This is the inside story of how a triple-A video game was made from home during a pandemic.
Black Ops Cold War is the first Call of Duty game that Raven Software has been a lead developer on; the company has traditionally been a support studio for the series. Naturally, this means the 1980s-set single player campaign is a massive deal for the team working on it, and COVID-19 threatened their first time in the spotlight.
Before quarantine measures were enforced, the studio had been working on the game for months; it had started production on the majority of the main missions, and had begun to lay the creative foundations for the side missions. Development had been going well, and the game was on-course for the classic Call of Duty November release window. But as lockdown began, it became clear that development of Black Ops Cold War was about to become significantly more difficult.
“When this started to happen, we were like ‘Well, I guess half the studio maybe needs to work from home for two weeks’,” recalls Dan Vondrak, Senior Creative Director at Raven Software. “And then all of a sudden it’s the whole studio. And it kept snowballing to where I’m already thinking, well, if it goes longer than eight or 10 weeks, how can we possibly get everything done we needed to get done?”
Call of Duty’s publisher, Activision, mandated that all employees work from home until further notice. For many roles in game development, this is inconvenient but not impossible; writing, coding, designing, and art can all be performed remotely. But Vondrak quickly realised there was one department that was going to suffer.
“Mo-cap and VO [voice-over recording] is somewhere where I thought we were dead in the water,” Vondrak says. “I was confused because that was external to us. We can rearrange our lives to have meetings and figure out how to stream stuff, but to get actors to come in, I thought ‘This is going to be impossible’.”
At that stage of development, several scenes from the campaign had already been performance-captured on a soundstage in Los Angeles. Actor Lily Cowles, who plays MI6 agent Helen Park, had been part of those shoots, but still had plenty of work left to do. When lockdown began, she realised that the future of her involvement was uncertain.
“I was so nervous and sort of heartbroken to realise that this thing that I had been so excited to be a part of was now up in the air and wasn’t going to be able to continue at all,” Cowles says. “Were we going to have to put it on hold indefinitely?”
The situation was initially very disheartening. “If you would have judged it based on about the first eight weeks, I would have thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t understand how we’re going to get here’,” Vondrak admits.
Despite everything, the plan was still to launch Black Ops Cold War in November. But with no sign of the pandemic fading, Raven had to work out how to create cinematics and in-game performances without access to a state-of-the-art studio. As programmers, artists, and producers continued to work from home, the narrative team devised a plan to keep their cast of actors in the game.
“The first thing was working out remote recording kits and just making sure that the talent was still on board,” says Natalie Pohorski, Narrative Producer at Raven Software. “When we realised that the engineers were still able to record, we worked with Activision to figure out the tech for these kits. That was using PCap [performance capture] technology – those headsets with the microphones – and then acoustic treatments for the actors’ homes. We had to make it all user-friendly enough that these actors would be able to use it.”
With recording equipment on the way, the cast prepared to turn their homes into recording studios. “I was staying in the home that I grew up in, which was built in 1787,” Cowles recalls. “I turned this old sewing room into my recording room. I just filled it with pillows and foam and I created this little recording studio.”
The equipment arrived in a Pelican hard case that Cowles jokes made it “look like I was being sent a million dollars in cash.” But rather than banknotes, the box was packed with “a whole bunch of wires” that would enable her to complete her performance as Helen Park from home.
“It was so user-friendly,” Cowles says. “I’m not extraordinarily tech savvy, I’m something of a Luddite. The fact that I was able to do all of this recording from the comfort of my 18th century sewing room was really quite sensational.”
With the actors set up with gear, recording could finally resume. “We would always have a phone call ahead of the recording schedule where the engineer would walk [the actor] through,” Pohorski describes. “Oftentimes it was a video call from their phone, just showing them where to plug things in and getting it all up and running and making sure that it sounded okay.”
“We were in these recording sessions sometimes every day of the week,” says Pohorski. “And so we got to go through this experience together and learned a lot of things together. Our Voice Director, Amanda Wyatt, did an amazing job. She was so resilient and pushed through these virtual barriers.”
Overcoming those virtual barriers involved embracing as much of the Call of Duty spirit as possible from the confines of an acoustic foam-lined room. For Cowles, that was using props to bring her character to life. “I borrowed my nephew’s little fake rifle and I was just running around with this rifle in my sewing room,” she recounts. “The imaginative process became so much more engaging. I think it took me a couple of sessions to really find that groove. And when I did, it was wonderful. There was something actually really freeing about being totally alone.“
“We were capturing this during a time of enormous social anxiety,” she says. “It was a difficult time to be a human. It was so cathartic to be able to scream my guts out.”
With actors set up with home studios, Raven managed to pull together the voice recordings it needed to put words into the mouths of its characters. But dialogue was the easy part; the team also had to work out how to do the motion capture needed to animate the game’s cast, something normally done on a cutting-edge sound stage surrounded by dozens of cameras.
“The most complicated scenes are when we’re interacting with the environment,” Vondrak says. Traditionally, big environments would be set up on a sound stage, such as a ‘vehicle’ made of tables and stools, with which performers could physically interact. “I just didn’t understand how we could replicate that,” he says.
“They ended up buying these mo-cap suits that you could wear,” Vondrak reveals. “[Our actors] would build little mini sets, whether it was in their basement or a room in their house. And they would record the action through these suits with the animator over the webcam directing them, saying ‘No, grab that table to your left when you fall, because we are going to animate this thing to flip over you.’ When I saw the actual recording session of that, and then saw it in game, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to work’.”
Gathering voice and motion capture remotely was a challenge, but even tasks that didn’t require specialist performance gear needed to be adapted. Working remotely meant designers, programmers, and artists were putting together the game without the ease of in-person communication. But the team’s perseverance and self-motivation kept the project on track.
“There’s this great scene where Mason and Woods are hanging out in the safe house, and the player is allowed to walk up and talk to them,” Vondrak says. “Normally in development I see it every step of the way, from the very first blocking. But working from home, the team had to take a lot more on their shoulders. The team did an incredible job saying, ‘Okay, I don’t have anyone around me. I can’t just grab somebody and look at my desk. I’m just going to make decisions and get it done, if I have to rework it because people don’t exactly like it, I’ll do that’.
“So suddenly I saw the [Mason and Woods] scene, and I’d never seen it before,” he continues. “I walked up to talk to him and Woods is giving me a hard time and Mason’s kind of chiming in. They felt like the Mason and Woods I loved. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen this since we left for March.’ And all of a sudden it was July and it was in the game looking good.”
For Vondrak, this scene and the work behind it helped restore his faith in the project. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, we’re going to do this’,” he says.
After months of improvisation and adaptation, things were looking up for Black Ops Cold War. But despite the team’s triumphs over the circumstances, time proved to be a difficult challenge to overcome.
“Everything took longer,” Vondrak says. It was a situation that – for the game to release on schedule – required Raven’s staff to work longer hours. This is a practice currently under heavy scrutiny and criticism from press, game development staff, and the wider community. Critics of ‘crunch’ argue that projects should be delayed to allow development to be completed during regular working hours. But for Black Ops Cold War, the November release date was maintained. We asked Activision about the nature of this overtime and how it was enforced, but received no comment. According to Vondrak, though, staff at Raven were motivated to put in the additional hours.
“People say this all the time, but this really was a passion project for the team,” Vondrak says. “There’s not often you get a chance to say, ‘Hey, this is one of the greatest games we’ve ever played in Black Ops one. Let’s write this love letter to Black Ops one.’ And so people were so jonesed to work on this, that it was worth the extra hour. So everything took longer for sure. But we found ways to get around what we thought were impossible barriers previously.”
The overtime hours put in by the studio’s staff provided the project extra time, which kept development on track. And as production continued, the team discovered that some aspects of working from home were actually more helpful than expected. Pohorski notes that now actors had equipment in their homes, extra pickup recordings could be done at any time instead of arranging a studio visit. But while actors and developers were essentially living in the same space as their jobs, it didn’t make the process any more efficient.
“We’re probably running around at 90% efficiency,” Vondrak estimates. “We used to be able to sit in a room together as a team, play through a whole level in real time, and walk up to the screen and point and touch. We can’t do that right now.”
There is an upshot, though; during those team meetings, one or two people would play the game while dozens of other staff would watch and make observations. But without those meetings, more people were playing the game themselves to generate feedback, rather than watching someone else. “Suddenly we were getting opinions that we might never have gotten before,” Vondrak says. “We got tons more ideas over these past six months. There’s just so much more feedback than I normally [would] have gotten in this kind of a cycle. I would love to return to the office, but we’ll take a few lessons from this.”
Raven has learned a huge amount about the way it operates during the development of Black Ops Cold War, particularly about how its staff work. Lockdown has revealed the benefits and stresses of remote working, and these are lessons that the studio could potentially carry over to a post-COVID world.
“When people have a workstation in their home, it’s certainly a burden mentally,” Vondrak acknowledges. “You feel like, ‘Oh man, should I be going into work?’ But there’s this awesomeness of ‘Hey, I can be with my family or loved ones or whatever, and then I’m just going to go into the other room for 10 minutes on a Saturday morning and check something’.”
Understanding how to make the most of working from home only came after Raven had learned one of its most vital lessons; you have to deal with a lack of instant communication. “Every day of the week, everyone was chiming in at different hours,” Vondrak recalls. “I can jump in for 45 minutes, leave, go be with my family, jump back in for half an hour. And so we learned to not be able to communicate [immediately]. We learned to go, you know what? You’re not going to get your answer for two hours, but that’s okay.” It’s a level of patience and understanding that will serve the studio well should working from home remain the norm in the future.
Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Raven Software completed development of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War in November. The game released, exactly on schedule, on November 13, just as the next-generation of consoles went on sale. Unsurprisingly, it’s been an emotional victory for the people we spoke to.
“The people at Treyarch and Raven and these studios, they’re so on top of it,” Cowles says. “There’s such a fluency and a confidence. I was always just thinking, ‘My God, these are the vanguards, they’re the people who are pushing the industry forward and developing technology that other people and other industries will wind up using’.”
“I’m so excited,” says Pohorski. “This is my first COD title, so there’s a lot of excitement just to be a part of it and to say that we got it all done. I’ve been so impressed with the team here and with the leadership, both at Raven and Activision throughout this process, it always felt safe and transparent.”
“It’s such a mixed set of emotions,” Vondrak says. “I look back and one of the things I realised, right around August or so, was we accomplished all these goals we had hoped. These original pillars we wrote down about what Black Ops meant to us, could we achieve that? Then could we add in this whole other set of pillars we wanted to? We achieved all those.”
“It took a lot of individual effort, I will say that,” he concludes. “It just took people to make decisions, put a lot on their shoulders, and be willing to work longer hours from home even when they’ve got families. So I’m really proud of what the team was able to accomplish for sure. And like I said, this was the love letter we thought we were going to write when we first got started on this project. It’s cool to see that all came together.”
Raven’s situation shares several of the problems that many of us have had to endure during the coronavirus pandemic: the isolation of working from home, the difficulties of remote communication, and the struggle of performing seemingly normal tasks in an unsuitable environment. In addition, the goal of finishing development ahead of a November release date meant staff worked longer, tougher hours during a period that was already filled with challenging obstacles that demanded far-from-usual levels of adaptability. This will never be the ideal way to make a game, nor one Raven will presumably willingly return to – but the team built a triple-A shooter under the harshest, strangest conditions, all while working from home. It’s a story many developers across the world will have their own version of, and hopefully one we’ll never see again in quite the same way.