In 1999, DreamWorks Interactive's Medal of Honor helped kick off ten years of successful shooters set in World War II from a number of developers, but by the time the decade came to a close, the Infinity Ward-created Call of Duty franchise had eclipsed its predecessor in both commercial success and industry relevance.
Now, the Electronic Arts Los Angeles team descended from that original group has rebranded itself Danger Close Games, and hopes to reinvigorate the Medal of Honor name this fall with the series' first modern day entry.
Set in Afghanistan during the early days of the United States' current conflict there, Medal of Honor is a fictional story that draws heavily from real-world events, with so-called Tier 1 Operators -- members of the military's highest echelons -- serving both as player characters in the game and as crucial advisors to its development.
Gamasutra sat down with Medal of Honor executive producer Greg Goodrich to discuss the game's efficient development process, the increasingly competitive first-person shooter market, and the challenges and fears of creating a game that hinges on a real-world modern conflict.
From the outside, it seems like you managed your dev cycle pretty well. It didn't take you guys that long from announcement to final game.
GG: Yeah. We have a guy. If I tell you his name, he's going to be recruited away, but his name is Kevin Hendrickson, our director of product development. The guy is a master when it comes to scheduling and resource allocation. He's very in tune with the team.
I actually wrote a blog about him because he's amazing. We started with the strategy of getting the game stood up as early as possible, meaning that as of December last year, the game was playable from beginning to end. It didn't look pretty, and there were problems...
Was that roughly an alpha build?
GG: Not alpha, just broad brushstrokes. We did it so we could look at the game from its entirety and play it from beginning to end, and see what was working and what wasn't working. It helped us see what we had. You know, making a game better is the easier thing to do. You have to make it a great experience, and get those gameplay elements you want in there.
So, we fixed those things. It was up and going at the beginning of this year. Since then, we've been cranking on polish. Luckily, DICE certainly knows what they're doing on the multiplayer side. Having two fully staffed studios, each concentrating on what they do best, has been absolutely the reason it's been going so well.
How many developers do you have between you guys and DICE?
GG: In Los Angeles, we're around 80 or 85. The team in DICE is probably not that big, but it's a decent-sized team. It's not too crazy. We have some really strong leads, and some veterans who have been on every single Medal of Honor ever. We've got a lot of new blood.
It's a really good mix of people who are extremely passionate about what they do. I think it's showing in the software.
You're using entirely different engines, a totally separate codebase, on the single-player and multiplayer, right? What's it like coordinating that?
GG: Yup. Coordination is everything. Early on, we made the cautious decision to embrace our differences, embrace the two engines. We went with the strategy of two great tastes in one box. We also knew we could either spend a lot of time making the experiences identical, which we probably never would have achieved anyway because of the inherent differences of the technology, or we could just spend that time making two great halves of the game. That's what we did.
We play each others' builds on an almost daily basis. It's the same universe, the same types of characters, the same weapons. It's going to feel like one whole Medal of Honor game, but the experiences are different. That normally happens anyways between single- and multiplayer, just because the speed, weapon balance, and everything else is different anyway, so we embraced it early on and went to the races.
So when DICE, say, tunes the damage on a given weapon, you don't fold that back into your half.
GG: No. We'll use the same models and animations, but not damage or speed of reload. It's because in the single-player experience, everything has to serve both the gameplay as well as the narrative and story -- what needs to happen in certain places -- but for multiplayer, it's an arena. You've got to balance everything so no one thing is dominant. In single-player, there are times a weapon needs to be absolutely dominant. Those balance trees are much different.
I was speaking to Dustin Browder, StarCraft II's lead designer -- actually, he used to be here at EALA, so I'm sure you know him well.
He was saying that they were trying for quite some time to keep the balance identical between single- and multiplayer, but at a certain point they had to just branch that trunk and let them evolve on their own.
GG: Yeah. You can't serve both sides at the same time. Well, I guess you could. Someone could. But if you just embrace it, you can have your eyes on the end-goal of just making a great multiplayer experience for the people who consume that, and then also a single-player experience for the people who love that.
The idea is for this reboot of Medal of Honor to have as much value [as possible] in one box. There's a limited edition, and the PS3 version has Medal of Honor: Frontline being redone for that -- you only get one chance to reboot a franchise like this, so we're absolutely just going for it.
Quite honestly, I don't think this is the most economical way of doing it, but what it does show is a commitment on EA's part of how much they care about and love this franchise.
Does your ability to succeed there feel particularly imperative now? When you look at Medal of Honor and Call of Duty over the years, Call of Duty really took the spotlight completely.
GG: Oh, absolutely.
Do you guys feel like you're really under the wire?
GG: No. But I think it all depends who you're talking to at EA, right? [laughs] There are certain individuals who absolutely... Well, they want to get that back. But for us, I've always been told that you concentrate on the work, and the rewards will come. If you just concentrate on the reward, you forget to do the work. We're concentrating on the work, and hopefully, if we put out a quality game, everything else will take care of itself.
The first-person shooter genre is competitive as hell. Our competitors are very, very good at what they do, so we've got to concentrate, and that's what we've been doing.
DICE also did Bad Company 2 for EA, which did well, but the multiplayer in Medal of Honor seems very similar. Are you concerned about differentiating your game, rather than oversaturating?
GG: Yeah. [Differentiating] is what you have to do, not only externally with our competitors but internally. EA has a number of shooters, one of which is the Battlefield franchise. We want people who are fans of that series to recognize and understand and enjoy what we're doing, but it's still got to be a Medal of Honor experience. Medal of Honor has always had a much different tone and a different intent and a different type of storytelling.
That's clear from a single-player standpoint, but what does that actually mean in the context of multiplayer?
GG: In multiplayer, for instance: our combat mission. That is a multiplayer mode that has a narrative, that has a goal, that has objectives, that has storylines. That all folds into the experience that you're going to have with people playing next to you. You're working together as teammates, ranking up, starting as a U.S. Army Ranger, becoming a Tier 1 operator, unlocking your beard [laughs], all that good stuff is in there. It that all plays into the universe. It all plays into that vibe of what we've set out for Medal of Honor.
And it's different. It's different to Bad Company. We've tried to take the best of what they had and then improve upon that for a much faster game, with much faster bullet speeds, better hit detection, improved server admin tools. There are all these things we've done, taking from Battlefield what they did really, really well, and improving on that for Medal of Honor.
I can't help asking -- speaking of unlocking your beard, I'm sure you get this a lot, but is it a coincidence that you and the guy on the front of the box share the same enormous beard?
GG: [laughs] It's method development. No -- what happened was we were getting ready to go to Afghanistan six or seven months ago. We were going to go and meet with the troops at Bagram Air Base, so a few of us started growing beards. When that was cancelled due to a number of different factors, we decided to keep growing them for a little bit, and then it became an internal thing.
We actually started a beard-a-thon, and we're growing our beards to raise money for the Navy Seal Warrior Fund. If we can keep our beards, people pay us per week to keep them going, and all the money we raised will go to the Seal Fund.
What is the specific goal of that charity?
GG: It gives to the dependents and the families of wounded Navy SEALs or SEALs fallen in combat. Since our single-player campaign focuses on the Tier 1 community and on the SEAL community as well, we thought it would be a good place for that money to go.
On that note, Medal of Honor itself deals with a real-world current conflict.
GG: Yeah. Absolutely.
When you look at what's going on in Afghanistan right now, it's just a complete mire. It's a terrible situation. How do you deal with making this a game that's enjoyable to play, but also respectful and not exploitative?
GG: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, it keeps me awake at night. This is historical fiction, so it's much in the vein of a movie like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. These are fictional characters in a historical event.
We're focusing on those individuals. We're focusing on the characters. We're focusing on the individual soldier and telling their story from that point of view, and the war is a backdrop.
Obviously, it's a current war, and although it's a backdrop, it's still something that's really going on. We're focusing on the first part of that conflict, the initial push.
Medal of Honor has always been rooted in authenticity and respect for the soldier, but it's also always been devoid of politics or political discussion or debate.
For this game, I don't care why they're there. It's a matter of, “They're there. Let's support them. Let's get behind them, let's get them home.” So, like I said, we focus on those guys. We focus on the men and women of the armed services who are there doing the work -- keeping everything else out of it.
I've not said this yet to anybody, and there's not a PR person here telling me not to say it, but I do think about it a lot. I do lose sleep. Other people are always looking for something to say about it.
I truly believe that our intent is to honor that community, to honor those individuals. Truly, I think if people play our game, if they play it from beginning to end and they see what we've done, the character arc and what goes on and how they're dealing with it to the very end, I think people will get it and understand and say, "Oh, yeah. Okay. I see now."
It's really hard for me to sit and just try to explain it, but it's just we've spent a lot of time with these guys. When you work with the U.S. military, when you work with these Tier 1 operators, you realize they have given up so much, and it's so contradictory to their nature to even speak to anybody in any form of media. They shy away from the camera. They're quiet professionals. They would just assume you'd leave them the fuck alone. But since they have given so much, the burden is on us to make sure we do it right, to honor that community.
So we've spent a heck of a lot of time making sure we don't do anything stupid, and that we do it with the right tone.
I'm sure you paid close attention to the fallout over projects like Six Days in Fallujah.
GG: Yeah. Absolutely.
Did you take anything from that?
GG: Well, I think we've always approached it in the sense that it's not about the war itself. We've not approached as a game about Afghanistan, or a game about Al Qaeda. This is not a game about the Taliban. This is not a game about local tribal militias or warlords. It's a game about a group of individuals who are in this place, doing their job, and we want to tell their story from that viewpoint.
I think it really struck home early on when I was in a discussion with one of the operators, and someone kept asking him about Al Qaeda, about the enemy, and about all these things, and he said, "Hey, look. This has absolutely nothing to do with that. What I do has absolutely nothing to do with a hate for the enemy in front of me. It has everything to do with the love of the brother I have behind me."
That really became our marching orders -- to focus on that relationship. Focus on that community. Tell that story. I think it served us really well. I mean, I'm a little biased.
When you've decided to tell a story outside of broader political or military implications, have you found it challenging to give the player a cohesive storyline that gives a context for the smaller-scale narrative being told?
GG: Yeah. Absolutely. But we have the two sides of the coin. We have the sledgehammer, and we have the scalpel -- that's the Rangers and the big military, and the Tier 1 operators.
But there's an event that is occurring [in the game's plot]. Everyone in our narrative is focused on one common goal and one event that has taken place. We're not hopping around from place to place. Everyone is focused on a common goal. It's like a relay race. One character hands off the baton to the next one, and they carry it for a bit, and they hand it off to the next one.
Quite honestly and frankly, during the time at which we are focusing on this conflict -- the very first part of the Afghanistan conflict -- it was a much clearer mission. There were bad guys there, and these guys went in to find those guys. But things change.
They say no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and we show that. We show it from multiple viewpoints in our game. We show it from the players' actions you experience as the player. We show it through the eyes of the NPCs, the guys in your unit. And then we show it once removed, from the command and control structure.
We found that one's viewpoint on how a war is unfolding or how a conflict is developing is pretty directly related to how that person is to having lead slung at them. We show that, and we show the guys on the ground versus the command and control. I think it's pretty interesting. Only time will tell. Your readers will certainly let us know, for sure.
When you refer to this central event, is it a historical event or a fictional event?
GG: It's a fictional event inspired by a historical event. When the guys came in, they told us a lot of stories and showed us a lot of pictures. We sat down a lot to listen to them and what they went through, and then we crafted a narrative around it. It's an amalgam of a bunch of different things that has happened, but there is one event that is taking place. That's the story.