Call of Duty Black Ops legend says his new studio is an attempt to get back to "old-school" game development

(Image credit: Getty Images Entertainment / Chris Weeks)

By 2023, David Vonderhaar had one foot out of the door of game development. After a career spanning three decades, 18 years of which had been spent on Call of Duty giving shape to franchise icons like Black Ops, Zombies, and Warzone, he tells me he fully expected to retire out of Activision. "I was completely prepared. I have an RV outside my house, and my plan was to take that RV and take a year and drive around the country and be a nomad."

That RV is still sitting on the tarmac outside Vonderhaar's house with barely 6,000 miles on the clock. Before he could leave Call of Duty behind for good, he was approached by publishing giant NetEase. The opportunity promised was so unbelievable Vonderhaar says he spent months on the phone to industry peers who'd found themselves in a similar position, trying to work out if the chance to "do it my way" was too good to be true. Eventually, he departed the "monolithic" structure of Black Ops studio Treyarch in August 2023, unveiling his new studio, Bulletfarm Games, last month.

Vonderhaar says he has Bulletfarm's first game entirely mapped out in his head, but in these extremely early days there's not much he can say about how it will look. In the announcement, he promised a "more intimate and relatable" experience than Call of Duty, with "an emphasis on co-operative gameplay" and a "passion for rich characters." Probed over what that might actually mean in the finished project, he points away from modern shooters and military simulations. Those games, he says, have become "about shooting as many bullets as you can into as many people as you can, as fast as you can for as long as you can." By contrast, with Bulletfarm, "it's not just about shooting."

One last shot 


(Image credit: Bulletfarm)

Instead, Vonderhaar says it's about "discovery, and exploration, and building connections, and finding the relationships between things. I think 'intimate', for us, means that your relationship between you and what you're doing is up close. You're aware that there are consequences for decisions, it's not just storms and storms and storms of dead bodies. We want it to be a lot more personal, a lot more connected." 

My mind goes immediately to the extraction shooter, and in particular the high-risk calculations that go into firing even a single shot in a game as tense as Hunt: Showdown. When I put that comparison to Vonderhaar, he hints that I'm "not too far off." As much as the team has studied Hunt, however, "the worlds are way different, the amount of combat's way different." 

"There are much better analogies," he laughs, but "I'd be strung out if the game doesn't develop them." That intimacy will be expressed within the game, but there's another side to it, too. At the very start of our conversation, Vonderhaar says that the main aim of Bulletfarm is "to rethink how these big games get made, who they get made by, on what timelines they get made. After three decades of games and two decades of Call of Duty specifically, I felt like there was this opportunity to take all the lessons of that and reapply them in a new and different way."

"I think we need to be a little more 'old-school' with how we approach things"

"I feel like the way you can make the best games is when a lot of people can touch a lot of the game," he continues. "And you can't do that with 5,000 people." In May 2022, Activision confirmed that more than 3,000 developers were working across the Call of Duty franchise, but Vonderhaar says that the best work he saw within his time on the franchise "came from this 'smaller group' mentality." He points to Zombies, a mode he says "shouldn't exist by all practical measures," but was made by a passionate group of developers. Many years later, Blackout, the first Call of Duty battle royale, produced before Warzone in the direct wake of Fortnite and PUBG, was made by "a relatively skeleton crew who did amazing work in a very short amount of time."

It's those instances in which Vonderhaar says he had the most fun as a developer, but in his repeated description of Activision as a "monolith" filled to the brim with thousands of specialist developers, it sounds like those moments were few and far between. He points towards the original BioShock games, made by "a smaller studio, [with] a high degree of creativity, everybody working tightly together" as an example of the "old-school" development ethos that he wants to get back to, contrasted against Treyarch, "where the teams could get so large that there were people whose names I didn't know." That realization of that personal distance, that "lightbulb moment", is what started Vonderhaar's move towards Bulletfarm: "I was like, this has gotten so big and so complicated, and I'm not having fun anymore'. And if you're not having fun, then you should not be making games. It's a passion craft."

 Farming it out 


(Image credit: Bulletfarm Games)

Vonderhaar's departure might have been personal, but there are also more macro-scale factors behind his decision. One of those is a desire to innovate; I ask about some of the recent shooters that have lit a fire within the genre in recent months by offering an experience that differs from the genre juggernauts, like The Finals, from former Battlefield devs who struck out on their own, or Helldivers 2. In response, he highlights the latter as "not a huge, Call of Duty-scale production by any means. And people love it. And I think that's what you're seeing - that you get that kind of innovation not from large, centralized franchises. You get the innovation and new ideas from places that are not constrained by those big places." 

Vonderhaar notes "a whole bunch of people doing really innovative, creative things in the first-person shooter space," but says that they can get "buried" beneath the larger games. His hope, he says, is to "be in a position where we can use some of the voice that we have to bring up more independent creatives." But is that enough? Vonderhaar has NetEase's backing, something that he acknowledges is inextricably linked to Bulletfarm's ability to even exist, but with thousands of layoffs rocking the industry - including 1,900 at Microsoft in the wake of its purchase of Activision Blizzard - that's not a luxury available to many developers. Bulletfarm's first year will see the studio limited to around 15 developers, with estimates of a final team of little more than 50, but Vonderhaar says he's been inundated by so many applications that he's spending half his time trying to work out who to hire.

"The game has got the intimate vibe, the studio needs the intimate vibe, it's all part of the culture of the company," he explains. "Specialists drive quality up," he says, but they thrive most in teams of thousands, not dozens, and right now, Bulletfarm needs generalists. With so much volatility in the industry, studios like this, which are "small and nimble" but have the support of a larger apparatus around them - just like the teams that made Zombies, or Blackout - seem the safest bet, as long as the games that they come out with live up to their creators' reputations. Even then, Vonderhaar points out that for him, making those games is no longer the hardest thing he has to do. Now, that title belongs to the startup, maintenance, and perhaps long-term running of his studio. 

In the shadow of the live-service bubble, a phenomenon Vonderhaar says was inflated by Covid and that it's clear is now bursting, it's apparent that the Call of Duty veteran is being cautious, and that his experience on that mega-franchise isn't informing his new strategy; "you can't go immediately to 5,000 people and put them all to work and have them be successful. That's a losing strategy. You can grow big carefully. I've seen places grow big not-carefully and you can see what's happened in the industry. We have a responsibility, as game industry leaders, to run our studios in a way that's sustainable for gamers, for gaming, and for game makers period."

Ali Jones
News Editor

I'm GamesRadar's news editor, working with the team to deliver breaking news from across the industry. I started my journalistic career while getting my degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick, where I also worked as Games Editor on the student newspaper, The Boar. Since then, I've run the news sections at PCGamesN and Kotaku UK, and also regularly contributed to PC Gamer. As you might be able to tell, PC is my platform of choice, so you can regularly find me playing League of Legends or Steam's latest indie hit.