Interview: Call of Duty developers break down map design process from start to finish
From rough sketches on notepads to iconic landmarks millions still admire more than a decade down the line, how do Call of Duty maps spring to life? We spoke with two of Infinity Ward’s most experienced multiplayer leads to get the full rundown on each stage of the process.
Over the past 20 years, the CoD franchise has seen 19 mainline entries. Throughout the stretch, factoring in DLC map packs, seasonal support, and the like, by our calculations there have been no less than 500 original multiplayer maps (yes, we really counted). That’s without including redesigns or revamped versions of existing layouts, mind you.
With each annual entry providing roughly a dozen new maps on average, and the following year of additional content often doubling the count and then some, it’s safe to say designers are always keeping plenty busy.
Is every single map a surefire contender for the hypothetical FPS Hall of Fame? Not quite. But among that extraordinarily large yet still ever-growing list, we’ve been given some objective all-time greats in the genre.
Peeling back the curtain in an uncharacteristically candid interview, Infinity Ward’s Multiplayer Design Directors Joseph Cecot and Geoff Smith outlined the full development process that’s served the CoD development team well for all these years. From early beginnings as hasty drawings on loose paper to the final layers of polish in-game, here’s how some of your favorites have been brought to life.
The ideation stage: Forming a well-rounded list of “songs on an album”
As with all things, the very first step is for developers to latch onto a new idea. Now exactly where these ideas come from, however, can be different day in and day out, Smith told us. “There’s a bit of a chicken and a bit of an egg.”
On one hand, a selection of CoD’s most iconic maps may have been “inspired based on some images” particular developers came across while researching key locations. On the other hand, certain “super chunky layouts” may be blocked out in the engine before real-world inspiration is sought out. Theme and setting then applied after the fact.
There’s no one way in which these ideas first come into focus, with the dev team more than willing to let employees run wild and pile up a considerable “backlog” while working through each new title.“We always ask the team to have sketches and ideas,” Smith said. “Even if they’re [actively] working on a map, we ask them, if you have ideas, just sketch some stuff out.”
Together, they collect their strongest candidates with one common goal in mind. An entire CoD game can’t be filled to the brim with similar layouts achieving much the same thing. Rather, a broad mix is required to best serve all parts of the community, the devs explained, comparing a game’s set of maps to a “cast of characters.
“You want a lot of different styles, from gameplay to settings. Back in the day, I was an old Counter-Strike player. You didn’t get to choose what map you had, the server just hit map after map after map. You should have these peaks and valleys, it’s intense, it’s slower, it presents this nice package of songs on an album,” Smith described.
The planning stage: Where in the world could this map be set?
Running concurrently with the above, devs on the multiplayer side have to be mindful of what their colleagues on the singleplayer team are working on. Aligning around theaters of war, specific locales, and perhaps even repurposing chunks of story mission layouts is all integral in the early stages of a new CoD cycle. Thus, collaborating across sectors is one of the first steps in production.
“When we start making a game, we sit with singleplayer, think of the storyline and where it’s going to take place,” Smith outlined. “We try to share as much content as we can. We try to share these locations so we’re the most efficient we can be. Be we also try to deviate from those areas to keep a variety.”
From there, with existing ideas sketched or blocked out already, now with a particular focus in mind, it’s then a matter of “doing a deep dive into reference,” he continued. That means finding appropriate locations for various layouts while also considering exactly what building blocks will be reflected as in a realistic, authentic manner.
“With our stuff being so realistic, we try to find comparable places in the world it would be, especially with our big map stuff. We really look at infrastructure and how a place like that is constructed. Then it’s blocked out, which is LEGO-looking stuff. Then we get art involved, environment art. They’ll come in and say ‘What if we move this building down the street here?”
During this initial step forward, as designs begin to take shape in 3D space, there’s still far more to consider than just the raw layout. From objective placements with flags, bomb sites, and more, to spawn logic across a litany of game modes and lobby sizes, it all requires a great deal of thought. In fact, as we learned, even just the time of day is something devs have to consider for each and every new location.
As we’ve seen through the years, especially in more recent titles given the increased graphical fidelity, the wrong time of day can certainly lead to headaches. Beaming rays of sunlight obscuring your vision and all but leaving you with a constant flashbang effect is far from ideal, and it’s something devs are keenly aware of when it comes to building their latest maps.
“I think overwhelmingly bright, daytime, blue sky maps, are the most popular,” Smith said. “Maybe that’s a psychological thing, people want to be happy and have a bright, sunny day. We tend to do some golden hour maps because that sun angle makes our game look really good.
“But there’s always a back and forth with environment art. I explain to them that if you look at the way sports stadiums are set up, they build the things so the sun goes across the pitch, rather than in the eyes of one team or another. So we try to build the maps to align that way, so you’re not looking at a sun flare while you’re trying to shoot somebody. But it’s always tricky, someone’s always going to hit that angle and say ‘ahh, it’s horrible.’
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While it may seem simple enough on the surface, even minor adjustments to a map’s time of day can have major implications. In particular, “readability” is a huge focal point throughout development, as teams work to ensure a smooth experience on every new battlefield.
That means everything from “denoising a back wall to help silhouette players on certain sightlines,” to widespread changes on character models, “brightening up the shoulders and heads of players so they stand out in any lighting situation.” All while still maintaining CoD’s ambition for realism.
“It’s mostly visibility and readability at the end of the day,” Smith continued. “I think art would try to make as cinematic and beautiful levels as they can, but at the end of the day, it’s functional art.”
The testing stage: Not just a matter of playing Call of Duty “all day long”
Now for the fun part. Well, at least fun in theory. In reality, that’s not always the case. With maps blocked out and artists beginning to apply their magic, playtests begin. It’s here where arguably the most important yet time-consuming work is done.
With likely more than dozen maps in the oven for any given CoD title, and possibly a dozen launch playlists in which to cater for, playtesting isn’t quite as simple as it may seem on the surface. Which maps get the playtime on a given day? What modes are devs able to test? How on Earth can they possibly find the time to test every single map in every single scenario? Well, it’s a “tough” balancing act, Smith explained.
“It’s funny, you can say ‘I work in video games and I play video games all day long.’ We do need to play the maps a lot, but we also do need to work. There’s at least an hour or two every day of playtests, maybe more as we get closer to launch. Everybody’s fighting for playtime with their maps. It’s tough. So we try to squeeze it in as best we can.”
As you might expect, these sessions aren’t just a matter of kicking back and enjoying some CoD with the crew. Quite the opposite, in fact, as these daily tests are vital in collecting valuable feedback across the board. From adjusting more minor “action items” like angles on sightlines and spawn distance from objective locations, to more drastic tweaks that involve large-scale reworks involving the art team again, there’s a lot that only gets uncovered during these gameplay blocks.
“We’ve come up with some little tricks here and there,” Smith said on how the team tries to stay on top of the seemingly insurmountable workload. “I think the trickiest stuff is the big map stuff. We actually break the map into those little POIs and playtest those. We can get way more mileage playing a TDM match on one little town, than we could hoping the final circle, or some part of the BR ends up there. Doing the best we can to play as much as we can.”
Another such means of expediting the process is to prioritize certain game modes, Cecot chimed in. Given just how much variety a typical CoD release affords, it’s near-impossible to thoroughly evaluate every map on every mode. Thus, a handful of core modes are identified as staples and are utilized for the bulk of testing, he explained.
“S&D, and Dom. You really want it to play those well,” Cecot said. “Then your more flexible modes like TDM and Kill Confirmed can be layered in after and it’s more about spawns at that point.”
“We use TDM, S&D, and Dom as kind of the scaffolding,” Smith echoed. “And 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.”
Admittedly, “nothing feels worse” for the dev team than not having ample time to run every test they’d like. But always being on a tight turnaround, as studios rotate year after year on the CoD franchise, they don’t always have the luxury of ensuring every little quirk is ironed out before launch.
“You’re either stuck asking forgiveness from art because you’re trying to move things and change things that are locked, or you’re having to live with it and solve it in other ways,” Cecot added. “That doesn’t feel good.”
All up, devs are constantly seeking as much testing time as they can possibly afford before the release build goes gold and the studio largely pivots to post-launch support. That means more new maps, modes, and everything in between as the CoD community’s appetite for new content is always continuing to grow.
This tried and true method has obviously been refined over the years, but for the most part, it’s this exact process that’s given us some of CoD’s most iconic maps. While some are jokingly referred to as happy accidents and others are designed purely for certain chunks of the community, there’s no denying the hectic workflow has pumped out some truly unforgettable maps we all look back on fondly.