Whether it’s a cup of tea on a rainy day, re-watching your favourite sitcom, or pulling on those old pyjamas you really should’ve replaced by now, we all have our own homely comforts.
But for a generation of children of the 1990s and 2000s, nothing says “this is living” like unloading assault rifles and lobbing grenades during online bouts of Call Of Duty (COD).
“It’s like putting on a cosy old jumper,” says long-time fan Sam Jones, who started playing in 2007, aged 11.
“And as I grew older, it became a comfort. You’ve less time, people drop off, find different interests, but I’ve still got a core group of four or five mates who’ve been playing for 15 years.”
Shelby Carleton holds a similar fondness for the franchise, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
“I started playing COD, actually the original Modern Warfare, when I was a kid,” she recalls, with a belated apology to her parents for ignoring the game’s age rating.
“I’d have friends over and I have really fond memories of playing those games and making those friendships.”
Sixteen years later and she’s the narrative director on Modern Warfare III, which releases on 10 November.
Yes, COD has been around so long that childhood fans are now the ones making it.
This one’s the latest instalment in COD’s Modern Warfare subseries, which returned after a long absence in 2019.
Modern Warfare first ran from 2007 to 2011, ending with its own Modern Warfare III. While the rebooted entries have been unconnected plot-wise, they offer plenty of nods, winks, and references to veteran players.
It makes the new game a fitting way to mark the franchise’s anniversary and show how far the series has come.
“It feels like it just gets bigger,” says creative director Dave Swenson, who’s worked on COD for north of a decade.
“The army of artists, audio people and designers that come together to make the games is pretty amazing and it’s a huge undertaking over several years to create one.”
Despite the annual release cadence, each COD is a multi-year project for the people who make it.
The franchise calls on three main development studios: Infinity Ward, the original creators of the franchise; Treyarch, which birthed the popular Black Ops subseries; and Modern Warfare III’s team Sledgehammer.
There has been a new mainline entry every year since 2005, while free-to-play COD Mobile on smartphones and Fortnite-like Warzone have also taken on lives of their own.
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Tom Lynch is one fan who will always hold Warzone in particularly high regard.
He made such firm friends on the virtual battlefield while stuck at home during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 that they wound up being far more than just squad mates.
“Because we didn’t have anywhere to go, COD became a great social setting to hang out with mates,” he says.
“And it put me in touch with friends I hadn’t seen in a while – and then also met people through the game who ultimately became the groomsmen at my wedding!”
Between the mainline series, Warzone, and the mobile game, it’s no surprise that at last count, there were more than 3,000 people working on the franchise.
Sledgehammer alone has teams spanning the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK.
The scale is matched by the revenues, with 2022’s game raking in a record $1bn in its first 10 days on sale.
Johanna Faries, who manages the franchise at publisher Activision Blizzard, believes the teams have “continued to raise the bar on what ambition looks like”.
“The gaming industry is only getting more competitive,” she says.
“But the annualised cycle has been quite unique to us – to be able to sustain that is a feat unto itself.
“It brings even more meaning to the 20th anniversary.”
‘An interesting challenge’
Directors Swenson and Carleton are confident they’re on to another winner with Modern Warfare III, which boasts a story-driven campaign and a raft of online multiplayer modes.
The online experience is notable this year for letting players carry over progress from the previous game, while the campaign strives to freshen things up despite an inevitable sense of familiarity.
Swenson is excited by the campaign’s new “open combat missions”, with are far less linear than fans are used to, instead encouraging them to approach objectives as they see fit.
But serving as a direct sequel to 2022’s Modern Warfare II, and also a sort-of remake of 2011’s game, Carleton admits she knew there were specific story beats she had to hit.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” Carleton says of writing a blockbuster game like this, which begins with an almighty brainstorm session featuring enough whiteboards and post-it notes to fill a terminal.
“You start with the end in mind, work backwards, sometimes you work forwards, sometimes you’re in the middle!”
One nailed-on narrative decision was the return of fan-favourite villain Vladimir Makarov, an ultranationalist Russian terrorist with his mind set on sparking World War III.
Trailers suggest his return coincides with a reimagining of one of the franchise’s most infamous levels, “No Russian”, which tasked players with participating in a mass shooting at a Russian airport in a bid to gain Makarov’s trust.
Swenson and Carleton are keeping their lips sealed on how it plays out this time.
Real modern warfare
Of course, depressingly, the idea of a new world war erupting from eastern Europe or elsewhere doesn’t feel as innocently escapist as the developers may have thought when Modern Warfare debuted in 2007.
Forget Second World War archive footage, today’s COD writers need only turn on the news to see marching armies, rolling tanks, and toppled buildings that would look right at home in the games.
Creative director Swenson admits his team “can’t help but be inspired by the world around us”, but insists this franchise remains solely concerned with being entertainment.
“There’s real conflict happening in the world today and it’s really heartbreaking,” he says.
“[But] this game is a work of fiction and a story that’s been in the making and we’ve been working on for years.
“As a company, we don’t use this game to make any political commentary or anything like that.”
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Regardless of what the real world has in store over the next year, few things are as assured as COD’s usual October/November release date.
It remains to be seen whether Microsoft’s record takeover of Activision will change the series’ trajectory, but the money involved would suggest a reluctance to stop milking this epic cash cow any time soon.
Whether 2024 sees another Modern Warfare, a return to a prior conflict, or something entirely new, the developers themselves seem to guarantee one thing.
“Bigger” is the only way to go.