Craig Houston is a Scottish writer, artist and musician with over 25 years experience in the video games and comic book industries, who I first worked with at Marvel UK on their Warheads comic. Craig now lives in Los Angeles with his wife Rose, where he writes full time for Treyarch’s Call of Duty series, and with the recent release of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, it seemed a more than opportune time to catch up and discuss comics and computer game writing…
Treyarch, which is wholly owned by Activision Publishing, Inc. is an award-winning video game studio, driven by the desire to create epic gameplay experiences that are enjoyed by as many video game fans as possible. It is an approach that has helped to make the studio an industry-leading game developer, whose Call of Duty: Black Ops II set world-wide launch day records, and whose previous game Call of Duty: Black Ops set an entertainment launch opening record upon its release in 2010 and continues to be one of the best-selling games of all time, according to NPD and GfK Chart-Track.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III, from Activision Publishing, Inc., introduces a future where the line between man and machine is blurred, granting players with powerful abilities and an all-new momentum-based, chained movement system that completely redefines the way you play.
The title showcases the possibilities of Activision’s three-year development cycle for Call of Duty, as developer Treyarch has delivered a series of innovations across all modes of play, and the most content-rich game in Call of Duty history, including next gen features such as online play across all modes, extensive choice based gameplay, a suite of customization features, full eSports integration, bonus games and more.
downthetubes: Craig, it’s been years! We last talked comics in 1994, I think when the wheels came off the bus at Marvel UK, but you’d already started making a name for yourself on their Warheads book. What did you do next?
Craig: Actually I think we saw each other briefly at a Con in Bristol back in the early 2000’s, but I may well have been unrecognizable at that point – It had been a rough couple of years! When Marvel UK suddenly shut shop, I really needed a job, so went back to being an artist for video games – A job I’d actually done for a number of years before working in comics.
downthetubes: Then you seemed to drop off the radar… In fact, you seem to have become something of a Man of Mystery for quite a while. Did you leave comics behind completely?
Craig: I had lots of scripts and ideas knocking around, but I really just had to focus on earning a living. Fortunately, games were reaching a level of sophistication where scriptwriting had started to become important, so I was able to work as both a writer and an artist in the industry for many years before I began focusing my efforts on writing full time…
downthetubes: — But sprang back in 2008 with your move to the US and working on Call of Duty. How did that come about?
Craig: Like many things, it seemed to come of the blue. I got a call from someone I’d worked with at several companies in the past, who wanted me to help out on Call of Duty 3. A short term freelance job turned into the offer of a full time job with Treyarch. After the inevitable struggle with work visas and such practicalities, I started full time with Treyarch as writer on Call of Duty: World at War.
downthetubes: You’ve gotten high praise for your work on previous incarnations of Call of Duty. Is the overall approach to a game script similar to comics – plot, script, dialoguing?
Craig: It’s similar in a lot of ways, but much, much more collaborative. Even once the core ideas and scenario are in place, ideas continue to come from all departments throughout development. That’s part of the fun, you’re constantly adapting and rewriting.
downthetubes: I assume, though, that a computer game script can run to hundreds of pages, unlike a comic?
Craig: Well, I look back on the days of writing 22 page comic scripts and think… Sheesh! That seems so simple now! To give you an example, even just one of our Zombies levels has a script of around 2,500 lines of dialogue. Add in a long story mode, multiplayer and a whole bunch of other supporting material – the volume of work is just ENORMOUS.
downthetubes: How long does that part of the development process take, from initial planning and story planning to final script?
Craig: Writing of various kinds is ongoing throughout the project – scenes are often written and recorded in non-chronological order, so it’s very much a case of keeping working on multiple things until everything comes together. As I always tell our actors – it’s very much a leap of faith!
downthetubes: Once you’ve written the script, is that when dialoguing is done, as with an animated film, and does the script continue to evolve depending on casting of characters?
Craig: We actually cast before scripts are locked. That’s actually a blessing, as the writing can continue to develop based on how the performances are growing. Sometimes we see an actor do something really interesting or unexpected, so we can then adjust the script so as to play to their strengths.
downthetubes: You’re credited as Lead Writer on Call of Duty Black Ops III – what does that role involve on a game?
Craig: I’m sure it varies from studio to studio, but for me, it involves working directly with the game director to block out major beats, then working primarily with the animation department and actors to bring the vision to fruition. On Black Ops 3, we had a small team of writers who could take ownership of certain sections of the game – from multiplayer dialogue and enemy chatter to supportive world fiction.
downthetubes: What’s new in Black Ops III that gamers won’t have seen before?
Craig: This is by far the biggest and most feature packed game we’ve ever produced. Besides the main campaign story, we also have our multiplayer and Zombies maps. What’s consistent across all those modes is that we now have four-player co-op. The ability to play through the game with friends really changes the experience.
This game deals with a future where computer technology has become increasingly integrated with humans. What this means for our Black Ops soldiers, is that it opens a whole set of technology-based weapons that go way beyond conventional weaponry. Together with the Co-op element, it really allows players to adjust their characters and play style to add meaningful variety to the gameplay.
downthetubes: What are the biggest challenges as a writer on an action game like Call of Duty – and the best parts of the job?
Craig: The biggest challenges really come from the practicalities of production schedules – from level building to actor availability – you are frequently required to write things wildly out of order. That can be tricky!
In terms of the best parts of the job, number one is getting to work with so many talented team members at Treyarch – every discipline from programming to art, sound to animation – they really are the best in the world at what they do. Beyond that, I’ve been blessed to work with some truly phenomenal actors over the course of these projects… I mean, people like Gary Oldman and Jeff Goldblum really, really make your work shine.
downthetubes: Can you say what you’re working on now Black Ops III is “out there”?
Craig: Next priority will be our upcoming season of DLC (Downloadable content) that we will release in support of the game through next year. Beyond that, I honestly don’t know!
downthetubes: Would you ever consider going back to writing comics if the opportunity arose?
Craig: While I’d never say never, I am very fortunate to have a full time job with Treyarch, as such I really don’t have the time or energy for any other projects!
downthetubes: What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring writer who wanted to break into the games industry?
Craig: Same advice for any writing work. Write, write, write and write some more. Try to get better. Try to get a good understanding of how games work, and the unique challenge that their non-linearity often presents. Be prepared to be collaborative throughout – You won’t get to write an opus before handing it over for a team to make!
downthetubes: If you’re still reading comics, what’s your favourite right now?
Craig: I’ve been so busy over the last few years that I’m kind of out of the loop. I did thoroughly enjoy the first few issues of the Wicked + Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, so hopefully I’ll get back to that soon.
downthetubes: Craig, thank you very much for your time and the very best of luck with your ongoing projects.
• For the latest intel on Call of Duty Black Ops III, check out: www.callofduty.com, www.youtube.com/callofduty or follow @CallofDuty, and @Treyarch on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is rated M for Mature with Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence and Strong Language.
• US publisher Dark Horse is releasing a Call of Duty Black Ops III six-issue mini series, and the first issue is already in its second printing. Written by Larry Hama with art by Marcelo Ferrerira, the story is a prequel to the game, following an elite group of soldiers as they wage a secret war across a futuristic, war-torn world transformed by technology. In the bullet-ridden first issue, the team infiltrates Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to take down a double agent – but as they close in, they uncover something much more sinister at hand..
The first issue is available now from all good comic shops, including forbiddenplanet.com
All Call of Duty: Black Ops III images © Activision. Warheads © Marvel
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.