EXCLUSIVE: How Call of Duty’s Zombies Mode Was Actually Created

How Was Call of Duty Zombies Mode Created

Progressing from numerous Call of Duty titles, the community have always found Zombies mode as one of their fan favourite additions to the franchise.

Call of Duty World at War was the first game I ever bought with my own money. I was eleven years old and had been doing double the amount of dishes and car cleaning than ever, all to get the game on the day it released. Waiting outside the Game store, clutching my Dad’s hand and shivering in the cold, waiting for the automatic doors to open with their customary woosh, I was beyond excited. I felt a sense of accomplishment and joy that I hadn’t felt before, the satisfaction of finally being able to purchase something so expensive for myself. I held the game tightly to my chest the whole drive home as if the proof of my labours was suddenly going to disappear, but of course, it didn’t. We walked through the front door and I immediately rushed upstairs, opened up the case, and slotted the disc into my Sony PlayStation 3.

I was hooked from the start. From the very moment that now iconic film reel intro started playing, Treyarch had stolen my heart, and though I didn’t know it then this was only the beginning. I beat the campaign in what I thought was record time, grinning as I limped my character to the edge of the roof and plunged the Russian flag down. The credits began to roll, and I was ready to move on to Multiplayer… and then everything changed.

Blurry eyes opened to a crashed plane and a desolate, misty landscape. Was the campaign actually not over? Was there still more to experience? My heart began to race as a massive horde of shuffling figures loomed out of the darkness, drawing ever closer. Then they began to sprint, tearing across the dirt to close the gap between my character in the cutscene. Nazi Zombies, in burning red letters, bled onto the screen.


From that very first fateful encounter with the Undead on Nacht Der Untoten, which I very vividly remember only getting to the third or fourth round on, I was hooked by Treyarch’s Zombies mode. In a time before social media, before YouTube had really taken flight as a way to share commentary and gameplay in the way it is used today, Nazi Zombies was a complete unexpected surprise. One that you really don’t get in video games anymore. Ever since then I have been enthralled by both the maps and the gameplay that the Treyarch mode has provided, and I have always wanted to know how such an outlandish addition made it into the game.

Luckily for me, Polygon recently posted an article that supposedly answered those very questions. The article, written by Charlie Hall, talks of a mode built by an unnamed engineer, then built up further by the rest of the Treyarch team. No names or details are given, and by no fault of the writer, key development details are left unsaid and undiscovered.

Enter Jesse Snyder, an Ex-Treyarch developer, and the great granddaddy of the Zombies mode itself. Snyder was a Lead Designer at Treyarch during the development of World at War and has since gone on to work on games such as Halo 4 and Call of Duty Infinite Warfare. Currently, he works at Daybreak Studios in the role of Creative Director. He’s a man with a lot of experience under his belt, and one of those things is the creation of the Zombies mode.

When the Polygon article was release Snyder shot back, claiming that the Treyarch team have been trying to retcon the history of the mode for years and that he had posted the truth on his very own blog.

The blog post in question was written on November 11th, 2008 and tells a slightly different and much more detailed story than Treyarch have been trying to tell us over the years. The blog post states that, early in the development of World at War, Jesse and the Lead Level Designer, Jason McCord, were trying to create a cool extra for the end of the game, in the same way that Call of Duty Modern Warfare had featured the airplane mission at the end of its game. At the time they didn’t have anything planned, other than the fact it had to be competitive Co-Op to fit in with the rest of World at War’s multiplayer campaign mode.

At first, this mode was supposedly going to be a sort of tower defence. Believe it or not, you actually played as a German soldier firing down on the Allies trying to ascend the beach at Normandy. Eventually, as history intends, your character is overrun by the oncoming wave of allies and you are killed by a badass group of soldiers. Then the game fades to black, and the credits finish rolling. The only issue was the resistance to playing as a German, firing on the Allies, it didn’t feel right even if the Americans still won at the end.

Months pass, no progress is made on the post-game content until a producer named Dan Bunting brought it up once again. Snyder still liked the idea of being overrun by unstoppable forces, of being put up against an enemy that there is truly no winning against. They talked for a few hours, and then another designer named Sean Slayback mentioned a flash survival game called The Last Stand. This game was a classic zombie survival game, you play as a survivor fighting off zombies that rush you and desperately try to tear through your barricades so that they can start tearing at you instead. Sounds familiar right? A few rounds later and it struck Snyder, Zombie Nazis.

Take the basic formula from The Last Stand, make it first person, make it more interactive. They already had zombie-like animations from the dazed Japanese soldiers that were in the mission Little Resistance of the Campaign. It was crazy, it had never been done before, but the engine supported all the ideas and Snyder’s mind was thinking in overdrive. It could totally work! So he shot straight over to Dan Bunting’s office and laid down a pitch, but Dan wasn’t impressed. He said that there wouldn’t be enough time to make it. They would need to create new assets, the risk was too huge, the mode didn’t fit the theme of the game and it would be way too campy to be engaging. But Snyder didn’t let the dream die, and when he started pitching it to more people they seemed to be into it.

Snyder sat on the idea for a while after that, until he learned that Dan Bunting had grabbed a scripter and a programmer to begin working on a tower defence game all of his own. This game was named Bunker Defence, and was essentially built off of areas in the campaign. You ran through the levels encountering waves of enemies, there would be flamethrower guys and dogs to spice things up. But, in Snyder’s opinion, it had none of the things that made a tower defence game shine. You were running through areas in Bunker Defense, you weren’t defending anything, and there was nothing to buy or rebuild, no strategies or tactics to be implemented. Despite Snyder’s worries that the new mode wasn’t looking good, and that the team should work on Zombie Nazis instead, he was always told that it was too risky and would take too much work.

A few months further on and Snyder got bored of waiting for Dan Bunting to realise that Bunker Defense didn’t have legs. He prototyped Zombie Nazis in just a weekend, took one of the scarier looking buildings from the Russian Campaign, covered the windows in a bunch of boards and then set the dazed soldiers from Little Resistance to melee mode to act like Zombies. You could buy doors to unlock a flamethrower, weapons on the walls that you could purchase. The basic ideas were all there, Nazi Zombies had begun its journey.

This basic prototype was shown off to a few people at the studio, and they loved it. The potential was obviously there and this basic prototype that had been thrown together in a weekend was fun to play. Corky Lehmkuhl, the creative director at the time, gave the project the green light. But despite all the praise and the good reactions, time was getting short. Treyarch was in full crunch mode for the main game and so Snyder and the programmer Austin Krauss were asked to work on the project in their spare time. The first level in what is now a major part of every call of duty release was basically thrown together at any spare moment people could get.

This is when the lead animator Jimmy Zielinski, a name I am sure you all recognise, got round to playing the prototype… and he fell in love, immediately pledging his allegiance to the Nazi Zombie cause and offering his animation skills, which involved a chance Mocap session with a professional zombie actor. Then the artist Cameron Petty got involved and zombified the SS Honor Guard models, giving them the now iconic glowing eyes. Next, the growing team hacked in head gibbing, a feature not present in the main game. It was here that they moved the level away from the small house and into one of the bunkers from the Pacific campaign, which was then toned up by the lead Multiplayer Designer Chris Dionne.

Next up was the Mystery Box, or Magic Chest at the time, and the wall weapons and the rifle cabinet in the upstairs area. Chalk outlines were added into the map to act as buy spots for the weapons and the lighting for the entire map was redone by the Lead Artist Brian Anderson, and then he added the classic question marks onto the top of the Mystery Box for some added flair. It was a buggy mess, some of the gameplay elements weren’t quite coming together, but Nazi Zombies was beginning to resemble the Nacht Der Untoten we all know and love.

The mode was finished only a week or two before submission, and even then they were still adding things like the power-up drops we all now know. The Ray Gun, another final addition into the mode, was created by the weapons artist Max Porter. This was originally a side project that Porter had created for himself, but was donated to the Zombies cause and given some audio from Brian Tuey, effects from Barry Whitney and animations from, once again, Jimmy Zielinski. The mode, while still riddled with Exploits that were patched out close to release, was completed. Nacht Der Untoten had started Zombies off on an epic journey to land us, as fans, now waiting for the next evolution in the mode and the expansive story that we have come to love.

All of this information has been freely available on Jesse Snyder’s blog since 2008, and yet Treyarch still persists in seemingly trying to write people out of the story of Zombies creation. While Jesse freely admits that most developers aren’t interested in notoriety, credit where credit is due should be commonplace, but since Activision and Treyarch legally own the assets they get to write whatever story they want about how the game mode came to be. In an effort to set the record straight I contacted Jesse Snyder directly and conducted an interview to try and get to the bottom of things that hadn’t been talked about in his blog post once and for all.

Matt Harris: I suppose the biggest question I have is the reception to the mode and the dedication to take it further and release Zombies maps in the subsequent DLC. We hear a lot about the history of the mode leading up to its initial creation and Nacht but we rarely hear about the studios thought process after that point. Would you care to comment on the studio’s immediate reaction to the community first discovering the mode and then the decision process going forward?

Jesse Snyder: Sure thing. It was interesting at the time and in retrospect as internally, the studio was being very careful about the possible negative reaction of the mode. Up until that point, CoD was a super serious series and much of the internal backlash in coming up with the mode was coming from a place of: “This is a WW2 game and putting zombies in it is off theme – it will upset our fans.” From the outset I had always said / intended for the mode to be unlocked after completing the campaign, then fully unlocked later. Interestingly enough I read a lot that Activision folks “made a deal” to make that happen, but that was always my intent from the beginning; I’ve always had the best interests of the core audience in mind.

So while zombies was popular at first, the focus on the PR end was still on the main game, getting people to play MP, the campaign, etc. Remember that co-op campaign in WaW was a first in CoD which was also something I pushed very hard for and take a lot of credit for. After ship, we had a very small team to continue zombies and the process was very slap dash. Keep in mind that by this point, many people that were core to the design of WaW had either left or went to Infinity Ward to work on MW2. There’s a lot of history there I’m glossing over but the short version is many folks had crunched on Big Red One, Cod3 and WaW back to back and were just done with it. So after WaW shipped I was left with a hand full of people that I had barely worked with (in design) and essentially a lot of folks above me who were upset at me for jamming this zombie thing into the game (plus another famous Easter egg involving the ray gun in the beach assault level I scripted. I told production folks about but somehow never made its way up the chain and I took all the blame for). While many of the core devs left, all of the management stayed. At this point no one understood how popular zombies was going to be, since this was like Nov / Dec and we had just shipped. While the team at large was like you are awesome, the management was looking for ways to push me out of the picture.

I was relegated to coming up with a new map design (for example in the second map I wanted to split up the co-op team and have them rejoin each other and play with the tension that created) and implementing core features other people started coming up with (like the zombie dogs) as studio leadership didn’t want me in control of the design / creative aspect any more. As much as I wanted to creatively control what I had just made, the studio didn’t let me. I was only five years into my career, all my friends were gone and many people above me wanted me gone, so I left around January (and helped found 343 and ended up shipping Halo 4 as the campaign lead years later). Right before I left discussions were being had (without me) about adding characters and story and new high level design changes, so obviously some folks had some plans they didn’t want me to be part of. At first I wasn’t sold on the idea but ultimately it was the right decision for the IP in hindsight. I was always more concerned with gameplay and interaction (since that’s what the medium is really all about) and even now I can think of a million ways to improve the mode which I’m surprised no one has tried or thought of.

Matt Harris: So I have two questions to bounce off of that. The first being, so at first you guys really never had a set story planned for anything? I know that in the Polygon article they talked about the audio department working story thematics in through the atmospheric sounds of the map, and a lot of Zombies fans are obsessed with the idea of a grand overarching plan from the very beginning.

The second thing is, if it doesn’t compromise anything you’re working on at the moment, what are some of the ways you have thought up to improve the Zombies mode that you can no longer implement because you aren’t part of the team?

Jesse Snyder: Right, there was never a story / narrative in mind from the beginning, but I definitely had a tone / theme in mind I wanted to strike. I still wanted it to feel serious and not campy, but with an element of spooky magic and hidden secrets to allow us freedom / intrigue in design space. But things were happening so fast in the beginning, people just started adding stuff and it was like “Yeah that writing on the wall seems cool, perfect. Okay the furniture flies up now and sticks to the ceiling that’s cool too, keep it.”

A sense of dread was a must, especially because there was no ending. The point was that everyone eventually died, you just had to see how long you could last. It was just about surviving (and comparing how far you got against other people) and seeing how far you could advance while opening up the level and accessing higher tier gear to start the next game loop. The tone let us do chalk writings on the wall that were spooky, but ultimately were there to serve as indications of where to advance to next. Objects like the radio (and the ray gun Easter egg in the beach assault map) was a hidden interactive item we put in as a way to let players I wanted to do more hidden features and Easter egg game play down the road and to create in player’s minds “there has to be more here” which totally worked. Same with the magic box, there was an element of mystery to it beyond what you might get from it. But in reality I went to Vegas and was inspired by slot machines.

This is a common practice in creative endeavors, you put something out there and wait to see how the audience reacts then adapt to pay them off. From the outside however, it looks like we were super smart and planned it out the entire time. Its like being a dungeon master for a D&D campaign; you go in with a loose plan but players are going to do unexpected things, but ultimately you want the players to be satisfied. So you find ways to make them happy regardless of what you had planned in the first place. That’s what game designers do.

Anyway, the initial design was all about game play and tone / feeling, not narrative / story. We referenced films like 28 Days Later for the tone we were going for. Audio played a big part in that and the audio director (Brian Tuey) and his crew did a great job pulling that tone off; the sound of the zombies, the music, etc. It wasn’t until about when I left and DLC started getting made when people started thinking about making each player a distinct character and developing a backstory. I always give Treyarch credit for pulling that off in a way that was compelling for the audience but that was never the intent from the beginning. Luckily we set the stage for that to happen with the tone we struck.

As for zombie mode improvements, I don’t want to give too much away as I might want to use those designs on other games / companies. However a really simple one I’ll out out there is, why not experiment with larger team sizes? 5-6-8 player squads? Destiny does this with their raids, why not in zombies? We actually experimented with this internally in the very first map like 9-10 years ago, so the tech supported it, but we ended up cutting it because the map was too small to support that many players. It was just too chaotic; four players was perfect for that first map. But they’ve since made many larger maps and a lot of time has passed, why not play with that concept and / or bring in different characters from all the zombie modes and have more playable cross overs and so on? Keep four player play lists but allow 5-6-8 player playlists and special maps / scripting to support it? You could really do a lot with that concept and even get into the design space of zombie raids and so on. Zombies was always meant to be a social game mode, so why not expand it? Anyway, just a couple of basic ideas that seems obvious to me anyway, especially as we started down that path near the beginning but turned away. Maybe they did this and I missed it so apologies if they did try this already.

Matt Harris: It’s seriously interesting to hear stuff about how things that have now been replicated across all the studios started off. Especially with the Mystery Box, now that you mention it it’s pretty obvious that a slot machine is the base, but that’s something I never picked up on before this point.

One thing I have always wondered, was the building and layout you used for Nacht always the one that you had in mind to begin with? I have this romantic image of you coming across that building and it being a love at first sight sort of thing, especially since it has been in every Treyarch zombies mode since.

Ah and before I forget, I have heard rumours that your job was at risk if the Zombies gamble didn’t pay off the way it did, is this the case?  Are you happy with the way that Treyarch, and by extension, the other development studios have taken your base ideas? The zombies mode has obviously vastly evolved since that simple sandbox on Nacht, what’s your take on that evolution?
Would you change anything about how you did it back then? If there was, say, one element of Nacht that you could go back in time and rewire completely, what would it be?

Jesse Snyder: Re Job rumors: That’s the first I’ve heard of that. No one ever told me while I was there anything along those lines, so if anything the “zombies gamble” didn’t work out in my favor even though it was a huge success. If anything they had a plan for me before zombies and maybe zombies saved me for a bit. As I mentioned, everyone around me was leaving as the crunch and interpersonal problems within the team got to many. I was the last of that OG crew to stick around so really the writing was on the wall either way most likely.

Yeah, overall I’m happy with how Treyarch and other studios have taken over zombies. At the end of the day each creative team needs to take ownership of their work and really give it their own signature. I think seeing each studio’s take has been interesting. To be honest, I don’t dig in too much to what each iteration of zombies does, I almost always have other stuff do do. For example, at IW on Infinite Warfare I was Game Play Director on the single player side. That requires a lot of focus and work. So even when IW did zombies, I had nothing to do with it. My view was to not interfere or provide distractions with what they were doing. Out of respect for that team, I didn’t want to inadvertently becoming a lightning rod for political issues. For example “Well, the guy who made zombies said…” or whatever. I was careful to steer clear and give them their own space to do whatever they wanted. Creative people that respect.

Would I change anything from back then? Nope. Those of us that made that original mode still look fondly back on those memories, talk about it from time to time and can’t believe how crazy lucky we were for it to all work out. Plus there wasn’t enough time for anything else anyway 🙂 It’s a shame people got split up, pushed around, emotions ran high, and so on, but what matters to me is that millions of people love and continue to play zombies, even nearly a decade later. Creating zombies has been a career defining moment for myself and for many that were there at the time; it’s something every designer dreams of. I’m forever grateful I was able to make that happen for gamers everywhere.

Oh and missed the part about the Nacht building. That was mainly Chris Dionne (at Respawn now) who picked that building out. The first building was just some geo I grabbed and altered from one of the Russian missions. Simple two story house to get the core gameplay loop established. That proto building never saw the light of day. Then Chris found that larger building from his US mission (the one with the airfield), thought it would work well, pulled it out, cleaned it up, we agreed it had all the core elements we needed, etc. Worked out really well and ended up being the Nacht building.

The Zombies game mode has become a staple of every Call of Duty release, and while Treyarch may be asking us to “forget what we know” about the Black Ops franchise, it would be a shame to forget the hard work of men like Jesse Snyder who worked long twelve hour days on Call of Duty World at War, only to spend even more time working on Nazi Zombies. Without his hard work, we may have just been greeted by a mode where you play as a German soldier gunning down Allies,  or the somewhat misguided Bunker Defence. Instead, we have Nazi Zombies, a game mode which shaped my formative years and continues to do so to this day.

The continuation of the ongoing Zombies Saga is expected to resume in the upcoming Call of Duty Black Ops 4, which is set to release on the 12th of October, 2018.



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