Activision’s military shooter series Call of Duty is, by any entertainment industry standard, a big gun. Every year when the latest installment is published, it breaks the record for biggest entertainment launch set by the previous game. Last year, Modern Warfare 3 hit $1 billion in sales in 16 days. Over 40 million people are playing Call of Duty games online each month.
All of which means that developer Treyarch faces huge creative pressure to raise its game when it comes to advancing story, gameplay, and the scope and scale of the action on each new title. And so, for its next, most ambitious game, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the company makes a huge leap–into the future. The game, which debuts in the U.S. November 13, will feature interconnected, branching storylines–one set in the ’70s and ’80s and one taking place in 2025. That near-future premise represented an opportunity and another challenge for the company–blowing minds with never-before-seen weaponry, while rooting its vision of warfare in plausible reality. Helping bring that future to life was analyst and writer P.W. Singer, who brought a chilling realism to the game by tapping into the military innovations and geopolitical disturbances that are already here or on the horizon. Singer’s contribution ended up informing story as well as weapons.
Thanks in part to Singer’s input, players of Black Ops 2 will be able to deploy artificially intelligent gun turrets, command hovering quadcopter drones, and utilize a range of unique gear and guns. But they’ll also be immersed in a story that draws from current geopolitical conflict.
Singer is the Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a military think tank. He has worked as a consultant on several games, films, and TV shows, has been named to Foreign Policy Magazine‘s Top 100 Global Thinkers List and was named by the President to the U.S. Military’s Transformation Advisory Group. He has written several books on the military, Children at War, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, and most recently, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
“If you are trying to project forward, the key is to look at what are the forces that might shape that world,” says Singer. “We pulled out technological trends, like the emergence of cyber warfare or the growing use of robotics on the battlefield.”
As Treyarch worked on Black Ops 2, Singer says he gave developers a master list of emerging technologies in three different categories: “One, it’s here, and you just may not know about it. Second, it’s in a prototype stage–it’s real, it’s working, it’s just not been deployed widely. We can push forward 10 years and it’s more likely,” says Singer. “And third, it’s not yet prototyped, but there is a major research track on it that is most likely going to make it come true. It’s something in the category of atomic research in the 1940s–we haven’t yet built the bomb, but we were doing the Manhattan Project. What’s the equivalent of that today?”
But would Singer’s suggestions lead to new gameplay, or would a gameplay idea from Treyarch lead Singer to back it up with reality? “It’s a mixture of both. As you make the logical leap into a future setting and you sit down and write down the possibilities, you are automatically going to say, ‘I would love to control a flying drone,'” says Daniel Suarez, the game’s producer.
Suarez says, “You may not believe it, but there are drones that are the size of a hummingbird for surveillance. There are drones that are bigger that target enemies and then kamikaze down and destroy them. That’s where our designers have the ability to say, ‘What would be the best things for us in terms of gameplay?'”
But soon enough, Treyarch began getting Singer’s thoughts on matters beyond drones and turrets. “Initially their concept was that I would just be helping them with the technology part of it,” says Singer. “Very quickly we broadened it into exploring everything from future geopolitics–the setting of the game itself, the world within which you play–to being brought into the plot, the stories, the characters.” He was happy to lend a bit of realism to how global politics may develop in the next decade and how that would affect the political situation, and thus the story, of the game.
Singer’s suggestions led the team to a plot point that should resonate with the game’s gadget-loving audience. “One of the threads in the storyline is the concept of rare earth elements,” says Suarez. “So in the fiction of the game, you have this cyberterrorist pitting the U.S. against China. This rare earth metal concept was brought to us by Singer.” As technology evolves and resources to fuel their manufacture become scarcer, it is likely it will have an effect on relations between the U.S. and China. “We focus on rare earth elements as a key part of the economy moving forward and as a result, a potential scramble for resources and tensions emerging over the fact they are rare.”
As they developed the title, in-game concepts that were once obscure real-world issues became mainstream news, like the increased scrutiny around the U.S. President’s use of drones in Pakistan, and the issue of cyber warfare, which gained notice with the attack on Iran’s nuclear systems (and Iran’s alleged cyber attacks on U.S. banks). And the aforementioned conflict over rare earth metals has been popping up as well, with the World Trade Organization announcing a probe into China’s policies on the matter. And then there are wider synchronicities. Singer said, “There’s the proto-Cold War between U.S. and China. After the first conceptualization of the game, about a year later, the U.S. military announces a new strategy that is a ‘Pivot to Asia.’ I joke that we got our grand strategy right a year before the U.S. military did.”
But Singer points out that it goes both ways–that is, the game’s portrayal of the future can also affect current reality. There is a history of fiction bleeding into the real world, from Star Trek‘s tablet-like devices to Arthur C. Clarke’s invention of satellites. “Science fictions shapes the expectation that the customer has, so that’s what they expect to be given,” says Singer. “In the military world, the customer is the Pentagon. They say, ‘We saw this. We want a real version of it.’ You can find some versions of quadcopters at the latest trade shows.”
Of course, speculative fiction and futurism are not an exact science. Singer has a lot to say on the subject. “There is a terrible track record when it comes to prediction,” he says. “A good example of this would be a October 9, 1903 The New York Times article that said, ‘The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved from the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one to ten million years.’ On that same day they said that the Wright Brothers began to assemble the first airplane in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio.
“The common pitfall is that we ignore the fact of technological exponential growth. The human brain thinks in linear terms, but things like Moore’s Law move along exponentially.” There’s also the issue of different fields being disconnected: The engineers don’t talk to the people who do the policy or the business side, and vice versa. “It’s really hard for people to understand that the current market structures of today may not be the way they are tomorrow. A good illustration of that is that IBM, chairman Thomas Watson in 1943 reportedly said, ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.'”
And why do futurists get it wrong? Singer says, “People who do futurology don’t often care about the users, they only think about the creators. There is a great quote from Harry Warner, who was one of the Warner Brothers, in 1927. He said we won’t have movies with sound because, I quote, ‘Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?’ People do want to hear actors, he didn’t want to!” He also sites another example from Disney’s Disneyland in 1957; they had the House of the Future. They have this woman standing in front of this futuristic ironing board, because they couldn’t conceive that the woman’s job might be something other than ironing her husband’s clothes! They got the microwave right, but they got the sexual revolution wrong.”
And Singer emphasizes that Black Ops 2 is not futurism. “You’re not trying to create the exact prediction of what the world will be. It’s an entertainment package,” says Singer. “It’s the story, plot, mission setting that’s not just likely to happen, but going to be exciting for the person playing it. There are hundreds of places in the world where we might conduct mission X. What is going to be one that visually pops off the screen? That’s not what the real-world military think about.”
Singer also doesn’t consider himself a futurist. He is an analyst. “I hate the terminology futurist. It sounds a little bit hucksterist,” he says, citing a book of futurism called The Next 100 Years. “How can any predictions that far out be correct? Setting the game in the 15 years out mark is where you can still keep it linked to knowable trends,” says Singer. “There’s a lot that is recognizable. And from a storytelling angle, it’s better if you can draw from the real world. The real world is a lot of times more interesting, scarier, and cooler than what people can dream up.”
It was Singer’s pragmatic view of the future that Daniel Suarez and the rest of the Treyarch team capitalized on to elevate the game. “He gave us permission to say, as we go into this future setting of 2025, you can make logical leaps to say that some of the things you are seeing will become smaller and more useful,” said Suarez. “With Call of Duty, we wanted it to feel that this is possible, this is probable, not that it is science fiction or make believe.”
And how does that practically affect the game? “We built the level where we are blowing up L.A. Is it really going to change that much in terms of what the buildings look like, what the streets and sidewalks look like? Some of it will change. But the sidewalks are not going to change,” said Suarez. “When you are building out this environment, it’s not just what players are holding in their hands, it’s also the visual aesthetic of what they’re seeing. We didn’t build flying cars in the levels. We were very grounded in what we wanted to do.”
ln the end, all of this speculation on the year 2025 and building the world of tomorrow was in the service of creating an exciting game. “It’s the opportunity for players to have access to these really cool toys. We upped the ante this year, in terms of giving players things that feel new, cool, and different,” says Suarez. “The opportunity to control drones that fly through the environment. Using the Guardian turrets to really set up your strategy to capture points. Using orbital satellites or hunter killer drones to target a particular player. All these things empower the player and make them even better than they usually are.”
And Singer agrees it all improves the game for the players. “I hope they find it the same way I do: cool as hell. I mean that both in terms of the technology they might use, all the way to the setting, the story, the characters,” says Singer. “It was an incredible, fun, fascinating, cool, exciting project to be involved in. They reached out to me on the nonfiction side. But the flip is, the work with them on the fictional side not only helped my work with the nonfiction, but frankly, will have a massive impact on the real world itself.”