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How Activision designed Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile | Chris Plummer interview

Activision's Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile: Maps, Cross-Progression

The main task for Activision is building any Call of Duty game is to “not screw it up.” And so the pending March 21 launch of Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile will be a big test for the development ecosystem that the company built for its big free-to-play game release on iOS and Android.

To make sure this launch would go down well with fans, Activision included the popular Verdansk and Rebirth Island battle royale maps. Chris Plummer, co-studio head at Warzone Mobile, had to oversee all this effort at four game studios — Activision Shanghai Studio, Beenox, Digital Legends and Solid State Studios.

The game will offer cross-progression with the PC and console versions. More than 50 million people have already pre-registered for the game, which was first announced 19 months ago. Now that the wait is almost over, I interviewed Plummer about the details behind the game’s development and decisions like choosing not to put mobile, PC and console players in the same matches.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Chris Plummer is co-studio head for Warzone Mobile at Activision.

Chris Plummer: It’s a new era for Call of Duty. We’ve always wanted to connect and unite the community. We have offerings that are very strong on all platforms. This is the first time we’ve been able to complete the circle with our mobile audience around the world. It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a pretty awesome journey to get to this place now where we’re ready to release it worldwide. It’s super exciting for the team and for players.

We’re looking forward to seeing how the community responds when you can now pick up your phone and get another session in for your camo grind. Jump in with your squadmates and have a battle royale session anywhere, any time, and have that investment count, have it matter across the franchise. And if you’re new to the franchise, you’re getting an authentic Call of Duty experience powered by Call of Duty tech and everything that comes with it for the first time on mobile. It has a very unique feel to it. I know you play Call of Duty. When you put the device in your hands, it’s an authentic experience.

GamesBeat: Why have the Call of Duty staff do this, as opposed to having TiMi take a crack at it again? Was there something that compelled you in that direction?

Plummer: We’re proud of our whole portfolio of mobile games. They serve different audiences around the world in effective ways. For this experience, we’re trying to connect our audience deeply using our own technology, our own backend, friends list and accounts–everything is Call of Duty on this. The only way we could do that–the technology is proprietary. Some of the secret sauce there, we want to keep it that way. The best way to do it is with the studios that make Call of Duty games and have for 20 years. We’ve augmented that, of course, with acquisitions and hiring and so forth over many years, adding mobile expertise.

It’s not a port. It’s important to emphasize that. We’re not trying to do a straight port of the console experience. We feel like we’ve created the best-in-class experience. This is what Call of Duty is meant to be if you’re fully connected on a touch screen. If touch screens aren’t your thing, of course, we support Bluetooth controllers and all these other ways to play. But what most people are doing around the world when they play a mobile game is they pull it out of their pocket whenever time allows and they get a session in. That’s what we wanted them to be able to do. We focused on that. The first proof of concept was, “Can we get touch screen controls to feel Call of Duty? Can we get that responsiveness? Can we get that Call of Duty feel and build from there?”

GamesBeat: Did the design for it change compared to Call of Duty Mobile, as far as how it plays and how you control it?

Landing in Verdansk in Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile.

Plummer: There’s going to be a combination of familiar paradigms that the genre provides–there are standards there that will feel familiar if you play other mobile games in the genre. But at the same time this is a battle royale-first experience. There are unique mechanics, unique flavor. You’re using the weapons with the same tuning that you’ll find on console and PC. That impacts the design. So there is a different feel. It’s a first-person experience. You’re playing Call of Duty. Things like that drive the design.

It all starts with battle royale first. That’s what Warzone is. It’s about a large player count. It’s very social. That’s driven the way it feels. And it’s important that your content is honored across all platforms. Whether you get the battle pass on console or on mobile, the progress and rewards and unlocks are carried across regardless of what platform you play on. Those types of things impact the way the design feels. If you play a shooter on any platform, there tend to be familiar genre standards. We’ve mostly adhered to that, and we’ve innovated where we needed to for the unique mechanics that Warzone provides.

GamesBeat: How do you handle the load that’s going to come with the introduction of the mobile audience? We’ve seen many new game launches still have challenges accommodating all their players.

Plummer: We’re fortunate that we have experience. Many of us were there before day one on Call of Duty Mobile, the entire experience of launching a mobile game at scale and seeing where the challenges are, where the inflows of players are coming from and so forth. We’ve also obviously launched Call of Duty games. We’re using infrastructure that’s been optimized for 20 years. It’s efficient and well-understood across the world. There’s obviously load testing and all the things you do before you launch a game to make sure you can handle the load you expect.

We believe we understand that. We have a lot of different options in the case that we have even more overwhelming support than what we anticipate. But we anticipate quite a lot. We’re trying to be prepared for that.

GamesBeat: Does this dev team sit inside King, or is it part of another entity?

The Verdansk map in Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile.
The Verdansk map in Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile is a pretty vast space.

Plummer: The development is all within Activision. There are a bunch of studios working on Call of Duty games. In this case we have four studios within Activision that primarily focus on this title. All the studios in the ecosystem are touching it, because the content that’s created in one place is used in another place and so on. The full Call of Duty studio infrastructure is deployed on this title, but there are four studios in particular focused on it. Two are mobile-exclusive studios and two are multiplatform studios within Activision, but they’re all Call of Duty internal resources.

We have a leadership team that spans the studios, and that’s been working very well for us, especially around growing our capability over the last two years to have an at-scale team that can deploy a game like this and support it over the long term. We have Beenox in Quebec City. We have our Shanghai studio. We have Solid State Studios, which is distributed, but mostly in northern California and Los Angeles. That’s also the team that supports some of the live ops for Call of Duty Mobile. And then we have Digital Legends, which is a studio in Barcelona. They’re also exclusively mobile. They have a decade-plus of mobile shooter experience.

Those are the primary studios working on the title. We also have Demonware for our backend. That’s proprietary Activision technology. We have other technology teams at Activision supporting the Call of Duty engine, which supports this and all the other Call of Duty titles. And you have all the lead studios that you’re familiar with creating content and developing innovations across the franchise that we adapt to mobile where we see it making sense.

GamesBeat: If demand is high, do you spill over to providers like Google Cloud or AWS?

Plummer: I don’t think we can get into the details of how we’ll handle traffic, but we have some pretty good options there.

GamesBeat: Verdansk is the big map here. Will other platforms get the map at the same time?

Players will likely be happy to drop into Verdansk again.

Plummer: Right now our plan is to debut on Verdansk. That’s where we’ve been developing and doing our testing throughout our limited release. We love that map and we know the community loves it. It’s battle-tested. Across the franchise we’ve seen an evolution of which map is the current Warzone battle royale map over the years. Over time you’ll see us coming together more and more on that front. We haven’t talked yet about our live plans as far as map evolution, but the map is a key thing, both which map it is and how we keep it fresh and interesting over time, so that every time you drop in it feels like we’re doing new things with the environment to make it exciting.

GamesBeat: It looks like there’s no Zombies part to this.

Plummer: The current state of our limited release doesn’t have a Zombies mode, a major Zombies component to it. As a live game that’s always evolving, always introducing interesting things, you may see Zombies in the future. But the game we’re playing right now doesn’t have a Zombies mode.

GamesBeat: Was there ever some point in the design where you had the ambition to put PC and console players in the same matches with mobile? Or was it always going to be split?

Plummer: This was a key area for us to talk to the players and the community and understand. There are tradeoffs to doing different things. If you do cross-play, then you have to tune the game for a particular platform and everyone has to use that tuning. As we talked to mobile players, and players across all platforms, the cross-progression piece, being able to honor people’s time investment and make that work across platforms, that was the thing that was valuable to them. Cross-play with mobile specifically wasn’t something that was very high on the list of interests for players, especially when we talked about the implications of that.

Our main goal for this all along has been to make a best-in-class mobile shooter that lives up to the fully connected Call of Duty experience. The only way to do that is to tune the experience for mobile. That precluded something like cross-play, which would force us to peg it to the console tuning, probably. We’ve seen that not work out so well in other titles. The players feel like mobile ends up being the worst platform. We want every platform to have the best version of the game on that platform. That’s what drove support for cross-progression – XP, time, inventory, all that – and not doing it with synchronous cross-play.

Rebirth Island in Call of Duty: Mobile.

We have some other features that touch on that, that are valuable to players and don’t have compromises to them. Things like chat and friends list. You can still talk to your squad regardless of which platform you’re on throughout the day. In the future we can experiment with things like cross-play, but it’s just not something players are asking us for. Some snipers on PC might find it amusing, but when it comes to mobile players, a massive audience, they’d rather have the focus on progression..

GamesBeat: Does cross-progression mean all your skins are there as well, the same weapons and so on?

Plummer: There are a few different examples I can give. If you’re a brand new player on mobile, never played Call of Duty before, and you jump into the game, you’ll have the experience as a new player unlocking stuff, getting into the content. Then, if you decide to try the console or PC version of Call of Duty, those unlocks that you made on mobile will already be there. If you bought the battle pass and progressed halfway through it, that will be there.

A different example, if you’re a long-time console or PC player who has a ton of stuff already – skins, weapons, operators, progress in the battle pass – if you play mobile all that stuff will be there from day one. You’re not starting from zero. We’ll still have some onboarding for you, much of which you can skip, but the cross-progression works in both directions. It honors your inventory, your progress, your time, your XP, your weapon levels, your player ranks. That’s the heart of it. It creates a lot of interesting scenarios around being able to play Call of Duty however you want, whenever you want, and not wasting any time. It’s all valuable time, because whatever your primary platform is, it’ll also receive that.

Shipment multiplayer map in Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile.

There is an exception here and there. Sometimes we have platform-specific content. We’ll have some mobile-specific content. A lot of that is driven by taste, what’s appealing to mobile players. There might be a mobile event that’s geared for the play patterns of a mobile player, which are different from console players. Mobile players might have three sessions a day. You don’t tend to do that on a console. We may have events that are more oriented toward the mobile play pattern and have rewards that are unique to mobile. But by and large, the big items that people care about a lot, like battle pass and buying bundles and the XP on their weapons, their personal progression that unlocks things like killstreaks and new functions for weapons, all that stuff is shared. We’ve been testing that over a year of soft launch and it works great.

GamesBeat: Do you sync that through the Activision login?

Plummer: Right. Your Call of Duty account or your Activision account is where that’s all handled. What makes cross-progression possible, if you’re an existing Call of Duty fan or a new player–you just log in with your Call of Duty account or your Activision account. They’re one and the same. That’s where your cross-progression is stored. We know where you are in the battle pass and that you have this stuff in your inventory.

GamesBeat: Is it MW3 Warzone in just about every way, or does it include more than that as well?

Plummer: Think of it as–whatever has been released as Call of Duty gameplay has been evaluated and adapted to mobile, or not, for a reason. Sometimes we’re on the leading edge of those things and you’ll see them day and date. Sometimes you won’t because we’re taking more time to get it to feel right. An example of that, we have the new movement systems from MW3, which got a lot of praise from the community. We took more time adapting that. Again, this is not a port. We want to make sure it feels right when you try these things on the touch screen, like slide canceling and so forth. We’ve been rolling that out a bit later. Some that’s in now, though, and you can feel it. Some of the battle royale rules are a bit different as well.

Warzone Mobile goes worldwide on March 21.

What you see in Warzone mobile is a sort of hybrid of what was in the original Warzone and what’s in the current Warzone. Over time we’re endeavoring to make those differences a little less, but they’ll still be there if it makes sense for the platform. We want it to feel Warzone, but we want it to feel right for mobile players, just like we want it to feel right on a console controller or a mouse and keyboard. There will be differences here and there, but by and large it’s the same systems. You have all the things that make Warzone Warzone. Sometimes there will be variances, and over time those will be closer or further away depending on how we’re innovating and the rate at which we make adaptations.

GamesBeat: You have multiplayer maps – Shipment, Shoot House, and Scrapyard.

Plummer: For us this is about giving the real thing to our mobile players. This is what you can play currently on other platforms. Although battle royale is the centerpiece of it, we also have Rebirth Resurgence, which is kind of a hybrid between a battle royale experience and MP. It’s more frenetic, but still a large player count. Medium-sized map. It’s very popular. We offer that, and then we also offer, as a kind of palate cleanser, the best MP maps, which will rotate all the time.

We’re not offering a million multiplayer maps. We’re offering a handful so you can get your MP fix. People may want to do camo grinds. Just depends on your mood and what you want to experience. We offer an awesome multiplayer slate as well, but it’s a handful. Each month you’ll see the rotation changing. It’ll be where you can get the latest version of Shipment, for instance, the latest new maps and the best of the franchise.

GamesBeat: Do you have a cadence for updates and new drops in mind? How frequently will things happen?

Plummer: From our experience over the past year in limited release, we’re releasing all the time. We have a major release every month at least. We have season updates about every other month, which are bigger. We’re also doing releases in between depending on what we find. Sometimes it’s making fixes. Sometimes it’s making something better. There’s a pretty regular cadence of releases that keep the game fresh. It’s a live service. We want it to feel live and evolving, and we want it to feel like we’re responding to what our players are doing and telling us. The only way to do that in a noticeable way, when people engage every day, is to have frequent updates. Over time maybe it will be more frequent than that cadence, but there are major updates every month.

The airplane graveyard in Verdansk in Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile.

GamesBeat: Was there anything you left out because it clearly didn’t work on mobile?

Plummer: Some things just took longer to get feeling right. It’s more like that than major things getting left out. There were definitely some decisions we made where we said, “We’ll get to that later.” Everything can eventually work on mobile if you just work with it long enough. Honestly, just basic controls–you can’t take for granted how long it takes to get that responsiveness and the personality of the weapons to come through, while you maintain control and feel like it’s really tight. We knew that would take a long time when we started, but it still took longer than we expected. Those are the kinds of things you can’t compromise on. It had to be right.

Another one, the graphics–we’re using the Call of Duty engine. This is the real Call of Duty renderer. We’re not using all the features one for one, but it took us a long time to get the visuals to fully realize in the way we wanted them to. If you have a recent device, it looks pretty awesome. But at the same time we needed to make sure it runs well and looks how it’s supposed to look on lower-end devices too. That’s really hard. Some platforms have a lot more variations to deal with than others. That was an area that took a long time. In fact, we’re not done with graphical innovations. We’re still pushing it.

Because we’re on the Call of Duty tech, we’ve created something futureproof. We’re not in a world where we have to say, “We’ve authored this content and here’s how it is,” and it’ll always be capped at that. That’s not what we’ve built. We’ve built something where every time there’s an innovation in content, a new rendering capability, a new graphical whizbang, we can adapt that to mobile as long as there’s a mobile device that can support it. That’s a rolling scenario. It’s always moving forward. There are always new devices coming out. I just saw a rundown of the latest Android devices and I was blown away that we could get that kind of fidelity. We have some tricks up our sleeves that we’re still working on. It will always get better.

This is the simplest version that the game will ever be, because it will always evolve as the franchise’s technology evolves. In three years we’ll look back and say, “We made that back when that was all we could do.” But getting to this took a long time.

GamesBeat: Do you think Warzone mobile will diverge from the PC and console game over time, depending on what you decide is a good fit for it?

Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile heads to iOS and Android on March 21.

Plummer: Part of the point of this game–we have a portfolio of mobile games. They’re all very good. They all serve different needs. This one is about being closely connected. We’re trying to lean into that. Does that mean it will never diverge? No. It just means we’re trying harder than ever with this one to find where the right connections are and make them amazing on all platforms. That’s our focus. We think that’s what separates this title from other offerings we have, which are also very successful and that we continue to support. We’re very excited about the ongoing success of Call of Duty Mobile as well.

GamesBeat: There was a leak about Plunder mode. Can you say anything about that?

Plummer: We’ve made no announcements about Plunder mode. I can tell you that we have a team that does nothing but adapt and innovate modes that have worked on other platforms or that are things we’re doing specifically for events. We have a lot of awesome modes that we haven’t rolled out yet. That will always be part of the live operation of this game. We’ll have new maps, new battle pass, new modes, all kinds of new experiences, always. You have to do that to be fresh. This needs to feel like the theme park you go into and every day there’s a new ride. That’s how we want it to feel.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else you wanted to mention today?

Plummer: Just thinking about how excited we are and why we’re excited about this one–for our fans, our players out there that are already playing Call of Duty Mobile, this is just a different experience. It’s not trying to replace Call of Duty Mobile. It’s a different style and tone, a different center of gravity around being a battle royale. We see an untapped need in our soft launch data. We feel like there’s a big audience opportunity for us beyond the people we already serve.

Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile has a different, visceral feel to it. We’re excited about being able to deliver that. When you play the game, it really feels like you just pulled up your PC or console. It feels great on a touch screen, getting that authentic & Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile experience. The real gameplay, the real systems, all the real aim assists–this isn’t trying to emulate it. This is the real thing. We just had to make sure it was tuned right for a touch screen. That’s been massive. The first time we got that up and running with the touch controls on the real systems, using some of the secret sauce that makes Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile feel so spectacular compared to a lot of other games–it just feels more responsive, more in control. That’s huge for us and for gamers out there.

We talked about the graphics already. It’s the real thing, using the real renderer. We’ve had to do some additional tricks to make it do everything we wanted it to do on mobile and perform well, but that’s also going to be a change. You’ve never seen it like this before. The real players–internally we’ve played matches with more than 120 players. We’re releasing with 120-player battle royale. It’s different from anything else out there. If you’re a BR player and that’s what you like, you’ll immediately notice that compared to other games that are basically full of bots, where you might have only a handful of humans to shoot at, it’s a very different feeling.

If you don’t play the genre, that’s going to sound a little “yeah, whatever.” But if you do play this genre, it’s instantly noticeable, and it’s a game-changer. Being able to play with that many real people–of course we’re excited about the worldwide launch of Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile because we’re going to have so many people in a lot of those matches where it’s 120 players. We think that’s the real experience. We want to offer that whenever we can. If matchmaking times are long we’ll fill with bots because we want people to be able to get into a match, but there’s no performance reasons we would do that. We feel that’s a unique, proprietary capability that only we have.

Inside the Rebirth Island prison in Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile.Being able to pull your friends list in–it’s all instant. As long as you’re using the same Activision account or Call of Duty account, if you happen to be a player that already has a friend group that you play Warzone with, it’s already in there. You can chat with them and instantly add them to a match. That’s really cool. And then the content being the same real stuff–if you play mainline Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile right now, there’s the Walking Dead content in the battle pass right now that people are really digging. You have that on mobile. You have it everywhere. That’s huge. We didn’t make a lesser version of it. It’s the same stuff. Getting those pipelines to work and give people that real content is something we’re excited about.

GamesBeat: Do you play on a phone, or do you tend to play on a tablet?

Plummer: I play on a phone. Most people play on a phone. A lot of streamers play on tablets. It looks spectacular on a tablet. But I always feel like if I look at it on a tablet, I’m kind of cheating. Seeing it on a big screen, there are advantages. And not a lot of people carry a tablet in their back pocket.


Author: Dean Takahashi
Source: Venturebeat
Reviewed By: Editorial Team

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