Here’s a secret: Most Call of Duty players go straight to the multiplayer online combat and skip the single-player campaign. So when Treyarch decided to remake multiplayer in Call of Duty: Black Ops III, it was a big gamble. GamesBeat had a chance to talk to the studio’s leaders about the decisions they made as well as other changes to the rest of the game.
The next installment in the multibillion-dollar video game franchise is being built by a team of hundreds at Activision’s Treyarch studio in Santa Monica, Calif. By the time Black Ops III ships on Nov. 6, Treyarch will have worked on it for three years, a year longer than usual for a Call of Duty game, since Activision now has three studios trading off the duty, including Treyarch, Infinity Ward, and Sledgehammer Games.
Call of Duty has generated more than $10 billion in sales for Activision over the course of 12 years. And the prior two Black Ops games within the franchise have been played by almost 100 million players. In fact, more than 9 million still play those games every month. The question at hand is whether Call of Duty: Black Ops III will top those previous games and restore growth to the franchise. The quality of multiplayer will directly affect whether the upcoming triple-A release can top the past games.
(Check out the links for stories on the Black Ops III overview, Treyarch leadership interview, e-sports style multiplayer changes, hands-on multiplayer, the single-player campaign, and Treyarch’s multiplayer history).
Treyarch’s signature has been the Black Ops subfranchise, which is now set in the year 2060 and carries on the military-combat theme that combines realism and sci-fi.
I visited Treyarch headquarters and got a deep download on Call of Duty: Black Ops III. I interviewed the team’s leaders, studio head Mark Lamia (pictured middle), multiplayer director Dan Bunting (pictured left), and single-player campaign director Jason Blundell (pictured right). I’ve edited the interview into three sections, with the first focusing on our conversation with Lamia.
Here’s an edited transcript of part two of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Do you think multiplayer is easier or harder for people who aren’t terribly skillful like me?
Dan Bunting: I thought you were holding your own. I was watching you. You seemed to be doing pretty good. Generally I think multiplayer is actually easier. We talked about our philosophies about accessibility, even making it fun to fail. That risk-reward loop comes into that fun to fail sort of thing. It’s high-risk to jump into a wall-run, but even if you die in the process it’s just so much fun to do because it feels so good. But because it’s so fluid, people can get into it pretty easily. In general we’ve tried to make it as accessible as possible.
Mark Lamia: One of the things the team did a nice job with is, while the movement is fun — the advanced moves are fun to pull off — it’s not required. The paths are all there if you decide you don’t want to chain movement or wall-run or whatever. I do think you’re going to, because it’s fun and it’s super easy to use and accessible, but for players who don’t want to do that, it’s not a requirement. The game rewards players just fine who are about staying boots on the ground.
If you played Black Ops II, this should feel like a natural evolution of the momentum, but if you want to just play it like you did Black Ops II you can do that as well and be successful.
Bunting: The way the maps are designed, there’s a lot of pacing. We place a lot of cover around to give you safe spots to hang back and watch people approaching the objectives. There’s a lot of opportunities for players who may not be so skilled on the front lines to hold back and hone their skills at targeting.
Lamia: Map design is critical when you talk about accessibility and ease of play and things like that.
GamesBeat: Do you think the skills that players are learning right now playing Advanced Warfare are applicable here? Is that something you look at?
Bunting: We’ve thought about that a lot. As we talked about in the presentation, we started Black Ops III from the beginning around our DLC 1 launch in January 2013. This player movement agenda was something we started right off the bat. We were building off Black Ops II at that point in time.
We’ve watched how Advanced Warfare has evolved and how our own game has evolved a little differently. Players are going to adapt really quickly. We’ve done a lot of testing with focus groups and people who are coming off that game. It takes them about 10 seconds to adapt. The speed of Advanced Warfare is definitely going to get people accustomed to our game, which is slightly slower-paced, but it’s a good pace for Black Ops players.
GamesBeat: Were there any major challenges to overcome with all these new abilities and new traversals, as far as the map design and not breaking the balance of the game?
Bunting: Absolutely. The first year of development, probably, trying to understand how to design maps for the new player movement abilities — like I talked about in there, we started getting a lot more verticality. It was breaking that fundamental principle of keeping the combat in frame. It just didn’t feel right. We kept bringing it down, down, down.
If you look at our previous games, we’ve kept combat spaces limited to no more than two stories at any given time. We started bringing it down where you’re still only ever dealing with two stories. You can’t get much higher than that. You might wall-run and get a boost off, but in those opportunities it’s going to be paced in a way that you’re going to keep that combat in frame as you’re focusing on that area.
Lamia: We had the core movement set in pretty quickly, but as far as the iteration — as you point out, movement goes hand in hand with map design. You have milliseconds to think about it. You should be in that map and not really have to think about whether you can pull off a particular move. It just has to be natural. You have to be able to look at it and you’re able to do it. There was a ton of iteration. We had a handful of maps where the artists really wanted to go at it, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to have you do some other work. Don’t detail this map.” Because the maps changed dramatically as we kept iterating to get the maps just right, hand in hand with the movement.
Bunting: Even early on, we were very sparse with our cover placement because of how mobile players were, because of how they were getting up in the air. That made it also not feel very good. As we started placing cover and getting those engagement ranges and the verticality down a bit, it started to feel better. I was watching some of you guys use cover in the game very well. The combat still feels very good as a boots on the ground sort of experience.
GamesBeat: How did you refine or do things differently with the extra year?
Bunting: For multiplayer, the extra year was pivotal. We talked about the evolution of our previous games. In those two-year development cycles, the kind of risks that we’re taking right now—We wouldn’t have been able to do that with just two years. It needs so much iteration.
Lamia: Let’s give a good example. Even after you had the core movement set, you iterated on maps, that first set of maps we did, for …
Bunting: It was a year working on the first set, the three maps we were working on. Each one was constructed in a different way so we could learn how the different map shapes and the different ways you pace the combat felt with the different movement mechanics as they came in. It was a year of development just on the first three maps.
Lamia: We weren’t developing maps and developing movement separately — here’s some jumps and some wall-runs and a map. It was honed and iterated on together. In a shorter cycle you can’t take that kind of time to do that. You can talk a bit about it on the campaign side, too, because it’s pretty dramatic there as well.
Jason Blundell: Three years allowed us the ability to invest in tools and technology. When you’re making a campaign experience you’re trying to create an atmosphere, a feel or a vibe. To get the size and the scale, and to make these more agnostic abilities — rather than hand-holding you through each moment of the experience — really meant that we had to open stuff up and let the builders and the artists work on it and realize it.
Taking a bit of the system-based design mentality for multiplayer into campaign — all the customization, all this other great stuff — that’s a big change from the campaign structure in the past, where it’s very much cinematic moment to cinematic moment. We’re keeping that in there, but three years allowed us to explore that, explore a detailed narrative.
In the past you could start off and have a loose story and then build your levels around it. You’d make cuts where you need to or put this map after that map and connect the story together that way. But because of the complexity of this story, because of the atmosphere and the investment in one character moving through the whole thing, it had to all be mapped out and planned and constructed in that detailed fashion.
Lamia: In more specific terms, once we decided we wanted to have a four-player co-op campaign, have open area designs and level-agnostic abilities that allowed players to customize any of those characters, be able to go in different order — once you play through you can go back and have different experiences, or play with somebody who hasn’t played through and be able to make the game hold together.
That instantly necessitated a completely new AI system for Call of Duty. It’s adaptive. It has to deal with emergent situations. It has to deal with a variety of different characters you have. Call of Duty hasn’t seen a new AI system in a long time. It’s had changes to its AI system — we’ve evolved it — but this is a totally ground-up. Then there’s the level designers and the game designers adapting to this new A.I. system and map design. The complexity of the systems overlay is incredible. There are so many cybercore abilities and rigs and things you have to be able to account for.
If you play the beginning of the game, you only have a very few things you can upgrade. You’re going to make your choice. We’ll roll it out to you and you’ll say, “Oh, am I going to upgrade my cybercore ability, update my rig? What am I going to do?” But these needs to be able to be fun and adapt to you even if you’re a more advanced player, if you go back to it, or if you’re playing with other people who have completely different abilities. The AI has to adapt to all of that.
On top of that we rewrote our graphics engine. There’s a deferred renderer in there, an entirely new lighting system and effects system. I wanted to bring back those insane battles that only Call of Duty could do. A good example is the sewer defend area there. There is so much stuff going on in that once place. We couldn’t render all of that, at that quality, at 60 frames per second, unless you do an overhaul of that whole system. We also rewrote our entire tool chain so the content developers could iterate more quickly in this new technology.
We’re really happy that we got that extra year. It’s established both Black Ops III and everything we’ll make beyond Black Ops III.
GamesBeat: Advanced Warfare has a multiplayer game mode that specifically wouldn’t work without the exo abilities, the Uplink mode. Do you have any plans for modes that wouldn’t work without the movement in this game?
Bunting: We’re not really ready to talk about the game modes yet, but it’s definitely something we’re working on and considering as we move forward in development. We’ll probably start talking about that later in the year.
Lamia: We like to iterate on game modes quite a bit. There are the fan favorites people can expect to return, but you can always expect something else we’ll be bringing as well. We’ll be taking into account the movement and the other game systems.
Bunting: Uplink’s a super fun mode, by the way. It was an epic Call of Duty world championship tournament with Uplink a couple of weeks ago. It’s a lot of fun.
GamesBeat: David mentioned that this isn’t an exo-suit. Are you explaining what it is right now?
Bunting: We’ve talked about the game’s fiction, the DNI and the cyber-augmentations. With multiplayer, every player has that thruster pack. The thruster is what allows them to jump and sustain their verticality, especially with wall-runs. It works as a stabilizer when they’re moving on the wall. Exoskeletons are already becoming a part of even modern-day military technology, so it’s not something that isn’t going to pervade military operations in the future.
Lamia: It’s important to get this right. When people say “exos,” they’re talking about a movement system that’s specifically developed for Advanced Warfare. Which is why, when I was talking with Activision, I was adamant that you guys get your hands on this and not just see it. If you play the two games, you know they feel entirely different. But if we just say that you’re thrust-jumping or wall-running or sliding or whatever, people might not get it.
You guys need to feel it and form your impression. But for me it’s a different-feeling game. It feels like, starting with Black Ops, we moved forward with these systems. Ours is a system that has all these movements that are super easy to pull off, but they’re chained all together. That’s the power of the system and the fun of the system, how it chains together.
Bunting: How did it feel to you guys compared to Advanced Warfare?
GamesBeat: I noticed the sound the most.
Lamia: It’s also analog. The thing about it, it’s a precision controlled movement system. That’s critical. You’re not going to someplace where you don’t know where you’re going. You’re only going there if you choose to go there. It goes hand in hand with that map design.
GamesBeat: It felt more slow-paced. I’m not sure if that’s what you were going for.
Lamia: More measured. No, it is slower-paced. That’s correct.
GamesBeat: In Advanced Warfare, it feels like you’re dashing a lot. With this system it feels like you’re bouncing a little bit more. You can control it a little bit. It’s easier to do fancier moves in this one. If you think about the points where you are, it’s sharp angles in Advanced Warfare. In this it’s more arcs and curves.
Bunting: That all goes into the philosophy of how we built it. Going back to the talk that we had, we believe in these principles of pushing head-to-head engagements and keeping the combat in frame. If you’re moving too fast, you’re going to get out of frame very quickly. We want to make sure players have a very fun, very satisfying, very controllable and predictable head-to-head engagement, where they can master the learning curve of how they use movement in combat.
GamesBeat: You mentioned creating all this open space so people can play with it. How do you do that without making a single player feel like there’s not enough cohesion?
Lamia: A lot of work. A lot of iteration.
Blundell: Hopefully there were indications of that in the demonstration. If you have a look at the PC demo, you open up these spaces — let’s take the checkpoint defense, when the wall comes down and we go into that space. We have a main alleyway, but even though that’s very much open and you can traverse across it in any way you wish, there’s actually multiple routes that are considered as we’re designing and building it. You have an open space you can move freely across in any order, but as you move through that there are channels in which you’ll find yourself.
Every time we do a space, every time we open it up, we consider that. Where’s the action? Where’s the movement? Where do you naturally travel? And then where are the offsets, the high positions, the low positions? How do you make sure you’re not blocking anyone? People can traverse over that, but there’s these natural paths of flow.
Lamia: You have to have that open. If you’re going to have all these cybercore abilities and people are going to go in and want to use them and do different things, then we’re going to want to do different things in the level. There’s no way you’re going to experience everything in that area unless you do multiple playthroughs. That’s another thing. In the games we’ve made in the past, you could scour every inch of whatever we put in there, because it was more of a linear path. With this, we don’t know what you’re coming in with. The designers have put different things in the world, different things you have to fight against, that you could approach completely differently each time.
Blundell: That was a big thing. Black Ops and Black Ops II had fantastic campaigns and fantastic modes. What we saw in this one, though, as we were first developing it, is that you’d have the designers building it and coming out of playtesting saying, “Wow, I did this, and this happened!” That wouldn’t normally happen in a Call of Duty campaign, because we were handing it out in a very predictable way. Maybe there’s a moment where you got the kill or didn’t die, but now things are happening in organic ways. “I was coming around the corner and that guy came out and you shot him.” These stories start to be told about how the AI is moving, how the players are moving and supporting each other and what they’re taking in. Those combinations change the experience. The guys are scripting the maps and building the maps, coming out each time and saying, “Wow, this happened!” That was invigorating for me, because it reinforced the design decisions, reinforced this massive investment. It was a huge undertaking to change that format in such a fundamental way, while also keeping the stuff our fans expect.
GamesBeat: The idea to go to this more spatially open design, was that in any direct response to people who’ve spoken out saying that modern shooters are too enclosed, too on-rails?
Blundell: I love game design. I love game creation. I also love storytelling. It’s a fine balance to hit between those. With Black Ops III’ campaign, I think we’re delivering one of the finest Black Ops campaign stories ever. We’re also making a true gamers’ game, a game you can invest in and enjoy every moment of the gameplay, every time you come in and play it again.
Yes, of course we get feedback about how it should be more this or more that. I feel like we’ve struck a nice balance, though. If you’re a gamer, the customization, the co-op online play, all that stuff, you can jump in there and enjoy that. If you’re more heavily into the narrative, we’ve woven that in seamlessly as well.
Lamia: We have those open areas, but we clearly also have areas where we just want to tell you a story and immerse you in the universe. That’s why we showed that level that way. There are clearly two completely different — there’s that opening area where we just wanted to tell you some story and immerse you. “Look, you’re in this other person’s war. They have the asset you’re there for.” It’s okay to still tell a story and have these nicely scripted scenes with all the detail and the tons of animation we invest in that do those kinds of setups and tell a story. It’s OK to have smaller area battles as well, but we’re going to have big area battles. There’s a combination of all that that makes it all work together.
Blundell: Campaign is about trying to get a pace right. There’s only so much story you can tell with a voice coming out while you’re running around shooting people in the face. There are moments where we have to slow it down, let you take in the environment, things like walking through Ramses station seeing the massacre and destruction. There are other moments where we want to slow it down and do an interpersonal moment, build up a relationship between characters, or create the feeling we want you to have before we give you a weapon or put you in a situation that’s going to be death-defying. It marries all those things together.
One thing that might not have been clear in the video is that there are a couple of time-skips in there as well. That’s only a partial bit of that level, just in the interests of time.
GamesBeat: Are there any more things that you changed because of feedback from Black Ops II? I remember a pretty easy scope, I think, and the electroshock charge weapons that could stop somebody cold when they snuck up on you.
Bunting: There was some controversy around the shock charges tripping C4, and things like sniper scopes are a tricky balance. They come up every game. At the end of the day you have to make sniping a viable option for people to choose. It has to feel good when you do it. But you also have to find that perfect balance, that sliver of a place where it can sit without becoming too overpowered.
Not only do we listen to feedback, but we changed the weapons post-launch in Black Ops II, for the first time. We were always hesitant to change weapon balance post-launch. But with Black Ops II we were tweaking, looking at stats, listening to the community. The community might say one thing about a weapon, but then you pull the stats up, and they tell you a different story.
We have a philosophy here where we always listen to the human, emotional response. That’s important. That’s perception. But we also validate that by looking very closely at the statistics. We did a lot of analysis on statistics with Black Ops II. That’s something we continue as part of our development methodology.
GamesBeat: Were there any big changes from that?
Bunting: Right now everything is in a fluctuating state. We’re going to be fine-tuning the balance of the weapons all the way until ship. At this point we’re still listening to the emotional feedback and making sure that they all feel like they have a place. That’s another way we treat weapon design. We want everything to have a big personality. Each weapon has its own character, its own profile, its own personality. Right now we’re dialing in where they sit on the spectrum. But they’re definitely not tuned and balanced at this point. When we get to the place where sniper scopes are dialed in, it’s absolutely going to be something we listen to the community about.