LOS ANGELES — His name is Riley.
Unlike his squad mates in the next installment of the rabidly popular Call of Duty series, he's not adept at sniping enemy combatants or piloting drones. He can't even pick up a gun.
Call of Duty: Ghosts isn't due until Nov. 5, but Riley has become the breakout star of the military shoot-'em-up. He even has an unofficial Twitter account, @CollarDuty.
Riley is a dog, and he's one of the largest and most popular technological leaps forward in the next generation of Call of Duty.
After footage released this year revealed that Ghosts would feature a four-legged soldier, the Internet uniformly wagged its tail in anticipation. The mere tease of a canine character inspired fan art, doggy cosplay and the unofficial Twitter account, which has attracted more than 28,000 followers.
Ghosts executive producer Mark Rubin said during a recent visit to developer Infinity Ward's offices that the German shepherd originated as an idea on a note card during a brainstorming session. The developers didn't actually know anything about military service dogs, just that unleashing one on the Activision Blizzard Inc. franchise was "a cool idea."
Call of Duty fans drooled over Riley again last month when a new trailer for Ghosts featured him lunging at a helicopter, taking a bite out of the human pilot and bringing the chopper whirling down to the ground. As Riley's fame unexpectedly surged online, Rubin said the developers' inclination was to let the game go to the dog.
"There was a risk of shoehorning the dog into scenes where he wasn't originally going to be," he said. "Fortunately, that only lasted for a few weeks and everybody got back to concentrating on making the game. It's great that Riley is so popular, but let's focus on the game. Let's have Riley make sense and not just put him in space or in a scuba suit."
While canine companions have been featured in many games — from Fable II to Grand Theft Auto V — the developers of Ghosts set out to create more than another best friend. They wanted a hero, a dog that not only would assist players but could be commanded at certain points throughout the single- and multiplayer modes.
Riley is outfitted with several gadgets based on technology employed by his real-world counterparts. For players, Riley's battlefield perspective can be glimpsed through a camera mounted to the back of his tactical suit, and he can receive orders, such as creating distractions or taking down enemies, issued from afar by players.
To make Riley as believable as possible, the gamemakers met with a retired Navy SEAL and his former military service dog to learn more about how soldiers and hounds work together. They later cast a pair of pooches, a German shepherd named Ruger and a smaller Belgian Malinois called Rico, to be digitally captured for the game.
Ghosts lead animator Zach Volker said that if players look closely enough, they'll be able to spot the differences between the two dogs portraying Riley
Ruger and Rico were outfitted with custom motion-capture gear made from form-fitting suits intended for dogs with skin conditions.
Rico provided the biting and tackling, and Ruger performed the movements. Chris Connell, Ruger's trainer, said during a demonstration of his abilities at Neversoft this month that the biggest challenge for the schutzhund competition champion — that's German for "protection dog" — was playing make-believe.
"In this environment, we didn't have trees or grass," said Connell. "It was like, 'OK, Ruger. Pretend we're in a desert area and act accordingly.' Ruger is like, 'Dude, this is a studio with mats like people do exercises on at the gym, and there's white lines on the ground.' Just trying to get him to act as if it was a real environment was the hardest thing."
The inclusion of a dog in the violent, mature series begs the question: Will Ghosts have an Old Yeller moment?
"Everybody thinks we're going to kill the dog," said Rubin. "Maybe that's the expected thing we would do, so maybe it's not what we'll do? We'll see. People around here didn't know, and they had that same sentiment: 'We better not kill the dog.' The emotional investment for the dog here has been just as strong as what's happening out in the public."