community and provided feedback on things like weapon balancing, for example, as well offer great perspectives on Pick 13 and perks. He’s also helped us optimize things like Broadcaster Mode and make the spectator experience more compelling in an eSports environment. It’s been great having him deeply embedded with the team."

 

How has having a constant dialog between the studio and the fans influenced development?

"We constantly talk about the engagement of the fans as being best-in-class for our industry, and I think it's really true. As you know, it's a hugely passionate community and having an active dialog is really great. They tell us what they love, but also what they don’t and help us identify opportunities for improvement. Since Advanced Warfare was revealed at E3 and to this day, we’re actively talking to the eSports community, YouTubers, fans on social media, on forums, and on Reddit. You name it, we’re out there actively canvasing for that feedback. And it’s been huge. We saw a ton of feedback for bringing back fan-favorite objective modes and care packages, embracing the strengths of Pick 10 with Pick 13, and the new movement set. But we also saw other things, like a desire for more distinctive variations in performance between weapons. Now, every weapon in the game has its own unique characteristics. Man, I can’t think of a part of the game where fan influence, feedback, and engagement hasn’t helped us make Advanced Warfare everything it could be."

 

Has the eSports crowd surprised you with how it has adopted certain elements of the mechanics or modes? Is there anything the team never expected to see when designing Advanced Warfare?

"Absolutely. Right off of the bat, we were surprised at this concept on Uplink when a team would get ahead and then toss the Uplink off of the map. We never really expected that—this idea that when a team gets a big enough lead, they spend the rest of the match keeping the Uplink from the opposing team. It's almost like if a basketball team just spent the rest of the time on the clock throwing the ball out of bounds. It was really interesting and something we hadn’t previously seen in the non-competitive community. It was a surprising strategy."

 

Has the team attended competitive events? How has it been seeing your game—your labor of love—becoming part of a big competitive spectacle like that?

"Yes. We've been active for years. We went to a lot of the Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Call of Duty: Ghosts events and we’ve always enjoyed just being there as fans in the audience. But we’ve also been very active in the last year. We had people at MLG Anaheim and Columbus and we’ll be heading out to the European and North American regionals for the Call of Duty Championship. When it’s your game that you’ve put so much time into making, it’s an amazing and gratifying feeling. Having several thousand fans in the crowd getting excited and countless others at home watching. But also, seeing the pros play—there’s nothing like it. From the communication to the pace of the play to the hand-eye coordination and in-game moves that they pull off. It blows me away."

 

Do you think any of the devs at the studio could take on the pros?

"Wow. I don't think so. I certainly can't. Ray would probably argue with me. Maybe Ray, by himself, on a 1 vs. 1—he could. But I’ve got to tell you, the pros are remarkable. Not only do they move at light speed, they coordinate as a team in ways that the general player isn't trained to think about. I think they'd wipe the floor with us. Now if I put together a team of the four top developers and we went up against the public in Ranked Play, I think we’d dominate. But going against a true eSports team, we'd get worked."

 

What are you looking forward to most at the Call of Duty Championship?

"I'm really looking forward to it being a fan event for the first time. I think it's going to be really great. I remember I had the pleasure of being at Call of Duty XP for Modern Warfare 3 and being able to talk with the fans and feed off of that energy together—it’s really special. I’m also looking forward to seeing the global competition. We’ve seen some incredible play so far, not just in North America, but all around the world. It's become an amazing competition on a global scale and I think it's going to be really interesting to see who lands on top. From having fans there to just seeing the big stage and our game being taken to the nines—I'm looking forward to it."

 

Since fans will be able to attend Call of Duty Championship for the first time, should they make a point of coming up and talking to you and the development team?

"Absolutely. At any event, there's nothing more humbling and rewarding than meeting fans. Whether it's E3 or Gamescom or PAX or Call of Duty Championship—there's nothing we love more than sitting down and talking with fans. That'd be awesome."

 


The Call of Duty Championship, presented by Xbox will take place on March 27 through March 29 in Los Angeles. For the first time ever, fans 18 years old and up will have an opportunity to witness all of the action live and in-person by purchasing tickets through MajorLeagueGaming.com, available now. Fans have two packages to choose from, each offering three-day access to the event, exclusive gear, and in-game content. For more on the event, including ticket sales and the latest team standings, check out CallofDuty.com/eSports.