How Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III was written: ‘you start with sticky notes’ | Games

The Call of Duty games are huge, multimillion dollar affairs. They are built by hundreds of staff working in studios across the globe, each dealing with specific aspects of the production. Their budgets are the same as the biggest Hollywood movies – ie vast, but then so are the rewards. The last title in the series, Modern Warfare II, a reimagining of the hugely successful 2009 original, made $1bn in 10 days. This is as big as entertainment gets. So what is it like for the storytellers working on this leviathan, who need to create narrative cogency and tie it all together?

For most of its millions of players, Call of Duty is all about multiplayer mode, but each instalment’s single-player campaign is an explosive, cinematic adventure, pitching lone players against waves of enemy soldiers as planes crash, buildings fall and nuclear missiles scorch across the sky. The protagonists of the current Modern Warfare series are Task Force 141, a ragtag group of spec-ops warriors led by SAS veteran and moustache enthusiast Capt Price; their arch-nemesis is Makarov, a Russian ultranationalist, sociopath and the Thanos to their Avengers.

But while the previous game was written by Infinity Ward, the lead developer on this year’s sequel is Sledgehammer. So were they just handed a cliffhanger ending, with Marakov planning a hijack and Task Force 141’s treacherous commander Gen Shepherd in hiding? Did Infinity Ward just say “there ya go, fix that”?

It turns out, no. Sledgehammer started work on Modern Warfare III at the same time as Infinity Ward began MWII. “We partnered with Infinity Ward and spent a lot of time coordinating,” says creative director Dave Swenson. “We set everything up in Modern Warfare II to be able to pay things off in Modern Warfare III. It was all very purposeful.”

With a set of story objectives already in place, it was up to the writers and design team to construct a campaign narrative that would hit those plot points. It turns out this is a pleasingly non-technical process. “It’s whiteboards,” says narrative designer Shelby Carleton. “A lot of whiteboards and a lot sticky notes! We stuck on notes containing the story beats we wanted for the different characters, the plot points we wanted to hit, the cool level ideas.”

Sadly, there is no giant white wall at Sledgehammer covered in Post-it notes. Carleton and her team use a virtual whiteboard app, Miro, so that the mass of interconnected scenes can be easily shared with remote staff. But the principle is the same. “You start with your core sticky notes, and from there we were like, OK, this is how we’re going to get from point A to point B,” says Carleton. “It’s like you have a puzzle in front of you. I think this is partially why working on a sequel is interesting, because you’re picking up threads. You’re not working from the ground up. But the stories are always changing, they’re always evolving … you shuffle things around as you go.”

Structure is vitally important. Unlike a movie, a Call of Duty campaign lasts from 8 to 20 hours, so the trajectory is more like a limited-run TV series. The narrative team divides the campaign into sections to make it more manageable, each episode with its own series of dramatic and emotional arcs. “We need to understand where the high points of the game are and where character moments are coming through,” says Carleton. “We’re hopefully weaving in the quiet moments with the louder, more bombastic Call of Duty set pieces … Hopefully as you’re playing, you’re not even thinking about the structure, you’re just in it.”

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III Photograph: Activision

At this stage, it sounds really similar to working on a screenplay. Indeed, Carleton says that when they’re working on the scripts for cinematic sequences, they’ll use the screenwriting software Final Draft, because it’s what actors are comfortable with. However, when the narrative needs to be shared with artists, animators and coders for inclusion in the game, Shelby and the team switch to writing in spreadsheets, fairly common in the games industry. This allows for the inclusion of other information alongside the story text and dialogue, including triggers for other game elements. “We live in spreadsheets,” says Carleton. “It’s just a great way to organise information as well as writing stuff.”

It’s proved particularly useful in Modern Warfare III which, in a first for the series, includes missions where players will be able to adopt their own routes and playing styles, from softly softly to all guns blazing. “We had to tailor the narrative to make sense with all of those different situations and have the characters still respond as themselves,” says Carleton. “So if you’re playing as Price and [teammate] Ghost is there with you, he is going to be able to support you whether you choose to go in loud or in stealth mode, and he’s going to say and do things tailored to those situations.”

But surely the vast scale of the game development process adds constraints? Do the team have to constantly keep budgets in mind? “For sure,” nods Swenson. “There are always priorities, right? We’ll go: ‘We want to go to this location, we want to do this bit of gameplay’ and that will have a cost attached. But if it’s a really high priority for us, if it’s going to make the game awesome, we’ll do it even if it’s going to cost a lot and will take a lot of manpower.”

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III Photograph: Activision

Sledgehammer has military advisers in the studio during the writing process. Swenson mentions the Modern Warfare III gameplay demo recently shown during Gamescom, with Task Force 141 carrying out a night-time raid on a heavily fortified gulag, “When we were talking about that level, we sat down with these advisers and we said, ‘OK, if you’re going to break into the Gulag, how do you do that?’ And they were like: ‘Well, we’d probably have a team that would go in via submarine and they would climb the outside. But it wouldn’t be just one team. We’d always have a backup. We’d probably send them via parachutes.’ And we’re like: this is cool. This sounds like a Call of Duty level!”

The actors, too, bring in their own interpretations and subtext. “The cast is awesome,” says Swenson. “You’ll write a scene and you’ll plan it, you’ll block it, and then you’ll see them perform it and you’re like, ‘whoa, that’s totally not how I expected, but it is perfect’… We’ve played the game hundreds and hundreds of times by this point, and we still have these happy moments where a new element comes in, this new bit of audio, this music, and you’re like, I didn’t imagine the composer would do it like that!”

The Call of Duty games are an industry in themselves, but they’re also places where people tell stories. Behind the multimillion dollar budgets and global marketing hype, there is a team gathered together around white boards and sticky notes, moving stuff about, experimenting. “That’s what I love the most,” says Carleton. “It’s coming up with these ideas and being excited about them when they’re just yours. But then sharing them, having other people contribute, make them into something magical. It is the best part of my job.”

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