Mark Lamia’s day of reckoning is approaching: Nov. 13. That’s the day that Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II goes on sale around the world. The previous Call of Duty games have been the fastest-selling games of all time. And once again, Lamia’s Treyarch game studio is up to bat on the franchise (it shares development duties on the franchise with Infinity Ward). This time, the developers took a lot of risks, taking the storyline of the game from the late 1960s into the near-future of combat in the year 2025. While the battlefield is full of deadly drones and robot mechs, Call of Duty still focuses on the infantry soldier’s combat experience.
We spoke with Lamia about what Treyarch tried to accomplish and how they will define success as hardcore fans pick up the game on Nov. 13. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Mark Lamia: As a developer, our goals were to create a Call of Duty game that would not only build on what people know and love from the series, but really — I know it’s an overused term — but we wanted to push the boundaries. People have a certain set of expectations coming into a Call of Duty game. Creatively, what we wanted to do making Black Ops II was turn some of those expectations around. There’s a lot of new things we’re bringing to the table for a Call of Duty game.
That starts from our setting. Black Ops was set in a different time period. This is set in the near future, and there’s also a time span here that takes place in the ’80s. If you look at the campaign, we’ve changed up the fundamental structure. It’s different from any Call of Duty game that anybody’s experienced before, the non-linearity of it. There’s a campaign arc that you have to see through if you want to get to the end, but we also have the Strike Force levels, which give you a choice. It affects not only what you’re playing but also the narrative structure of the game. We wanted to introduce greater player choice into the story, giving people these branching storylines and more choice inside the levels. The levels are designed so that you can take different approaches. You can even optimize your loadouts in campaign before you go in.
There’s a lot going on. It has a complex narrative structure that we architected. Players are going to love it. They’ve never gotten to experience that in the franchise. And all the gameplay mechanics have been built around this near-future setting. But it still has some core fundamentals. … The epic, cinematic nature of how we present Call of Duty to players and how they experience it in the campaign is still there. The core gun gameplay, how that feels. People who’ve played it before are going to find a familiarity in it. At the same time, though, there’s a lot that’s new as well.
For me and for the team, that’s very important. Bringing it back to your first point, we have this game that a lot of people love and a lot of people play. It’s a franchise. But in order to stay exciting and on top of your game, we have to bring new energy and new experiences. That dovetails creatively with what we wanted to do: something creative, not just an iterative sequel.
You’re always riding that line. You’re creating a sequel. Clearly, a lot of people are interested in that, because they liked the first one. You’re always balancing that, making sure you have something new and enough of what people already love. And that’s just the campaign.
But with multiplayer, it’s the same thing. You’ve played it, right? It feels how a Call of Duty multiplayer game should feel, but it opens it up wide. There’s that thread of choice that we provided the players. It’s accessible and it has depth and replayability. Whether it’s in campaign or the multiplayer, or even in Zombies, those are important design goals for us.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the competitive noise this year? Last year, we had a lot of manufactured attention about Battlefield 3 versus Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. This year Medal of Honor: Warfighter is out, but it almost feels like we’re seeing more divergence this time. What’s your observation about the competitive environment?
Lamia: First off, it is an incredibly competitive environment. There are so many high-quality titles coming out in just one month, six weeks surrounding our launch. That’s great for the industry and great for entertainment. But when we’re making the game, we don’t know what other people are doing. It’s not really a factor in anything that we’re doing while we create the game.
How do I feel about it, personally? Well, there’s a lot of great choices for people. There’s a lot of diversity out there. If you look at the kind of games that are coming out in the window, you’ve got Assassin’s Creed, which is a different genre and a different kind of game. You’ve got Halo, which is a first-person shooter, but it’s a different kind of fiction and a different kind of game. Medal of Honor is very different. People have tried to draw comparisons between the two — they’re both first-person games and they both have military themes — but I don’t think anybody who plays Medal of Honor will think they’re that similar.
We have a military theme that runs through our action entertainment product. That’s what we’re doing with Black Ops II. The multiplayer is military-themed, but it’s as much about that competition, especially with our eSports agenda. And then we have Zombies, which clearly distinguishes it from any other games. … [Laughs]
Lamia: The fundamental story hasn’t changed. It’s a narrative set in 2025. We wanted to tell that story arc about the villain and how his motivations came into being. We tell that story in the past through the eyes of old man Woods, his memories of those black ops missions. The consequences of those, in our fiction, are how this villain came into being.
It’s interesting to go into the future and see how warfare has changed. This villain is a villain in the past — he’s a narcoterrorist and a dealer in arms — but in the future he’s taken on different means to achieve his goals. There’s a lot of really great stories for each of our characters. They have their own arcs in the game, and the branching affects that. Certain decisions you make will have an effect on the entire structure of the narrative the game is going through.
The fan reaction to us taking on a new setting and telling a story in this new time period has been great. You get all kinds of feedback on a Call of Duty game, especially since people haven’t experienced it yet. People have all kinds of opinions. But generally, I think they’ve been surprised and delighted that we’re trying to bring something new to the franchise. They appreciate all those things I was talking about in terms of trying to push things forward.
The trailers that we’ve put out were very deliberate as far as trying to make people understand that we were going to be telling a story in our campaign and in multiplayer. We’re going forward with customization and player choice and the eSports. We have this expanded world that has exponentially more choice. People appreciate the ambition of this game. They had some preconceived notions about what Black Ops II might be, especially given the success we had with the first one. I think this is unlike what anyone expected us to come to the table with.
Lamia: When you run a studio, you feel differently about different projects at the end. After you create something and you’re going to put it out there and you know that a lot of people are going to have a lot of different opinions about it. … I look at this project as something we’ve thrown our hearts and souls into over the last two years. It’s the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of building this team. That’s what this game is.
Many people won’t have played a lot of our other games. Some people will have played Black Ops, some might have played World at War or Big Red One. We have people on the team from back to Call of Duty: United Offensive. You can see how, as a studio, we’ve been building up, how this is where we’ve gotten to.
The feeling around the studio is that there’s a lot of energy. This is the best work we’ve ever done, and I think the people who’ve seen us creating it feel that. That bodes well for the game and for everyone who’s going to buy it. It bodes well for the franchise. It’s going to be a great step forward.