GDC Speaker Q&A: Riley Pietsch explores Call of Duty: WWII's social spaces

At the 2019 Game Developers Conference, you can look forward to an array of talks from speakers across the video game industry. During the week, you'll hear from industry legends, niche experts, and amazing advocates, many of whom will want to learn about you and your work as much as you do theirs. 

During this year's conference, you'll get to hear from Sledgehammer Games' Riley Pietsch, who will be discussing the making of Call of Duty: WWII's social hub, where players can gather, open reward boxes, and display the emotes they've earned in game. If you think such a feature might belong in your game, read on for a quick chat with Pietsch about his work.

Could you please introduce yourself and your role at Sledgehammer Games?

My name is Riley Pietsch – I’m a multiplayer systems designer at Sledgehammer Games. I spent a majority of my time on Call of Duty: WWII helping to build Headquarters, our large social hub that serves as a launchpad and return point for multiplayer matches in the game.

What was the inspiration for developing a social hub for Call of Duty: WWII? What were some of the core tech challenges needed to build this space?

When we were developing Call of Duty: WWII, there were a lot of reasons that made a social hub compelling, both from a player experience and developer standpoint. On the player experience side, we felt being immersed in the game world with other players is more enticing while you’re between multiplayer matches. A ton of interesting and organic social interactions occur as people either get ready to enter matches or idle during downtime outside of the core multiplayer experience.

From a developer standpoint, Headquarters also presented an opportunity to introduce new mechanics and systems that would have otherwise felt out of place in multiplayer combat. Easter eggs hidden behind jump puzzles, short and sweet minigames, interesting non-player characters – things that make multiplayer games fun, but have a hard time integrating smoothly with a fast-paced, competitive multiplayer setting.

Since building something of this nature was a first for us, it presented a lot of challenges, some of which we saw coming, others which caught us by surprise. The obvious stuff, like supporting a higher player count, was always on our roadmap, but many things compound with that in ways that forced us to stretch to make this happen.

For instance, it’s natural for players to customize their gear and weapons in Call of Duty: WWII, and when 48 people can equip 48 different uniforms with 48 different weapons -- which was also a first for us -- we had to get creative about how to keep all of that in memory. On top of that, we needed to explore support for multiple parallel online sessions. When you’re in Headquarters, you’re connected to 47 other players. You, and all of those 47 players, can also be simultaneously connected to a different core multiplayer lobby of up to 17 other players. We didn’t want people to have to load out of Headquarters just to queue up for a match, so meshing these two separate online sessions to work seamlessly was a challenge we had to overcome.

What did you learn about the nature of social spaces in match-driven multiplayer games like Call of Duty?

That’s a question that hits on what we were asking ourselves from the start: how do we meaningfully disrupt a play or session pattern that is pretty ingrained in players, and do it in a way that doesn’t feel cumbersome or intrusive?

For Call of Duty: WWII, we found that a combination of a few ingredients went a long way toward making a social space and a match-based structure mesh well together. Number one was ensuring everything was as low-friction as possible – loading in, interacting with other players, getting your daily checklist done – all of these needed to feel relatively smooth.

Then, we created systems that allowed organic moments to pique player interest. Stuff like emotes, fanfare surrounding players who just achieved something big, or celebrations of Easter eggs being discovered would catch players in the middle of whatever they were doing and perhaps intrigue them enough to participate. Beyond that, we learned a lot - through a mixed bag of success, failure, and discovery – and the talk will cover more of these lessons at length.

Going forward, why do you think developers should tackle building spaces like these in their combat-driven games?

Adding breadth to activities and reward systems for any game not only diversifies who the game might appeal to, but also opens a door for long-time fans to find new avenues to enjoy the game. We knew people liked the core combat experience but felt like there was more this game’s universe could offer a player outside of that.

In my view, the core combat (and its associated rewards) is responsible for most player motivation, but being able to introduce more diverse content and intensity of gameplay makes for a much better paced experienced.

On top of that, you discover a lot about your game when you give players a sandbox of sorts to run wild in, which is what we aspired to achieve in Call of Duty: WWII. A lot of the quirkiness, creativity, and passion players have doesn’t always find a place to shine in a strictly competitive multiplayer setting. Giving them a different outlet for that helped to better shape the space and game as a whole over time.

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