Creating the new Call of Duty during a pandemic: 'We had no idea how we were going to do any of this'

Making a massive game like Call of Duty is normally no easy task. Doubly so in a pandemic while planning for next-gen console hardware.

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Eli Blumenthal is a senior editor at CNET with a particular focus on covering the latest in the ever-changing worlds of telecom, streaming and sports. He previously worked as a technology reporter at USA Today.
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Eli Blumenthal
5 min read

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War spans nine platforms. 


Activision's Call of Duty is one of the biggest game franchises ever. Last year's edition, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, made more than $1 billion for the gaming giant within two months of launch. 

Producing a massive game like Call of Duty is never easy, especially when preparing for new, next-generation game console hardware. Throw in a global pandemic and things don't get any better for creating a follow-up installment that also works as a showcase for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X

"We had literally had no idea how we were going to do any of this," says Mark Gordon, co-studio head of game developer Treyarch, one of the makers of this year's Call of Duty game. Subtitled Black Ops Cold War, the '80s-set shooter debuted Nov. 13. 

The company previously shut down its offices and switched to remote work on March 13, just as the pandemic was beginning to cause shutdowns around the US. "We had about a day and a half to prepare, so everyone got their equipment ready to be transported" and made the shift. At the time the game was still far from final, with Gordon describing it as "pre-alpha." 

In a regular year, that would be expected, as the game's near-annual installment doesn't normally ship until the fall. This year, however, required some creativity to get the finishing touches in place particularly as, Gordon notes, "most of us had not worked from home for any extended period of time."

Motion capture and voice acting were done remotely. One member of the development team did the motion capture from his house while others scanned in items to be used in the game from their garages. This collaboration spanned Treyarch as well as other studios working on the game, including Raven Software, a developer that is frequently involved with the making of the Call of Duty franchise.

"There's just a ton of real awesome ingenuity that's come out of all of this." 

Read more: GameSpot's Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War review


Raven Software conducts a remote recording session for Black Ops Cold War. 


While this helped with building the game, developing for next-generation systems included working on new features such as the ability to play in 4K HDR (with ray-tracing for more realistic lighting and reflections) or at faster 120 frames-per-second speeds, the new Xbox and PlayStation's faster solid-state storage and the PlayStation 5's new adaptive triggers. 

"There's a lot of work that goes into communicating" with Sony and Microsoft , Dan Olson, a principal software architect for Treyarch, says on the process of developing for the new video game systems. "It's a long journey, but we're pretty happy with where we ended up on that."

The Call of Duty team had plenty of development kits but did run into a problem with TVs and finding the space for displays that could do 120Hz refresh rates. The smallest TV with a 120Hz refresh rate was 48 inches. 

"Not every team member can have the luxury" to have a large TV taking up space in their homes, says Eran Rich, Treyarch's director of technology. Rich notes that some people were working from their bedrooms or in the "corner of their kitchen." 

The company ran weekly surveys to check in on employees, with Rich saying that most responded that they were working as efficiently as they would be in an actual office.  

Read more: CNET's Xbox Series X review

Building for nine platforms, as well as cross-platform


The new Call of Duty can be played across platforms and generations, allowing people to play with others online even on different game systems. 


With Cold War, the latest Call of Duty game is available across nine platforms: the original Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the midcycle refreshes of Xbox One S/X and PlayStation 4 Pro , the next-generation Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5, as well as on gaming PCs. 

Recent Call of Duty games, namely last year's Modern Warfare and Warzone, have supported cross-platform play -- the ability to play online with gamers on other platforms. This year, however, marks the first time the game has gone across generations. 

"The fact that players can play together across all those platforms is a huge win for us," Gordon says. 

Given the varying hardware requirements, building something that plays well across systems required some maneuvering in the development process. 

"We have to make sure that everything that we do for next-gen is not sacrificing the experience on current-gen when those two consoles play together," Olson says. This meant making sure that some of the higher resolution textures available on next-gen systems were not present in cross-play multiplayer matches. "When you're in a cross-play environment, the next-gen console can't have an advantage."

The full features of next-gen, including 120Hz refresh rates and 4K visuals, are present in the game's campaign mode. Like other next-gen games, you will, however, have to choose between the faster frame rates of 120Hz or the higher visual fidelity of 4K and ray tracing. Either option can be toggled but they cannot be used simultaneously. 

"The idea is that 120 is all about performance," Rich says, with Olson adding that "it's all about the feel of the game." 

"Because we know that this is the most important thing to some of our players. Some players, you know, will prefer the highest quality graphics. And that's fine," Olson says. "We don't want to make choices for the players on these things about what they prefer." 

Read more: CNET's PlayStation 5 review

Fighting the storage war


The newest Call of Duty is graphically impressive but takes up over 130GB on the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5. 


When adding in greater textures and newer features game sizes get larger, a problem that has become noticeably apparent with the Call of Duty franchise in recent years. 

Cold War gained some attention earlier this month when it was revealed that the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game would require 93GB and 95GB of hard drive space, respectively, while the Xbox Series S/X clocked in at 136GB and the PS5 133GB. That's more than 15% of the total storage available on the PS5 console. 

Olson says the team has been keenly aware of this since Black Ops 4, utilizing a new compression system which should make for a more manageable game even as patches roll out. 

"The idea is that as we're patching the game, it will grow less quickly on users' hard drives. So that's the technology that we're deploying on this," Olson says. "And it's been very promising so far, just with the patches that we've done already." 

Gordon equates the battle for storage size with a mobile developer's need to balance performance with battery life and heat dissipation. Storage space, he says, "is the console version of that."

The studio doesn't have any target sizes in mind for Cold War. "We don't know what the final size of our content is until it's done," Olson says. "So we can't really project the final size, but what we are trying to do is be as respectful as possible with the players' hard drive."

Correction, 10:55 a.m. PT: A previous version of this story misspelled Dan Olson's name.