Infinity Ward: How Top Gun inspired CoD: Infinite Warfare’s aerial combat
We sat down with Infinity Ward's art director Brian Horton to talk all things Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
With Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's release looming (4 November), we sat down with Infinity Ward's art director Brian Horton to talk Call of Duty's space-bound first-person shooter. Brian discusses snagging talent, like Kit Harrington and Conor McGregor, the decision to take fight to space instead of the trenches and how the high-flying action movie Top Gun inspired Infinite Warfare's jackal dogfights.
Let Brian Horton take you to the Danger Zone.
Call of Duty has done this kind of high-tech, futuristic style a few times over now. What’s Infinite Warfare's defining aspect that separates it from Advanced Warfare and the Black Ops series artistically?
Well, I think even though our theatre is in space, we really wanted to try to ground this as a classic good versus evil war story where you're going to take the role of Lieutenant Reyes, and with this ensemble cast of soldiers, you're going to battle your way back against a terrible attack the Settlement Defense Front has perpetrated on earth. So even though there is technology and there's a future aspect to it, we really wanted to make this world feel grounded. I think that the guiding principle on this is we're telling a character-driven story where you're going to see in our cinematics are the main protagonists emote and act and grapple with this responsibility, this burden of command. That really big switch in this game is you are the captain. You get to make the decisions. Your choices shall have consequences. And those are the things that, I think, differentiate this game from our past games, that switch in responsibility.
When you were creating these characters, did you have, say, Kit Harington or Conor McGregor in mind, or did they come in further into development? Had these characters already been formed or were they created for Kit Harington and Conor McGregor?
We worked together and wrote the character very specifically around Kit once we knew he was interested in the project. We sort of built this character out together. That was a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with Kit.Conor, on the other hand, is just a huge fan of Call of Duty, and once we found that out, we asked, "Hey, would you like to be a part of it?" and he was just all in. He could not wait to get in in motion capture to do some moves and get his face scanned and he was really stoked to be a part of it. We put him in a role where he plays a heavy companion of Salen Kotch (Kit Harington's character).
It's something that's really unique about "Call of Duty" as a franchise. It has such a large reach that most people know about it and we can get talent like this in the game.
It’s not just McGregor and Harrington. You’ve also managed to wrangle David Hasselhoff and Paul Reubens as well. How did that come come about?
Once again, it comes down to the have characters that we have to cast and the zombies motif – the '80s theme park – really afford us to have a lot of fun with it. I think, I would say, the single player campaign is quite deep and serious in its tone and then you have zombies, which is a lot more fun and campy. And with someone like Hasselhoff and Reubens who play such extreme characters at time like Reubens’ Pee-Wee Herman, to have him be a part of a story and play a pivotal role was awesome. I'm a huge fan of his. And Hasselhoff, I was a huge Knight Rider fan when I was a kid, and obviously his Baywatch fame. But he’s happy making fun of himself in things like Spongebob Squarepants. Seeing how Hasselhoff has transformed his career and said, "Yeah, I'm embracing who I am. You know, I'm the Hoff." Having his energy in the game was perfect for the role of the DJ. It just shows what working on Call of Duty can do. It's like you can just attract this kind of talent.
What you were saying about Hoff embracing the silliness of it all is interesting because in a way, that's the evolution COD: Zombies has gone through as well. The first few times around it was a relatively serious survival horror, then Black Ops III’s version was a little bit sillier but still a bit moody. But Zombies in Space Land is just all-out shameless fun. What drove you down path, to go all out and let your hair down?
I think it really came down to what is an opportunity for us as a developer to say something different. Infinity Ward wanted to make a statement with our version of zombies, and it seemed like the best thing to do was find something that could be a good differentiator. We're all sort of fans of the '80s. Some of us were either born in the '80s or lived their childhoods in the '80s so it was just so fun to riff on all the different tropes that we could come up with. The theme park attraction rides just forged fun and it allowed us to not take ourselves so seriously. When we're making a game about warriors that honours real military forces, you have to take that very, very serious. But with zombies, we can have a little bit more fun with it.
People do take the war and historical accuracy of Call of Duty very seriously. CoD fans are seemingly split into two groups: people who want to go back to the more historical World War titles and those who just want to embrace the future and play around with new toys and tech. How was the decision made to take COD: Infinite Warfare into space, rather than back in the other direction, like Battlefield 1 has done.
We obviously had a lot of discussions at the studio as to what the next version of Call of Duty would be in those early days. And the team had a passion around the concept of space and really being able to do it justice. It came down to that passion. We were saying, "Look, this is what we think we can do. This is the kind of story we can tell. This is the new kind of gameplay we can express."
For instance, creating the Retribution, which is a living, breathing hub, a location you keep coming back to that you cannot only go head to the story mission from but you can select side missions to go on that are tangent to the main story. Creating a 360 degree, full-flight jackal that allows us to go from the earth, to space, and partake in full space combat and zero G combat. All these things were innovations. When we looked at it, we said, "What is going to give us the best vehicle to innovate?" And the space theme gave us these really fantastic ideas that we wanted to embrace.
To make sure it didn't go down as science fiction, we grounded it in reality. Like, our vehicles are based on this NASA-meets-navy aesthetic and the planets are all in our solar system, and it's a human versus human conflict. Yes, this theatre of war is unique to us with space, but you can easily map it to an earth-bound conflict because it's taking on these global initiatives, that power struggle over resources, stuff that's relatable. I think it's that relatability that keeps it Call of Duty.
When designing traditional trench warfare games you have historical evidence, photographs and real-life accounts to draw on. As an art director, what are the difficulties of conceptualising these epic space battles that we don't really have a point of reference for?
It’s a challenge. But we always have found that you can look at the dog-fighting mode as something that could be easily an earth-bound aerial combat, like a fighter jet, a Top Gun"style, air-to-air combat sequence, which has the same kind of full 360-degree angle that you have to manage and maintain. It just so happens that we're up in space. Even though we’ve taken inspiration from that kind of realism, we also have the hover mode. So even though the jackal can move just like a fighter jet, it also has this hover mode which sort of operates like a helicopter. So we have a little bit of versatility in the vehicle but it has parallels to vehicles that we can recognise. We brought our controls into a space itself that had parity with the boots on the ground warrior. For example, all of your controls feel intuitive to the way you would control your soldier. So that's why we felt that the jackal was not just a gimmick, it was something that's actually ingrained into the core DNA of the Call of Duty experience, and it looks cinematic. People thought things were on-rails. We had to keep telling people, "No, that was full control. You have full choice on who you target and where you go." I think that's what feels new and fresh for us, is we were able to unshackle the tether and let players really have more freedom of choice and control with the jackal.
Besides EVE and Battlefront’s aerial sequences, it’s been a while since there’s been a AAA dogfighting game. Are there any games that Infinite Warfare looked to for influence or inspiration?
The first thing we looked at was that Top Gun fantasy of top-tier fighter pilots engaging and sparring at supersonic speeds. We really wanted to achieve that fantasy with our jackal dogfights. You could look at "Star Wars" was based on World War II dogfights. All those sequences that George Lucas had, he would edit against classic World War II movies. So I guess you could say that there is some kind of parallel to that. But really, "Star Wars" was about laser beams whereas our game is about as much ballistics and real, typical rockets. We want our game to be seen in as much, even though it is a theatre in space, to feel like something that feels military, and it happens to be in space.
Were there any design difficulties or hurdles when dealing with breadth of space. How far out do you let players go, how loose can you hold the leash?
One thing we realised at one point is we weren't going to allow the player to circumvent or circumnavigate planets, for instance. Like, we would be on the outer rim of the earth and we weren't gonna let you go all the way around the earth. But we did want to show sequences of you going from the earth all the way up into space in real time, right, and creating that seamless experience all throughout where you would get into your jackal, shoot into space, have your dog fight, then land on the Retribution, go into the Ret, and then get out, and you're now a commander of the Retribution. As the captain, you can visit your console and you're able then to go to another planet, get out and do the loop again.
This seamless loop was really a big innovation, and something that we said, this feels free even though there are some constraints, and it's not 100% full freedom but there is a lot more freedom than we've ever had in "Call of Duty" before.
It sounds like there’s a big focus on narrative this time around. To craft a good story, sometimes you have to guide the experience to a degree.
If you're into the story, you can learn more about the SDF and who they are and what motivates them. Not only are they fun missions to go on, but there is also intelligence you can acquire on the SDF. People’s experiences will be slightly different. They'll talk about the game and they'll go, "I did that mission where I went and boarded the ship and then dropped the gravity” whereas another person might not have done that. It gives you some water cooler talk.
It's reinforcing some playability.
One last question. We’ve always been a big fan of COD dogs. Will there be COD Dogs in space with adorable little space suits and if not, is there a companion that fills that role?
We have a few very important characters besides Reyes as the lead protagonist.
I really think the closest companion that matches that is Ethan. Ethan is a full sentient robot warrior that we get introduced to at the very beginning of the campaign. And seeing him and the way we treat Ethan is we don't really recognize him or we don't...we are actually not performing like a robot, just performing like a person.
I think people are really going to fall in love with Ethan. He's really a special character and I think he's going to get a lot of people in his corner.
There’s also the rest of the crew. So Salter is a strong Lieutenant as well. She's a partner of Reyes, they've been flying on missions for a number of years. She plays a huge role and sort of Reyes' conscience throughout the story, where she matches him for wits and ability. Even though he's been promoted, she has an equal amount of experience to him. It's great to see their relationship throughout the game as partners be pushed because it's a very stressful situation.
Does Ethan the robot have a gameplay role to play as well as narrative?
Interesting. Able to elaborate on that?
I think I'll keep it vague, but I will say this. This is an ensemble cast, that it's not just you as a lone soldier. You follow Reyes all the way through this. Each member of Reyes' crew has a unique personality and play a role in that kind of Alien-style ensemble cast of soldiers. They each have their motivation but also, they have their mission. And I think that's what's really compelling about this narrative is us delving into what that ensemble cast of storytelling can do. I think it makes it a much richer tale.