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Sledgehammer Games has been in the spotlight because of its work on Call of Duty, but it hasn’t had an easy time as a game studio and its parent company is dealing with big problems related to sexism issues. The Foster City, California-based game development studio is about to move into the supremely glaring limelight again as Activision Blizzard and Sledgehammer prepare to announce the next Call of Duty game, the not-so-secret Call of Duty: Vanguard, on August 19.
It’s a critical moment for the studio, as Call of Duty has never been more successful, with more than 400 million copies sold to date. But the franchise has never had more challenges as well. This is why it’s good to know the background of Sledgehammer Games, which has had to adapt to change and battle the demons that come with it throughout its existence — along with the allegations and lawsuit facing its parent company, Activision Blizzard.
Disruption and rebuilding
Sledgehammer began in 2009, founded by former Electronic Arts executives Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, who worked on the Dead Space franchise at EA’s Visceral Games. They started Sledgehammer in the shadow of EA in San Mateo, California, and began working on a game in the Call of Duty universe. But Activision quickly enlisted Sledgehammer to work on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
That was because Jason West and Vince Zampella of Infinity Ward had a dispute with Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick about the management of the Call of Duty franchise and the proper payment of royalties. West and Zampella left to start Respawn Entertainment (maker of Titanfall) and took a lot of developers with them. Sledgehammer Games had to help with MW3, as the game had only about 20 months until its launch and was in a state of disarray. Infinity Ward had to rebuild, and Sledgehammer assumed its role in the rotation alongside Treyarch as one of Activision’s major Call of Duty studios.
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Sledgehammer got into the groove as one of three major studios working on three-year-long Call of Duty projects so that Activision could launch a major Call of Duty game every year. It shipped Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare in 2014, and then it followed with 2017 with Call of Duty: WWII.
Then came Sledgehammer’s own time to go through upheaval.
In late 2017, Brendan Greene and PUBG Corp. (now part of Krafton) launched PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as a free-to-play battle royale game. It became extremely popular, as did the battle royale game from Epic Games, Fortnite. The leadership turned over at Sledgehammer, with Schofield and Condrey first being reassigned to a new project and eventually leaving to start their own studios. As Schofield and Condrey staffed up their separate companies, an estimated 100 people out of 300 developers left Sledgehammer to go elsewhere.
And then the rebuilding began for Sledgehammer. In February 2018, Aaron Halon became the studio head. And Andy Wilson (no, he is not Andrew Wilson, the CEO of rival Electronic Arts) later joined as chief operating officer. Sledgehammer made contributions to Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War, but those responsibilities were shifted to Treyarch and Raven so Sledgehammer could focus on Vanguard. Fortunately for Activision, Cold War was a huge hit, as was the accompanying free-to-play battle royale mode Call of Duty: Warzone. Call of Duty: Mobile also took off at the same time.
The new leadership at Sledgehammer set about planning the “second decade” of Sledgehammer and began recruiting developers themselves. And they started new locations for the studio in Melbourne, Australia, and Toronto Canada. Sledgehammer is now closing in on 500 employees.
It’s still an explosive time for Sledgehammer, as it is part of Activision Blizzard, which the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued for sex discrimination and more allegations supporting the lawsuit and a crushing culture for contract employees. Some players have said they plan to boycott Activision Blizzard’s games as a result of the lawsuit, and the parent company has begun removing some Blizzard leaders. But some women working for the company have also said they prefer players to play their games while supporting their cause.
Activision also faces the challenge of Battlefield 2042, which Electronic Arts plans to launch with clever new modes (such as the anachronistic Battlefield Portal user-generated scenarios mode) in a near-future modern warfare setting. That game is launching on October 22.
I talked to Halon and Wilson about their journey. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I want to understand how you came through the studio disruption to start rebuilding Sledgehammer and move forward from there. When did Activision start the rebuilding of Sledgehammer?
Aaron Halon: We were at a point where we had this great opportunity to look at ourselves, look at our future, and celebrate our 10-year anniversary. We coined that “Decade Two,” where we looked internally at everything across the board at Sledgehammer. We love our legacy and what we’ve created, but we also wanted to think about the future of the studio and how we could set ourselves up to be even stronger. To me it’s something that I feel fortunate to be in a position where, as a studio, we can do that with our pedigree and our background. Which leads to where we’re at today, starting to share with everybody about Call of Duty: Vanguard, which we’re super-proud of.
Decade Two, for us, was a moment of celebrating our 10-year anniversary at a studio, where we really did that.
GamesBeat: What year would that have started?
Andy Wilson: That was August of 2019. It was about two or three months after I joined. Aaron and I, before I joined the company, were talking for a while on and off. When I came in, obviously the conversations moved at a much faster pace. We knew Warzone was coming. We knew the franchise was changing. We saw some opportunities within the studio around where we thought we should be in two or three years, and that involved us changing some stuff. On top of that, even looking at — Melbourne, for example, we had a small team out there, and we saw a great opportunity to build a full-fledged development studio out there. That kind of stuff takes time.
GamesBeat: Stepping back a bit, 2017 was when a lot of changeover happened. You shipped the game. Was that the beginning of a lot of turnover? Or was that happening in 2018, or more in 2019?
Halon: For me, I don’t really see it as a beginning or a certain catalyst. I see it as, when we shipped WWII in 2017, we had to be so focused on our live season. Many of us were just so heads-down and focused on the live season of the game. It’s not unusual that when titles ship — naturally, people want to go do other things, ship the game, and then move on. I’m sure that around that time was when we were, I would say, starting to transition in thinking about what we wanted to do in the future, which again, led us to where we’re at today. A lot of us were so focused on the game, though — even at that time, too, we were starting to research and think about what we wanted to do next.
GamesBeat: There was a year where about 100 people went to the other studios that got formed. Can we just identify what year this was? 2018 or 2019?
Halon: There was attrition following the previous game’s release, primarily in 2018. In game development, these can be natural jumping off points for many people, but obviously at this point for us there were other changes as well. The studio was at that time focusing on a longer-term plan for the future, including our expansion into Melbourne and early ramp-up on what would become Call of Duty: Vanguard. Several people have also returned along the way, in addition to all of the great new talent we’ve seen join the studio. As you can see today we’re bigger, stronger and above all healthier than we’ve ever been.
GamesBeat: You had to rebuild and hire a lot of new people. I remember a lot of people joined Condrey and a lot of people joined Schofield. For a new kind of Sledgehammer to emerge, you had to start replacing a lot of people, right?
Halon: It’s really hard for me to pinpoint a time. Again, it was a very busy time. I think for me, I just didn’t see it that way. We were focused on absolutely rebuilding. The way we saw it was that there was a lot of awesome talent that wanted to be a part of Sledgehammer as well. All of us were probably feeling that our corner was winning. But that’s not how I think we viewed it. We were thinking about how to continue to focus on the future, how to continue to attract great talent, which we’ve done. The studio today has never been stronger.
Wilson: It’s never been bigger, either, in terms of where we are right now. That takes time, because for us — when you talk about building the team, not just to the levels it peaked at before, but beyond that, you have to be really careful. If you hire too fast you can make a lot of bad decisions and mess your culture up. Having some time to do that was good.
In terms of people coming and going from the studio, these things are a lot more gradual than they look sometimes. Those natural jumping-off points happen between projects, especially with a mature studio like this one, coming up to the big anniversary. You definitely expect a lot of that. The last two years we’ve solidly been hiring and building up to a point where we’re pretty significantly larger than we were before.
GamesBeat: There was that pattern that got established of three studios, each working three years per game. Can you tell me how that has changed? It sounds now like year-round product development, lots of live operations, lots of updates, lots of seasons, and multiple game platforms, types of game models across platforms. It’s something like nine studios and 2,000 employees altogether now? It sounds like the Call of Duty franchise got a lot more complex during the time you were rebuilding.
Halon: You said it there. And as developers, for us it’s been an amazing opportunity. With Warzone, that’s been great for developers, great for creativity. It’s allowed us to focus on supporting — the franchise, for me, is changing, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for players. It’s been great for our studio, our culture. We’re able to position ourselves and stay focused on what our core creative beliefs are. We get to make awesome, compelling games. That’s what we’ve done at Sledge. I couldn’t be more proud of where the studio is at today.
Expanding to new cities
GamesBeat: I think you said your team was above 500 altogether?
Wilson: Approaching it, yeah. We passed 450 earlier in the year. We’ll be at 500 pretty soon. Melbourne is already over 150 people as well. The vast majority of those people were hired during the pandemic and haven’t had a chance to meet each other yet, which is kind of crazy to think about. But at the same time there are also benefits to this. We’re all working from home, and the bonds between the people in Melbourne and the people in Foster City are maybe a little bit stronger, because everyone’s just as boxed in. It’s worked pretty well.
GamesBeat: Did Melbourne have much of a shooter game developer community already? Where did those people come from?
Wilson: Some of it, yeah. You have the former 2K Australia. There were a lot of people who worked on Borderlands and BioShock out there. Me being former 2K, I knew some of those people. That studio closed down in 2015, I think. We have a fairly significant number of people who came from that background. It’s also been a good opportunity to re-import some people as well.
The Australian dev community had kind of melted away a bit from the triple-A and console perspective. You had a lot of people going overseas, coming to the west coast in America particularly. People who worked on various shooter franchises in this part of the world. We’ve had a bunch of people re-imported back into Australia who are taking that experience with them.
Halon: In Melbourne, Sledgehammer has had a core engineering group there going back — we’ve had a crew there that worked on Advanced Warfare, really focusing on the tech. We had a nice starting crew that knew each other. That was super helpful as well.
GamesBeat: When did Toronto get started?
Wilson: That was earlier this year, in the spring. Again, it came about somewhat opportunistically for us. We saw a really good opportunity there. I used to work over in Toronto for two or three years at Ubisoft, back in the start of the last decade. We just saw a good opportunity to bring a core group together who had some great experience. Certain people in the studio have worked with them in the past as well. As of literally today, we’re in double figures there now as well, just over 10 people. That team is growing quite nicely.
GamesBeat: Are there any particular Call of Duty roots there?
Wilson: Obviously, you have a very large Ubi studio there, which is where I used to work. In terms of how we’re going to build that studio out, there are going to be some opportunities for people from within the wider Sledgehammer to join that team as well. We have some interest internally. That’s a great way to start a new team, to have some cross-pollination and take some institutional knowledge from the team that’s used to shipping Call of Duty and help grow the team that way. It gets them off to a stronger start.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting how many multi-city studios I’m coming across now. Hangar 13 was doing that as well.
Wilson: That’s my former studio, yeah.
GamesBeat: Is that a place where you learned how that could function?
Wilson: Yeah, very much. Speaking for myself personally — Hangar 13 started life as a two-studio setup, and then grew to three and then four. Coming back to why you would do it, you have to ask — if you need to build a team of several hundred people, why would you very narrowly pick just one city, just one location to do it? You put a lot of strain on the local talent pool. You’re at risk as well. If something changes competitively or commercially in that local market, and you have all your eggs in that basket, you have limited ability to respond to it.
What we saw in Australia specifically, and what we also see in Toronto, there’s just some great talent there. We’re in an age now where you have to meet people in the middle. You have to go find the talent rather than expect them to come to you. We try to look at having these major hubs in great places that are attractive destination cities, places people want to live, but not being really hardcore about it all having to be in one place.
Halon: The other aspect of that, around those times — the Call of Duty franchise has been absolutely evolving and changing. We’ve had to figure out how to change with that, with things like Warzone. That’s made all the Call of Duty studios work together in much bigger ways. That’s been a big part of this.
GamesBeat: How solid was your game idea at a certain point? In 2017, did you already know what you would do next? I recall you had to cycle off of Cold War into something else. But this WWII idea that’s coming now, how recently did that come together so that everyone could zero in on doing that game?
Halon: It varies a lot from different departments. To me, that’s one of the things I love about working in the studio. We’re constantly focusing on creative, innovative concepts and ideas. It’s really on us for when we figure out when is the right time, while obviously working with Activision and our partners. But we’re proud of the decisions we’ve made along the way that have led us to where we’re at today with Call of Duty: Vanguard.
GamesBeat: If you’re going to support your people while you have this very terrible lawsuit going on, how do you do it properly? How do you communicate to them during this time?
Halon: We’re supporting each other all the time. Especially lately, we have all kinds of things internally. We make sure we’re listening to our team and doing everything we possibly can to move things forward, to make the culture the best place to come work. Like Andy was saying, rather than paying lip service, we have to just continue to do it, make sure we’re focused on our culture and focused on our team. Above all, that’s the most important thing for a healthy studio. You create that, you get creative people together, and the results are going to follow that.
GamesBeat: Since the sex discrimination suit was filed, how have you changed or improved the communication at Sledgehammer to ensure that you are listening to everyone?
Halon: We’ve been solidly focused on our internal studio culture since the start of Decade II in August 2019. Transparency and open communication are woven into our cultural pillars, and we have an internal DE&I group, Kaleidoscope, tasked with making sure those values are tangible and trackable rather than just words on a page. The important thing to recognize is that maintaining a healthy, respectful, and welcoming culture is an ongoing investment and the recent establishment of a permanent DE&I manager at the studio is an example of that.
GamesBeat: Has Sledgehammer lost staff since these revelations of the sex discrimination lawsuit? Have you publicly confirmed anything about such departures, if they have happened?
Halon: The studio has not lost any staff due to the lawsuit since it was filed.
GamesBeat: With a lot of hiring that’s happened more recently, have you been able to move the needle on diversity as well?
Wilson: Yes, we have. I don’t have exact percentages to hand, but we’ve significantly increased the proportion of women on the team. Going to places like Toronto, it’s a very big, diverse city. We see a lot of opportunity there to continue that trend as well. We invest a lot internally around diversity and inclusion. We have our own team kaleidoscope within Sledgehammer, which is geared toward building tangible policies around D&I within the studio that we can act on.
We have put in place recently a permanent role for a D&I manager within the studio, and that’s someone who came from within the studio already in our Australian team who is extremely experienced in the field, who is going to give us the ability to focus on not just hiring diverse talent, but when those people join us, making sure they’re joining an environment that is fitting and that has been thought through. Rather than just hiring for the sake of diversity, we have to make sure that we’re a safe space for people and a progressive studio from a policy point of view. All of those things wrap up together. But we’ve moved the needle, definitely, as a studio. It’s always challenging to do that on this side of the industry, but it’s something we’re committed to.
GamesBeat: On any given game now, you’re more collaborative. You’re working with other studios doing different parts of it.
Halon: Ever since Sledgehammer began in 2009, we’ve been working closely with Infinity Ward and Treyarch and Raven. We’ve all worked together since Sledgehammer was founded. That’s continued. I would say it’s probably — like any type of relationship, the longer we’re working together, that relationship has grown stronger. That’s been how I see it. I feel like it’s also — it comes out in the games we create. We want to make sure the fans and our players are also feeling that, that these things are more connected. It helps everybody.
GamesBeat: You have Marty Morgan as the historical adviser. The impression I have, in creating a game like this, is that that’s who most of your people are. You have people who are purely game people, but you also have these WWII and history experts working on Call of Duty games. I’d guess that winds up being a pretty small part of the work force, though, the people who are available to you for that. I noticed you have women writers as well, different people coming from very different places than Marty.
Wilson: He’s obviously a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowledge of the period. It’s more a place of, if we want to–he can very easily give us a good, accurate, factual answer on whether there were historical precedents for some things. “We want to tell a story about this kind of character. Did someone like that exist? Where were they? What was their story?” He’ll just know it. And yeah, our writing team — we’re very pleased with the narrative team that we’ve built on this project. It is a diverse team. The writing team are mostly women. They’ve helped drive our storytelling forward as a studio. It’s a very strong narrative that’s been produced for this.
GamesBeat: Did you know you would get a certain result from that? If you structure a team in a certain way, then obviously you’re going to get a different result from the way things were done in the past with a different structure.
Halon: Creatively it’s very difficult to — with games there’s no blueprint for this kind of thing. But it’s our job to try to get the right minds together, get the right perspectives in the room together. We want to have that grounding, because we want to make sure we’re being accurate to history, but not to where we fold into it. At the same time, it’s important for our fans and for us — we want to make sure we’re not creating pure fiction, total fantasy. Call of Duty has always been very grounded. But we know those stories exist. We’ve read about them in history. So how can we best and most accurately tell these stories?
That’s our hope, that by getting the right people and voices and perspectives together we’ll have a compelling outcome. That’s what we believe we have. Again, I want to be careful about saying that’s exactly how we knew it would turn out. But it’s like many creative things. It’s a bit of a journey. You continue to focus on it and work on it. That’s where we’re at.
Wilson: We did focus on hiring great writers. That has to be the starting point of everything, and we did that. The results, I think, speak for themselves in the quality of what they’ve managed to produce.
GamesBeat: Did you seek these people out, or is it more that they come to you?
Wilson: It’s a little bit of both on the hiring front. What we try to do — it’s a challenge, when you’re trying to build a large team. It’s speed versus candidate mix. That’s a constant pressure. But what we try to do, especially with teams like the narrative team, is take our time to make sure we get a good pool of candidates that represents a diverse group and gives us opportunities to look at a wider field of potential candidates. It’s not always possible when you’re building a large team, but we try to do that wherever possible.
It’s definitely the approach we’re taking with Toronto. We’re pretty sure we could build a big team really quickly if we wanted to, but we want to take the time to make sure we fill those candidate pools with as many different people as we can find. We’re going to have a better chance of building a diverse team if that’s the case.
GamesBeat: Does the process here also mirror something like film or TV, with a writers’ room? Or does it somehow diverge from that as far as how you get to a good story?
Halon: I’ve never worked on TV shows, but we definitely have a writers’ room. It’s often contentious. We go back-and-forth all the time. I imagine that’s probably similar in a lot of ways. It’s something we constantly focus on. We work very hard on it. I know it’s showing, and we feel it when we play the game every day.
GamesBeat: Do you get the other teams involved as well, level design and art and so on, in the narrative discussions?
Halon: Absolutely. It’s always hard to describe, but everyone is very creative. Everyone gets into game development because they have some kind of creative in their DNA. All the departments are very involved, very focused. Obviously the narrative team is going to ultimately make these calls, but we’re getting feedback from across the team all the time.
Wilson: If you look at the fact we have an Australian character in the game, it just so happens we also have an Australian development team. What better place to go and get opinions on the cultural sensitivities, even the casting process, things like that? All of those things, we see another benefit from having a more global team, more people in more places from more different backgrounds. That just lends those additional perspectives when we’re going through preproduction and we’re in those early stages of the creative process.
Getting back the mojo
GamesBeat: Was there a point where you felt like Sledgehammer had its mojo back, so to speak?
Halon: What I would say is, today — I think we’ve had it for a while. I don’t think our mojo ever left. I think we re-evaluated and regrouped, and here we are today with a game that I’m so proud about. I can’t wait for everyone to start playing it.
Wilson: Every project is a bunch of different phases. The way the team feels and thinks at different stages is different just because of the project. Early preproduction is a very different feel, especially when you have fewer people actively on the project, compared to a couple of months before you’re about to ship and you’re really in closing mode with a much larger team. When you talk about mojo, it’s more textured than just feeling good or feeling bad. It can vary by project phase as well.
GamesBeat: If people ask you about the culture of Sledgehammer, what would you say? There could be a couple of thousand people working on Call of Duty, but it’s not all one Call of Duty team. What’s the difference between these studios, the culture of each one?
Wilson: If you have one giant 2,000-plus team all in one place, it’s going to be a very homogenous culture. In terms of the way the different studios work together, we don’t have radically different cultures necessarily, but there are a lot of subtleties in there. Our priorities as a studio, our values as a studio — above all, we try to treat the team as adults. Transparency is important to us when we’re talking to the team. We’re open and honest with people. We have a culture of strong collaboration. That’s a necessity, because we do work with different locations. Collaboration and communicating respectfully and efficiently is important to us.
Like Aaron says, it’s an extremely creative group of people as well. We try to do whatever we can to enable that, to get out of people’s way and let them get on with what they do best, why they got into this industry in the first place, which is make amazing video games.
Should I stay, or should I go?
GamesBeat: I do wonder what each person had to go through in deciding whether to go or to stay. Was there a way to persuade people to stay? Some people obviously wanted to go work with Schofield and Condrey, but other people, I would guess, wanted to work on Call of Duty.
Wilson: I don’t feel like persuading is the right thing to do. If you have to talk someone into staying with the team, I would question whether you’re doing the right thing, whether for yourself or for them. Imagine someone has worked in a place for 10 years and they feel like they want a change. It’s not because they dislike the studio or the team or the game. It’s just that a change is as good as a rest, that kind of thinking. You do better to support people and then think about — have confidence in what you’re offering as a studio.
I can tell you that when I was looking at joining this team, I was in a pretty great place. I was happy. But when Aaron and I got to talking and I looked at the studio, looked at what was going on here, for me it was clear that it was all upside opportunity. There was an interesting team here with a great future ahead of it. People will come and go. The best thing you can do is put compelling visions in front of them for what you want the studio to be. Go and secure tangible mandates and exciting things for the team to work on, and then focus on your culture, so you have a place that people want to stay because they like the team from a cultural perspective.
Halon: Ship amazing games, which we’re doing.
Wilson: That helps.
Halon: The team is so excited. I couldn’t be more proud of where we’re at today.
GamesBeat: Where do you want Sledgehammer to go from here?
Wilson: If you look at where we are right now, we’re obviously preparing to ship Vanguard. Clearly we’re also thinking about what comes next. The biggest thing for our team is that we want to constantly have interesting, exciting projects to work on. Obviously, Call of Duty is a huge pillar in the studio. It’s our primary focus, what we’re fully invested in right now. Whether there are other things in the future that we look at as well, we’ll take the time to think about all of those things. Culturally, we do that as well. We take the time to breathe occasionally and think about where we want to go.
Over the next year to two years, we’ll definitely continue to invest in our new teams in Melbourne and Toronto. We’ll grow them alongside what remains our largest team in Foster City still. That’s a big priority for us. There are tons of opportunities with this model as well, having a studio that’s distributed this way. We can focus on our craft and how we fine-tune that to work as effectively as possible, because there are so many upsides to it. We’ve not finished optimizing yet as we grow the team. The pandemic, with everyone working from home, that’s helped us focus on all of those things over the last year.
The change and the future for Sledgehammer isn’t all just about the games. It’s about the way we make those games as well.
GamesBeat: Do you have a lot more openings to fill in Toronto?
Wilson: We do. We’ve not announced exactly what that team is working on as part of Sledgehammer yet, but I can tell you that we have a really exciting mandate for the team. We have numerous positions open, and we’ll keep adding to that over the next year.