(Bloomberg) -- The latest entry in Activision Blizzard's popular Call of Duty video-game series was made in half the time of previous iterations, a fact that may be contributing to a spate of bad reviews about the game’s storyline, according to people familiar with the development process.
Critics have panned the game, the first big release since Microsoft Corp. closed its $69 billion acquisition of Activision last month, saying the storyline feels rushed. Most Call of Duty games are developed in around three years, but the bulk of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III, which comes out Friday, was made in less than a year and a half, said the people, who asked to not be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. The abridged production schedule proved stressful for the development team, they said.
Call of Duty has generated more than $30 billion in revenue over the last two decades. It’s the most important series in Activision’s portfolio, with thousands of developers across the world. New Call of Duty games will always top the charts, but some of the makers of Modern Warfare III say they hope their new corporate owners don’t judge them too harshly for the negative reception after a shortened development cycle that was beyond the studio’s control.
The process was hurried because this year’s game was conceived to fill a gap in the release schedule following the delay of another Call of Duty title previously planned for 2023. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III was originally pitched to staff at Foster City, California-based developer Sledgehammer Games as an expansion to last year’s title, but it morphed into a full sequel during development, Bloomberg earlier reported.
Johanna Faries, general manager for Call of Duty, said in a Bloomberg TV interview Friday that it’s “wholly inaccurate” that the new game's development timeline was shortened, but she didn’t elaborate. Earlier, an Activision spokesman denied that Modern Warfare III was originally an expansion and said it was conceived as a “premium game” from the start.
But more than a dozen current and former Call of Duty developers said that conflicts with what they were told at the time. Some of the employees said the plan was left ambiguous during the first few months of development, while others said they were directly told it was an expansion. All said they were under the impression it was an expansion until much later in the process.
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Aaron Halon, the studio head of Sledgehammer Games, said in an interview that some team members may have been convinced the new game was an expansion because it is “a new type of direct sequel” to the previous game. Unlike previous Call of Duty titles, Modern Warfare III allows players to transfer their weapons and gear from last year’s game.
Some staff at Sledgehammer, who had to work nights and weekends to finish the game, said they felt betrayed by the company because they were promised they wouldn’t have to go through another shortened timeline after the release of their previous game, Call of Duty: Vanguard, which was made under a similarly constrained development cycle.
For the first few months of the project, which was codenamed Jupiter, the story was conceived as a smaller-scale Modern Warfare spinoff set in Mexico that would be more achievable on a short timeline than the usual globe-trotting escapades of a full new campaign. But in the summer of last year, Activision executives rebooted that story, and told the developers that instead they would be making a direct sequel to Modern Warfare II centering on the villain Vladimir Makarov and featuring missions all across the world.
The reboot ate into the schedule and forced the developers to complete the new campaign in roughly 16 months — the shortest development time for a new Call of Duty game in years.
The game’s story has received bleak reviews from the largest gaming outlets. GameSpot critic S.E. Doster offered a “mediocre” 5 out of 10 rating, and a declaration that the story “doesn’t do much worth seeing.” At IGN, reviewer Simon Cardy gave the game a 4 out of 10, and wrote that the game “feels hastily put together,” adding that “if this is the quality we've come to expect from Call of Duty campaigns, maybe it's for the best if a year or two is taken to reset and raise this low bar back to the heights of old.”The early reviews focused exclusively on Modern Warfare III's story missions and didn’t cover the game's multiplayer and zombie modes.
Sledgehammer’s Halon said in a statement that the game was “a labor of love” and that his team has “worked hard to deliver on this vision, which has been years in the making.”
Analysts said that even a critical flop probably won’t change much about the series over the next few years.
“I don't see it having a lasting impact on the franchise or on any of Microsoft's plans with the franchise even if it is universally panned,” said Kevin Tsao, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. But a consistent drop in quality starting with this game, he said, might drive Microsoft to shift its strategy or cut back on the annual release schedule that Call of Duty has followed since 2005.
After Call of Duty: Vanguard, developers at Sledgehammer had originally pitched a project codenamed Anvil that would be set in the universe of the company’s futuristic 2014 game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, according to the people familiar. But before it could get very far, Anvil was shelved as the company was informed it was instead working on another Modern Warfare.
The nature of this new release was left hazy, but the scope was ambitious and included an update to the popular zombies mode, several multiplayer maps and a single-player campaign. Few developers were surprised when they were later told that the release would be a sequel to last year’s Modern Warfare II, but the shortened cycle took a toll on Sledgehammer’s staff.
Developers also said they were frustrated at having to run their content by executives from Infinity Ward, the Activision studio that’s normally responsible for the Modern Warfare series. Staff on the game said they dealt with inefficiencies waiting on feedback and making significant and sometimes unwanted changes based on directives from above.
(Updates with Activision executive’s comment in fifth paragraph.)
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