If Call of Duty‘s new battle royale mode is accessible, then the Zombies experience is hardcore. You have to love dying over and over to get good at Zombies, as I learned in some play sessions at an Activision event. And this time around, Activision’s Treyarch studio went all out in making a new Zombies experience for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, which debuts today.
Treyarch has done what it could to invite first-time Zombies players into the fold. It has three story experiences — IX, Voyage of Despair, and Blood of the Dead — and IX is geared to beginners. IX takes place in ancient Rome, Blood of the Dead revisits the Alcatraz prison, and Voyage of Despair takes place on the Titanic. A tutorial and a single-player mode allow you to play with bots.
But Treyarch has also peppered the Zombies levels with new kinds of weapons and Easter Eggs that appeal to the core Zombies fan. And it has lifted the previous cap of 255 on rounds. Now you can play as many as 1,024 rounds altogether. In Voyage of the Damned, plenty of narrow spaces make it exceedingly difficult for all of your co-op players to stay alive.
I talked to Jason Blundell, director of Zombies and executive producer at Treyarch, about the effort that went into tripling down on Zombies. He noted the script for all of the Zombies stories, when printed on paper, stands far higher than previous scripts for single-player campaigns.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What was your position on Zombies this time out?
Jason Blundell: I’m director of Zombies, and for my sins I’m executive producer as well.
GamesBeat: Is it three years you’ve been working on this?
Blundell: I’ve worked at Treyarch for 15 years, and this is a three-year project.
GamesBeat: How would you say you approached this Zombies at the outset?
Blundell: This time, it really stemmed from the mentality of the whole project, which is one of the most socially connected, most customizable and deep games — now, it sounds like a tagline, but that’s the place we started from. All the decisions around all the aspects of the game were guided by that goal.
Taking Zombies as an example, when I say it’s the most social, obviously the number of maps, the number of stories, the amount of emergent behavior that can come from those different scenarios. When I say the most personalized, the idea that you can customize your character, choose your loadouts and equipment. Even meta-systems, which we’re going to be rolling in regardless of whether you have Black Ops Pass or not — we’re changing our mentality of how we’re approaching it to give you more ability to unlock skins and calling cards and all this other fun stuff. And then the most customizable, we have custom mutations. We have bots. All these things come together to give us the experience for Black Ops IV.
GamesBeat: With the three experiences in one, where did that come from?
Blundell: You can look at it from a lot of different angles. I like to look at it from an adrenaline point of view. You have multiplayer, which is just snap snap snap, a very fast tempo. Then you have Zombies, which is more of a medium tempo that spikes at key points. And then you have Blackout, which is a slower initial bit, and then the intensity ramps up as the circle comes closer and the conflict is pushed on you.
Based on what mood you’re in, what tempo you’re after, what kind of action gameplay, there’s a mode for you, but all the modes are geared around social interaction. They’re about being there with your friends and the stories you can tell based on the things that we’re putting in the tool box. The same story will not be told twice. It’ll be more like, “Today I did this in Zombies. I did this in Blackout. I just had this game in multiplayer.” That’s how we approached it.
GamesBeat: The variety between the three different Zombies experiences, what is each one supposed to convey? It seemed like you guys had a pretty good idea that IX was more accessible or approachable, so we should start there and then end up with Voyage.
Blundell: Each one has a different set of properties that appeal to different people. The Zombies community is actually quite complex in terms of the different groups who identify and say, “This is what we do.” For instance, there’s the high round community. Their goal, quite simply, is to get as high a round as possible on a map and say, “This is what I did.” Even those guys actually subdivide into, “Did you do it with perks?” and so forth.
Then you have a narrative group. Their whole goal is to put together the story and understand all the complexities of the story. We’ve gone deeper with that than ever before in terms of visual clues, audio cues, dialogue lines, physical things. And then you have the Easter egg guys. Their goal is about main quests and sub-quests and sub-sub-quests and hidden things. I’m just scanning over it, but each of those groups goes down into different levels of granularity about what they go for.
Each map has different combinations of things that help these different groups or hinder them in their goals. Like you said, IX, that’s a good one to start with. The reason I say that is because, spatially, it allows you to do more. It has some larger open spaces. It warms you up quite nicely. Blood of the Dead is the next one. Difficulty-wise, spatially, it’s somewhere in the middle. Then you have Voyage, very tight corridors, very tight spaces. It gets tricky very quickly. And then you have Classified, which is a combination of Blood and Voyage, with some tight spaces and open spaces.
That’s just the spatial component, but I could go through each one of those maps and break it down. I could point out the story aspect, what you can get the most out of based on what you’re interested in. Each one, we do a sort of matrix and talk about what goals we have.
GamesBeat: How many rounds are we talking about across each one? We definitely didn’t hit the max. I think we made it 13 or so.
Blundell: To give you an idea, in the past we had a hard cap limit at 255. We’ve removed that limit now. The maximum round limit you can hit in Black Ops IV is 1024. We also introduced difficulty levels now. There’s the easy difficulty, all the way up to realistic. Our hardcore group, who play it every single day and have been playing for the last 10 years, on a normal day they hit round 100 without breaking a sweat. When we set it to realistic, the maximum they normally get to is 12.
We’ve made the hard even harder, if you want to go up there, but then we put easy in. If someone’s a beginner, a newcomer, they can put bots in. They can set it to easy. They can have a more fluid experience, get into the mode and find their feet.
GamesBeat: I had a hard time on normal. I can’t imagine what realistic is like.
Blundell: Realistic is one point of damage. Normally you have 150 health. In realistic, if you take one point of damage you’re dead. If a grenade goes off over there and you get a bit of splash damage, you’re dead. That’s the craziness there. And people will do it.
The other thing, I don’t know if you noticed, but in the after-action report, at the top right-hand corner is a phrase you saw. It would say something like, “Fluffy red apples are in the tree.” If you take that pass phrase and your gamertag and you go to callofduty.com/BOAS, Black Ops Authenticity Stamp, and type that in, it will give you a detailed report on everything you did in your match. You can exchange that code with your friends for bragging rights, comparing high scores.
You can do something like a first room challenge. “I never opened any doors, and this is the round I got to.” These are the kinds of the things the community do. Now you have this stamp that proves you did what you said you did, instead of handing around eight-hour video files.
GamesBeat: Do you have some tips based on what you see from people who max out around 10-15 rounds?
Blundell: If you’re a guy who’s new to it, or if you’ve played it before and you want to get a bit further, I would say first of all, start with the tutorial. We have a tutorial for the first time that steps you through the new mechanics. Once you pass that, start with the IX map. Put a bot or two on with you. You can have up to three if you’re playing solo. But load a bot or two to help you and set it to easy. That’s a good way to start and get used to the mechanics of the level, get used to the map.
Bearing in mind, now, all of the Easter eggs are switched off on easy difficulty, and they’re also switched off with custom mutations. But what that will allow you to do is get familiar with the mode, understand the enemy AI types, learn where the weapons are, get used to using your perks, get used to using your elixirs and talismans. It’ll just get you familiar. That’s a good place to start.
GamesBeat: Forgetting about those elixirs is probably a common problem.
Blundell: Certain people in the community — this is how we design it, by the way. The elixirs are not required to do any part of it. They’re all nice to have. If you’re a terrible player like me they’re a necessity. But everything is designed so that you don’t have to use them. Obviously by playing the game you’re making that chemical, nabulium plasma. We like to use tricky words to tongue-tie people. That’s what you take to the laboratory to keep getting your elixirs and talismans.
GamesBeat: What kind of fiction is going on behind IX, the story there?
Blundell: All I can give you is what we’ve shown so far, because part of that quest is for the community to work out. But when we join IX, the gang are going into a cave at some unknown location. They hear a mysterious voice saying, “For the answers that you seek, you need to breathe the vapors.” They breathe the vapors, and then they appear in that coliseum, that gory gladiatorial coliseum.
I think the best way to think about it is that they’re still sitting in the cave. They’re essentially quantum-leaping into some other people’s bodies back in the past. But our characters are still sitting in the cave. That’s the setup for that level. Again, it will all fall into place as the story continues.
GamesBeat: Is the Zombies audience used to having what you might call ridiculous situations? Gladiators in Rome and zombies and machineguns?
Blundell: [laughs] Here’s the thing. When you talk about the Zombies community — if you already have a community that’s okay with the dead coming back to life, we’re starting out in a realm of fantasy. From that point we can go a lot further, absolutely. Not only are they used to it, they demand it.
The difference is that with the Aether story, we’ve jumped across time and space and multiple dimensions and so forth. The Chaos story is a bit more traditional, if you will, in terms of — there is a linear path along there. They go and visit, visually, places in the past. But the world history is preserved. Our understanding of world history, the Chaos story still works with that. All the situations they end up in, there’s no one with video cameras. Not many people are walking away from the Titanic telling the story. Our understanding of history can be preserved.
GamesBeat: Some of the responsibility of the single-player game is to get people attached to characters, get people used to the story, get everyone to know what they’re playing with in multiplayer. Do you think some of that responsibility falls on Zombies now that the game lacks single-player?
Blundell: It’s interesting. When we started Black Ops IV — if you look at the trajectory of the games we’ve been making, we’ve been heading toward a more social game with every iteration. Zombies has been increasing in popularity and the number of people playing it. Obviously it’s very heavily co-op. When we were making traditional campaigns, we were adding more co-op, and multiplayer of course is social by its very nature.
My lead writer, Craig Houston, I asked him to print out all the scripts for Zombies. I’ve been executive producer on every Black Ops campaign. That stack of scripts stands several times higher than any script for any campaign we’ve ever produced, in terms of storytelling. On top of that you have combat missions. The specialists are the focus for our multiplayer and Blackout as well, and combat missions give you even more story for each of the characters.
Even though we don’t have a traditional campaign, I think we’re doing more storytelling here than we have in the past. I see that as a badge of honor. Not only do we have the storytelling of our world and our characters, we now have three modes where emergent storytelling is you speaking to your friend over the water cooler and saying, “This is what happened last night. This is what I did and what happened after.” It’s the combination of those ideas – the traditional story element and then your story coming together – that we’ve been interested in and continue to be interested in.
GamesBeat: Do you have any worry that with Zombies, people might never finish the story?
Blundell: Yeah, yeah. It’s a badge of honor for some people. As the game industry has become more and more hand-holdy in terms of — I can say this as a campaign guy. As we became more and more hand-holdy — you know, if you stop playing by level three you miss out on the other 10 levels of content we made for you. A lot of people don’t go all the way through to the end of a campaign.
Zombies became this thing where to have played deeper became a badge of honor. Knowing what’s going on — the Aether story, 10 years worth of that, is mind-bogglingly complicated. People love it for that. But it’s also an opportunity in Black Ops IV to start the new Chaos story, start at a base level, and get more people in. People would say, “I love this Zombies thing, but lord knows what it’s talking about now.” The Chaos story is going to start off nice and slow. Everyone can get on the ride at the beginning and get going again.
GamesBeat: What do you think you’re most proud of, now that this Zombies is nearly finished?
Blundell: I have to be honest. It’s tough, because I’m really happy with every single element. I know that’s a cop-out, but I’m happy with our new Chaos story. I’m excited about that. We’ve had some great ideas over the years, and to be able to start a new story and put those into it makes me very happy.
I’m also very happy about the mechanical level. Because of the success of Zombies up to this point, we have a bigger team. We’ve been able to expand it more, give all those personalization features and customizable features. That’s only possible when you have enough staff to do that kind of stuff. That’s worked out well.
I think our visuals — we’re getting to a point now where, when we do the Titanic, I love this thing. I love just wandering around the ship without the zombies. Our sound design has always been very strong, and once again they’ve knocked it out of the park. As a director my job is essentially — I need to be happy with everything we’re doing, and I am.
Let me try and push myself a bit and narrow down. I’d say the thing I’m most happy with is our new cast. Every time you start a new cast, you run a risk. It’s that actor’s syndrome. “Will they love me?” I’m really happy with how all the new characters are working together as an ensemble. I think people are going to be in for a fun time.
GamesBeat: We had a fun little story in our game. Three of us were down, and the one guy left figured out a way to run around the deck in a sort of oval loop. The zombies just chased him and chased him, and eventually he managed to shoot the last of them and revive us all.
Blundell: There are certain things where people say, “Well, if we wanted to kill you off we could.” But you get stuff like that where — that could work, but on higher rounds, it won’t work. You can’t use the same tactics forever. I saw some guys doing the whole front of the ship to the back, and they’re like, “We’ve got it! We’ve gamed it out!” But only for a certain amount of rounds. There’s a ceiling to different techniques. I love seeing people play it and think there’s a way to game it. That’s part of the fun, that kind of naughty kid in school mentality.
We have a couple of the developers here with us, and it was really fun to listen to you guys, hear all the talk. That’s what we live for, seeing people enjoy themselves and have fun. Hopefully when we release, everyone will be enjoying it.
GamesBeat: How quickly do you think people are going to get to max level?
Blundell: Well, round 1024 — I don’t know. Every time I’ve made a prediction like that I’ve been wrong, so I won’t say anything. It’s like when they always ask me about the Easter eggs. “How many days until they find all the Easter eggs?” I’ve lost money on all those bets. I’m just not going to say. But I think by giving them four maps this time, we have a greater chance of going a bit longer. It’ll all get split up.
GamesBeat: Which was the classic map that everyone wanted back?
Blundell: Classified? This is where it all gets a bit mind-bending. The first cast that we introduced in Zombies is called the Ultimis cast. They’re very slapstick, very fourth-wall-breaking characters. That’s Classified. Blood of the Dead is the Primus crew, which is the same cast, but a different version of them that’s more stern, a bit more story-heavy. And then you have the new Chaos cast, and so the only cast we’ve not got in there that we’ve had in the Zombies storyline before that point is the Ultimis cast. I would say, watch this space.