Q&A: 'Titanfall 2' Creator on What Makes a Great Shooter and Launching Against 'Call of Duty'

Q&A: 'Titanfall 2' Creator on What Makes a Great Shooter and Launching Against 'Call of Duty'

Respawn CEO Vince Zampella just launched another blockbuster shooter, this time with a brilliant single-player mode. Illustration by Bram Vanhaeren

Vince Zampella has launched three blockbuster shooters for two of the biggest publishers in the world. He talks about how he did it, and what's next

Vince Zampella has launched three blockbuster shooters for two of the biggest publishers in the world. He talks about how he did it, and what's next

Vince Zampella didn’t invent the military shooter, but he helped to perfect it. He’s making science-fiction shooters these days, as the chief executive of Respawn, which recently released the almost universally acclaimed Titanfall 2. (Trust us, it's fantastic.) But long before that, he and his longtime collaborator Jason West led the creation of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, a sequel to Steven Spielberg’s WWII PlayStation shooter.

Allied Assault, unlike the first Medal of Honor, made players feel like they were participating in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. From there, Zampella and West founded Infinity Ward, created Call of Duty, and took that series into a "near future" that looked an awful lot like the present with 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and 2009's Modern Warfare 2.

Then, a kind of video game civil war broke out. In 2010, five months after the release of Modern Warfare 2 – which had sold 25 million copies and was making gobs of money – Activision fired Zampella and West. The developers sued for wrongful termination, and then were countersued. One day before the lawsuit was set to go to trial, the parties settled for an undisclosed sum. After the settlement, West left Respawn, the new studio he and Zampella founded.

Yet more than 40 former Infinity Ward developers remained, including Zampella as CEO. After Titanfall and Titanfall 2, Respawn’s next game is expected to be a Star Wars action-adventure that is being led by Stig Asmussen, the game director of God of War 3.

A week after the release of Titanfall 2, Glixel talked to Zampella about the new game, which landed in the crossfire between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Before the release of Titanfall in 2014, you said that, for your games, people spend the vast majority of their time in multiplayer. So you tried to tell a story in multiplayer instead of making a single-player campaign. With Titanfall 2, you've gone back to two different game modes. Was the first Titanfall an experiment that didn't work?
It had a ceiling. I think we were able to do something great, and I'm glad we did it. But at the same time, if we wanted to expand our player base, we had to look to something a little more conventional. We saw the limit of the amount of story you can tell in that type of campaign.

Your Infinity Ward games had quiet moments, like "Death From Above" and "All Ghillied Up" in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But those were still shooter levels. I was surprised by the variety of gameplay in the single-player campaign for Titanfall 2. It looks and feels like Half-Life and Portal.
Those are influences. It's a little less structured. It's not the hallway shooter. It has elements of gameplay that are sprinkled throughout. We didn't intentionally say, "We want it to look like Portal," but it's definitely influenced by it.

When did you realize Titanfall 2 was going to be a puzzle-platformer – or at least as much of a puzzle-platformer as it is a shooter?
We did these things called "action blocks" early on. Which we're doing now, for future stuff. It's looking at the mechanics of a game and letting the designers free. We say, "Don't get attached to this, because it might go nowhere, but go make something. Take a week, take a few days to make something fun."

And then you look at those and go, "OK, this one: terrible. Don't ever show anybody that ever again. This one? Oh my gosh, look at this one over here. That's amazing. We need to put that in the game." Like the time-shift stuff. It uses the mechanics really well, but it introduces a puzzle-y element and a different kind of combat. That was just a perfect showcase for what the game is.

Explain to me what an action block is.
They are generally made by one person. They're unpolished. They don't have good animations. Everything is kind of placeholder. But there are no constraints. Just make something, anything you want, that could be fun. Last time we did 100-plus of them – somewhere between 100 and 200 of them.

Why does the game have selectable dialogue? It might be the hardest part of the game for me. I’m running for my life and all of a sudden I have to figure out what I want to say to BT.
It's just for flavor. You can ignore it altogether. You don't have to select anything. But if you do, it gives you a little more insight into that character and into the mind of the robot. Sometimes it is, "Oh, I've got to respond real quick," and that messes up your thinking in a good way. You realize you're not there alone. You're with somebody else.

What kind of games do you want to make? What do you want Respawn to be known for?
I would sacrifice visual fidelity for gameplay experience. It has to feel good. It has to play right. It has to be fun.

It doesn't matter if it's in first person. The Star Wars game is a third-person action game. It's going to be more about the character and their experiences. You can see them and identify with them a little differently than you can in a first-person game where it's all about seeing it through your own eyes. But it still has to be about feel and fun.

Why do your games feel so good? The controls are not simple. But the gap between the player and the character feels very thin. It's a hard thing to describe, but your games have it.
It's just that we focus on it. We make decisions based on it. Our animations are interruptible by movement. Some games have animations that you have to wait for them to finish before the next movement that you're doing. So the movement feels sluggish and sloppy. On screen, to somebody who's watching you play, they might think that looks slightly better. But it doesn't feel right. It feels like you're playing in molasses.

I think there's something in making you at some point feel powerless, but without taking away all your abilities. Especially in a war-style game.

How many people at Respawn have been working with you since your early days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when you were at a studio called 2015 making Medal of Honor: Allied Assault?
Steve Fukuda, the game director and co-writer of Titanfall 2, is one of the original guys. He and I have worked together for over 17 years now. There's probably like half a dozen. If you look at Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 and Modern Warfare, then that group starts to get bigger and bigger.

Parts of Titanfall 2 evoke Modern Warfare. There's a replayable training gauntlet with a timer. There's a climactic pistol shot while the player lies on the ground. You get shot at the end of an early level.
It's definitely not intentional. We try to do things that make sense and get the player engaged in a game. Doing some kind of cool training that you can repeat is just fun and good and people react really well to it.

Your games have a lot of moments where the player is destined to fail. Titanfall 2 has one. Modern Warfare opens with one of them, plus there's the "Aftermath" level, the nuclear explosion. Why do you like them so much?
There are some games where you want to be the overpowered hero and blast everything. I play and enjoy games like that. But I think there's something in making you at some point feel powerless, but without taking away all your abilities. Especially in a war-style game. Sometimes things happen that are unstoppable and terrible.

You've referred to Call of Duty as "your baby." Is it weird to have Titanfall 2 come out so close to the remastering of Modern Warfare?
It definitely feels a little odd. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is from my old studio, that I built. And they're repackaging my old game that I built, on a brand that I built. So it's kind of like you're throwing it all against me. OK, I can live with it.

On top of that, Titanfall 2 was released right after Battlefield 1, a historical military shooter, which is a genre you helped pioneer.
If the question was, "Would I rather have this window to myself?" Well, of course. I'm not foolish. I'm not foolish that way, anyway. In other ways, probably.

But you knew who you were going up against when you chose this window.
Yes. The exact timing, we didn't know.

Do you think you're getting enough support from Electronic Arts? Respawn owns Titanfall, while EA owns Battlefield. You once suggested you were concerned that publishers would put more of their muscle behind the games they own.
It's always a concern. That's what I'll say. Especially when you have two games on top of each other.

What is the tone you wanted to strike with the Call of Duty games? Ian Bogost, the game designer and critic, once told me for a New York Times Magazine story that they convey the message, "War is horrible and badass."
Weapons are great. Helicopters are great. Guns are great. All this stuff is fun and exciting in its own way. But at the end of it, people are dying. It's about telling a story that means something to people and doesn't make light of it.

One of the best pieces of fan mail that we ever got was from a younger kid, talking about how he connected with his grandfather over playing these games. His grandfather was in World War II, but they never had anything to talk about. This connected them. That's amazing.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is from my old studio, that I built. And they're repackaging my old game that I built, on a brand that I built.

Even with the Modern Warfare games, which are entirely fictional, there was a sense among players that they were connecting to the visceral experience of drone operators and others who serve in our current wars.
The AC-130 mission in Modern Warfare, if you listen to the dialogue in that, it's very methodical and cold. Intentionally. Because when you hear real missions, that's what they're doing. These people are killing people on the ground. But they've detached themselves from it somewhat emotionally, because they have to. And I think you want to get that point across. Not in a way that we're making light of it, like "This is fun, we're blowing up people." It's somewhat disturbing to listen to these people be just cold: "That's a clean kill." You're talking about humans that just died.

Am I right that Modern Warfare 2 is more anti-war than the first one?
I don't think so. But I've heard that often enough that maybe I should go back and play it. Maybe it got a little more serious than we realized. There's definitely some more stern, powerful missions in there.

Were you surprised by how controversial Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" mission was, the one where the player is asked to shoot civilians in an airport?
No. It was meant to be. Some people just went in guns blazing, "This is a video game, I don't care, I'm going to kill everybody – man, woman, child." Some people just didn't shoot. Which was OK. You can do that and finish the mission. And then there were people who didn't want to get found out, because their character was supposed to be undercover. Some people would shoot the ground next to people. It was really interesting, seeing the amount of things that went through people's minds. It affected people in different ways, and in powerful ways, sometimes.

The meaning of the quotes after you die in the first Modern Warfare are pretty ambiguous. But in Modern Warfare 2, it's a lot of anti-war quotes from the likes of Milton and Voltaire and then pro-war quotes from Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. It felt like the deck was stacked.
I didn't handpick all of those, so I can't take credit for that. It's probably a stronger message. You're probably right. Not necessarily pro-war or anti-war. War is terrible, but at the same time there are points in history when it's been necessary.

In that game, the American government is the bad guy. Yet people think of Call of Duty as a hyper-patriotic series.
I think it's people not paying attention. The world is mostly gray. There's good and bad on every side and in every person.

Do you still play Call of Duty?
I don't. I haven't played through a Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 2. I will play Modern Warfare Remastered. And there's a good chance that I'll play Infinite Warfare. They're kind of getting a little close to home. I've got to see what they're doing.

You've had to start from scratch three times, first at 2015, then at Infinity Ward, and now at Respawn. Do you ever wish you had just stayed in once place?
I don't think so. I guess I can't say I'm glad that things ended in a giant, super-public lawsuit. That's never a good thing for anyone, or for the industry in general. Unless it sets precedents for people to be treated better in the future. Then, maybe it's all right. I'm happy where I am.

It wasn't my choice to leave Infinity Ward. It wasn't like I was looking to leave. Sure, we were looking to do different things, not endless Call of Duty sequels and only Call of Duty sequels.

Will you make another Titanfall game?
We don't know yet. The game is, critically, a huge success. We're really happy with all the reviews and the positive sentiment. Sales, it's too early to tell. We'd definitely like to tell more of the story and the universe. I think it's pretty safe to assume that we'll explore more of it. EA might have announced more. Devin?

[Devin Bennett, a publicist for Electronic Arts, interjects, "What we've said is we're committed to the franchise."]
So, whatever the fuck that means.

This interview has been edited and condensed.