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University of Nottingham Alumni Andy Wilson Works on the Call of Duty Franchise as Part of Sledgehammer Games

25 February 20 interview: Jamie Morris

As Chief Operating Officer for Sledgehammer Games, University of Nottingham alumnus Andy Wilson has overseen some of the biggest video game franchises in the history of the medium, including Call of Duty. We caught up with him to talk about the current state of the industry, the unprecedented success of COD and violence in video games…

It’s been almost twenty years since you graduated from the University of Nottingham. How much can you remember about the city from your student days?

Wow, that is going back a bit! There was a club called The Lenton which we used to go to a lot; that was the focus of our social scene. We also used to go running in Wollaton Park. I went back last March to do a lecture to my old Computer Science class, and I think the principles of student life are all the same. The thing that strikes me now is that students tend to do a lot more outside of their course, so they’re more active in forming groups and clubs, and learning outside of what the university delivers. They seem a bit more organised and street-smart than we were twenty years ago.

How did you make your way into the gaming industry after uni?

It was in 2005, four years after I graduated. I actually went to work for an investment bank straight after uni. I didn’t particularly want to do that, but the games industry was a lot smaller then, and it was quite hard to go straight in. I wanted to enter as a producer or project manager rather than a coder or an artist. I spent about four years just trying to find my way in, then a job came up in Brighton that wanted someone who had a bit of experience from outside the industry, and it all took off from there.

And now you’re the Chief Operating Office of Sledgehammer Games! What does a C.O.O actually do day-to-day?

I run all of the operations, and am in charge of operational effectiveness. Things like product development, the actual making of the game, essentially all of the game development happens through me. There’s a Creative Director, who takes care of all of the creative management, and I’m the one who is actually executing it all and getting things built.

Having that level of control over a company that produces one of the biggest gaming franchises in history in Call of Duty must bring a pretty huge amount of pressure…

Yes, it does! The nature of the kind of games I work on professionally – we call them AAA games – all have that level of pressure. Back in the day, working for a small publisher that didn’t have much money brought a different type of pressure. You’re aware that you’re trying to compete with not a lot of resources. They all have a lot of challenges, but the franchises we work with now have huge fan bases with very high expectations.

Is the success of that franchise something that you could have ever anticipated?

Generally, people get into this industry because they want to do something significant whether that’s an independent developer, having an idea you want to bring to life, or working on a mega-franchise with the production value of a Hollywood movie. But one thing that always excites me is trying to create that next big thing. You dream of having a freak-out hit that reaches people all over. There is a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing something come out and feeling like you’ve had a large part in the making of it. But that level of success – selling tens of millions of copies – is very rare. There are so many aspects to making and marketing a game, and all of those aspects have to work hand in hand. If you’re lucky you make a great game, and you have that kind of success.

It’s outstretched any other industry; in terms of revenue, games are bigger than movies and music combined now

 How much has the industry changed since you first got involved?

It’s exploded! It’s vastly bigger than it was. It’s outstretched any other industry; in terms of revenue, games are bigger than movies and music combined now. The calibre of cutting-edge Hollywood-level effects has gone through the roof. They’re much more complex than they used to be. But consoles can technically do so much more now, so it’s inevitable that every aspect of the industry has grown exponentially.

Where can you see it going next?

At the moment we’re seeing much more of a trend toward social gaming where people are connected. Games like Fortnite, with large maps and tons of players definitely have a social aspect to them. You can see the influence in the fact that people make money from playing games like that on YouTube. There are less of the single-focus games that I used to play when I was younger.

I read that Sledgehammer employees are awarded with coins inscribed with the company’s values…

It’s a challenge – almost like something you would get if you were in the military, which obviously connects with the history of the games we make. We don’t really do it in the same way anymore, but we do try to establish the studio values, and extend that culture and those principles. Now we use the coin as more of a reward scheme; if someone has gone above and beyond, and you think they’ve done something really great, you can nominate them. Then, at the end of the month, we hand them out. It’s done to show that the team has seen the hard work and rewarded it. It’s a bit like gameifying work, really.

As a company, how did you overcome games like Call of Duty lazily being used as a political football by those seeking to find a link between real-world violence and violence in video games?

There have been some attacks on the industry in recent years, and I do find it quite lazy. I think it’s one of those things that keeps coming and going. There are studies out there that fairly conclusively prove that there are no links between video game violence and people going out and doing terrible acts, so I think it’s just an easy way out. But it’s always going to be something we have to deal with. As developers, we don’t have a checklist of things we’re not supposed to do in case we poke a tiger somewhere, but sometimes we do heavy things.

From a development point of view I have always felt comfortable with the themes and cultures I like to build, and we have a sense of responsibility to not do anything gratuitous. We don’t deliberately try to sensationalise, we don’t try and get attention or make sales. As long as I feel I’m holding my team and myself accountable, then I’m fine. There will always be people that are going to attack. Politicians and people that didn’t grow up with video games often do it. It’s all a bit alien and unusual to them, which makes it an easy target.

When black and white silent movies evolved into films that dealt with more serious themes in the fifties and sixties, the same criticisms were leveled at that industry. We’re just seeing the same thing repeating. When the video game industry has finally been accepted, there will be another that crops up and becomes the new target.


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