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Call of Duty's House Divided

Ghosts' executive producer Mark Rubin discusses the tension and conflict between the series' single- and multiplayer components. Not only how the two aspects of the best-selling series are premiered, but also the fundamental philosophical difference between them.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

A few weeks ago, as I sat and watched Activision and Infinity Ward unveil the latest chapter of the Call of Duty series -- Ghosts, which steps away from the Modern Warfare saga to kick off an entirely new story -- what struck my attention wasn't the potential for viral memes about dogs or whatever, but rather the way each Call of Duty title makes its debut.

The series has two faces, the Michael Bay-inspired single-player campaign and the competitive multiplayer aspect, yet Infinity Ward always leads with the campaign. This, despite the fact that the online component probably soaks up far more man-hours across the 10-million-plus gamers who buy Call of Duty this year. I spoke with executive producer Mark Rubin about this disconnect and the relationship between Ghosts' two minds.

USGamer: When you roll out a game like this, I see, for lack of a better term, a tension between single-player and the multiplayer. I'm curious to get your take on how you approach the presentation of a new game.

? Mark Rubin: Part of it's PR's fault [laughs]. I'm just going to throw them under the bus right away. If I were to try to explain their bizarre behavior, what I would say is that you don't serve a multi-course meal all at the same time. You give them one course at a time. That might be what's rattling around in these boneheads' heads. That would be why. They want to give you everything piecemeal, not all at once.

Ghosts' premiere was short on kill streaks, heavy on scripted scenarios (and dynamic fish AI).

USG: Right. But what I'm referring to is the tension between the single-player and multiplayer components of the game and how they're presented. It's not even so much on the PR plan, but... this is something I've also noticed with the Halo series. I feel like the developers' hearts are in the single-player, but the part that really brings people in and keeps them playing for so long is the multiplayer. It seems like there's a balancing act there.

? MR: I think I know what you're getting at there, yeah. I don't know if I would describe it as… Well, I guess "tension" is a good word, because it has a broad meaning when you really think about it. That's a really tough question.

Single-player has been where we started. It forms a lot of our thinking, even towards multiplayer. Now, if you split the player base and say that there are the multiplayer guys and the single-player guys, the fact of the matter – and we have data on this – is that most people play both. It's a small portion that's only playing one or the other. That being said, single-player is this cinematic experience. It's a high production value experience. It's storytelling. That looks like it gets a lot of attention, where the multiplayer guys are going, "Just tell me about multiplayer!" That's even the people who play both. They always want more on the multiplayer, because that is what keeps them playing over and over again.

If you think about it from a value standpoint, you buy a Call of Duty game, a lot of these guys are getting hundreds of hours out of that game. From a value standpoint, entertainment-wise, that's huge. Single-player does have its place, but it's sort of a contained package of… It's a movie. It's a long movie that you get to participate in. Multiplayer is not. It's something else. It's a treadmill, or whatever you want to call it. It's something that's competitive and you keep going through it.

"That tension actually lives within development, too. Each side is sort of fighting for assets within the company. 'We need these coders to do this.' The other guys say, 'Well, we need them to do this.'"

So that tension actually lives not just among the players, but it lives within development too. Each side is sort of fighting for assets within the company. "We need these coders to do this." The other guys say, "Well, we need them to do this." There is a bit of a balancing act there.

I think over the years – since we've been making this game for a while – we've gotten good at it. We can deliver a really cool single-player experience that matches up to what our goals are. It's not the same thing as a Skyrim. It's not that massive never-ending open thing. It's a very contained story with a movie-like feel to it.

Then multiplayer is… People just play it every day. It has its own thing to it. Internally, it's kind of like making two different games. So there's definitely tension. It's all around. It's not just the players amongst themselves. It's among the devs and their assets and the search for attention. Each one is trying for a different kind of attention. Single-player is trying for this cinematic storytelling attention. Multiplayer is focused on competition and gameplay. It really is a weird dichotomy in the game. But it works.

This is what you call a "target render." The irony here is that you can't actually see what the dude with the gun is targeting.

USG: You said that the single-player helps impact multiplayer a lot, that it informs multiplayer in a lot of ways. How much is true in the other direction? How much does multiplayer feed back into the single-player experience?

? MR: Quite a bit, actually. What will happen is… A lot of the tech comes from single-player, but there's content from multiplayer. The weapon list, the list of items and tools and fun gadgets and things you're going to play with, comes from multiplayer. Single-player goes, "Oh, you're making a thing that does this? That's cool. I'm gonna use that my single-player level." So there is a bit of back and forth.

But it depends on what you're looking at. If you're looking at level geometry and the look of the game and the sort of spirit of the game, that comes from single-player and moves over to multiplayer. Weapons, gadgets, killstreak type stuff, that gets moved into single-player from the other direction. There is definitely give and take between the two departments.

US: Are there elements of one or the other that you think should never cross over, or can never cross over?

? MR: Yeah. Maybe this is a personal opinion, but I really feel like ensuring that the single-player is a non-gaming-like experience. I want it to feel like you're playing a movie, playing a cinematic experience. I feel like anything that takes you out of that experience harms that story and that experience. I'm fighting in a big battle and suddenly it says, "Ping! Level up!" "Oh, I've got new skills to unlock!" Pause the game, go here, unlock the skills. To me, that shouldn't happen in single-player. That should stay in multiplayer. I definitely think that there's a wall that some things shouldn't pass over.

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