Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 made a big splash when it debuted last fall. It had the first Call of Duty battle royale map with Blackout, and it had a much larger Zombies experience as well. But battle royale is more competitive than ever, and Call of Duty must contend with competitors like Apex Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and Battlefield V.
That’s why Activision’s Treyarch studio is focusing a lot more attention on updates and live operations, such as the addition of the Alcatraz battle royale map, which concentrates a lot of players in a single map. It includes innovations like the ability to respawn five times and dispenses with a plane drop.
I talked with Treyarch’s game design experts, Tony Flame and Matt Scronce, about their roles in designing the new battleground for Call of Duty.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Tony Flame: I’m an expert game designer. I’ve been working here for a long time, 12 years, all the Black Ops games. I focus on gameplay. I’ve been helping out with ranked play systems as well.
Matt Scronce: And I’m a senior game designer.
GamesBeat: You just launched Alcatraz. I got to play that a few times. The results were kind of comical for me, but—anyway, I think it’s very interesting and very different. What was the genesis of that idea?
Scronce: In addition to MP, I’ve been heading up or helping out on a lot of the game modes we’ve been doing on Blackout. With Alcatraz, it’s been really well-received so far. The high level on that, the players and ourselves at the studio were exploring what Blackout is together. Last year when we met up, this was our Black Ops spin on battle royale. Through the journey and the life cycle so far, we’ve tried a bunch of different things. Hot Pursuit was our testing ground for how fast and frenetic and chaotic we could push this thing while still retaining the battle royale feel. That’s our most-played game mode now, although we haven’t checked since Alcatraz was released.
For Alcatraz, we looked at that and saw that — our players are Call of Duty players. They’re not necessarily battle royale players or multiplayer players first. They come to play Call of Duty for what Call of Duty is known for. It’s that fast gunplay, that frenetic gameplay. We’ve taken a look at that and considered how we can push that a bit further. It’s almost a middle ground, really. I’ve seen that come up a lot. Alcatraz still has the battle royale, last team standing element. We have the collapse and picking up items as you find them, but in that tight play space with the redeploys where everyone has five lives.
I feel like we’ve hit our stride with Blackout specifically. We’re embracing why people love Call of Duty. It’s a journey and an exploration between the players and ourselves. We’re finding our way, finding how we can stand out amongst the crowd. Again, I really think that’s about embracing what makes us Call of Duty.
GamesBeat: It gets you into the action fast.
Scronce: Yes, it does. [laughs]
GamesBeat: Can you explain why we still have the lobby?
Scronce: You mean the holding pen area? I’m not going to pretend to be an engineer, but I know part of that is because we’re working with a bunch of different systems. We have standard PS4s, PS4 Pros, Xbox One X, and they all load in at different speeds. That holding pen gets everyone a chance to load into the map and get everything streamed in, so we can make sure we’re starting with a full lobby.
GamesBeat: But then you get into something really fast. Was that a response to anything in particular? Did people want to start shooting faster, basically?
Scronce: It was responding to our players. Like I said, Hot Pursuit, that one was our chaotic battle royale game mode where we put players in the map with tons of vehicles. You’ve got the muscle cars and all the loot. That’s been our most-played mode, even beating out quads. That was surprising. But what that told us is that players want that faster, crazier gameplay. They can still go to quads. They can still play the core, vanilla Blackout battle royale experience. But we want to test the waters and see what we can do to further embrace that Call of Duty experience.
It was really a response to the player and community feedback. They liked this fast gameplay. It’s not something that other battle royales are offering to this extent. So let’s push it.
GamesBeat: It sounds like players aren’t saying they want something realistic. They almost want the opposite.
Scronce: Yeah, absolutely. We have that debate a lot, and not just us exclusively. Trying to remain fully grounded can sometimes hamstring you. Sometimes you just have to ask yourselves if this is fun. Will this make it more fun? If the answer is yes, then we should probably put it in the game and try it out.
Flame: It has to be something that players connect to. When you go too fantastical, then you lose the connection. That’s where the groundedness comes in. But it’s not a simulation, because a simulation isn’t necessarily designed to be fun. That’s just copying something out there. You look for inspiration and figure out how to make a game of something that players can relate to. A lot of times you’re targeting a fantasy.
Scronce: At the same time–with Alcatraz, we’re working off of a Zombies map. We have the lore and precedents there to add the wall buys, where you can go up and grab a weapon off the wall free of charge in a Blackout map. We have the portal redeploys. We’ve leaned on that lore and the vibe of Alcatraz for the Blackout iteration.
GamesBeat: It’s a little forgiving in that you have those five lives. Why did that seem like a good idea?
Scronce: Again, I’ll just keep going back to Hot Pursuit. The popularity of that showed us that players want to stay in the game. They want to be given additional chances. We have the core modes where it’s a single life, but with a small map the size of Alcatraz — we playtested with single life and we playtested with unlimited lives. Where we landed was a nice middle ground. You’re not punished as hard as you would be in our vanilla core modes, but you still have to be careful.
We have additional rules where you have to have a teammate alive. If you’re waiting on a redeploy and you have one teammate left and he gets wiped, then you’re done. There’s still that element of — you have to be careful. You need to still be mindful that this is Blackout. But it’s more forgiving, and players have responded well to that.
At the same time, we’re not only catering to those players. We put out Hot Pursuit, and then right on the back of that, we put out Hardcore mode, which is — you know what, we’ve taught you all of these tools. We’ve taught you the locations in the main map. We’ve taught you which direction is north. We’re going to take away all the tools we’ve given you so far. No HUD, no compass, no overhead map. We want you to use what you’ve learned and see how far you can get. Again, that was also well-received. It’s not quite as popular numbers-wise as something like Hot Pursuit or Alcatraz, which is to be expected. But we’re trying to get some varied gameplay out there.
Flame: It’s a great example of — with Black Ops 4 being a completely multiplayer game, with all the modes you can play online, we put this game out and it’s a massive product. Players nowadays want more than just a great game, though. They want to see it constantly evolve. It’s not enough to have a great game that you can play for even a year. Months into that, players want new toys to play with. They want things to change. They want ways to stay interested while maintaining the game’s core identity. This is the challenge that we’re right in the middle of taking on. We’re in the thick of it right now.
Alcatraz is the latest version of taking things that were maybe sacred cows when the game came out — battle royale meant that you had one life. That was one of the things that really distinguished it and set it apart from regular multiplayer. Now, as we continue to explore, we can open up those doors and ask ourselves questions about things we did earlier in game development and see where the winds are blowing and what players are responding to. We can iterate on the game as the year goes on.
Scronce: The same thing can be said about the more traditional multiplayer aspect of the game as well, as far as changes and things we’ve been doing pretty consistently since launch.
Flame: We’ve been doing it with multiplayer and we’ve been doing it with Blackout. We have our traditional lineup of pretty consistent content that we delivered in past games, with Zombies and weapons and maps and customizations. Now we have a whole new spectrum of things that we’re delivering, taking it a step further. It’s not just the amount of content but making sure we’re bringing things on a very consistent basis. For example, we’re delivering new game modes every week now in multiplayer, pretty much.
Scronce: We just launched Infected on PS4. That’s a classic mode that the players really love to see. It’s always a fun one to do. This is the second time around we’ve done Infected at Treyarch. This time we leaned harder into our Zombies background, with the Infected being able to change into zombie character models, things like that.
We have some fun new game modes coming up next week, with Deathmatch Domination. That’s brand new for us. It’s a small variation on Domination. Kills will also count toward the score limit in that game mode. That’s another one that — we constantly see the Domination players complaining on Twitter and Reddit. “These guys just come in here and play Domination like it’s TDM.” Well, now that’s fine.
GamesBeat: Back on Alcatraz for a second, you respawn after you die with a gun. That seems to address one of those problems where — when you respawn in Apex Legends you’re just naked. It’s not fun to respawn and just get shot again.
Scronce: That came from iteration. Again, I try not to keep calling back to Hot Pursuit, but that really was a testbed for systems that we could potentially keep around for further redeploy in Blackout mode. In Hot Pursuit we introduced the escalating loadouts, where with each collapse, when your redeploy, your loadout gets a bit better. You start with a pistol, and then you get an SMG, and then maybe you have armor.
Due to the small play space in Alcatraz, that was a bit too much. We had to find a middle ground where when players are redeploying and landing, they feel like they have some capability besides just their fists, but at the same time, we don’t want the players who are already on the ground and looted to be saying, “This guy who died four times just dropped in and killed me with a full loadout.” That’s where we landed. We gave them a Strife with a reflex sight and a little bit of ammo and some bandages. It’s just to get you back into it. You have some capabilities, but you’re not going to go out there and mow the entire map down.
GamesBeat: It seems like a lot of these things are causing your battle royale to diverge from others that are already out there. You’re adding more uniqueness to Call of Duty.