In just a couple of weeks, Activision Blizzard‘s Call of Duty: Black Ops II will debut in a bid to continue the series’ record as the fastest-selling video game of all time. To do that, the multiplayer version of the game will have to hold the attention of gamers for months as they frag each other with all sorts of weaponry. And the responsibility for getting multiplayer right lies with David Vonderhaar, the game design director at Treyarch, the studio that is making Black Ops II.
In this version, Vonderhaar’s team tried to make the game more accessible and add lots of new features. They did so by including a Combat Training feature that lets you play the first ten levels of multiplayer with bot players and a lot of hand-holding. If Vonderhaar did his job right, then more people, even “noobs,” will be able to enjoy multiplayer without getting slaughtered every time they go online. We talked with Vonderhaar to get an in-depth analysis on how to get ahead in multiplayer in Black Ops II. It turns out that a lot of his tips are both intuitive and specialized based on lots of experience. We’ve tried out multiplayer ourselves (see the video at the bottom), but we’ll find out for sure just how good it is when the game releases on the Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3 on Nov. 13. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: So this is all about a therapy session for me on how I can play better at multiplayer in Black Ops II.
David Vonderhaar: Yeah, I have some suggestions for you. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: You probably saw my video of my match before. So what do you have?
Vonderhaar: Did you have a chance to try Combat Training?
GamesBeat: No, I didn’t. Not while I was there.
Vonderhaar: The game has done a lot of work to ease people into multiplayer. It’s really important that people understand what this feature, or actually set of features, is about. If you just jump into the shark pool as a tadpole, you’re not gonna last. Combat Training, as well as some other things, can help you out. It allows you and up to two other players — real players — to be on a team with a set of bots. Say it’s me, you, and Neil, and then three A.I.-controlled allies. We’ll be playing against another team of three players and three bots. It’s three-on-three as far as humans, but six-on-six in total. A multiplayer game is usually six-on-six. That way you’re fighting a combination of real players and bots.
What’s interesting about Boot Camp, which is one of the playlists available in Combat Training, is that you can only play in it from level one to level 10. While you’re playing in it, it’s just like the regular game. You can level up your guns and level up your character. You’re getting the complete experience of what it’s like to play, but you’re doing it in an environment where the bots aren’t set to super-hard mode. They’re set to the normal, average difficulty, and the other guys you’re playing with or against are at most level 10, so they’re not really familiar with multiplayer, either.
GamesBeat: So it reduces the amount of embarrassment I have to suffer in order to learn the game.
Vonderhaar: There’s something even less embarrassing that I’d like to tell you about, as well, but you’re right about that. You don’t have to be embarrassed because you’re with other people who are also trying to figure the game out and get their aiming skills up and get prepared for the sharks.
Let’s say you’re not even ready for that. Maybe you’re starting even slower than that. You don’t need a single other person to enjoy multiplayer. You can go to multiplayer and set up a custom game. Inside the custom games, there are a lot of things you can do to customize the game, but one thing you can do specifically related to this conversation is actually add five bots for your team and six bots for the enemy team. Then, you set the bot difficulty to what we call the “kid level.” Now you’re playing in a simulated game. That’s an excellent way to get the feel of the game — learn the guns, learn the system, learn how everything works. The bots are set to a difficulty where they’re not too tough to fight. That’ll get you some confidence and some experience.
This is a pretty popular game. It’s got a lot of people who’ve spent a lot of time with previous versions and gotten pretty good at it. But if you look at Combat Training and the options we’ve made available in the custom games. … People need to know that this is a great way to make this accessible and not overwhelming.
GamesBeat: That’s interesting. It almost feels like I haven’t really improved over the course of the series. I seem to have gotten worse at it. Maybe that means everyone else has just gotten better more quickly than I have. [Laughs]
Vonderhaar: Yeah. I’d have to watch you play to see what’s happening with you in particular.
GamesBeat: But this is your approach to making the game more accessible?
Vonderhaar: It’s just the tip of the iceberg, to be honest. The starting feature is Combat Training. After that is custom games. But even then, there are other features in the game. … For example, if you take a feature [like] live streaming. Being able to watch other people who are successful will be really helpful for players who want to get better. You can see and learn and understand what those people do.
Then, when you include something like Elite, which has so many great tutorials and other assets available. … I was just looking at one yesterday that looks really cool. It teaches you how to use cover. There’s a big push here. As popular as this game is, there are still more people who would like to enjoy it. You have to go at it on all these levels, from game features to the content that we produce about it. All these things stack up in good ways and give you a chance to succeed.
GamesBeat: The new features here — the customization and the variety that are available to people now. … It seems like that drives the replayability of multiplayer much higher. As you do that, is there any worry that there are too many choices for users? Like, they don’t know what path to go down in order to improve themselves?
Vonderhaar: No, I don’t think so. The reason why I feel pretty confident. … When you’re playing in the regular game, we dole it out in small doses over the course of your 55 levels of progression. While you’re right in terms of player choice and customization — there is a lot — we don’t start you off with all of it. We start you off with less than half of it. You have to work your way through. You can’t do certain things. You can’t make a bajillion combinations right away. You’ll make them after you’ve played the game for 24 hours. That’s the way you warm people up to this. The progression starts with you ranking up really fast, and then it slows down to give you a chance to catch up and dial yourself in. By the time you’re ranking up to level 30 or 35, you have a good sense of what works and doesn’t work for you.
GamesBeat: I wonder about the different strategies available for players as they progress. I’ll go for the fastest gun possible just because my reactions are slow. I’m an old man in this environment. I’ll also try to get something to help me get a quick kill pretty easily, whether it’s the R/C car or the crossbow grenades or a claymore. Then I’ll get as good a scope as I can to hit people from a distance. That’s my usual progression. Can you describe some other progressions you might see?
Vonderhaar: One of the things that I do, in the early days … I like to go for speed. That means a couple of things. I want to be able to aim-down-sight my gun as fast as possible. I want to be able to run as far and as fast as I can. I want to be able to switch weapons as quickly as possible. Everything around that is how I choose my attachments and my perks: things that make me reload faster, things that make me aim faster, things that make me switch weapons faster. I’ll often progress one of my characters that way, optimizing for speed. That’s a particular play style.
Non-ironically, I also need to do that to compensate for the fact that I’m 40-years-old and my aim is lame. I’m doing what you’re doing, but I’m using a different set of stuff to get there. What I’ve noticed is that the older I get, my reaction time is a lot slower. It’s my hand-eye coordination. I’ll see a guy, and I’m just slow to get on him. All those things help me flank around that guy or get the aim on him before he gets the aim on me. That’s one way I’m doing it.
The other way I like to do it. … Because I don’t have the reflexes, I have to be smarter than my opponent. A lot of these guys — especially the young guys, the 22-year-olds of the world — they’re cowboys. They come in guns blazing all the time. They have the superior reflexes. What I do is go for a lot of stealth. I’ll get a suppressor. I’ll get Ghost. I’ll get Dead Silence. I’ll get Awareness. They can’t hear me, and I’ll use my superior knowledge of the maps and the environment to outthink them. I’ll put myself in positions where they don’t expect me to be. That’s how I’m using Pick 10 and the create-a-class system and the wild cards to help myself be successful. I’m outsmarting my opponent and being faster than my opponent. Those are the two ways I’m working with it right now. Two of my favorites, anyway.
GamesBeat: Have you noticed how the pro players approach multiplayer?
Vonderhaar: I’ve watched a lot of pros play the game. They like to load up big-time on guns. The top five or 10 percent of players in the world — they have superior reaction times. They’re usually loading up on firepower and the steadiness of their firing. They want large amounts of ammo so they don’t have to reload as much. Reloading will get you killed if you reload at the wrong time. They’ll take attachments that give them more ammo or ones that let you reload quicker.
In that universe, it’s called gun skill. If two guys knock heads with the same gun, which one’s got the superior aim and reflexes? They’re usually doing anything they can to benefit their gun skill. I can’t beat those guys in pure gun skill, so I have to beat them by playing the objective and outthinking them. Fast mags, grips, Extreme Conditioning — anything like that is usually how they like to roll. That’s in general, though. There are a lot of different players out there with a lot of different styles.
GamesBeat: I’m curious about feedback on a couple of levels. Was there anything you changed about multiplayer that’s gotten a lot of reaction from the fans so far?
Vonderhaar: There’s a laundry list because there’s a lot of things that are different. People seem generally excited and interested to try a new take on the create-a-class system in particular. But even the way we dealt with the Prestige system — even that system doesn’t work the same way. You don’t lose all your progress. It’s kind of a continuation of your level. If you had a gun that was, say, level four, it’ll still be level four when you swing back a second time around through the Prestige.
People really like what we’ve done with the competitive agenda. There are certain things about how we changed the game mode rules. We specifically did that from a competitive point of view, but those changes were so beneficial to the normal public match system that they’re in that mode, as well. We’re having round-based Domination. Much shorter rounds of play.
It’s such a massive game overall between Zombies, multiplayer, and campaign. Getting into multiplayer alone, it’s mind-numbingly large. Getting the word out and helping people understand what’s available to them has been important to me.
GamesBeat: Since this is set in 2025, I also wonder what’s different about that. The battlefield looks like it’s a lot more lethal. I was a little scared of the weapons that could shoot through barriers. That seems like a pretty dangerous multiplayer tool. How are you expecting some of those changes to impact the multiplayer?
Vonderhaar: I think it’s a working misconception, honestly, that because the game takes place in 2025, it’s more lethal. It’s actually not. It’s similar to what players will be familiar with. What’s different is that the technology of the 2025 time period opens up new gameplay styles. We’re free from the restrictions of the reality of whatever happened in whatever time period, be it World War II or the Cold War.
What we do with the 2025 time period in gameplay. … The ability to shoot through barriers is something that’s existed for a very long time inside the game. Even in our last game. There’s an attachment called FMJ that helps you penetrate objects. But that specific thing is not a scary prospect for a 2025 game.
Most importantly, the thing to consider is that all of these things, including the 2025 things, have counters. If you find yourself getting run down by a guy with an MMR scope who can spot you through walls, you can equip a perk that counters that device. We have good gameplay counters to offset the power of any one thing. That gives us the balance to make those 2025 technologies make sense without becoming overpowering.
GamesBeat: I noticed that, in your rewards, you had a lot more aerial options. I wonder if that has an impact on the maps you designed. Maybe you designed more indoor environments, so those aren’t so overwhelming?
Vonderhaar: Not necessarily. The number is consistent. We generally have this 70/30 rule. There are really good reasons why you want maps to be mostly outdoors, and it’s nothing to do with the score streaks. It has to do with map orientation and player positioning. When you’re inside a large structure, it’s like being in a big Vegas casino. You get in there, and you can’t find your way out. They trap you in there. That’s the problem with really large indoor spaces. You don’t have any orientation of where you are. It has more to do with making the map flow well than it has to do with the specifics of protecting you.
There are counters for those devices, as well; several counters for airborne attacks. You can take a flak jacket, which will reduce a lot of that damage. There’s a Trophy system that deflects explosives. You can get the Cold-Blooded perk so they can’t spot you in the first place. You’re right that there are a lot of aerial-based score streak attacks, but there’s an equal number of counters against those. That includes multiple items in all the content categories, as well as the indoor spaces.
GamesBeat: What do you see as your definition of success for multiplayer this time around?
Vonderhaar: I want a lot of people to play the game and enjoy it. I’d like to see a healthy mix of players across the various options. I’m looking forward to seeing what people do with the content-creation tools we’re giving them, the new features that we’ve added to the Theater, the league play, and how players will form teams and rank up.
I’ll be quite happy if a lot of people play and experience the huge depth and breadth this game has. If they find themselves in the right spot. … I love to see new players come in and say, “Okay, finally, I’ve got some spots here where we all get to participate in this system and see what all this crazy stuff is about.” We’ll get some new guys hooked on the game. I think it’s going to be a big hit.