Glen Schofield is an industry legend. He has been working on games for decades, co-created Dead Space, founded Call of Duty studio Sledgehammer Games, and is now the CEO of Striking Distance Studios. At his new studio, Schofield is leading the charge on a brand new narrative-driven game set within the PUBG universe.
While details are scarce and Schofield isn’t talking too much about the specifics of the new game, we got to sit down and speak to him for 30 minutes. We talked about building a studio, developing a AAA game from home due to the coronavirus, and his ambitions for the new game.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You said in an interview once that you won’t make a game unless you’re passionate about it. What makes you passionate about this single-player PUBG game?
Just to step back for a sec, it’s not necessarily a PUBG game. It’s my game within the PUBG universe, meaning I came in with an idea and a bit of a story and they loved the idea. It just so happens that they’re in the middle of writing this big universe, it’s a giant universe. It just so happens that this game we’re gonna write will fit into that universe but it’s a game all into its own.
I know you’re not talking specifics with the game at the moment but in terms of style and structure for the game, are you building a story similar in scope to Call of Duty that’s cinematic?
We are building a big narrative game, the way I’m thinking about it now with the first iteration, it’s a single-player experience. Who knows where else we’ll take it but yeah, it’ll be cinematic. It’ll very big on the story as well as the action and everything else. I want to tell a great story.
You’ve been hiring for a while, how far into development are you?
We’re about six months into development. It started with a bit of a story already and knowing the game I wanted to make so it was about building the studio. Getting a place, designers, artists, and all that. One of the first places I started to build up was a concept art team so we could visualize the game we wanted to make. That’s one of the most important things for me, being an artist, I’m very visual. I want to make sure I can see the game in front of me as well.
What kind of talent are you working with? How many employees do you have?
We have about 75 employees right now, which is a really good start considering we’ve only been around 6 – 8 months. And we’re hiring, we’re hiring like crazy right now. I think we have 50 more openings we’re looking to [fill] but we’ve got a well-balanced team, so we’re trying to hire balance as we go. Artists, engineers, designers, UI, and all that stuff. I’ve got a writing team already in place and as we move up to hire more, it’ll be across the board again to make sure I’m not weak in one area.
Who came to who about this game? You said it’s your game but how did that discussion start?
When I was looking for what I wanted to do next, I talked with all the top game companies including all throughout the world. I had a couple of meetings with the PUBG folks, I really liked their philosophy on game making. CH [Kim], the CEO, comes from a development background and understands the importance of creative people. He was like, “The way I work, I let the creative people do their own thing.”
One of the things I liked was that they wanted a flagship studio in the US, and I showed them the idea I had. I had a couple of ideas and I showed them this particular one, it’s what I really wanted to make. So we had a few more meetings and I was still looking at other companies. At the end of the day, they just had the right philosophy for a creative person. They’ve completely lived up to what they said, they let me build the studio the way I wanted, the let me make the game I want to make, they’ve just been wonderful about it.
I’m used to a little bit of a heavy-handed approach, there are no heavy hands at all here.
I know Call of Duty is a well-oiled machine because there’s a formula but you have the freedom to do what you want with this game?
Yes, complete freedom. Matter of fact, I’ll be like “Don’t you want to see our milestones?” and they’ll say “No, it’s your game!” and I’ll say “No, let me show you what we’ve got so far!” *laughs* They’ve been really great to work for and we have built a flagship studio for them, we moved in two weeks ago and then we had to move out to work from home.
Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that. We haven’t really heard much about what it’s like to work on a AAA game from home. How has that changed things?
We moved into our studio about a month ago and right around that week, we realized things could get worse in the comings weeks and months with the virus. We took two days where we had everyone work from home so we could see what people needed equipment. Did they need cameras, set-ups, desks, what do they need to work from home?
That Monday, we evaluated the whole thing and encrypted people’s PCs, made everything secure, and let them bring them home. When we made the decision to go full-time work from home, we knew 100% of the people could be efficient. We meet every morning at 9:30 or so on Zoom, the entire team, and talk about how things are going. Then we have meetings, brainstorms, all on Zoom. People are sharing their screens, everyone’s learning how to do it at home. What we’re trying to do is find metrics to see how efficient we are and right now, it feels like we’re pretty darn efficient.
Some people had a half-hour commute, they don’t have that each way anymore. People are able to get up in the morning and do work. The only thing that I see being an issue but not for quite some time is getting actors in our mocap studio, some of the audio stuff we have to go out and get recordings, but we have time.
Luckily, we did go out and get some mocap about a month and a half ago so that’s keeping us going during this time. We’re going good, a lot of the game can be made at home. Sometimes you do need those personal meetings but Zoom has been great.
There has been a lot of talk of games getting delayed, especially games coming really soon. Your game is obviously a ways away but it sounds like you could maybe make a game like this at home?
I think we can get through quite a few months of working at home if we had to. There are going to be times where we have to get in and be with each other but for now, we’re fine. This is at brainstorming meetings, design meetings, we’re all able to play the build and play it with each other. I don’t think we’re going to run into any problem for quite a few months, we could sustain this for a while.
That’s great… at least we’ll have games to play.
*laughs* Yes, that’s the goal. PUBG has been asking me the same thing but I’m not ready to delay anything right now, but yes, we are a ways away, that’s for sure.
You’ve talked about in other interviews how when you were at Sledgehammer, you would hear of people who left that you didn’t even know had joined the team because of the size of the studio. Is it important to maintain a personal connection to everyone and know who everyone is?
I learned in business school that growth is good! I took that to heart at Sledgehammer and we started with 60, then to 150, then to 200-something, then all the way up to 350 people. That happened over the course of a few years so things kind of slip away from you. I didn’t like not knowing everyone’s name or knowing their face because we were on two floors and 250 people is a lot. We’d have big team meetings and look right out into the audience and think “Gosh, I’ve never talked to that person out there or those 20 people”.
I have a bad memory so I’m not going to remember everyone’s name even now but our studio can hold about 150 – 160 people and it would be nice to keep it at that, that’s a good working size. We’re going to have to supplement that with outsourcing and other studios but that’s ok with me. I’m used to that, we did that on Call of Duty and going back as far as Dead Space we had people working off-site.
Yeah, I imagine in those well-oiled machines there are studios you don’t even know are working on those games.
Yeah, that’s true too!
Back at Sledgehammer, you had a slide put in. What crazy things have you put into the studio at Striking Distance? Do you have another slide?
We don’t have as much room… yet. That was the second floor, it was my idea and it as one of those crazy creative things that I knew you kind of needed. We have a Dippin Dots freezer here at Striking Distance, another ice cream freezer, and one of those soda machines with 120 different types of sodas. We’ll start off small and see what else we can get, I’d like to put in a ping pong table but we gotta get moved in first.
One thing we did put in that I didn’t have at Sledgehammer is a mocap studio. I think we’re the only mocap studio on the East Bay and the only one besides ILM in the whole Bay Area.
What’s the benefit of doing that? Does it cost money to rent out a studio or certain scheduling things?
It’s a lot less about money and more about quality. I’d sit in meetings and go “Ok, I need 5 more animations, let’s make this character look better.” and they’d say “Well Glen, we have a mocap shoot in 3 weeks and we have 2 days and both those days are booked already. So, you’re going to have to cut out other animations or get more time and I don’t know if we can get more time.” After a while, I was compromising and now I don’t have to compromise.
I was doing that all the time, you can’t believe how many times you want animations because there are thousands and thousands of animations in a game. Over the course of time, if I’m compromising all the time, it gets to the point where you’re seeing more glitches and I really want this game to be such high quality. I want to have the player fully immersed in the game and not taken out by anything.
It also allows us when to fly actors up here to do stuff, if I can’t get down to LA where we normally do shoots, they’re right in our backyard where I can go look at them. It’s completely about quality because it is more expensive to have your own.
Call of Duty was on a three year development cycle with the first year after launch working on DLC and a small team going away to develop new ideas. Is it easier to not be restricted to an annual cycle?
Yeah, right now it is a complete focus on this game. I’m not worried about what zombies is going to be like, what’s our third mode, what is the DLC for the year after, and I can just focus on one game. You do go a bit crazy on some of these giant, giant productions because if you have a fire you have to put out in one area, you’re neglecting another. In this case, it’s all about working on one game. Focusing on one game. That gets me very excited about the game that I am making.
It sounds like you’ve learned a lot about how you want to build your game. Is there anything else you’ve learned from Dead Space or Call of Duty that you’re carrying over into the development for this game?
A lesson I learned a long time ago on Dead Space, the game before I made Dead Space, I worked my butt off. You work hard on every game, it doesn’t matter what the Metacritic score is, how many awards you get, how many things you sell, you work incredibly hard on a video game. The one before that, I had done a game that the company wanted me to get out before Christmas because some other games had slipped. They said, don’t compromise everything but whatever you do you have to get this game out for Christmas.
Not that I was planning on NOT doing it but at the same time, they said we also need 20 people from your team to go help put out this fire on another game. Here I am making this game that has got to get out for Christmas, my budget isn’t as big, and now some of my people have been taken away. We got the game out, took one for the company, but it felt like crap at the end. It wasn’t the kind of score I wanted to get, as an artist, there is a creative integrity that you have.
So, on Dead Space, I said I’m just going to focus on quality. I don’t care what anyone else says. Quality, quality, quality. I told EA upfront, this game is about quality. Don’t come bug me for people or anything, just quality. They were like “What about sales and your budget?!” I’m focused on quality. So, I did that, just focused on quality. I never thought about anything else, just make this game great. At the end of the day, the sales came in, the awards came in, the accolades came in, the fans came in!
It was a game based on quality where we tried to make everything great. The lesson learned was to be about quality. When I went over to Activision, people have their opinions about Activision but Call of Duty is about quality as well. Matter of fact, I had to step it up a step or two higher. You have a team before you that’s working their butts off, whether its Infinity Ward or Treyarch, and they’re making a great game. Then you’re coming out next, you need to make a great game, you always need to one-up, not that you’re trying to but you need to.
So that was another 10 years focused on trying to make quality games. That has been the focus the last 15/16 years making video games, focus on quality, everything else will fall into place.
One last question, I’m a big Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare fan, I just wanted to know where that came from. Was it from Activision or did you guys feel like yuo could bring something new to Call of Duty?
That came from us, having just made a game that was Modern Warfare 3, which was set 5 or 6 years in the future. It didn’t make sense to come out with another one right away, so we went to them and said “We want to make something about 50 years into the future.” and they said “How about 40 years in the future?” and then we agreed on 45… *laughs*. Not that it makes any difference! My 50 years is someone else’s 100 years.
The idea came from the team, it gave me a chance to go into a little sci-fi. Although, everything in that game is based on a theory, or a story, or a hypothesis. I didn’t want to do something in-progress but I wanted it in reality.
Shame it didn’t get a sequel.
We started one…
Yeah, we worked on it for a couple of months and then decided World War 2 was the way to go.
Was that Activision’s choice or yours?
That was the team’s.
Thank you again to Glen Schofield for his time! You can follow him on Twitter at @GlenSchofield. Striking Distance’s first game has no title or release date but we’ll be sure to keep you posted when news breaks.