Sledgehammer Games’ Michael Condrey Talks Fan Feedback, Competitive Play, and More
The first esports event for Call of Duty: WWII is currently going on, and we’re covering it live from Dallas, Texas. Yesterday, I got to speak to Sledgehammer Games’ co-founder and studio head Michael Condrey on the first day of the Call of Duty World League Dallas event. We chatted about the importance of competitive play, the future of gaming, and the closure of Visceral Games.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Competitive play is such an important part of the Call of Duty experience, but it’s also such a popular series so there’s more casual players than competitive. How do you strike that balance of catering to both fanbases simultaneously?
Michael Condrey: The good news is that there’s not a balance to be concerned about because what makes the game great for all fans is pretty universal. Whether you’re a highly skilled player or a casual player, you want great maps, balanced weapons, you want scorestreaks and choices in your create-a-class that are weighted in order to make them meaningful. So what I love about it is that the highly skilled players have the most refined sense of touch around these things. They can pick out where exploits might be seen, they can be an early indicator of some balance issues on attachments or scorestreaks. So, we’ve found that all fans want similar things. They want fun, fast-paced, low-latency control, great gun action that’s equally and fairly balanced. It works to everyone’s advantage.
With Advanced Warfare you were the first game in the series to take the game in a futuristic direction, one that added more mobility to the action. Now you’ve gone back to the roots of the series. On a competitive level, how do you feel these changes make an impact after getting used to all of this extra mobility?
We’ve had a great experience with Call of Duty over the last nine years. Our first game we worked on was Modern Warfare 3, which was a modern game, and that was super exciting at the time. Coming out of that there was a very loud voice in the community wanting true change and innovation in the franchise. That led to the exoskeleton and the advanced movement, which was a big transition as it was the first change in the movement set in nearly a decade. That was really in reaction to fan feedback. Then equally coming out of that game, fans have been talking about wanting a game about boots on the ground, where the franchise began. So, that was an exciting possibility. Each one of these games is a different creative opportunity to respond to what the community was asking for.
The change to the future setting was an adjustment. Things were faster and more dynamic. We had a lot of fun with that, but coming back to boots on the ground, it’s more strategic. Threat identification, lanes, and map design become more important when you’re back to a grounded experience. There are really impactful and powerful weapons that players have known. It brings a grittiness to the experience that I think everyone has responded well to. So, this is the right game at the right time for Call of Duty, and fans have responded well to that. You’re going to see here in Dallas that all the teams are excited to be going back to their roots.
Call of Duty definitely has some of the most vocal fans. Since its the most popular series, how do you deal with all that feedback. You have millions of players tweeting at you, which I’m sure you appreciate, but I have to imagine that can be overwhelming.
You know it’s a really fascinating question, and you’re right that sometimes the volume of feedback is maybe our greatest gift. We have a very passionate fanbase, and they love to stay engaged and tell us what they think. Because there are so many voices, they don’t all agree. When we’re looking at the objective data, not the subjective feedback, but what’s happening in the game, we use a lot of match data. [We] have millions of points of data around weapon balance, time-to-kill, and good spawns. So, we have a lot of objective data.
When it comes to subjective data, and what people think they want and are asking for. When you have that many voices, you’re not going to make everyone happy. Even if you’re making nine out of ten people happy with every decision you make, that tenth person will feel like you’re not listening. For us, we want fans to know that we spend a ton of time on social, on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and our forums. We’re collecting that feedback and do our best to address it while also staying true to our vision of the game.
Constructive feedback is always the best. We value it when people reach out and are earnest with what they want in a way that’s helpful, but even when it’s not as constructive, we know it comes from a place of passion. The fans want the best game, and sometimes they have a harder time articulating that in a way that is easy for us to hear, but the team knows deep down inside that we have the most passionate fanbase out there.
So, the hard part becomes “what do we react to?,” and how quickly you react to feedback. Sometimes our vision or the match data doesn’t support the ask, so we have to do a good job of communicating why that change would happen. I love that we have that fanbase, and that they’re engaged and passionate. Hopefully they see that the studio is equally engaged in this conversation.
Today is an exciting day. You have the World League kicking off, but also Winter Siege kicking off in WWII. How important are these type of season events to the game, and what can we expect going forward?
I have to tell you, three years is a long time to commit to anything creatively. So, when you finally get the chance to put it in the hands of fans, it’s the most exciting thing we do. This is why we do it. So, to kick off the CWL season here in Dallas, and get to see your game played at the highest level on a global stage, it’s truly one of the most exciting times for Sledgehammer.
The fact that it coincides with the Winter Siege event, and that we have more content coming, it’s a great day for everybody. We do this to see fans excited, happy, and surprised. So, today represents that moment for us to celebrate. There’s a lot to come. New Orleans is next, there’s plenty in both the competitive season and with the game ahead. We’ve got the DLC season. It’s truly just the beginning.
We’re tired, in the three year journey to launch sense of tired, but this moment where [you see] fan reaction gives you a new battery. It makes you remember why you do it. There’s a lot of good energy right now in the studio.
World League obviously focuses on the multiplayer aspect of the game, but Call of Duty is the complete package. You have a full-fledged campaign in Call of Duty: WWII. How has the reaction been, and how happy are you with the feedback you’ve received regarding that?
You know the game is the most personal game that the studio has ever worked on in the sense that we’re touching on amazing history. This reflection point. We’re telling the story of the greatest generation, the second great war, a true good versus evil story that celebrates the camaraderie, sacrifice and heroism of common men and women. So, the campaign was really emotional and personal. I spent a lot of time researching veterans, and went all over the world to capture that spirit.
For us, this is our third Call of Duty game, but this is the first one that brings it back to being about the squad. Not a character or one super soldier, but really about that brotherhood that exemplifies what was great about World War II. The campaign is really powerful for us. It tells a story that hasn’t been told in a decade, and fans have been really generous with their feedback. It’s heartwarming.
I wanted to talk a bit about your past in gaming. Obviously you and Sledgehammer co-founder Glen Schofield have a past at Visceral Games and the Dead Space series. What are your thoughts on the shuttering of Visceral games?
My general thoughts on the state of the industry is that the games that are being offered today are incredible. It’s a very dynamic industry, and a lot of things are changing. The Game Awards were last night, and there were incredible titles out there for fans, including Call of Duty: WWII, which was up for best multiplayer. To me, as a gamer, I want great content. I want as much of it as possible. I want as many great films as I can possibly see, as many great books as I can read. So, anytime there’s a studio that delivers something great, I view it as a celebration of the industry.
Dead Space was an important part of my career, so I hate to see that studio close since there was a lot of talent there. I know that there’s a lot of other things happening now that are pushing the industry forward. So, it’s sort of bittersweet if you will. In general, I love to celebrate great games, and the more the better for fans.
As mentioned before, Call of Duty: WWII is really the complete package in terms of content from single-player to competitive multiplayer and a survival mode. Do you think that a AAA title can still succeed with just one of those elements, like a purely single-player game, can still find that massive audience?
I think the thing about Call of Duty, and why it is so popular, is that it does offer all of that. This is a massive game. Arguably, all three of those modes could be its own game. With new innovations like Headquarters, brand new War mode, there’s a lot. What makes Call of Duty great is that it’s the biggest offering that fans can get in one place. It makes us stand out, and that’s why fans keep coming back.
Now, there are other games out there that I appreciate in other platforms and formats. Look at Cuphead, right? Amazing game. It does a different thing for a different reason. It really comes down to the type of game, and what players want to play. For me, as a fan of first-person shooters, which is my favorite genre, I can’t think of a game that offers what Call of Duty does.
A major thank you to Michael Condrey for his time and the Call of Duty PR team for making this interview possible. We’ll have more coverage from the Call of Duty World League Dallas all this weekend!