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Over a few weeks of intermittent play, I’m slowly working my way up the multiplayer levels in Call of Duty: Black Ops III. I’m at level 14 [Update: Now at level 28], and my kill-to-death ratio is a frustratingly low 0.42. For every four kills I get, I’m killed 10 times. That is no doubt familiar to other aging gamers like myself, who suffer the daily ignominy of getting our heads handed to us in the fast-action first-person shooter game.

David Vonderhaar, game design director at Treyarch.

Above: David Vonderhaar, game design director at Treyarch.

Image Credit: Treyarch

My troubles are not miniscule in the grand scheme of things. Call of Duty games have pushed the technological edge and generated $10 billion over more than a decade because developers like Activision’s Treyarch studio have found the right balance in multiplayer combat, enabling hardcore gamers to show off their skills and onboarding “noobs,” or new players, in a way that is not entirely intimidating.

I have played Call of Duty for more than a decade, and I still hold out hope of getting better. We caught up with David Vonderhaar, game design director at Treyarch, the developer of Black Ops III, for our periodic therapy session on how to do better at multiplayer. His tips are broadly useful for everyone from novices to professionals.

Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.


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GamesBeat: To hell with our readers. This is all about me. It’s my annual therapy session on Call of Duty multiplayer.

David Vonderhaar: I’m here to serve you, Dean.

GamesBeat: Using myself as the example, I play Domination mostly. I use an assault rifle or a light machinegun. I carry a couple of grenades — a couple of the concussion grenades these days. I play as the Battery with the grenade launcher. I didn’t really change the perks or do much with the score streaks, except I added the RC drone when I hit level 10. I’m very slow on the draw. Given that description of the old guy trying to stay competitive, do you have any general suggestions that you’d point out?

Vonderhaar: When you talk about progression, I want to make sure I understand you’re talking about as a player, your skill level, being able to feel competitive, as opposed to leveling up and unlocking additional things so you can try other stuff besides that very specific list you just gave me. Or both?

GamesBeat: The former first, how to get better, how to improve. And then more about which path I might pursue.

Vonderhaar: Let’s talk about very high level, what does it take to become proficient and how you define proficiency? This is different for every player. If you look at it holistically, I am very average. If you look at my stats and skills and compare that across the spectrum of players in the Call of Duty community, they would give me a hard time, because they expect better from me. But I get my fun from being a team player, from contributing to the win. I don’t stress about my KD. I don’t even stress about my score per minute anymore.

This is a game with a lot of stuff going on that gives you something to be good at. In my case it’s OBJ or objective-based placements, trapping down on dom flags with trip mines and that kind of thing. Taking a launcher and shooting a UAV out of the sky. You get there by warming up. I always have to warm up. You can’t get frustrated by an initial first game.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III in action. In Domination, your team has to hold three spots on the map.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops III in action. In Domination, your team has to hold three spots on the map.

Image Credit: Treyarch/Activision

It’s also helpful to play with people you know, if you have somebody to play with. I always try to roll as a group. Call of Duty is a lot of fun when played with other people. The party system and other social systems try to encourage that participation. Even if you’re not performing so well, the acknowledgement of your role in the larger group and contributing to the win is very satisfying. That’s how I get satisfaction and not just frustration at getting outgunned by younger players.

On a practice level, don’t forget about free run. If you’re trying to get familiar with the game and understand how to use the combat movement, there are four training courses called free run that are available for you to practice just core movement. They get progressively more difficult. They start introducing new types of puzzles and weapons, how to use weapons with core movement. Free run was built to help players onboard the new core movement mechanics and get used to them.

That’s not the only thing, though. There are also bots. I don’t apologize for going into custom games and adding bots to warm up. I’ll practice with the new things. There’s this overwhelming desire to start customizing your class right away, and I don’t recommend that. If you’re new, use a default class. Level up and use different default classes. Practice with them. Find which one works for you.

There’s always this rush to figure out the perfect class for you, and the one you’re stuck with right now, with your AR or LMG and stun grenades, that’s one way, but you need to be willing to experiment and not do so well with certain combinations for a while to be sure they don’t work. With 100 pieces of gameplay content in create-a-class, plus specials and score streaks, there’s a lot of stuff there. You can find some way to be successful.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: Was there a reason not to do a straight tutorial for multiplayer? Did you consider that option?

Vonderhaar: We’ve had that conversation with every Call of Duty game. We’ve even built prototypes. The thing is, the prototypes weren’t very successful. If they were successful they’d be in the game. The trouble with tutorializing multiplayer is you can only script for specific situations. You can only say, “The guys have to be in this combination when they approach the room.”

The truth is, with the very sandbox nature of multiplayer, anybody could be in any place at any time in any combination. We tried that approach, to randomize it, and then it just felt too random to learn from. So the more controlled situation is the free run tutorial. The first map is as tutorial as you can get, when you’re not with actual other players. And then the bots themselves, where the difficulty is quite adjustable. It feels like the better approach.

I understand where you’re coming from. I’m 43. I’ve been at this a long time. Imagine you’re the design director at Treyarch and you’re not very good when you go online and everyone knows it. I understand your point of view.

The approach here to onboarding, it’s a really deep, meaningful problem and challenge with a game with such rich history and such an experienced player base, the sheer volume of people. We know that there’s a better way and we have an idea about a better way to onboard players that isn’t, say, combat training from Black Ops II. Something that can be executed in a more meaningful way. But we’re not going to make any announcements about that, and I don’t want to do it until we’re comfortable that it’s the right thing and we have some time for testing against players like you.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III has fast-action close combat.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops III has fast-action close combat.

Image Credit: Treyarch

GamesBeat: One impression that players might have is that if they played Black Ops II multiplayer, they’re ready for Black Ops III. It seems like that’s not quite true.

Vonderhaar: I don’t know if I agree with that observation, to be honest. I’ve seen Black Ops II players make the leap to Black Ops III in less time than I would have expected. It depends on what level of Black Ops II player you were, or even Advanced Warfare.

The core mechanics of the game, despite the differences in their design strategy and the features they offer — that core skill set exists from II to III, to be honest. The very basic concept of equipping and loading out, putting yourself in the best position for your play style to win the fight.

GamesBeat: What are your favorites — weapons, maps, modes, specialists?

Vonderhaar: This happens to me every day. David, what’s your favorite? But you can’t ask a design director of multiplayer game to kiss and tell. My job is to not have favorites. My job is to be sure there’s diversity in the game. When something becomes my favorite I have to look very carefully at why that is, to make sure that favoritism over a particular weapon or mode doesn’t become more important than creating this rich, deep game that lots of different people from lots of walks of life and lots of skill sets enjoy.

This has come up. I’ve watched people change their answers. I’m on record here. Battery is my favorite specialist. I use Battery. It’s the one I’m leveling up. I have a personal connection to that character. If you look back at any interview I’ve done where this question got asked, I’ve said, “The answer is still Battery.” Final answer.

GamesBeat: That’s the one I’ve been playing too. My reason is, unashamedly, I want the grenade launcher, the noob tube, so I can do better.

Vonderhaar: Battery’s war machine is a very accessible weapon, which is why it appeals to people like you and I. You aim it, grenades bounce, people explode, it’s satisfying. It’s not difficult to understand. The ping-pong sound of the grenades, the pineapple-style sound, it’s satisfying. It’s limited — limited ammo, limited time — but it’s satisfying and it’s easy to understand.

Every specialist has a different approach. Some require a different level of skill than others. Battery has resonated with a lot of people. It’s fun to play the badass woman character, too.

GamesBeat: There are a lot of people playing the women characters. Did you deliberately decide to match them up with certain capabilities?

Vonderhaar: Not at all. The archetype’s intention is what drives the abilities or weapons they have. Before the specialists were men or women, before they had names and personalities and identities, before we cast the voice actors and wrote dialogue, they were just stick figures with abilities. I was never in a conversation where we said, “We need to give Outrider the Sparrow because she’s a woman.” It didn’t work that way.

It was about the personality stuff. The character concepts, the gender identity, those things emerged from the system-level design of these things, as it should be. I don’t think you want to get into trying to describe any kind of archetype from a gender point of view. It seems like the wrong approach to me. It’s a question of what makes sense for a personality.

GamesBeat: I want the Outrider just because I want the bow with the exploding arrows.

Vonderhaar: The Sparrow, when it bounces somebody back and they explode into little bits, that’s pretty satisfying.

As far the as gender balance online, we’ve seen about 50-50, plus the one unknown. The Reaper is obviously sexless, since he or she is a robot. And then Spectre, we don’t know. Spectre could be a man or a woman or a robot. I don’t think we know.

If there was a goal, sure, it was diversity. We wanted to have a mix — he, she, and other. It was important to us.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Image Credit: Treyarch

GamesBeat: People have noticed that the knife has gone away until something like level 40. That used to be more of a default option, using the knife in melee.

Vonderhaar: You still have an equippable combat knife. The real thing, though, is what makes sense for one-hit kills in melee. One-hit weapons, snipers and shotguns and melee weapons, have always been difficult to make work in the context of a game. We make you spend a point to equip a shotgun that can blow somebody away at close range. We also make you spend a point to take a sniper rifle that can blow somebody away from long range. It made sense in the context of create-a-class and pick 10 and our evolution from Black Ops II to make you spend a point to have a one-hit melee weapon.

It’s also more satisfying. There’s a term for it in the community. I don’t like the term, but it gets used and as a guy in this position I don’t ignore how the community names these things. It’s called panic knifing. The idea that if someone’s in your face, you have to stop having skill and just press the button to swipe at them without aiming. The term originated from the idea that, well, I panicked because a guy was in front of me so I hit the button and slashed my knife and died while he shot me. There’s been many jokes and memes made about players running through a hail of bullets to stab you with a knife.

I’m very satisfied with this decision. It was also fun to bring back the gun butt, which we hadn’t seen in a while, where you swipe with your gun. You haven’t seen that before World at War. It was fun to use that mechanic again and make it matter. If you melee somebody it’ll put you at risk, unless you equip more.

Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Above: Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: The specialists themselves, did that come from a feeling of making it more like popular esports games? Or is it just that people seem to like those kinds of characters in games these days?

Vonderhaar: There’s a lot of motivation for specialists. It wasn’t specifically esports. An argument could be made that specialists in a Call of Duty game are challenging to make work in an esports context. I’ve heard the analogies before. I’m not a spring chicken. I’ve heard, “Oh, it was inspired by MOBAs.” It wasn’t, not specifically.

Here’s the source of motivation for specialists. We had create-a-class and we had pick 10. We had score streaks, the higher-end rewards you get for doing well. Not everybody can — you and I are good examples. I’m not going to be getting a mothership any time soon. You’re probably not either. But what you can get is Battery’s war machine, or Spectre’s active camo.

We’ve made the argument that there’s room for spiking the power band of a player in between the traditional loadout system and the score streak system. There was room in the middle of the combat loop to let everybody have a brief moment to pull out their ability, pull out their weapon, and wreak some havoc. They spike their power for a very brief time. It still puts you at risk, because if you die using your power then you lose it. But everyone can earn it and use it anywhere from two to three times depending on the game mode and rank and all those things. Everyone gets a moment to feel like a character, like the badass Black Ops character they are.

That was the design goal motivation. There was also, of course, the fictional goal. There were the story goals. Dan and I both felt pretty passionately that we could put some fiction in the multiplayer and wrap it in a more interesting way than just a straight “go get your 20 kills” approach. We could put some of that kind of gaming back into multiplayer. Black Ops II was a fantastic competitive shooter, but there wasn’t much fiction in the multiplayer. You had the faction announcers and that was about it.

It was fun for us. Dan and I like characters. We like to develop characters. The specialists are a good way to scratch that itch, but still keeps it in the Call of Duty competitive style of world.

GamesBeat: Have you tweaked things like the score streaks much? Not that I ever get to use them, but I’m curious about the highest levels, like the HATR.

Vonderhaar: The HATR can be shot down now. Before it couldn’t be. There are some new ones and some changed. Comparing the philosophy of Black Ops II to Black Ops III –this is very macro, of course. It depends on the score streak. But you’ll notice that the cost is higher. You have to earn into them at a much higher rate.

Every one can be defended against. That was a philosophical approach. The HATR versus the VSAT — the VSAT, there was nothing you could do to counter it. We pushed hard, on Black Ops II, to be sure that perks could be countered. In Black Ops III we extended that philosophy to score streaks. They all have a counter. You can’t just get EMP’d. Some of them can run down the Power Core and take it out. You can’t just pull the VSAT out. It takes effort, concentrated effort, but you can destroy the HATR. All of these things were built so you had some way to fight back. You can’t just get rolled. Granted, the mothership isn’t easy to take out of the sky. It’s actually quite difficult to take it out. It’s the highest-end score streak. But you can fight back.

If anything you could say they’re a little bit hard to earn, because that’s a fact. You could also say that they’re a little bit easier to fight back against. Both of those decisions were not made in a vacuum. They were conscious design decisions. I get that some of the guys who can drop 30 in a game are quite upset that you can shoot down the HATR, but it’s best for the game overall that there’s a counter.

With this much stuff in the game – this many score streaks, specialists, weapons, and abilities, plus all the perks and create-a-class content and equipment and wild cards — there’s a lot going on. Finding good strategies to counter other good strategies is part of the fun in the meta of a Black Ops game.

GamesBeat: Back to some beginner stuff, with the verticality in the levels, do you have some suggestions about how much jumping or wall-running we should be doing, trying to stay above everyone else?

Vonderhaar: Should you be jumping? Only if you want to get yourself killed. Combat movement is built to get you into position. Depending on your experience with this game and previous games in the series, this is a very analog system. It’s built to remove barricades and obstacles between players and where they want to go on the map, to not weight them down in getting to those positions. But you get exposed. It’s dangerous to be up on a wall-run, depending on when you choose to do it.

This is something to aid your ability to put yourself in a better position to flank or move into cover so you can jump down on somebody. If you try to use it to gunfight, you’re probably going to find yourself staring at the kill cam a lot. Do not use core movement if you’re not ready for it. Don’t think you need to wall-run everywhere. That’s not what it’s for. It’s for pacing and flanking and getting into position or getting out of trouble. It’s not for fighting.

GamesBeat: I was looking around for stats. Are you guys not sharing as much as you have before? I couldn’t very easily find global stats for things like bullets fired so far and stuff like that.

Vonderhaar: Do you play on PlayStation or Xbox?

Ramses Station Quad Tank in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Above: Ramses Station Quad Tank in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: I’m on PS4.

Vonderhaar: To try to help with that situation — on the PS4 the button says “Options” and in the game it says “Menu.” If you press the Options button you’ll bring up the menu, and inside the menu you’ll find all that detail, including the Barracks. It’s nested. You can drill down pretty extensively on all of your stats, both public and the competitive arena stats. Kills, wins, win-loss ratio, kills per minute, K/D ratios. You can drill down on your game modes. I have the most wins in Domination, with a 1.33 win-loss ratio.

It’s a very visual presentation. It’s in a grid. They’re called tiles. You can find your deadliest weapon, most effective weapon, most effective score streak. By pushing down into those things, you can see your assists, assists per use. Everything’s there. The difference is about usability. I don’t think looking at a list of numbers is very fun. We tried to visualize the data in a way that’s more interesting than just having lots of lists of stats.

GamesBeat: I liked some of the visualization you could do with Call of Duty Elite. Are you think about some of that down the road, having more practical visualizations for people?

Vonderhaar: I don’t have any information to give out about that kind of thing at this time.

GamesBeat: We’ve seen a couple of updates on the PS4. Has that changed anything important so far?

Vonderhaar: If you go on Black Ops III, there was a big update right before launch. We always do that. There’s no stopping work here. It’s always going on. More important, since launch, we’ve done hot fixes at a rate of about one a day. Every one of those makes three or four significant improvements to the game. Those could be anything from feature improvements to bug fixes.

We can’t fix everything with a hot fix. Some things take an update. Anything in code takes an update — what’s called a patch or a title update, depending on the platform. All of those hot fixes will get rolled into patches and we’ll release the patch notes, where we more specifically detail everything that’s been changed or updated or improved or fixed or added as a feature. But many people in this building right now, including myself, are working on hot fixes daily. It’s a little burdensome to detail. If you look at my Twitter you can get a good snapshot of the things we’ve been changing.

A lot of it’s small stuff, to be honest. The challenge isn’t working correctly, or this gun is a little overpowered. A lot of nuance-ey stuff that I don’t think two million people care about. Maybe 500,000 people care about it, the real hardcore. But I don’t want to weigh people down with detail. I want them to play and enjoy the game. We’re working on it every day.

GamesBeat: What would be your own definition of success for multiplayer? How do you try to measure that from a high level?

Vonderhaar: I sent out an email to the team a few days ago — to the whole studio, really. I said, “You’ll see a lot of numbers. You’ll see sales numbers, review scores. But the number I care about is engagement.” I define the success of the game by how many people play it. Not even how many people buy it, which is obviously a lot. I care that they love it and play it and want to play it all the time. Engagement is my metric for success, and not just for multiplayer, but for Zombies and campaign and co-op as well.

If people are playing all the time — if we’re making the right decisions about gameplay and making the content we need to keep them engaged and fixing the things that need to get fixed — that’s my definition of success. No question. It’s engagement.

GamesBeat: What have you heard from pro gamers so far? Are they noticing anything or particularly liking anything that you can tell?

Vonderhaar: We have an interesting dialogue going on right now. I expected that pro gamers would want to play Uplink, but they’re telling me that they’re pretty interested in CTF. That’s the hot one as of 24 hours ago. We’re also talking about how many votes you should get in the ban system, and whether anything has to be restricted. It’s a healthy dialogue. I try to keep it off the main channels, talking about that on their terms and for their level.

I’ve made four or five adjustments to Arena Pro Series, trying to dial that in for what they’re gravitating toward. We’re going to see a pretty exciting and robust esports year with Black Ops III, given the feature set and how we’re approaching the game as far as esports.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Image Credit: Treyarch

GamesBeat: If people go to watch other players on sites like Twitch, trying to learn and get better, what are some things they might be looking for? Watching someone who’s really good, what should you try to take away from that?

Vonderhaar: Find the right streamer for you. There are lots of streamers, a lot of very talented people. Some people like to watch very good players. They want to watch someone go and drop what we call a “30 or better bomb,” just demolishing the opposition. Some people like to watch pro players specifically, because they’re competitive and they want to understand some of those advanced tactics.

I have to give you a pretty general answer, because you and I need to watch a different type of streamer. We need to watch the tutorial streamers, the guys who focus on what we call challenges. This is pretty fun. I’m not talking about the game challenges. These guys say, “Okay, I’m not very good with the KUDA. I’m going to equip the KUDA and run the KUDA and we’re going to learn how to use this gun.”

Those aren’t the most popular streamers. The big pro players are popular. The big YouTubers are popular. These are mid-tier streamers in terms of viewership, but I love these guys. I love the whole category of people. You can find them on Twitch and other platforms. It’s fun to see how they approach the learning curve and the challenge. The viewers will say, “I want you to play with this gun that you’re not normally good at.” It’s an interesting phenomenon. The viewers give these players challenges to try and they’ll show how to get good with particular things, whether it’s a piece of equipment or a weapon or a score streak or a specialist. I find those things fascinating.

If you’re trying to learn and get better, watching a pro player is actually not going to help you. Those guys are so far advanced — we need to work on steps one, two, and three before we start talking about step 50. Same thing with the big streamers. The big streamers are there to entertain people, and learning isn’t always entertainment. I like the challenge streamers, personally.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Image Credit: Activision


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