Talking warfare, fanfare, and power with the minds behind the next Call of Duty

Power changes everything.

More than just the tagline for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s marketing campaign, those three words also speak very clearly to Sledgehammer Games’ role as lead developer on the game. Previously, Sledgehammer collaborated with Infinity Ward on the development of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. But this time, the team led by co-founders Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield has absolute power. And everything’s changed.

Related: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare review

“I think, for us, we really did put a lot of time and energy and passion into MW3,” Condrey tells Digital Trends. “It was clear that, while the game was well-received … the fans were demanding change and innovation and new ways to play. It was constant feedback we heard with MW3, and we agreed with it. We had the time with this first three-year dev cycle to really challenge convention.”

“Boost jump was one [idea] that came out within the first six weeks after MW3.”

It goes all the way back to 2011, when pre-production on Advanced Warfare first started. Sledgehammer leapt into early planning on the game immediately after the studio’s work with Infinity Ward concluded. Activision’s direction was simple and to the point: You’re a first-time lead building a Call of Duty game for the first holiday season after the new consoles launch. Go nuts, and if you go too far we’ll pull you back.

It’s here that Advanced Warfare’s new approach to movement was born. The game drops its soldiers into powered exoskeletons – Exo for short – that creates new mobility options, including super jumps, Predator-style cloaking fields, and the like. While all of this expanded mobility is now integral to the Exo, that wasn’t always the case.

“The Exo and the boost jump were one of the first prototypes. We had this series in pre-production of some really rapid prototype phases where we assembled small, cross-functional teams coming out of MW3. This would have been November/December 2011,” Condrey reveals.

“We had this period of time where we allowed the team to really organically come up with some creative pitches to push the franchise forward. And boost jump was one that came out within the first six weeks after MW3. It wasn’t yet attached to the exoskeleton; it was prototyped as a boost off of rocket boots. But it was the catalyst. And then people sort of galvanized around that concept of a new movement set.”

Incredibly, this planned dramatic shift in the way Call of Duty games are played remained the focus of internal testing for more than two years. It wasn’t until the months leading up to E3 2014 that Sledgehammer was finally able to get a sense from outsiders of what these changes might mean for a game that tens of millions play every year.

That’s a difficult thing to plan for, but Condrey readily admits that having a firm vision in place helps. Sledgehammer knows the brand, knows the sorts of stories about the hero’s journey that it traditionally tells. Imaging what what world war looks like in 2054 was tricky, but Sledgehammer leaned on experts for advice in that regard.

“We talked to Philip Ivey; he was a production designer for District 9,” Condrey says. “We’d like to give the emotional experience of, say, Blackhawk Down, in a believable, grounded future setting like District 9 did, minus the aliens. District 9 had mechs and they had future weapons and they had mega-slums. That was a really immersive future experience.”

“We wanted [that] for Advanced Warfare. The conversation [with Ivey] led us to the conclusion that the best way to make it grounded and relatable and believable is to find the research today that suggested the technologies for tomorrow. That’s proven to be great for us. The exoskeleton three years ago was hardly on anyone’s radar and now it’s in every film. That technology is now super mass market, mind’s eye of pop culture.”

“The exoskeleton three years ago was hardly on anyone’s radar and now it’s … super mass market, mind’s eye of pop culture.”

For Sledgehammer, the biggest concern at this point is feedback. Activision has a rock-solid network infrastructure to lean on for supporting the massive influx of players on launch day, but there’s no way to prepare in advance for the flood of feedback that follows after launch.

“Like all games, you user test and you bring people in. You try to collect as much data as possible while in development,” Condrey says. “But Call of Duty has a unique challenge: How do you get statistically significant sample sizes during development when you know that the day it goes live to the world, 30 million people are going to start playing? Even if you’re able to test thousands of people, it’s only a fraction of the number of people who are actually going to play it on day one.”

If 70-percent of fan feedback favors a particular feature, that’s a clear majority. But when the remaining, dissatisfied 30-percent numbers in the millions of people, it’s impossible to ignore. Power may change everything for Sledgehammer, but it comes at a price: The knowledge that there’s absolutely no way to please everyone.

“Fan feedback is super-critical. Getting fans in early, getting competitors in early, listening to previous games’ feedback,” Condrey says. “We’ve learned a lot from what Treyarch did right with Black Ops 2 … and saw even more opportunity [to improve]. Same thing with Ghosts; they did some things right and there were some opportunities to do things better.”

“That’ll hold true for our game. We’ll do a lot of things right and then hopefully we’ll learn in November and we’ll make adjustments throughout the year to come with updates and new content.”