What do Jeff Matsushita, Activision’s Producer for Finest Hour, and Homer Simpson have in common? Donuts. No kidding! According to Jeff, “...nothing gives the brain a nice spike in the morning like a fresh donut. “, and he should know. Matsushita and his team have been working over-time to finish Activision’s sequel efforts on the world-class, wartime shooter Call of Duty. Activision, partnering with Spark Unlimited, are hoping to capitalize on the success of the PC franchise by delivering something fast, exciting, and original for console gamers.
The topic of donuts came up when I asked Jeff how their crunch time, the last couple months before a game gets released where the developers spend entire weeks working through the night to get the game out the door, was going for his team. Although Jeff prefers a sugar overdose to keep his edge, he confessed that, “The coffee shop a few blocks down from Spark just recently expanded their hours to 24 hours a day... not sure if that’s due to us or not, but we’ve made use of it.” I asked him what challenges were keeping them up so late, and he explained that they were working hard because they wanted to make sure the game knocks your socks off. “Every project has to face challenges like ‘feature creep and over zealous design documents,’ but Finest Hour faced these only because our goal was to create an exciting new game for consoles that was true to the original PC cousin in every way, but offered additional dimensions under a less flexible hardware specification.” He continued explaining, “Our goal was to give Call of Duty fans an original take on their new favorite game, while giving console players, who are new to the genre, an experience that they would never forget.”
The topic of crunch time is a taboo topic for a producer to get into with a reporter. Jeff and his team are evaluated on their ability to ship a game on-time and under-budget, and to talk about working late nights in the office to do that suggests to the inexperienced observer that something might be wrong. Jeff is not new to this industry, though, having worked with Activision since 1996 and taking an active role in dozens of games. He explained. “...there’s always a “crunch” at the end, especially when you set out to create the most successful console title of the year, which is why we do not anticipate sleeping much again until this game ships.”
Given the award-winning success of Call of Duty, most industry experts would say that Activision is making a pretty safe bet expanding on the established franchise, and truth be told, best console title of the year is an achievable aim for this team. In every game design there is risk, though, and Jeff knows it. “Given the high bar the Infinity Ward team managed to set with the first Call of Duty game on the PC, and given the pedigree of the guys at Spark – the team consists of over 30 individuals who helped developed titles in the Medal of Honor series -- we set our sights pretty high with Finest Hour, so the pace has been running hot for some time now.”
The risk with Finest Hour is that building a sequel requires you to deliver something new, something exciting to fans of the series without leaving out the key ingredients that made the first on a hit, and because the game is moving from PC to console, keeping that magic can be a real challenge. Matsushita explained how they are walking that line saying, “The previous title tells the story of World War II through the eyes of American, British and Russian soldiers, and of course delivers on all of the cinematic intensity and chaos of battle that Call of Duty fans have come to expect. In Finest Hour, however, the scope of characters is much broader – overall they’re six playable characters. So, while the player will take on the more familiar roles of the American GI or British PPA Commando, we’ve also expanded the roster to include entirely new and different perspectives, such as a Russian Female Sniper or an African-American Tanker from the famed 761st Battalion.” This broadening of perspective is one of the key factors that will extend the play-life of the title for an audience that traditionally flies through games in a matter of hours.
But is additional single player perspective enough to capture the hearts and minds of the Xbox generation? Of course not! “Finest Hour will take advantage of broadband connectivity to feature online multiplayer on both PS2 and Xbox Live. We also support System Link on the Xbox. We’ve been working with a team in the UK, Kuju, who has been primarily involved with working on multiplayer.” The online play was really the key ingredient to the successful proliferation of the PC title, and Jeff explained that they’re really carrying that momentum forward into the console market as well. “Both versions will allow players to test each others’ skills in Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, as well as objective-based modes, including Capture the Flag and Search and Destroy, where the attacking team has to destroy certain strategic targets while the enemy tries to defend them.”
Releasing in time for the Christmas rush, Jeff and his team are making some deft moves and plan to invite console gamers to experience the cinema of war for themselves, and they’re proud of what of their progress. “Finest Hour has exceeded our expectations in every possible way... I think the thing that makes us the most proud is an opportunity to bring to life the experiences of the common soldier and do it in such an exciting and memorable way. In this way, the sacrifices of the generations before will not be forgotten.”