Dan Bunting has worked at Treyarch for 15 years, and he picked a heck of a time to become the co-head of the Activsion-owned Call of Duty studio. As Mark Lamia moved up to become studio chairman, Bunting and his cohorts took charge of making the next installment in the multibillion-dollar Call of Duty franchise: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
As they did so, they found that their ideas for a single-player campaign weren’t coming together. And then battle royale exploded in the spring of 2017 with the launch of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and the subsequent meteoric rise of Fortnite. These games were like comets striking the first-person shooter business that Call of Duty and Electronic Arts’ Battlefield dominated.
Bunting and his co-leaders Mark Gordon and Jason Blundell reacted. They cut the single-player campaign, tripled down on the Zombies co-op experience, and began work on Blackout, a huge map that introduced a new battle royale mode, Call of Duty style. When they announced these plans in June, players were mixed. But in September, after Activision and Treyarch released the beta version of Blackout, fans came around. They liked the gameplay and the right balance of fast action, realism, and crazy fun under the stress of an ever-shrinking play circle.
Bunting had to carry the burden of making those 90-degree turns and get the game out on time. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 comes out on October 12. I’ve played it, and it’s good. I talked to Bunting about this Herculean effort after playing the game.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I’ve always been curious about how a lot of these events unfolded. Can you recap some of that? You mentioned that you’d never envisioned doing a traditional single-player campaign. What were those early discussions like?
Dan Bunting: Coming off Black Ops III, it was the first time since World at War that we’d done co-op. Black Ops III had a pretty big focus on co-op. We even designed a lot of the encounters in the campaign around the idea of playing with four players. You had this situational awareness in working together to conquer certain challenges in the game. A big part of what we were doing was trying to move more into an online direction, because that’s where our studio history has gone. It’s the part of the game our fans have loved the most.
GamesBeat: Have you seen a declining interest in single-player to go with that rising interest in the online game?
Bunting: Yeah, every year. Every game it’s different. The stats show more people playing multiplayer, more people playing Zombies. The Zombies audience has grown consistently from World at War up through Black Ops III. The multiplayer population has grown. It’s a bigger percentage of our population in our games, that multiplayer focus.
You also look at the landscape around us in the industry. Looking at what our fans have loved the most about our games, where they spend the most of their time, where they engage the most over a long period of time — Black Ops III, to this day, has a really healthy player population. It was really not difficult for us to make a decision about moving forward with a game that’s built around multiplayer and social connections.
GamesBeat: If you knew that single-player would be out, did you then know what you’d replace it with at the time?
Bunting: I don’t think we were necessarily thinking there would be no solo play at all. We just weren’t thinking in terms of a traditional campaign.
GamesBeat: You said you’d tried out some things that didn’t quite work.
Bunting: Yeah, we tried a lot of things. In the beginning we had some pretty wild ideas. We said we were going to replace the campaign, from the very beginning, with something that’s more socially focused, more online connected, more of a game you can play with your friends.
When you make any big change, of course, as developers and designers, from where you’ve come in the past and the experiences that you’ve made, it’s always a lot of trial and error. You have to try big ideas, and some of them work out and some of them don’t. But we always have a philosophy of following the fun. You try a bunch of ideas and you follow the fun to get to the finish line.
GamesBeat: With Zombies, was it not so difficult to go from one experience to three experiences? Or was that a sea change as well?
Bunting: The biggest sea change for Zombies, actually, was the idea of starting a new set of characters and a new adventure. That was another one of our goals we set out with from the beginning. We wanted to start a new adventure. We’d effectively told all of these stories around our original cast, ever since World at War. We felt like, through the DLC season of Black Ops III, we’d reached an end point. We wanted to have a moment of finality to that storyline.
We knew going into this game that we were going to build new stories and new characters and new adventures for Zombies. We felt like it was the right time for that. Also, we do know that our Zombies population has grown from game to game. We wanted to do more, give more to those fans.
GamesBeat: When the popularity of battle royale came in, how quickly did you make the decision that that had to be in there? PUBG and Fortnite only took off in 2017.
Bunting: You saw the battle royale games starting to crop up out of the mods, though, in other games. That was in 2016 and before, when we started to see growth in that area. 2017 was when it really took off. February of 2017, you could tell. You could see that it was going to be a game-changer. More important than that, though, you saw a trend in live streaming in games. Who would have thought 10 years ago that people would be watching other people play games, millions of people at a time? That was the phenomenon that was more significant.
When we started this game, one of our pillars was that we wanted to make a game that was fun to watch as well as to play. We saw that one coming. We saw that was going to be a change. Live streaming transformed the landscape in partnership with the growth of the battle royale genre. The two kind of went hand in hand. We were calling that trend in early 2017. February, I remember, was the first time I presented this idea to our executive management team.
GamesBeat: You had the transition in management at Treyarch, too. Did that create, I don’t know, more flux amid the flux?
Bunting: [laughs] Everybody at Treyarch — we have a leadership team that’s been in place at Treyarch and has grown up together for more than a decade. Many of the same leaders in our studio have been there for that same period of time, all working together. In a lot of ways it was a natural transition. It wasn’t as if anything suddenly changed. It’s just the natural growth that happens at a studio. It was a pretty normal game development from that perspective.
GamesBeat: If you’re adapting some things to deal with battle royale, what was maybe easier to adapt, and what was harder?
Bunting: The technology development is probably the easier path. You can understand what you need to get to. We’ve been developing great tools in our engine for many years, going back even — Black Ops III was a really big change in our core engine tech, and a massive leap forward. We’ve been developing a lot of tools around making larger spaces, having larger player counts, for a while.
The more challenging aspect is just figuring out how to make it fun, the design. There are so many different ways you can go with it. We’d tried various flavors of a battle royale-type thing for a while before we landed on the one that you’re playing today.
GamesBeat: Even just the number of players is a big decision.
Bunting: The number of players isn’t even the most important thing. Even from the beginning, we said, “Whether it’s 36 players or 64 players, it doesn’t matter.” You can design to whatever that constraint is and make it a compelling experience. We tried not to hyper-focus on player count. We wanted to focus on making sure the game was fun to play, and more important, was unique to Call of Duty, unique to Black Ops.
GamesBeat: You had a heavy negative reaction to the lack of single-player at first. Would it have been better to explain more about how good Blackout was going to be at the same time? I get the sense that this was almost moving in real time in some ways. If you had more to show from Blackout, you would have shown it.
Bunting: If you look at how we’ve revealed our games in the past, it’s actually not — the thing that’s different is that we put multiplayer first, which is something we’ve been trying to do for years. You know Mark Lamia pretty well. That’s been something he’s been saying for many games, that multiplayer is a big driver for our fans. People who play our games love to play multiplayer. He’s been wanting to push multiplayer to the front of the reveal line for years.
It really isn’t that shocking that we did that playbook. But I will say that the way we revealed this game — we wanted to show how big the game is, how varied the experiences are from the get-go. If you look at a traditional Call of Duty marketing campaign, you start by talking about the story. Then you follow up with a bit of multiplayer around E3. We just did all of that right up front. We wanted to come out with a bang and show everybody how much there was to play.
But of course you’re in development, so you’re not going to show everything. We wanted to make sure that people understood that there was a lot to do, and that it truly was a game that fulfilled that vision of being built around multiplayer experiences that you could play with your friends.
GamesBeat: If it is 1,500 times the size of one of the maps, does that suggest to people that there’s just a lot of work to do here? It’s not like you can just stamp out a map like this. I guess it’s hard for me to fathom the scale of work that goes into building the battle royale mode.
Bunting: It’s a lot. Building a space like that is a lot of work with a lot of people. You’re talking about 1,500 times the size of Nuketown, and if you look at how much work goes into just making a Nuketown-sized map, that’s still tremendous. Scaling that up, you can’t just multiply the development team by 1,500 times to make that happen. [laughs] You build it over time. You make sure you have the right people involved. You build the right thing for the right pace of gameplay. You want to make sure it’s exciting for people.
I think that what we built is a game that really celebrates the legacy of Black Ops, the history of Black Ops. We wanted to surprise and delight our fans. We always like to do that. We put Easter eggs in the map. We put favorite maps that players have played in different games together in one place. You look at the Estate section of Blackout, where it has Raid on one side and Stronghold on the other. It’s two different maps from two different worlds coming together in unison.
It’s been fun for us to do that, to give players a new twist on old favorites. You go to Nuketown Island, it’s almost not even about Nuketown itself. It’s about all the tunnels underneath that you never got to see in the actual Nuketown map. We’ve had fun playing with the fiction. You just have to constantly deliver exciting and fun and rewarding experiences for your fans.
GamesBeat: Was there any nervous anticipation before you showed Blackout for the first time, in the beta?
Bunting: Of course. Any time you do something new, you never know how people are really going to react to it. You trust your instincts a lot. You trust the history that you have with your fan base a lot. You hope you’re making good decisions, but you never know for sure. I can wring my hands with nerves sometimes before we release something.
GamesBeat: I came a long way. I was a big single-player fan. I didn’t really play PUBG or Fortnite, because I found the difficulty levels of those games — in very different ways they were just too hard for me to pick up. I wasn’t expecting to like Blackout. But it turned out that it’s very playable.
Bunting: We want to make a game that every type of player can play. Because of the way the game mode plays and the space that you have, you can choose to go to a very remote part of the map if you want to. You can drive around in vehicles and have fun. You don’t have to be the best at combat. You don’t have to be the best at multiplayer. You can have fun doing lots of things in the game. That’s the promise of a game mode like this for our fans.
GamesBeat: The strategy I figured out was to find one of the quads and go to the center of where I expected the map to zero in. Then I could hide out until everybody else killed each other. I got down to two or three a couple of times.
Bunting: [laughs] That’s good. It’s gotta be fun for everybody.
GamesBeat: I feel like the sentiment has improved a lot around Blackout over time.
Bunting: Change is hard for people. It’s a shock to the system. Everyone’s going to have a different reaction. I was actually surprised at how positive — you have the expected instant reactions to change. But I was surprised by how positive the response was given how big a change this is. It’s a franchise that’s been around since 2003. There’s a lot of muscle memory built in to that.
GamesBeat: It seems like it found a space between PUBG and Fortnite.
Bunting: I think we’ve carved out our own space. We have something that feels very natural to Call of Duty and celebrates Black Ops. Players who’ve been with us for the series — we really wanted this game to be in service to our fans, in service to our community. It’s not just how we update or provide transparency to the fans, how we communicate to the fans. It’s not just about how we update the game post-launch. Those are all important to the community. But it’s also how we look back to the history. The players who’ve been with us all this time, we’re giving them something that feels like they can latch on to it. It’s a celebration of what they’ve loved all these years. That’s what Blackout is.
GamesBeat: Were you also in some ways looking sideways at Battlefield, looking at some of the decisions they made? They’ve turned out to have a very different timetable. Their battle royale isn’t going to be in the initial game. It’s coming later.
Bunting: We try not to look too much at what other people are doing relative to what we’re doing. Our developers have a lot of pride in the work they do. We challenge ourselves enough and hold ourselves to high enough standards that we don’t have to worry about what everyone else is doing. We put enough pressure on ourselves.
GamesBeat: It seems important, though, to get this into the main release, and also be sure you’ve given it enough time to get it right.
Bunting: In our case, it’s a pillar of our game. It’s of significant importance to the game. It has to be a big part of our release. This isn’t even something we’d think about as an add-on post-launch. It’s a part of what this game is and what it’s about. It’s what people are going to remember about Black Ops IV. It’s a multiplayer that redefines multiplayer in the Call of Duty franchise. It’s battle royale done the Black Ops way. It’s unique compared to anything else you’re going to get in gaming.
GamesBeat: You have the single-player experiences for each specialist as well.
Bunting: Right. If you want to explore the stories of the characters — I think people are going to be surprised by how much is there about the characters in Specialist Headquarters. The movies we’ve made about the characters are a lot of fun. We had fun making them. The backstories we developed for those characters, we never got to tell much about that in Black Ops III. It’s been a way for us to put that front and center. Here’s who these characters are. And not just in the game, but also with the comic books we’re releasing. We’re trying to tell stories in a sort of asynchronous way.
We’ve said this in the past, that we’ve never told a story the same way twice. This time we’re just telling stories in a very different way. It’s very Easter-egg-driven, very community-driven. It’s just a different way of doing things.
GamesBeat: You have a lot of DLC options now, too. You could do a single-player campaign as DLC.
Bunting: [laughs] Sure, flip the script on everybody.