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Working With In-Development Hardware A 'White-Knuckle Ride,' Says Activision's Eric Hirshberg

Today following the Xbox One reveal, Game Informer editor-in-chief Andy McNamara and executive editor Andrew Reiner sat down with Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg to talk about Call of Duty: Ghosts. The conversation covered changes to multiplayer, the next-generation engine, and the story behind this new branch of the mega-franchise.

He also tiptoes around our question about underwater segments appearing in multiplayer. 

Game Informer: You announced that exclusive timed DLC is coming to Xbox One first. Are you looking at a similar timing window you used for Xbox 360.

Eric Hirshberg: Very similar. It's a continuation of that great relationship we had with Microsoft.

How has the process of building a new future for Call of Duty been with new hardware that is still in development?

It's been a white-knuckle ride, to be honest. First of all, there are the complexities of cross-generation development. Period. And then there is the fact that a lot of the capabilities of the next-gen hardware are still coming online and being polished by the first-parties. So, our teams have had their hands full. What you saw today, I think that's a really good reflection of what we trying to accomplish. I hope you agree it's a pretty big change from what we've been able to do with current-gen. 

For a while there I thought there would be a period where people wouldn't be able to notice a difference.

That's why we did that side-by-side video. I think in your mind's eye, the current-gen looks great. Black Ops II is a great looking game, but it's not until you see it that you really go "that's a big improvement."

That's a big investment for Activision overall, considering Xbox One's install base will be smaller than the current-gen at launch.

Of course it's a big investment. We've left nothing to chance here. The cross-generational development on its own is big, but we're putting more manpower and technology and ideas into this game. We're interested in establishing the gold standard for the next-gen like we did the current gen. That's what we intend on doing. The size of the investment doesn't just apply to this year. We're looking at establishing that gold standard for next-gen for the next decade.

For the last game, you had a lot of leadership coming from Sledgehammer games. The messaging for this game seems to be just Infinity Ward.

Infinity Ward is leading development, but as is the case with pretty much all Call of Duty games, we'll have multiple development teams contributing. We'll have more on that later. Sledgehammer is not working on this game, but they are working on some other stuff we haven't announced yet. (Editor's note: Activision followed up to let us know that Raven and Neversoft are supporting the development of Call of Duty: Ghosts.)

Microsoft didn't announce a date today, but do you think you'll be ready for launch?

They haven't even announced their date yet, so I can't have a date for us. (laughs) We're planning to be there for the launch window for sure.

You said Ghosts offers a new story with new characters. Are you wiping the slate clean with no connection to the series' established fiction? The look of the game and setting certainly sings of the most recent games.

I agree with you that it has that big Call of Duty epic scale, but saying it's familiar to those games? I disagree. You just saw a little bit of the teaser and what we're doing for multiplayer in the behind-the-scenes video. The idea of dynamic maps is going to be a game changer for us. 

The map impacting change on you and you impacting change on the map becomes a strategic weapon now that can be used against you or for you. The whole idea of learning the maps and learning the flow is going to take on a whole new level of strategy. I think that's a big change. The same goes for character customization. 

For the story, this is the first time the enemy has more firepower and more manpower. You're a part of this ragtag, small group that is trying to fight their way back from being crippled or close to obliterated. I think this is going to be a very new experience. That said, it's a balancing act. 

We have to continue to make the game people fell in love with and know so well and also have to continue to find new ways to innovate. I think this game will find the right balance. It's Infinity Ward. They started the Modern Warfare series. They set the standard for current gen. They do this better than anybody.

If you look at the trailer, there's an entire level that takes place underwater. We've had underwater scenes before where you scuba dive from here to there, but this is a whole new thing with underwater physics and underwater gameplay and underwater weapons.

Are you bringing that underwater gameplay to multiplayer?

Hmmmm... We'll have to wait and see.

I know EA seems to be hyped with the battle coming up. What's your stance on Call of Duty versus Battlefield for next-gen consoles? Is there something to that fight. Or is it something the press just likes to get behind?

I've been pretty consistent with these types of questions. We don't focus on our competitors. We've had strong competition with Call of Duty every single year on the current-gen systems. We don't focus on that. We focus on making the best game we can. 

You put a lot of focus on the writer, Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana). What is his involvement with the game creation process?

We've had David Goyer helping out with the Treyarch games for years now. It's funny how people compare movies and games. It's almost impossible not to, as we're seeing more Hollywood talent In the writing standpoint, acting standpoint, and technology standpoint. They're getting involved in it. 

The thing we've done with Stephen Gaghan is he's just imbedded in this game. The way we struck the deal, he has an office at Infinity Ward. He's there into the wee hours of the night. He there's with the team kicking around ideas. The story creation, the mythology creation, and character creation are happening simultaneously and are interwoven with the gameplay design. 

Lots of times those two things are oddly disconnected in the creative process, where people think first about what's going to make a great gameplay experience. That's understandable. It's a game. That's where it should start, but lots of times the story is retrofitted into the game design. In this case, it's organically grown. We want to eliminate as many creative restrictions as possible. As wonderful as the Call of Duty games are, we wanted a clean slate.

For example, you roll with one squad throughout the entire game. If you played any past Call of Duty games, you know that we've been very fast and loose with those rules. We jump to different identities throughout levels, and sometimes within levels. In this case, this is what is happening to this squad. This is what is happening to these characters. You're going to develop a real relationship with those characters. I think that will be new for the franchise. One of them is your brother. One of them is your father. You've been through hell together. You're the underdogs.

Are you going 64-player or 100-player for multiplayer?

I think Call of Duty is the best multiplayer game in the world. It's hard to argue with the number of people that play it every day and every month. We have a winning formula. We always innovate within that. We always find new ways to keep it fresh and new.

Smartglass is becoming a big part of gaming. Are you adding new functionality to Ghosts outside of Elite?

You're going to see us take that to a whole new level. A seamless second screen experience will be integral to next gen.

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