Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War is the work of a lot of game studios at Activision Blizzard, but the tech behind the game was largely crafted by the team at Treyarch, while Raven Software created the story and single-player campaign.
The work was made harder because the game had a late start, thanks to an early difference of opinion between Raven and Activision’s Sledgehammer Games studio. But Raven and Treyarch saw eye-to-eye, and they teamed up on Cold War and worked furiously to get the game done.
I’ve played the game on the PlayStation 5 and parts of it on the PC on Battle.net. It offers a lot of content between the multiplayer, Zombies, and campaign. Adding to their workload, the team created cross-progression, cross-generation, and cross-platform gameplay across the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X/S.
I talked with some of the leaders at Treyarch about the making of the game and what it delivers, such as shorter loading times and better 4K graphics.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Please introduce yourselves.
Mark Gordon: I’m co-studio head at Treyarch.
Eran Rich: I’m director of technology, responsible for our core engine systems.
Kevin Myers: I’m senior lead graphics engineer.
Dan Olson: I’m a principal software architect on the engine.
J.T. Hooker: And I’m also a senior lead graphics engineer.
Gordon: I know you’re a long-time fan of the Call of Duty franchise. One thing that makes Call of Duty unique is how it feels to the player. When we focus on things like — whether it’s backend technology, whether it’s rendering, whether it’s audio or controllers or anything like that, these are all things where we’ve tried to focus on the visceral feeling of playing the game. That’s what sets us aside from everyone else, and that’s something that we always strive for in every game. This time around, especially with the transition to next-gen, has given us real opportunities to push that stuff even further. This is in keeping with our heritage in that regard.
GamesBeat: Did you ever feel like the tech held you back from doing what you needed to do?
Gordon. That’s a tough one. None of us ever likes to think of tech holding us back. It’s normally, whenever you see something that the tech couldn’t do, you figure out a way to either do it some different way or improve it in a way that you hadn’t thought of. When you head into things, and I can think of several examples over the years when we were surprised at how we thought there was nothing more to get — then you squeeze that last extra part out.
Olson: I have a specific example that’s interesting. On the next-generation consoles, we were moving to [solid-state drivers with faster flash memory] SSDs, and when we got those in our hands, one thing we realized right away was that the old way we were doing I/O in code wasn’t going to scale for the SSDs. We had to re-architect it from scratch and make it more suitable for the next-generation consoles while also trying to keep it suitable for the current consoles as well. We ended up with a better set of techniques that we were able to use for that.
After that, we figured out that there were a lot of problems that were exposed by the faster I/O. Things like loading assets weren’t as fast as they needed to be with the new I/O. These are things that didn’t matter before because the I/O was the big bound. We had to tackle those challenges one by one to get our loading times where we wanted them to be. We’re pretty happy with where we ended up on the next-gen consoles.
GamesBeat: The general impression I have is that load times are either gone or shorter, and that the response time is close to instant now. You wake up your PS5 and it’s immediately throwing you into somebody speaking to you, wherever you left off in the middle of a cutscene. It just continues. That seems like a big advance. Are you talking about something more specific that affects the game, what the player sees?
Olson: I’m talking about loading time, but there’s also streaming, which is a big component of our graphics I/O system together.
Myers: A thing that’s been a challenge for the last six years, all the current-gen architectures use a hard drive. You’re lucky if you get 15 megabytes per second sustaining that. Now you’re easily getting 150, and usually higher than that. When you build that out to be able to buffer out that kind of distance, you have to read ahead. You end up trying to find as much free memory as you can to try to bring things in so that they’re there when the player gets to them. You’re adapting to that.
Whereas now, with the new architecture, it’s so fast that you can rethink a lot of how you package stuff up and how fast you need to bring it in, how much free memory you need. If you look at the size of the RAM for an Xbox One X versus the Series X, there’s not too much of a difference, but you can use it more effectively now because you can essentially treat the SSD as another level of cache. It’s right there. We’re starting to use it now with this title, but it’s going to be an interesting thing for the industry to see where we can go with it.
GamesBeat: How much faster are the SSDs?
Myers: With the Sony numbers, you can get in the range of 5 gigabytes per second. But that’s always optimal. If you have a giant read you’re doing, that’s what you can get. But if you’re actually trying to gather a bunch of components, there’s overhead to that because you’re doing a lot of little seeks and such. The seeks aren’t the problem on an SSD, but just how you process that data internally, all the little buffers you need to read that in. That’s what Dan was getting at with rethinking how we get that stuff. We have a pretty difficult system for current-gen to make it work, and now for next-gen we can push some of those things further.
Gordon: As Dan was saying, there are things that were previously hidden because the I/O was so slow. Now, once you eliminate that, we’ve found new bottlenecks we never knew were there. It makes you rethink that.
GamesBeat: On Twitter, I notice that gamers care a whole lot about how big a game is now, how big a download is, how big Warzone became. Do you have to think about how many gigabytes the whole game is?
Olson: This is an interesting question, because there are three issues that you have to worry about, and they all play against each other. One of them is load times, which is especially a problem on current-gen. Another is the size of the game on disc, as you’re talking about, and then the other is the size of the updates, how much the player has to download. These three things are in a weird triangle. They all work against each other. You can optimize for one, but it will make another one worse, or both.
Coming out of Black Ops IV, we weren’t happy with how that balance was handled in our code. One of our more senior engineers took a crack at this and redesigned the system that we use to push updates to the game. Now we think we’re in a much better place. We’ve also got some additional compression that we didn’t have previously. We have a much better toolkit to be able to manage both the download size and the size on disc. We think we’re in a good place. I don’t know the exact numbers, but we’re definitely happier with our update sizes than we were on Black Ops IV.
Rich: It has been a priority for us, for sure, in the last six months of development. We’re making sure that both size on disc and download size would be as minimal as possible.
GamesBeat: I remember how I dealt with load times. I always had a second screen available. My smartphone was always handy, to check my email or something. I was doing that last night when I turned on the PS5’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Suddenly I didn’t have time to check my email anymore, because the game just started. You used to put in all kinds of images and tips on the loading screens. Is that not necessary anymore?
Gordon: We still have those. You’ve probably seen them in the multiplayer. We have these little intro cinematics that get you into the level and ground you in the level. You can see your character as well. That’s something we’ve done on all platforms. Some platforms are slower to load and might not play all of those.
Myers: It’s been an interesting challenge with cross-play. We’re trying to figure out how to balance that all together. The intro cinematics act as a nice way to segue people in. You might have somebody on a slower kit that might miss some of that, or you get somebody on the PS5 who gets in early. That, combined with being able to mess with your create-a-class through the load screen, is what we’re doing to keep people able to do stuff with the really nice kits. You can do other things while the other guys are catching up. Also, we do a decent amount of work to make sure that current-gen gets loaded as early as possible. But it’s a challenge, just because of the specs.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing there is you can opt out of the cross-play, right? That would speed it up. But then there are fewer people to play with, so maybe you have to wait longer for the match.
Gordon: There may also be creative ideas in the future for how you can fill that time with more activities that you can do.
GamesBeat: On the PS4, when I was playing multiplayer, I did notice that the load times had a pretty wide variation to them for Cold War. Sometimes I would get in fairly quickly, and other times it would even time out. Does that have anything to do with the console you’re on?
Gordon: The time out would have had to do with — Eran can talk about the variation, but the time out can be caused by just failing to get into the game when you get kicked back to the lobby. That could have been a bug you saw in the beta that has since been resolved. Eran spent a lot of time looking at the telemetry on that stuff, and there are some factors that affect it.
Rich: Basically, the more time you spend — we’re preloading the level. We’re taking advantage of the time you spend in the lobby with your friends and trying to load as much as possible for the level. It depends. There’s a big correlation between how long you’re waiting. One thing we as engine guys don’t like is that the map voting — it’s not my favorite because maybe nobody’s loaded a level but democracy says you want to play that map. Then we have to load a whole new level. Usually, you’ll get the best time if the map is already there if you spent enough time in the frontend. Then you get a much better loading time. We have a lot of telemetry, and we’re trying to learn from it. Even during Black Ops IV, over the life of the title, we kept on improving that.
We still have map voting, of course. Gamers come first. I’m talking as an engineer. I love numbers. That’s what I care about. But of course, it’s all about — if that’s what the players want, we’ll have to work with that.
Gordon: That was a core feature for us. It was important that we supported it.
GamesBeat: If you put it to me as, “Would you rather have your game load faster, or would you rather have your choice of the map at the last minute?” I might rather have it load faster. I don’t know.
Rich: We’re all split up over that.
GamesBeat: I know there’s both opportunity and challenge in the popularity of Warzone. If Warzone was on the Modern Warfare engine and then this new game is not and you’re trying to mix Cold War and Warzone together, then it sounds like that’s a challenge. These are different things, and you’re trying to get them to work together. Is that a fair assessment? How do you solve that?
Gordon: There are some challenges around how we mix between Cold War and Warzone. There are things we’ve been focused on for the last six months, making sure that experience and how we build on the success of each of our games is maximized for both Warzone and Cold War — how we can mingle those experiences and infuse the Cold War universe into Warzone.
GamesBeat: If I remember — if you were playing Warzone, and then you decided you wanted to buy Modern Warfare, it was pretty easy to do that. Is it going to be the same with Cold War as well? If I’m playing Warzone and I want to purchase Cold War, does that happen just as easily?
Gordon: Yes, yes. Even in the alpha and the beta, you could buy the full game of Cold War from within Warzone. That will only be improved in the final game.
GamesBeat: It’s seamless for the consumer, but is any of this stuff harder for you?
Gordon: There have been some unique challenges when you have the free-to-play existing at the same time as our game. But it’s also a massive benefit for us. We revealed our game inside of Warzone. We were ecstatic with how that turned out. It’s unique for our franchise and our games. It’s something we were proud of. It was so appropriate to this year, having a big event virtually, as opposed to being in a big hall in front of people all sitting close to each other. There are things that having that there has allowed us to do. We simply couldn’t do it otherwise.
GamesBeat: Was that hard to pull off? It seems like a big accomplishment. It doesn’t sound like you would have ever intended for that to happen inside Warzone when you first designed it.
Gordon: We always intended to do that sort of thing inside of Warzone. That was always our intention. It happened to coincide with all of this.
GamesBeat: Is that why the stadium is there?
Gordon: We knew we were going to do something. That was the logical choice. But we hadn’t decided on it when they built the stadium. Some of the challenges are — trying to align having the trailer ready in time for all the patches to go out. There’s a lot of coordination required to have stuff be ready for uploading. Making sure it doesn’t leak, which is huge. There are lots of tricks we have to do to keep the surprise from being spoiled before we get the chance to reveal it.
GamesBeat: There were all these clues inside the bunkers. Things happened differently during the reveal. The game was pointing me in a certain direction.
Gordon: That was a totally awesome cross-studio, cross-game thing. We were super grateful to all of our partners, between Raven and Infinity Ward. There was such great support to get that done.
GamesBeat: If you pull back out a bit, what’s the most difficult thing about this game on the technical side?
Rich: For us, it’s the fact that it is cross-platform, cross-generation. Two new consoles coming out at the same time. The number of permutations we have — if you take Xbox, for example, there are two platforms. We have to test on both of them. At the high end, with Xbox Series X, it can run with ray tracing, so we did ray tracing. We have to test with and without because this is a whole new piece of code we wrote. You can imagine that there’s a lot of testing to do there. It’s the same with Sony. There is some commonality with the previous generation, especially on the Xbox side, but a lot of work was just adding those extra two platforms. On the technical side, for sure, that was the biggest challenge.
GamesBeat: Mark, it sounds like this game really had to be done with one less year, too. It’s a two-year game for you.
Gordon: Treyarch got involved a bit later on. Raven had already been working on the campaign and setting the tone for the universe and the story and so on. We had a massive head start when we joined on later. We got running pretty quickly.
GamesBeat: Was this as big an all-hands sort of situation as Call of Duty has ever seen? It reminds me a bit of how Ubisoft does the Assassin’s Creed games, bringing in 500 people from 10 studios or something.
Gordon: There’s always a ton of collaboration to get these games out, especially when we’re getting them finished. What that does is kind of interesting. It gets to some level of individual ingenuity and differentiation between the games from the different studios. When you bring in people from other studios, you get the best of what they’ve learned from working on other games as well. You get ideas and technology coming along with them into the games. It pushes all the games at the same time. All of our teams will help out on shipping the other games when necessary. That’s part of how we’ve always operated, and how many of us actually got into the business.
GamesBeat: I remember Jason Schreier’s story. Looking from the outside, at least, it looked like this was the transition that happened, from three studios, one doing a game every three years, to something more massive where everyone had to be involved. I don’t know how correct that is, but that’s what it looked like, that this was the game where that transition happened.
Gordon: I can’t talk about the slate for the long term, but this year, in terms of the transition of adding Warzone into the mix, I think that has been transformational. I couldn’t say what that spells out for the future. There are lots of different ways that could net out. But I wouldn’t say that idea is exactly right.
GamesBeat: How do you think about some of the advances you’ve made and whether you’ll still use them? A year or two ago, you were talking about simulating every bullet, having correct animations and everything like that. All those things, do they simply continue with this game? Or do you revisit some of those things and change them?
Gordon: Generally what we try to do, we try to look at the best of what we had in the last game and improve and add to those things. We also look to what’s happened before in the games and take those things and incorporate them into our games and see if we can improve upon them as well. Things like the ballistics, for example, that’s one example of something that has moved on to this game.
GamesBeat: It sounds like the photogrammetry isn’t possible this time. The 1960s and 1980s aren’t here anymore.
Gordon: It’s actually a lot easier to do that, but I can pass that on to J.T. to talk it over. If you think about it another way, this is the first game in — the last two games have all been set in the future. We couldn’t take photographs of anything. This actually gives us an advantage.
Hooker: It’s interesting because we can draw from a lot of historical data. We have a big capture studio where they brought in period pieces and captured surfaces and brought them into the game. As far as our lighting, all of our lighting is based on measured values of lightbulbs and light fixtures of the time. They would take a physical model, capture it, get the measurements from the light coming from it, and then use those directly in the engine to light the areas and make everything look exactly the way you would expect for the time period.
Rich: If you think about a map like Satellite, which is all outdoors, that was all photographed. It’s a great example of how we use photogrammetry on a large-scale level. Before we started working from home, there used to be racks of clothes in the studio that our character team — they just scanned so much. I don’t know how much actually made it into the game. But they basically had a Hollywood wardrobe. It just kept coming in and out. They were scanning a lot. In this case, it was easy, because as J.T. said, it was only 30 or 40 years ago. All those clothes are still available.
Hooker: We have a physical space that we’ve recreated in the game, so they can go and take a person and dress them in period clothing, stand them in this space, do a bunch of photometric captures, and then recreate that same character and put them in the same space in the game and verify that everything’s working, everything looks period accurate. That goes directly into the levels.
Gordon: The thing about all the scanning stuff, since everyone shifted to work from home, the people who are responsible for that stuff have set up in their garages now. That stuff is recreated there. We just shipped everything to wherever it needs to be scanned. That’s how they handled it. The ingenuity has been amazing on this budget.
GamesBeat: What kind of effect does it have when you go from the memory capacity of the current generation to the next generation? What are people going to see that’s different?
Myers: The one thing we were mentioning before, a big challenge with the project was all the cross-play and cross-generation stuff. To facilitate that, we gave the artists and level designers tools so that they could make certain content be next-gen versus current-gen. They have to be careful, obviously, when dealing with cross-play, because you don’t want to have anything that’s gameplay-breaking.
The areas where you’ll see fidelity increases — texture is an easy one, because you can always up-res textures. We’re always creating higher fidelity assets just as a matter of procedure. For the last two games, we’ve always had a certain number of textures just get cut off, and they don’t make it to the game — whether because we can’t fit it on disc or because you can’t load it into memory because of the constraints of the system. Now we let those additional assets flow through on next-generation and PC. With the PC, you can dial that in your settings inside the control panel.
We can up-res a bunch of lighting information. All the shadow maps can be higher resolution. We have some geometry detail that gets bumped up. Some of our pre-tessellated stuff gets bumped up.
GamesBeat: How does that translate into things you would notice?
Myers: You’ll see finer detail, and you’ll see less — most people would perceive it as an increased sharpness, especially with some of the lighting. Shadow maps, when they tend to get low resolution, you lose a lot of the finer details, the tight little shadows on small pieces of geometry. If you have more memory, you’re going to get higher shadow maps there. But if you also go to the ray tracing we added, you effectively get perfect shadows. That was an interesting thing, getting the ray tracing working. This will be the first Call of Duty that has it on a console. The hardware there, it’s a real thing. We’re excited to use that to do proper shadows.
My whole career, I’ve been through — I started at Nvidia. I remember one of my peers saying “shadow maps are done” back in 2003 or something like that. We’re still battling that. But now, with the ray tracing hardware, it’s a true solution. It’s exciting to see that get more widespread adoption across different hardware.
GamesBeat: Is it easier to do something like snipe on the highest-end systems?
Myers: The interesting thing there, if you look at a lot of PC people, historically they tend to just dial their settings down as low as possible so they have the highest framerate. Contrast isn’t there. They want to get rid of all that, they can just see everything. In that space, I don’t know if the really competitive people are always going for perfect visuals compared to people who just want to enjoy the game.
In that same space, we also opened up the FOV slider for consoles now. There are definitely more widespread ways that people are seeing the game. The main things are to get all the lines of sight in place, the blockers and the like, so that people aren’t seeing the same thing.
GamesBeat: With PS5, is there a trade-off between going 4K and framerate?
Myers: We did hook up to — they have this quality versus speed setting. We respect that. We also support 120Hz, which I know is exciting for a lot of competitive people. It’s more like, if you want the ray tracing, you’re not going to be running at 120Hz. Some stuff doesn’t match up. If you want the top graphics and enjoy the campaign, you’ll probably set the [ray tracing] on and not run at 120, but if you want to be competitive and run at 120 and your TV — the other side of it is you have to have a TV that supports it. But you can do that as an option.
It’s not like you often have on PC, where there are 500 different variations. But you’ll see some options in the menus on the consoles to select things like that.
GamesBeat: Do you generally have a decision to make as far as 4K versus 120Hz?
Olson: Not really? It’s not that granular. 120Hz will have a lower resolution on the current hardware. But we’re excited about 120Hz for sure. We’ve spent a lot of time in previous projects trying to optimize our input latency, to make the feel of the game better for players. There was a GDC talk a couple of years ago from one of the Activision engineers about some of our work in that space. It’s much better when you’re able to just double the framerate because you get significantly better response times. We think players will appreciate it. But there is a decision to be made — do you want the best graphics or do you want the best response time? We leave it up to players. We don’t want to make that decision for them.
Rich: To qualify that, you’ll have to really look closely to see the differences in resolution. We made a decision on a level that it’s not “Oh, I’m running on 640×480 versus 4K.” It’s much closer to 4K. It looks really good, even at 120. But it’s not as we would expect from 4K.
GamesBeat: I consistently rank around the top 20% of players in multiplayer, which is sad, because I’m definitely not in the top 19%. I’m worse than 4 million or 5 million other people out there.
Rich: Well, you’re better than each and every one of us.
GamesBeat: The question is, how can I improve my chances of survival in Cold War multiplayer?
Gordon: The only answer is to play some more.
GamesBeat: The framerate question got me wondering if there’s an advantage to be found somewhere.
Gordon: It wouldn’t give you an unfair advantage. But if you tried the two side by side, the game just feels so much smoother when it’s at 120Hz. I remember the first time I saw it. I didn’t think it was much of a big deal. This was actually several games ago, on the PC. But it hands-down feels so smooth and responsive when you play it. It might not make you a better player, but it will make you feel better while you’re losing. There’s no inherent advantage.
GamesBeat: I was watching one of those videos on YouTube. “Here’s the perfect settings for controller players!” Some of them were good tips — how you can make the screen much wider to see more of your peripheral vision. It’s interesting how granular the players can become about perfecting their skills in this game.
Rich: That’s one thing that will be different in this generation. We never had any graphics options at all on the consoles. Now there are three or four. It’s not like the PC, where you have tens of options, but there are some options. Players are asking for that. We saw how there was a huge excitement about the different FOV options, player-controlled FOV on the consoles. We see from our telemetry that people are using it. It’s not just a small minority of players who are getting excited. I don’t remember the percentage, but it’s very high, the people who have changed their FOV from default.
Hooker: It really is about player choice because there is a tradeoff, even in the FOV equation. If you want a wider FOV so you have more peripheral vision, that means you’re going to have trouble spotting that sniper across the map, because he then becomes smaller on screen. It’s about your play style and your choice. There’s not an inherent advantage in just increasing your FOV.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about what you’re doing with haptics?
Olson: The haptic feedback on PS5 is something we’re excited to get into players’ hands and start getting feedback. What Sony has done with the controller is really interesting. It opens up a lot of possibilities.
We’ve made each weapon feel a little bit different. Different types of weapons feel different when you shoot them. Heavier weapons will feel heavier. Trigger tension will feel different. You’ll even get a bit of vibration in the trigger when you fire the gun, which is something new. It’s an interesting space, and there’s a lot of places we could go with it. We’re excited for players to try it out and give us feedback on it.
GamesBeat: Do you think you’ll have a lot of variation in player response?
Olson: Absolutely, I think so. We’ve already built in a bit of player choice around it, based on the strength of the feedback. If you really don’t like it, you can just disable it on the console. Some players will enjoy it and some players won’t, like anything. But it’s a very interesting way to increase the immersion of the game that’s not been explored this deeply before. It’s pretty cool that we’re able to get it in there. It’s mostly an additive feature. It doesn’t really subtract anything to not have it on Xbox. It’s more like something that Sony offered to developers, and we felt like it was a good thing to make use of, so we put it in there.
Gordon: I remember when that was first announced. A number of the engineers were really geeking out and wondering about the opportunities that could bring to the game.
GamesBeat: Is 3D audio a similar situation? Are there lots of possible variations there?
Rich: With 3D audio, we enhanced a lot of channels we were mixing in the sound. We can define more. It’s a very spatial sound now. You can tell if a sound is above or below, in addition the normal 5.1 or 7.1. We’re taking advantage of the new support from Sony’s HRTF, while Microsoft is supporting Dolby Atmos. Our audio makes for a great advantage. It’s game-changing, I think, if you have the right setup. You can really tell when someone is above or below you.
When we hooked up HRTF, our audio guy, Blair Bitonti, he messaged me and said, “Hey, you have to try it.” I tried just standing up and crawling. You can really hear things like bullets hitting behind you, even just with headphones. I switched between that and the PS4, and on PS4, everything is just flat. It makes a huge difference.
GamesBeat: Do you recommend that players use headphones if they really want to get the 3D audio effects?
Rich: If you have a Dolby Atmos setup with 11 speakers at home, maybe that’s better than headphones? But headphones will work really well, on both consoles. That’s one aspect of audio, using the hardware. But we also added physics-based simulation, physics-based modeling of the world. For example, if you have a door in front of you and someone is shooting on the other side of it, in the real world you’d hear the sound coming from the door. The world is much more modeled, more precise. It’s a cool technology. It also takes the materials of the world into account. The reverb is affected by that. It’s not just the shape and the distance of travel, but the material composition.
Over the years, as graphics engineers at least, we’ve always looked at the visuals. But when you start paying attention to audio, it completes the picture. It’s very cool.
GamesBeat: I do wonder about motion sickness. Many players aren’t affected by it, but some still are, especially in VR. Most Call of Duty games, I never have that problem. What do you think about that, and whether graphics can have an effect on it?
Gordon: Responsiveness is one thing. We have done some prototyping in VR in the past, and one of the things that really made everyone sick was when you took control out of the player’s hands. If you imagine that the head was looking in one direction and you were on the controller doing something else, that instantly made everyone sick. It’s something about being jerked around, pulled around, or if you have something snapping back. That might be the thing that affects it the most in this sort of game.
Hooker: The FOV slider helps quite a bit with motion sickness as well, depending where you’re sitting.
GamesBeat: For Call of Duty, do you think of that as a solved problem, or is it something you have to address each time?
Gordon: It isn’t a super common problem. We have had team members who were affected by it before.
Rich: Playing at 120 and sitting about a foot and a half from the monitor, that can lead to a bit of motion sickness.
Olson: This is one of the benefits of being triple-A and having a really large team. If somebody does do something that induces motion sickness, you’re probably going to hear about it. I remember playing Quake II back in high school. I had to put a border around my screen, things like that. I’m pretty susceptible. But it hasn’t triggered me in all these years working on Call of Duty. It’s in a pretty good place. But every once in a while you’ll see something in development and you’ll get motion sick. We take that feedback, and hopefully people can address it.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about the terrain editor and the improvements you’ve made?
Hooker: Our goal was to improve — we developed this for the larger maps, for things like Blackout. We’ve continued to improve on it, not only the look, but also the speed with which we can iterate so we’re able to let the designers throw down environments, make them look finished as fast as possible, play them, see what’s fun, and make changes as fast as possible. The whole time, we keep it looking as good as it can for next-gen and current-gen both.
It’s a hybrid of being able to procedurally create a massive world and then immediately lock things down and dial them in, going in and getting that level of precision that we need for competitive gameplay and for campaign, which is all about the visuals. We can procedurally place trees and a forest, but then get all the way down to, “I want to move this tree three inches.” It blends seamlessly with the terrain. We can do things like draw a road, and the road looks like it’s always been there in just a few clicks.
Making things natural was a big goal with the procedural content. It’s one thing for a designer to come down and draw a road, but to be able to have the machine follow up and naturally place pebbles along the side of the road, grass that transitions into taller grass — the machine is able to make things look natural much more quickly than a human would be able to. Even just in the placement of the trees and forests. They’re not in rows, but they’re also not random. They grow in clumps. This is built into the system. If someone goes and paints a forest, they’ll automatically get trees placed in a believable, natural way that your mind interprets as a forest. And then if a specific tree has to move for a sight line, they have the ability to do that.
GamesBeat: Does AI figure into this in any way? Things like AI testing or AI-generated content.
Myers: It’s an interesting area to look at in the future with this tech. Rather than AI, what we’ve aimed at so far is just fast and large-scale iteration. If a designer or an artist has an idea, it updates in real time. They can move the road, and all the trees around it move automatically. That’s something they control. In the future, maybe we can put a little more intelligence in the system. That would be interesting.
Rich: We build a lot of rules into the system. It’s not an AI, of course. But it does operate on rules the same way a simple AI algorithm would. We’re able to build a lot of very large maps, which is why we can do things like vehicles on maps. As J. T. said, iteration was important. It feels very natural. That was a big push for us, and I think it was very successful.
GamesBeat: How do you judge the scale of that kind of thing? How many players should be in a match? How many vehicles should be in a map? You don’t have as many limitations on size anymore.
Rich: I always look at it as, we’re building a sandbox for the people on the gameplay side of the studio so they can do whatever they want. We want to enable them to build levels. If they want to add vehicles, great. If they want 40 players, go ahead. We’re not just limited to corridors anymore, like the old games. It’s amazing how creative the team can be when we give them this technology. And they push us to keep on innovating. The feature list that they asked for on future games is longer than what we’ve done so far. It’s a great collaboration with the rest of the studio.
GamesBeat: And all this has happened while working at home since the spring.
Gordon: We really suddenly had to transition to working from home. Most of us had never done it for any extended period of time, and then all of a sudden we had — I think we had one day to prepare. We thought it would be two or four weeks of being outside the office. And then all of a sudden, no, this is real, and we have to figure out how to do this. We previously felt that us all being together in an office was part of — it’s how we’ve made games, many of us, for more than a decade together. That was a core part of the magic. How do we recreate that when we’re all spread out across different parts of the globe now?
The first thing we did was focus on communication. Over the years, Slack has become more and more important to how we communicate. We’re relying on that even more. This is our third video-conferencing software that we’ve gone through in the past eight months. Good riddance to the last one, which was terrible. I mentioned the engineering team having people set up scanning stations at home. We’ve had mocap solutions that people can do at home. One of our animators actually performs mocap himself for a lot of parts of the game, which is an amazing feat of technology.
Voice-over and motion capture were things that caught us by surprise as we were finishing up the game. It was getting to the point where we were going into heavy usage of that stuff, and then all of a sudden they were stopped dead. We had to work out places in the world we could still do it, or ways people could do it from their own homes.
All of us have worked out ways to come together and have this be a real singular focus. A lot of people have used — for us, it’s been a great thing to focus on where so much else has been going on in the world. People have wanted something else to focus on, something positive that they could put their mind and energy into.
The team has come together and managed to do something that we never thought would happen, and when it did happen, we had no idea how we were going to solve it. I think back to eight months ago. We had no idea how we were going to make this work. It’s been so many things, small and large. Even the way we’re doing things like rolling out the game, revealing the game, it’s unlike anything anyone’s ever done before. The Warzone reveal of our game was something just worked out perfectly for us in that regard.
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