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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.
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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.
Scronce: When we first put our foot into this, it was our Black Ops take on battle royale, or battle royale as we know it. We’re never one to sit and rest on our laurels and say, “Okay, we did it, we made a battle royale game.” We’re going to keep pushing it. Our fans expect us to keep pushing, to iterate.
This is new for our fans and new for us. We’ve had a blast trying to figure out where we want to take it. Whether it falls in line with the genre standards or deviates, we’re not too concerned with trying to match the status quo. We’re just concerned with having fun and delivering fun content to our players. I think our players have expectations of what makes Call of Duty fun and what makes Black Ops fun. We’re learning it all together.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve deviated from the “classic” battle royale. But that’s okay. We’re more than happy to push it in ways that it may not have been meant to be pushed.
GamesBeat: I managed to get killed by a zombie once, which I wasn’t expecting. Is there any difference between these zombies and the ones in the main Blackout map?
Scronce: I believe they’re the same breed of zombie. “Meatbags,” if you will. But they’ll become stronger with each circle. They hit a little harder and have a bit higher health.
GamesBeat: I’d never noticed how that happened before because I never stuck around in the Asylum building long enough.
Scronce: Yeah, I try to hightail it away when I hear the zombies near me. I don’t want to die to one. [laughs] I just avoid that altogether.
Flame: There’s more of them per square foot in Alcatraz, though.
Scronce: Yeah, we have the same amount of zombies required that you have to kill to open the mystery box in Alcatraz, but if you’re in that prison cell with zombies and you see a shadowy figure across the cell, you’re not sure if it’s a zombie. I usually just stick to the perimeter. I’m more of a beach guy. [laughs] It’s a game about survival, after all. Not a game about kills. I always tell people, the only kill that matters is the last one.
GamesBeat: Are you guys seeing particular strategies emerge as some of the more common choices, ways to survive the map?
Scronce: Every day there are new strategies coming out. We’ve addressed some more unsavory strategies, like being out in the collapse and, as players like to call them, “heal-offs.” That’s not fun and it’s not our intention. That specific example — if you’re outside the collapse after a certain amount of time, the damage will start ramping up. We’re constantly checking out the new strategies and addressing them or encouraging them as needed.
Flame: There’s always a fine balance. There are the strategies you plan for, that you want players to have. There are the strategies that you never expected them to have, but that are actually really clever. And then there are the cases that border on abuse, things we specifically wouldn’t want. It’s part of that whole — the way we’ve shifted to making games now in this era, this wasn’t even true on Black Ops 3. But this is what players expect. They expect game-makers to have a dialogue with the community.
That’s something we’re focusing on. We have more people on the team talking to more people outside the studio, taking in feedback and engaging in dialogue. A lot of that stuff we take in and it has an impact on the game.
Scronce: Back on multiplayer, over the past couple of weeks we’ve introduced the “Barebones” playlist, which was another very highly requested playlist. Essentially it restricts all of our specialists. Again, it’s like Hot Pursuit versus Hardcore. We have our Black Ops 4 core experience. We’ve designed it with these specialists in mind, and the tactical gameplay that comes with that. But at the same time, if you want to take a breather from that you can go over to this playlist, where specialist selection is purely cosmetic.
Our design philosophy for Barebones was, Black Ops 2 is the north star. Let’s try to retain the feel and the vibe of Black Ops 4 and meet Black Ops 2 somewhere in the middle.
Flame: We’re in a unique situation here with Call of Duty and with Black Ops. We have a very popular game that has many previous games behind it as separate titles. There’s not a lot of other players in the space that are in our position. Everyone has a different favorite Call of Duty, right? There are opinions all across the map. A segment of players in our community likes that old-school experience, the Black Ops 2 time period. Whether it’s Black Ops or Black Ops 2, the games in that era have things in common that we’ve evolved from.
We made something for those players, and we saw a segment of players go to that. It turned out to be a very vocal segment. Usually, the vocal players are the ones who aren’t just content and happy. They want something a little bit different. We saw the numbers and it wasn’t a huge shift, but there’s definitely a group of players who are interested in this, and they love it.
Scronce: Even just talking to our co-workers — one of our level designers just absolutely loves Barebones Mosh Pit. But a guy sitting right across from him might like the excitement and the explosiveness of the core Black Ops 4 experience. He wants to go in there and put barricades down, put razor wire down, and lock off this hardpoint. Even walking down the halls, there are very different opinions. It’s been interesting and fun to try to put all these pieces together and retain the Block Ops core feel.
Flame: We have to be careful to not make 100 different games where have to support all of those because then we’re stretched too thin. We set ourselves up for that with Black Ops 4. We created some restrictions on ourselves to keep things from going too crazy. We set up our core playlists, nine of those, and then we have our feature playlists. So here’s our space to play with, and we can rotate in and out of these. That’s where we’re hitting our stride now. Every week there’s something new, and we have a lot of great ideas up in the queue to last through the year.
It’s tough for us, actually, because we want to put all this stuff out there, but we also know that — we want to pace it as well, so there’s always something new. We’re not rushing everything. Everything has its time to be developed, and we’re not putting it out until it’s done. Players get their chance to experience things, and then there’s something new ready for them as soon as they’re coming down off of that.
GamesBeat: What is it like to go from an environment where — it almost seemed like there wasn’t quite as much competition. You can design a bit more in isolation on older games. Now you’re in the environment we have today, where there are so many battle royale experiences arriving. It seems like the ideas on battle royale are coming out on a monthly basis. You’re designing in the middle of all that now. What is that like?
Scronce: We’ll always say that competition is good. It’s good for us and good for the players. But at the same time, we’ll get nothing done if we’re always chasing someone else’s idea. We dropped Down But Not Out — I believe that was last year. That was our first redeploy mode for Blackout. I guess the easy answer is it’s not difficult because we’re just trying to embrace what makes us Black Ops and what makes us Call of Duty. To do that, we have to focus on ourselves and the community. Doing that will generate unique ideas that we can steal from ourselves, like wall-buys in Alcatraz. We have a ton of stuff to lean on, all of those learnings we’ve been honing over the past decade. There’s no shortage of Call of Duty IQ and very smart designers in this building.
Flame: For us, the fans drive a lot of that conversation. Whatever’s happening in their lives, whether it’s how they’re engaging with the developers on social media and their expectations of that, or other celebrities for that matter — not that we’re celebrities or anything. But I’ve seen different things recently about how people engage on social media. We’re engaging with our fans and they’re letting us know what their expectations are. Those expectations are for more consistent content. We expected that, but it’s even more than we expected. Now we’re adjusting, and we’ve been adjusting, to bring out content on a consistent basis.
It’s a lot of fun, personally. Matt and I are engaged on Twitter and Reddit and having conversations with the fans. We hear a lot of things that we know, and we also hear some great insights that maybe we didn’t think of. Being able to feel like you’re working with the community and building a game for people that you know, where you’re making what they want to make, is really rewarding. We’re loving that type of development process.
GamesBeat: It probably helps to start with a strong identity. You know who you are. If you’re going to add a new game mode like battle royale to this, you know what Call of Duty already is. I do think it’s interesting that you have a few different identities here, though. Call of Duty has an identity. Black Ops has an identity. Battle royale has an identity.
Scronce: I feel like that’s why our fans have always loved the Black Ops games. There’s something for everyone. Traditionally we’ve had campaigns. We’ve had Zombies. We’ve had multiplayer. Even inside of those we have League Play, the hardcore competitive mode, or super casual party game modes. It’s not really anything new to us. We have small and large segments of our community that are very different. It’s always interesting to try to address those, both independently and at the same time.
Flame: “What is Call of Duty?” is a conversation we have around here all the time. Call of Duty does come down to the core combat: the guns, the movement, the controls, the accessibility, the fast-paced and satisfying combat, and the depth of combat as well. You get it, have fun, earn progression, and move along. There’s always something bringing you along to the next game. Then you’re back into that fast-paced environment.
That’s the core of Call of Duty. Then we can rally around that and say, “Here’s a mode called Infected. You still have all the guns, but we’ll put this twist on it. Once you die, your guns are taken away. Now deal with that.” Blackout was using all of the same guns we had in the rest of the game, and using a lot of the same combat items, the same equipment and optics and attachments. It took that combat loop and stretched it way out.
Scronce: What we’ll often say around here is it’s all about enhancing the flavor of the soup. The broth is Call of Duty. It’s the tight controls, the tight gunplay. We know that we have to retain that basic flavor. It’s all about what we can add to enhance that and separate it from the other soups out there. Deep down, you still know you have that Call of Duty gameplay that you buy our game for. It’s something we keep in mind. We’re always preaching — we have to have that framework, that base flavor of Call of Duty. If we lose that — that’s what so many of us, even in the studio, came to love Call of Duty for.
Flame: That helps guide us. We feel confident and comfortable. You get to be creative, too. Everyone has different ideas. But the guiding light of the Call of Duty combat, the grounded experience, the grounded fiction of it, helps us rally around — okay, what can fit in there? The truth is, a lot can fit in there. We get to keep exploring that with the community. We’re right in the middle of it now.
GamesBeat: When are you going to make a map for me, something where unskilled players can win?
Scronce: Zombies with boxing gloves? [laughs] We’ll take that back to the team.
Flame: You have to tweet at me very angrily.
Scronce: In the meantime I’m more than happy to party up with you. I’ll take care of the zombies as long as you watch my back.
GamesBeat: I like that. Riding on someone’s coattails to victory.
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