Exclusive: How Call of Duty developers try to create maps around CDL pro player feedback

Modern Warfare 2 ranked gameplayActivision

We spoke with two multiplayer leads at Infinity Ward to delve into their feedback loop with professional Call of Duty League players and get to the bottom of their involvement, or potential lack thereof, in the map design process.

When it comes to competitive Call of Duty, there’s no denying certain maps just suit the style of gameplay much better than others. When a new annual release hits store shelves, we often have a few weeks of chaos as pro players themselves test each new addition and figure out an optimal set of maps for the CDL season ahead.

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Thus, you may have seen a common talking point over the years. ‘Why aren’t pro players factored in well ahead of launch? Why aren’t the very best players consulted on new map designs to best suit the competitive community?’

Well, it turns out they are, at least to a certain degree. We recently sat down with Multiplayer Design Directors Joseph Cecot and Geoff Smith to glean insight on the process and figure out the extent to which pro player feedback is actually valued.

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Clayster playing on CDL LAN for New York SublinersCall of Duty League
Pro players have long been calling for more direct engagement with the CoD development teams.

How CoD developers playtest new maps and find the balance

When you look from an overhead view, any single CoD map has to be functional with a considerable number of variables at play. With a wide range of game modes to pick from and many different team sizes loading into a given match, there’s plenty to consider before a map makes it into the game.

“One thing you talk about often Geoff, is playtesting the maps early in the modes we require,” Cecot began. In order to make their lives easier, and to ensure the title hits its intended release date in time, the dev team prioritizes playtests with particular modes.

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“Like S&D, Domination, you kind of know where your flags are gonna be, you really know where your bombs are gonna be. You really want it to play those well. Then your more flexible modes like TDM and Kill Confirmed can be layered in after and it’s more about spawns at that point,” he explained.

“We use TDM, S&D, and Dom as kind of the scaffolding,” Smith echoed. “The other ones, we kind of do the best we can to fit them in. There’s a lot of different game modes that fit in there, but as long as we hit those three, those are the big three that engage the most. We kind of make do with the others.”

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Modern Warfare 2 Search & Destroy gameplayActivision
Search & Destroy has been vital to the competitive CoD community since its formative years.

With S&D long having been a staple in the competitive CoD scene, and Domination occasionally thrown into the mix too, it makes some sense as to why these would be higher priorities. However, given every single CDL match features Hardpoint and Control in the rotation, it may be somewhat concerning not to hear these modes listed in the conversation. While Infinity Ward obviously tries to spread the playtesting time around, there’s no telling how much focus goes into these core competitive modes in particular.

“Everybody’s fighting for play time with their maps,” Smith continued. “It’s tough. So we try to squeeze it in as best we can.”

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Designing CoD maps with competitive play in mind

As we’ve previously covered from this very interview, developers look to have a balance in any given CoD title. Not every map strives to be “sweaty”, as a good mix opt for a more “experiential” approach instead. Though when it comes to the more competitive layouts, devs assured a good amount of thought is put into the fundamentals.

“CoD’s always had asymmetrical maps and that’s really healthy,” Cecot said. “Players fight over those hotspots. You guys look a lot at, in S&D, time to the bomb site. Are the attackers getting there first, are the defenders? What does it mean to rotate?

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“You talk about how the map plays initially, as you go to defend the bombs this way, but then when one team plants, the map now plays sideways and you look at exactly how the map supports it. Can it play that well?

“So I think in that way, we support that competitive layer and make sure the map’s functional in that way. Then the other part of the CDL stuff is the things that are more random, we pull out, so it’s less experiential and more competitive, more about your gun. The combination of those two gets us to a really good place in that format.”

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Modern Warfare 2 Santa Sena Border Crossing mapActivision
Some maps, like MW2’s Border Crossing, aren’t designed with competitive play in mind. Rather, they’re built to provide a mix of ‘experiential’ maps as well.

Devs also stressed the point that many on the multiplayer are competitively geared, often pushing the pace and dominating internal playtests. “There’s no shortage of our team being competitive,” Smith laughed. “We have some insanely good players, and we actually have to quietly message people on the side ‘Hey, turn it down a little bit.’”

Getting pro CDL players involved before launch

Beyond existing team members with a competitive itch, however, CoD devs do still look to get professional players at the highest level involved, to some degree.“We have them come by fairly early, have them play different maps,” Smith confirmed. “I think we spend kind of a whole day with them.”

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Though as any competitive CoD fan would know, one session likely isn’t enough to truly get a sense of everything from spawn logic to objective placements and every minute detail in between. However, for now, it appears that a single-day test is the only window CDL players have in which to give their initial feedback.

Their criticisms, desired changes, and general notes are then weighed up by the full multiplayer development team, Cecot explained. Though as you might expect, not all of it leads to direct changes in the game.

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atlanta faze players practicing call of duty modern warfare 2Atlanta FaZe
Pro players supposedly get one day of testing before a new CoD game rolls out.

“There was a feedback loop with production where they were giving feedback and notes and bomb placements, things like that. We have to kind of weigh each on the feasibility, and do we agree, that sort of thing. Then there’s the whole pick-and-ban process and all of that.

“So really it’s more about us building maps from the get-go to support those core experiences, making sure they play well.”

As for whether this pipeline will ever change to accommodate more pro player insight and feedback before CDL new CoD games go live, there’s no quite telling at this stage. Though with our own sources outlining earlier CDL engagement than usual for this year’s expected Modern Warfare 3 launch, perhaps things are gradually shifting on that end.

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