The single greatest thing Activision ever did for the Call of Duty franchise was cause the mass exodus at Infinity Ward. The much-celebrated developer was created from the remnants of the team behind the Medal of Honor games, you know, back when they were good. At the time, the super-monster evil corporation that was EA had pushed the fledgling developer into a state where those behind it were creatively unhappy and wanted to leave.
Infinity Ward was formed and a new franchise along similar lines to Medal of Honor was created. The demo for Call of Duty was mind-blowing – a huge extravaganza of explosions, people yelling and screaming, firefights going on all around you (as well as above you) – it was truly the most gripping representation of World War II games had ever come up with.
Call of Duty felt like the sequel to Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. The franchise without the team that made that high point in the series wouldn’t stick around for long. Frontline and Airborne just didn’t hold a candle to the Call of Duty series, which was on the up and up.
History appeared to repeat itself a few years ago when Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired from Infinity Ward by Activision for alleged breaches of contract and insubordination. So the pair went, taking several members of the Infinity Ward team, to create their own new studio, the aptly named Respawn Entertainment.
Infinity Ward was at the time the A-team for while Treyarch fought to catch up (the playing field has since been levelled with both studios bringing out amazing quality games). To say that Call of Duty had been polishing the online multiplayer experience for years would be putting it lightly. It made sense that when they didn’t have to work on a Call of Duty game, they’d still stick to triple A multiplayer, but now they could push it in new directions.
Those of you who were a part of the Titanfall beta will already know that it’s a knockout. The game is every bit as polished as a Call of Duty game and then some, and kicks serious ass with the blending of FPS and mech gameplay. What really shows in the game is the way the simple core concept has been in testing for a very long time. Balancing is key for any multiplayer game, and what we’re looking at is the same high standard of quality they set for themselves in balancing the Call of Duty games, but with the creative freedom to implement genuinely new mechanics.
That said, Titanfall is still a very by-the-numbers game. There really isn’t much you can do in the triple A space without it being a fast-paced action game, and this often doesn’t lend itself well to narrative-based experiences. Take BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, for example: both games were narrative-heavy and both were criticised for the action taking away from their captivating worlds and stories. Granted The Last of Us was a much slower-pace, but it still suffered from the disease of having to put so much action in there.
So it makes sense, now that Ken Levine has disbanded Irrational Games (for the best write-up on the hows and whys, check out this piece over on Gama Sutra) that he’d want to move to a smaller team with smaller budgets. Simply put, that’s increasingly becoming the only way to tell stories.
You could do the tired thing of making the comparison to film and pointing out that their blockbusters are also pretty mindless, but the amount of money pouring into three hour period dramas is just as big as the budgets of CG-fests like Pacific Rim.
It’s feeling more and more like the only way to be a really big videogame is to be mindless action. Critical darlings, even high budget ones, are seldom seen in boxes with a $99 price tag any more.
It may sound like I’m lampooning the industry for this – I’m not. It’s just a trend I’m noticing.
THE INDIE FACTORAs a total side note, my own experience making indie games has shown something similar. Our first game, TownCraft, had to make us enough money to make a second game, and was very audience-friendly. Our second game, however, which we’re yet to actually announce, is hardcore as all hell and unapologetically so. But accordingly, it has a much lower budget. Way of the world, I guess.
Call of Duty has to repeat its formula year-on-year with bigger explosions and a more polished multiplayer experience or perish (in the minds of those at the reigns). Given their freedom, West and Zampella have done a superlative job of mixing things up with wall-running, mechs and mandatory bots, but it’s still a very explosions-first kind of experience. The Last of Us (and Uncharted for that matter) still has to weave its narrative around a relentless action experience, and BioShock Infinite was rightly criticised for having its action and narrative clash so noticeably that its creator has decided to get out of the triple A game in order to diminish his reliance on action.