Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was the biggest entertainment launch in entertainment history. Writer Will Staples talks to us about what it was like to work on such a popular game and how he draws from real life military and law-enforcement themes to make his writing come alive.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, how did you break into the industry? What was your most recent project?
I moved to LA in 2001 after a brief stint in investment banking. Like many writers, my first job was answering phones and fetching coffee at a production company. In 2003, I wrote a script with my former writing partner that did not sell, but it did get us hired to write a draft of King Tut for director Roland Emmerich. Since then, I have worked on a dozen studio movie projects, three television pilots, and six video games. My most recently released project was the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
How does writing for a video game differ from other types of writing, such as screenwriting?
Feature screenwriting can be very isolating. Between the time you are commenced on a draft and the time you turn it in, you are on your own. Video game writing is collaborative, and as the writer your job is to work closely with the development team to support the collective vision. This stems in part from the fact that in movies, the story is king. In games, gameplay is king. If the experience of playing the game is not fun, then it does not matter how compelling the story is. A writer in games must work with the designers to generate story that supports engaging gameplay and creates an immersive experience. While you have more creative control in film, I find the collaborative nature of games creatively invigorating. It is also an exciting time to work in games, because the industry is still young and people are making up the rules as they go.
How did you first become involved with The Exchange?
I was put in touch with The Exchange through a producer who knew I was working on a sci-fi movie. That was less than a year ago and I have already attended multiple events with The Exchange and they have assisted me with consults on several different projects.
Recently The Exchange helped you to set up a tour on the USS Nimitz. Can you tell us what that was like? Did you have a favorite part of the tour?
The tour of the aircraft carrier was truly epic. While the whole trip was phenomenal, getting catapulted off the deck in a C2 was pretty much the greatest two seconds of my life.
Did you meet any interesting people while on the tour? Do you ever base characters in your writing on people you meet in real life?
I base most characters I write on people I meet in real life, with the partial exception of historical characters. Even then, if I am writing about a bank robber in the 1870s, I will work with people who infiltrate facilities for a living and incorporate their psychology and methodologies into the characters. There were a ton of great people I met on the Nimitz and I’m sure aspects of them will find their ways into future projects.
Do you think taking part in events such as the tour of the USS Nimitz helps shape your writing? Make it more scientifically accurate? Or in the case of military language, more realistic?
Absolutely. Military projects are incredibly research intensive. It is a world that has a complex language and social structure that can only be understood by immersing oneself in it. If I were to base my research on existing works of fiction, then I would not be offering audiences anything new. In addition to adding authenticity, the old cliché of “truth is stranger than fiction” is 100% true.
What does a typical day on the job look like?
When I am in the middle of a draft, I typically write in the morning, then break for a couple hours for lunch, phone calls, and other busy work. I then have another writing session in the afternoon. If I am working on multiple projects, I will dedicate each session to a different project, and sometimes add a third session late-night. Otherwise, after dinner it’s books and movies (or a Call of Duty bender!). That said, I do a ton of hands-on research with subject matter experts, so many days will be spent with military/law enforcement/scientists at their facilities gathering information, doing ride-alongs, learning different weapon systems, etc. For me, the research is half the fun.
Have you always known that you wanted to write? Was there a turning point in your career that made you think “Wow, this is really what I want to do!”?
I always loved movies, but it was not until I worked at a production company and had a front-row seat to the industry that I learned what writers do and knew I wanted to be one.
Because you are around the entertainment industry all day, what do you go home and watch? Any television shows or movies that you particularly admire or love?
I love losing myself in serialized shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I also enjoy watching things that are way outside my genre like Modern Family. The fact that I have no idea how they work helps remind me of the magic that drew me to the industry.
Can you tell us anything about what you will be working on next?
I am currently writing Myth, a sci-fi action movie for producers Sam Worthington, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and James Cameron at Fox. Beyond that, who knows.... I tend to fall in love with new worlds and stories I never expected I’d be immersing myself in.
Lastly, how do you approach your research?
I prefer to go right to the source. For example, on Call of Duty, I worked with current or ex-members of nearly all the units in the game: Delta Force, SEALs, British SAS, etc. Sometimes it can be incredibly hard to gain access, but I found there is always a way. On the science side, it has become much easier since I have been working with The Exchange. On my current project alone, The Exchange has put together a half dozen consults at the very highest level in the scientific community. And they shot me off an aircraft carrier!