Jason West and Vince Zampella have been creating games for decades. They were the creative force behind one of the biggest game franchises of all time, Call of Duty, while heading up the developer group Infinity Ward. After a rocky split from Activision and the studio they founded, West and Zampella have been focusing on creating the next great game at Respawn Entertainment. With the help of one-time rival publisher EA, the duo have attracted some of the top talent in gaming, including many of their former Infinity Ward colleagues.
In this exclusive interview, the developers, who remain entrenched in Los Angeles, talk about the role Hollywood has played with their cinematic games. They also explain why their new game (which sent the internet into a tizzy with a single blurry image), which EA will publish, is not being designed as a transmedia property.
Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 stood out as very cinematic Hollywood blockbuster-style interactive experiences. How has being based in Hollywood influenced the games that you make?
Jason: Being in LA makes things so convenient, especially with the amount of actors that we have that are around here that can just come up and work in one of the local audio recording studios. We’re working with composers that are all local and you can just go up there with a build and go over it. It’s amazingly convenient.
Vince: Yeah. I would say it probably doesn’t change the way we make games, it just makes it easier to do.
Jason: It makes it so we’re not on planes constantly always getting together with different people in different parts of the world.
Vince: It’s the same stuff we would do anywhere, though.
How have you seen the attitudes within Hollywood evolve towards games, especially since the success of the Modern Warfare games?
Jason: I think it’s amazing and really gratifying the way Hollywood has embraced games. Directors, producers, and people in the movie industry all want to be involved in games. They think games are the future. They believe it’s a new art form that’s really going to take over, which is the same way we feel about it. So I think that’s great.
Vince: Ten years ago it was probably more about people in games thinking that making the break into TV or movies was the way to go and games was a stepping stone. Now I think that’s completely flipped and it’s the other way around, where people in TV and film are seeing games as maybe a place to go.
What do you think of the trend we’re seeing where more Hollywood creatives like Steven Spielberg, Zack Snyder, and Guillermo del Toro coming over to dabble in video games, but still have their Hollywood projects?
Jason: It depends. That’s a tough one. I don’t think the talents translate directly, so if you’re an awesome movie director it doesn’t mean you can make a game anymore than an awesome game director could make a movie. It’s just there are really talented people in Hollywood. And as this generation comes up with these guys that have played games and may also have a latent talent for making games come over, I think it’s really helpful, and good for them. We’ve worked with guys from Hollywood that have really embraced video games and talked about maybe going that way.
The buzz word in Hollywood has evolved from convergence to transmedia. What role does transmedia play for your new IP?
Jason: I’m not a big buzz word guy. I think you just have to make the game. It’s understandable that publishers and people are interested in basically trying to get a return on their investment. They feel like if there’s a TV show production, a video game, a movie, and a line of children’s clothing that it’s more likely they’ll be successful. But I think if you triple down on making the game awesome, that’s actually how you’re supposed to do it.
Vince: Yeah, we’re concentrating on making the game awesome. And then if it expands from there, great, but it’s not a drive. It’s not something that we have to have.
Many game studios are now building transmedia worlds where the game plays a key role, but then comics, movies and TV shows expand beyond that. You’re just focusing on the game.
Jason: Yeah, I think about making an awesome universe that you want to spend time in and the game will take place in. And you have compelling characters and all these different things. You can put those in the game and then later talk about opportunities to translate that into other media. But I feel like you’re going to get a compromised experience if you’re always distracted because there are competing needs for the different types of media. It just seems like you’re maybe shooting yourself in the foot a little bit.
Vince: We’re also creating a new IP. Other developers might be in the position where they have a successful IP that they want to expand. So I think it’s different.
Some developers that are starting off brand new IPs, create a bible for the universe that includes multiple media types.
Jason: Yeah, there’s an understandable attraction there, but I think it’s really premature.
Do you license technology or do you create your own?
Vince: It depends on what it’s for. Obviously, there are tools that we use that we’re not going to create from scratch because they’re tried and true.
Jason: You focus your technology development where it’s going to differentiate you from people. You don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel.
How have advances in technology impacted how you make a game?
Jason: Instead of designing straight around the hardware, which is how games used to be designed in the past, I think there’s a lot more sitting around talking pie in the sky. Something that might be an insane action sequence in a movie, we’ll say, “Okay, well how can we approach that in a convincing way.” Or maybe a (console) generation after that we’ll be able to be at the level where you can just really create anything you can think about, which will be awesome.