Call of Duty: Warzone interview — Why Modern Warfare’s narrative continues with the new season
Call of Duty: Warzone is Activision’s most successful post-launch content for a Call of Duty game, with more than 50 million downloads for the free-to-play battle royale mode in just a month.
And yes, I’m one of those players working hard from home. But the latest update threw me for a loop. The stand-alone download, set in the rebooted universe of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, is also unique because Activision’s Infinity Ward studio continues to drop new narrative elements into each new season of Warzone.
If you made it through the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign (spoiler alert), you’ll know that the hero Alex went off to sacrifice himself while Captain Price survived and teed up the sequel by asking his boss to form a new counter-terrorist group, dubbed Task Force 141. But in the cinematic that kicks off season 3 of Warzone, Alex came back. Simon “Ghost” Riley, who wears a scary skeleton mask, had asked for help. And Alex showed up, now with a prosthetic leg.
They’re in the port town of Verdansk, in Eastern Ukraine. When 150 players land on this map for a battle royale match, they may not realize they’re part of a story. This place was where the East and the West settled their differences, and when the terrorists of Al-Qatala showed up, they all fought together. Warzone takes place after this, and when poison gas pushes everyone together, the operators on both sides fight each other. Everybody fights everybody.
That’s what I heard in an interview with Taylor Kurosaki, narrative director at Infinity Ward. We talked about our experiences playing Warzone, and he filled me in on the story. It feels like Warzone is becoming a vehicle for rolling out more pieces of the plot for the next game. That’s a guess.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Taylor Kurosaki: I’ve been having a ton of fun with the game. We don’t usually get that much time to play, because we’re so busy at the office. Now–it’s a smoother transition with the team. You can jump over and play some matches. I’m having a ton of fun with it. I’m like you, traditionally. I’m not a massive MP guy. It’s cool when you’ve been working on something so hard and you’re actually a fan of it and having fun playing it, totally outside of your input on it. It’s addictive.
GamesBeat: I sadly have not won a match yet. Out of 63 matches, I came in second once. I’m getting close.
Kurosaki: What about Blood Money and Plunder?
GamesBeat: I only did one Plunder match. I haven’t tried Blood Money yet. I still keep trying to win at the three- or four-player modes. I’m concentrating on that.
Kurosaki: I have a second place as well in battle royale. But I probably play the most in Plunder and Blood Money. It’s a little more accessible, a little more casual-friendly. For example, I have won a Plunder match with zero kills.
GamesBeat: Just going around collecting everything?
Kurosaki: Yeah! It’s about how coordinated you can be as a squad, taking on contracts, looting. You can win literally without getting in a firefight if you choose to play that way.
GamesBeat: I wanted to get into the design of it a bit, some of the decisions you made here. That’s an interesting way to make battle royale more accessible.
Kurosaki: We felt like if we were going to make a battle royale mode, we didn’t just want to make a me-too mode. We thought about some of the cool additions and ingredients we could add to the mode. Obviously the gulag is one that hearkens back to the old games. I used to dread–I’m vacillating between official answers and my personal anecdotes, but it’s hard to separate. I used to dread going into the gulag. Now my last three or four times in the gulag I’ve won. I don’t dread it quite as much. It feels like a little mini-version of a gunfight. That was something important to us.
GamesBeat: That was surprisingly fun. In the battle royale games I’ve played, I’ve never seen that, where you have to fight somebody to try to come back.
Kurosaki: I thought it was a smart addition. One of the high-level strategic things that can happen, if you and a squadmate get wiped in time with each other, sometimes your squadmate can be up observing while you’re fighting, or vice versa, and be calling out where your opponent is moving in the showers.
GamesBeat: I’ve done that quite a bit, yeah. “He’s on the left side!”
Kurosaki: Right. There’s a whole other level of teamwork that happens, even in that little part of the match.
GamesBeat: It’s very satisfying when you come back that way, or somebody actually buys you back. I thought that part was also another nice touch. It’s a way to keep you watching a match that you’d otherwise drop out of.
Kurosaki: Totally. You can have one of your squadmates left living, or you can be the last remaining squadmate, and there’s still a chance to turn that all the way around and get both of your squadmates back in, either by buying them in or them winning in the gulag. It keeps the excitement up. It’s almost like sudden death, or a three-point shot in basketball. There are ways to make up ground late, which keeps it exciting all the way to the end.
GamesBeat: Last night I downloaded the new season. We have a story here now.
Kurosaki: We’ve had a story kind of throughout. The important way to look at it is, when we set out to make the game way back at the end of 2016, a big tenet for us was–I’m going to parrot this back, because it’s been drilled into my head so much. It’s consistency and continuity across all modes. In the same way that cross play allows our players to all come together and play, you want progress that you’ve made in one mode to feel like it’s additive toward your progress in the other modes. Skills you acquire in one mode feel like they’re applicable to other modes.
We didn’t want it to feel like three separate games in one box. We wanted it to feel like one massive world with a universal fiction, a universal narrative. For players that love story, we want you to get more story when you’re playing Warzone, when you’re playing multiplayer, or when you’re playing Spec Ops. We set out a long time ago to have the narrative continue in MP and CP, and of course we knew we were working on Warzone, so we set up the fiction that would support that mode as well.
If you go back and watch the season one intro movie, that’s telling a bit of the story. Then you watch the season two intro movie, the one where Ghost made his appearance. That’s telling a bit more of the story. Now with season three’s intro, it’s continuing that narrative thread. We’re going somewhere with it. Hopefully the players that care about that stuff–I care about it, of course, as a big campaign fan. There’s a lot to discover. We’re going to make discoveries the players can find available as we continue to evolve the mode.
GamesBeat: Alex isn’t dead.
Kurosaki: He is not dead. The important thing for Alex, when he made that choice to fight for something he believed in, when he made that choice to be willing to–rather than being ordered to complete a mission, but to be able to choose the mission that was important to him, it wasn’t, for us, about him actually dying. It was about being willing to make the choice, to be willing to sacrifice himself. That still holds.
The fact that he was able to choose his own battle, so to speak, for the first time in his career, and fight for something he believed in, and not just for something that he was ordered to fight for — and he was able to accomplish the mission as you saw at the end of the game, because of course the lab blows up — and he figured out a way to get out, despite the odds being stacked against him, he’s now a changed guy. He’s a guy who has evolved. I want to keep seeing where he goes from here.
GamesBeat: Warzone seems like a bit of a difficult way to tell a story. Your chance is with these new seasons.
Kurosaki: With the season intros, that’s where we’re earmarking a new cinematic that continues the story. But all that is a setup for the discoveries that the players will make when they’re playing the mode. There are Easter eggs in the maps, hidden areas in the maps.
As you saw, for example, in the season two intro movie, Ghost makes his appearance and relays to Price that there’s a concept of blue-on-blue violence, meaning that members of the same squad, or members of the same allegiances–there’s friendly fire going on. This is a big problem and we have to figure out why this is happening. He says, “Send me fighters I can trust.” He can’t do it alone. Then, with season three and Alex showing up, there’s the answer. Here’s a fighter he can trust. Now the two of them, as well as all the operators–they all want to figure out there’s this intra-squad violence happening. Who’s behind it? Who is stoking the flames? Who’s sowing distrust? What’s their ultimate goal?
That’s what we’re all trying to figure out with Warzone. You can’t even trust a guy that would formerly be–if you’re playing with the Allegiance side, someone who’s an Allegiance operator, those alliances don’t hold when you’re playing Warzone. The big question is, why? What has broken down and why has it broken down?
GamesBeat: Have you gotten any interesting feedback on the storyline you’ve been able to read?
Kurosaki: What I’ve seen is that our fans are super hungry for more story. They want to know how Alex got out of the gas lab at the end of the campaign. They want to unlock the mystery.
For players that played the Spec Ops missions as well, that was sort of the kickoff of the post-campaign narrative. Al-Qatala had regrouped after the death of the Wolf, and it had invaded this city of Verdansk. The city was a former Soviet republic Cold War city, but as the Cold War ended, both east and west came together to make Verdansk an example of the easing of tensions. It was this beacon of what could happen in a post-Cold War world. East and west collaborated to Verdansk this symbol of what a post-Cold War world could look like.
But then Al-Qatala showed up and invaded. Because it was an important place symbolically to both the east and west, the Allegiance and the Coalition signed treaties. They united and formed what’s called Armistice. Armistice, for the player experience, you could load out–if you preferred playing as the Allegiance, or if you have an operator you prefer from the Allegiance side, you could load out alongside operators from the Coalition side and work together to battle Al-Qatala in Verdansk.
That threat is sort of over now, as you can see when you’re playing in Warzone. There aren’t Al-Qatala fighters roaming around the map. All that’s left are these operators. But now that these operators from these different alliances have been brought together in one place, what happens when you take the years and years of agitations and animosities and pent-up prejudices between east and west–you put all these operators in one spot, and then you create this pressure of gas closing in around them and shoving them closer and closer together. Well, then you have not only Allegiance versus Coalition aggression, but because these squads are mixed, now you have Allegiance versus Allegiance or Coalition versus Coalition violence. It’s a real powder keg that’s now exploding. That’s what Warzone is.
For all of us players that are in there playing, the goal is to figure out who is behind this. Why is this happening? How can we bring an end to it?
GamesBeat: For the people who do the best in Warzone, is there a way to give them some kind of story reward? Do they get to see something first?
Kurosaki: We’re not really–we believe in making a level playing field, making this inclusive. In the same way that I can win a match in Blood Money even if I’m not the quickest on the draw, I can make discoveries about what’s happening here on the ground even if I don’t win the match. It’s not tied to winning. It’s tied to being clever and exploring your environment and trying to follow the bits of information as I find them.
Like we said in the season two intro, Ghost is on the ground. He’s been ordered to Verdansk by Captain Price to figure out what’s happening here. As he is on the trail of what’s happening in Verdansk, he’s going to be leaving clues, leaving bits of intel for his fellow operators, meaning you as the players, to find and aid in this quest.
GamesBeat: Is there a period of time where you see the whole story unfolding? Can players have an expectation around when it will end?
Kurosaki: I would look at it like we’re making an episodic TV series. A lot of the time, when the showrunners of the Sopranos or Lost or something like that are setting out to tell a story, they’re not exactly sure how many seasons the show is going to be on the air. We know where we’re going, and we know where we’re starting from. The question just remains, how long will it take us to get to our conclusion? That’s kind of up to our fans.
GamesBeat: You could stretch it out a bit if it stays popular.
Kurosaki: Something like that. Again, based on how it’s been going so far, it seems like people want to play more and more. We couldn’t be happier with the amount of engagement we’ve had so far.
For players who are new to Warzone, I’d encourage them to watch the season one, season two, and of course the new season three intro cinematics, and ground themselves in this world. For those who really want to do a deep dive and understand how this universe works, you can play Modern Warfare.
GamesBeat: I love to see this top 10 ranking, because that makes me feel good. I’ve been in the top 10 eight times, even with zero wins. It’s good to know I’ve got some kind of stat there.
Kurosaki: I agree. If I see a top 10 anything, I feel pretty good about myself. That’s another thing that I think is great about Warzone. It doesn’t feel like an all or nothing proposition. Again, especially, I encourage you–we’ve talked before about how good you are at MP and at first-person shooters in general. Blood Money and Plunder really have a sense of accomplishing something. You’re making progress, and it’s not really about winning. Of course it’s about winning if you can, but even if you aren’t winning, you’re looting. You’re grabbing money and banking it. That’s tied to your XP. Win or lose, or something in between, you feel like you’re making progress, which I love.
The other day I played a match in Blood Money, and at the last second of the menu, my two squadmates dropped out. I loaded into the match by myself. I said, “Well, screw it, I’m going to play anyway.” I banked almost $700,000 just playing by myself. I think I finished in tenth place, or maybe seventh place, even playing by myself. That felt like a huge accomplishment.
GamesBeat: I know this is not strictly your department, but do you have a sense of how well the game is holding up with all the internet demand that’s materializing because of people staying at home?
Kurosaki: Every indication I have, firsthand and from what I’ve heard, is that performance in the game is perfect. It’s flawless. We’re not seeing anything in matches. Everything is all systems go. The main way we’ve been trying to be good citizens in a time where there are demands from lots of different places is just in terms of when updates come out and things like that. But when you’re loaded into a match it’s smooth sailing.
GamesBeat: It seems like that’s part of the upside of everyone staying at home. People have time to play online games, and this landed just in time for a lot of people.
Kurosaki: A lot of people out there are pretty thankful that they’ve got Warzone to help keep them company, yeah.
GamesBeat: We saw a big change from trios to quads. Was that always the plan, to mix things up for people?
Kurosaki: Absolutely. We want to keep things fresh for our players. We want to keep things fresh for ourselves. We know that a quad is a pretty tried and true way of playing MP. A lot of people out there have foursomes they like to play with, so we wanted to make sure there was a spot for all four. By the same token, having solos is great for the times where I just want to test my own skills against an entire map full of enemies. That’s there as well. These are all valid ways to play — trios, quads, singles. We intend to keep fulfilling the desires of our player base for the types of configurations they want.
GamesBeat: I kept playing in trios, but I was tempted to go solo, because so many people don’t land where you think everyone’s agreed to land.
Kurosaki: The one thing–I’ve had matches, many matches, where there’s no voice chat going on. All we’re using is the ping system to have our operators communicate with each other. When people are all on the same page, it’s amazing how expressive you can be. You can tell people, “I’m going over there,” and they can say, “Cool, I’m coming with you,” and that’s what happens. You call out a vehicle and a guy can say, “I’ll grab the vehicle.” All of that can happen in the meta of the game. It’s pretty remarkable. I’m amazed at how much communication can happen that way.
Especially having operators like Alex–I played as Alex for half of the campaign. Now, to be able to jump into his boots again and have Alex communicating with his squadmates, it just feels so good. He has a reassuring way about him. I equipped him right away and I’m playing as him. I’m kind of going back and forth between him and Ghost right now.
GamesBeat: Was anything really surprising for you as far as how things unfolded once you released the game?
Kurosaki: The amount of ingenuity among our players never fails to amaze me. The way that they can take the toolset that you give them, the playground that you give them, and then use it in ways you never imagined is remarkable. To see some of the discoveries that people have made in the maps–we thought, “Oh, it’ll take people this long to find that.” Nope. Right away, the way people are using C4 is pretty amazing.
GamesBeat: I’ve been watching the Jack Frags “Crazy Things in Warzone” videos. It’s pretty amazing stuff.
Kurosaki: Seeing people use the helicopter rotor as an offensive weapon was not something that–I didn’t even know you could do that until I saw it in a video. That was pretty cool.
GamesBeat: There was one video that showed a spawn of some automatic weapons inside the gulag. Somebody went backward against the wall and said, “Hey, there’s a bunch of weapons here.”
Kurosaki: People will discover stuff. That’s what’s so great about–you asked me earlier if it’s difficult to convey narrative in Warzone. My answer to that would be, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re talking about a fully authored narrative, something that has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, told in a linear fashion, then maybe it’s not. But the emergent narratives we’re seeing in Warzone, that’s a whole other way to look at narrative. A mode like Warzone is perfect for that.
For me, as a guy who’s been traditionally focused on campaigns my whole career, trying to figure out the limits of what kinds of stories can be told, player-centric stories driven by the players themselves in that emergent way, that’s super exciting to me. We’ve talked a lot in the past about whether games like Fortnite have a narrative. I would say yes, absolutely. I’d say Warzone does as well. But for me, it’s in a genre and a tone that I greatly prefer.
GamesBeat: There are things you could do with the world. I think of things that Fortnite has done, like the eclipse they had for a couple of days.
Kurosaki: That’s exactly the kind of thing that we’re working on, that we have planned. Again, it’s all going to fit into this macro that we’ve established in Modern Warfare, and that we’ve continued into Warzone. If you know who the players are in Modern Warfare, it’ll all make sense, and it’ll all feel appropriate to the universe.