Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of the most successful games of this generation; having sold well over 10 million copies by this point, it serves as an example of the art of making military first person shooters fresh and engaging.
A big part of that puzzle is the art. Creating a believable world that's worth fighting in is one of the biggest challenges, particularly for a game set in contemporary times -- and in a variety of contexts, as the game touches on more than just the battlefield.
Here, Infinity Ward's technical art director Michael Boon, who has worked on the Call Of Duty series back to its original 2003 incarnation, and is currently working on Modern Warfare 2, exposes some of the process behind the game's visuals, and discusses the developer's creative philosophies.
He also discusses the need for technical artists in an increasingly complicated world of triple-A game development -- standing up for those who can bridge the gap between the programming and art staff.
So you're a technical artist?
Michael Boon: Yeah, I was an animator. Most of my skills are in animation. I have done character modeling, character texturing, and programming, so I have little bits of skills in all the areas.
I feel like technical artists are kind of cropping up much more than in the past.
MB: The bigger your team is, the more you need them. We have four depending on how you measure it, I guess.
How do you think the landscape has changed to where you actually need to have a technical artist or even a technical art director?
MB: I think you just play to your strengths, like I work at Infinity Ward and I've been there for a long time, so they wanted to make me a director.
I mean the industry -- how do you think the industry has gotten to where we need this much more than in the past?
MB: I'm not convinced that we do need it. It's just that whoever you have on your team, you put them in the position where they do the best work. It's a position that works well for me. Having said that, you do definitely need technical artists. You need people who can translate between between programmerese and artistish.
There isn't quite the equivalent on the production side, or other disciplines.
MB: We have scripters at Infinity Ward, which at other companies are called gameplay programmers. They're definitely half programmer, half designer. In production, yeah, you're right. Although, at Infinity Ward, we have Jason [West], who is half programmer, half producer.
In general, what does "first-playable" mean to IW?
MB: At first-playable, we look at levels -- we look at several levels, and we try to make them all really good, like virtually shippable. We take a little time from just cranking out assets to really focusing on "what does this level really need?"
Forget the schedule for ten minutes a day and look at the game and say, "Is the game ready to ship? Is this aspect of the game ready to ship? How do we make it better?"
Are we talking single-player style levels, or multiplayer style maps?
MB: We tend to treat multiplayer a little differently, although it's a little similar.
When you're messing with these levels now at this stage of development, what are the logistics of what you're doing? Is it looking for areas that you need to cut back on, or areas where there are exploits possible?
MB: No, we look for areas to cut back on every time we try to introduce anything new into the game. Everything is always a trade-off. We have a schedule; if you're trying out a new feature, you still have a schedule.
So, you put the feature in where you want, and every now and then, you realize that a bunch of stuff you wanted has fallen off the bottom, and so you re-sort it, you always prioritize.
Exploits -- we have testers all the time. We have 15 testers or whatever it is most of the time. And if they find exploits, we fix them, but really, we push on exploits right at the end. We actually bring in people who specialize in exploits.
I guess I'm trying to get at the method you use for polishing, because Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare definitely felt very polished to me.
MB: We look at polish pretty regularly. We have a bunch of milestones where we look at one level or a couple of levels in this kind of holistic way, and I think that's pretty important. We start it about a year from when we intend to ship.
When somebody plays through the game and writes down everything they think -- you know, "Oh, I like that," or "I didn't like that," or "I fell off this and got really frustrated," whatever it was -- they write down whatever they think about the level, and then they send it out to the designer of the levels; to the whole company.
When a few people do that, you can really improve a level dramatically in the space of about a week. The way we get it polished is just by doing that early enough that we actually have time to fix the stuff.