Now that the multiplayer for this year’s Call Of Duty has been seen –
and played – in public the series’ annual journey from Internet rumour to Christmas number one is almost complete. Every year Activision tries to prove that the new game is different enough from the last to justify a new purchase, but with Black Ops II the differences barely need to be exaggerated.
The new near future setting (with a bit of ‘80s Cold War through in for the campaign mode) and Strike Force missions (which mix real-time strategy elements with branching storylines) are genuinely new ideas for the franchise. But the heart of the game is still the multiplayer and Black Ops II’s long term success, and record-breaking potential, will depend almost solely on whether it can keep gamers working on their killstreaks (now score streaks) and prestige levels.
So at the recent Gamescom event in Germany we quizzed Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia about what makes Black Ops II’s multiplayer different, the reasoning behind the new focus on eSports, and how he and his team settled on the game’s new high tech toys and weapons…
Video: Check out the
Call Of Duty: Black Ops II multiplayer footage
Is not the problem with eSports the fact that it just isn’t much fun to watch other people play video games? Does someone already have to be deeply immersed in a game in order to want to do so?
ML: No, I actually don’t think so. I think that if you watch a properly commentated and interesting production of Call Of Duty it is an interesting and fun experience. And not just to watch the game, but people start talking about the players and their tactics and they start following it like anything else. So I think our challenge was to make sure people could generate that kind of content. Give people the ability to do that, and as you’ve seen you give people tools and they get very creative. I mean our Theatre tool became very popular. You might argue that it’s not much fun to watch a game, which by the way I actually fundamentally disagree with…
Well, I’m speaking generally. I’ll admit there certainly are exceptions.
ML: Just say we’re doing eSports and we’re not going to give you guys any tools, I think that road is a much more difficult road. So I agree that we had to spend time giving people some context. You watch a match and you need to know the score, you need to know the countdown timer, you need to know what’s going on in the battle space. And you need someone that actually understands the game, because each match is almost like a story – and who’s going to tell you that story?
So even if you haven’t played the game I can see people being interested in that experience. Perhaps then they want to play or they just want to watch it.
But I have to admit I still found it quite difficult to follow exactly what was going on in the example match you had on Monday. Would a third person view not be more help when trying to gauge a player’s position in a map?
ML: There is a third person view. You simply toggle it to third person and you watch it in that view and you’ll see people doing that, because it’s a different view of the battlefield.
So does that not help more with trying to portray the wider picture? I mean I’m just guessing, it seem like it would to me but I imagine you’ve actually tried it…
ML: I have and what’s interesting… if I can take just two steps back. You said, ‘I didn’t follow it’. So if you think about the first time you watched a sport, the rules and the things that were going on… you couldn’t make complete sense of them.
I certainly couldn’t at the Olympics.
ML: Exactly, and it took a few times watching it and someone explaining it to understand what was going on. And it was likely the commentators that helped you learn about the drama, the tension of what’s going on in there. And so I think that’s what’s going to be important. A commentator who is able to show the battlefield in different ways, whether it’s the map views so you can start to get an idea of, ‘Okay there’s people converging on a spot’. Did you play Hardpoint?
ML: I love commentating on the Hardpoint. I love starting out in the map view, you just see all the people going like this [pantomines a rush of people dispersing at random, or possibly a star going supernova – GC]. And you start to see what’s going on, and then you can head into someone – watch the battle. You can follow them in third person, you don’t have to go into first person at all, and do that. So I think that’s a creative preference that people will have. And maybe you will want to watch only matches that are in third person. There are certain people that only want that first person view, they want to see what the player’s seeing. It’s almost like having a cam on the player’s head, which is kind of interesting as well.
So the fact that we can do that and give that control to the commentators, I think is a powerful part of this. And I think people are going to use this in amazing ways. We’re creating the functionality and the flexibility, but it’s up to the CODcaster to figure out the best way to tell that story.
With so much emphasis on the skill of the commentator is there a reward system for doing well? Or some kind of ranking system?
ML: The world will do that for us, we know that. Great content… people will know.
But you won’t try to specifically reward them yourselves?
ML: There may be ways that we can do that, but I’m not too worried about… the CODcasting feature is available in private games and custom games. It’s specifically set-up for people who… the other thing you can do is commentate a game that’s in the Theatre, after. Which people might do. If there’s a really great match that I want to commentate over, I want to CODcast that. You’ll be able to go back in and do that.
So, the point is you’re going to see really great commentating, and you’ll probably see the whole range and spectrum in between, but I think what you’ll find is that people will gravitate towards high quality commentating. I think there’s different sorts of personalities that are going to emerge, there’ll probably be humorous commentators and… all kinds of stuff.
It’s not hard to imagine this being abused though. If someone starts CODcasting to people about something unpleasant at what point will you find out about it?
ML: The Internet is on and people will put up content, right? That will have its own regulation.
So you’re just relying on users to report offensive content?
ML: That is one way that clearly happens, but there are also – depending on where this content lands – there are also places that that is regulated.
One of the first things I noticed people talking about in regards to the multiplayer is whether you will have dedicated servers or not?
ML: Yeah, so we have our own propriety networking model that we don’t disclose exactly how we do what we do. But on our PC game in the past we’ve had dedicated servers, so that’s not something that we’re not familiar with.
But will you have it on consoles?
ML: It’s a propriety mode that we’re not discussing. But it’s a network model, it is complex, and to handle all these different kinds of modes and different situations…
Would you ever have a rent-a-server option similar to Battlefield 3?
ML: I couldn’t even speculate on that.
So it’s not something you’d rule out?
ML: We’re not talking about the networking model so I can’t get into that for you. But I… sorry, it’s just we’re not talking about it.
The whole Battlefield 3 situation does seem very odd though, it’s really divided that community…
ML: [visibly bites tongue]
Okay, so at what point did you know you wanted a near future setting? Was that the idea from the start or just a natural result of wanting so many new weapons and equipment in the game?
ML: It’s part of the creative process, coming off of Black Ops – even before Black Ops was finished, when we were in submission with the game we started talking about what it is we wanted to create with the next game. So job done on Black Ops, hasn’t released yet, team starts to discuss all the different things and clearly one of the major things that we wanted to do, we had creative ambitions on the campaign, that we were talking about the story and also in our multiplayer context – absolutely. We were talking about, ‘Look at how creative we made this ‘60s era, and all the creative weapons.’
With a new era and being able to take some creative liberties and being able to put it out just out beyond where I think people can obviously predict where everything is going we can create entirely new gameplay, not just in multiplayer but also in the campaign. So let me give you a good example. The Dragonfire [a flying drone with a minigun attached to the bottom, previously known as the Quadrotor – GC]. Did you see that?
I seem to remember getting shot by it, yes.
Did you see it in the campaign as well?
I did, yes.
ML: In that video, in the campaign, you were playing that with the squad game mechanic – and it was a squad mate of yours. In the Strike Force level you could pilot it or fight it. In the multiplayer you could pilot it or you had to fight it, or get shot by it, as a score streak. So yeah, clearly what that means is new AI and fun new gameplay that we wanted to introduce, and wrap it around a fiction.
I don’t actually characterise it as sci-fi. It’s science-based but we try not to go into the fantasy realm. Whether or not this is ever even plausible or possible hopefully it doesn’t feel fantasy.
It’s interesting you say that, because one of my favourite rants is how so many sci-fi games have lost the ability to suspend disbelief. It always amazes me that in Mass Effect they’re wandering around with machineguns, even though they seem to have broken every law of physics known to man.
ML: So we’ve got the microwave energy, which is sort of…
Exactly, that’s more sci-fi than most sci-fi games, and it was the same in the recent Ghost Recon game – which many people dismissed as too sci-fi even though it was clearly quite well researched. Are you trying not to be too fantastical specifically because you recognise this reticence to suspend disbelief even in a video game?
ML: No, no. If that was our goal we could very easily do it. I think that was actually a very interesting challenge for us, we were making a game that was in the near future not far out future. And so it was actually a big creative challenge to make sure it was like, ‘Okay, we want to have a game that is not too far out but far out enough that there will be a lot of new technologies that will come into play’.
But what made you place those limitations on yourself? Was it because it would change the gameplay too much?
ML: Well, it would change the gameplay significantly if you had energy-based weapons versus projectile-based weapons. But our game, that we wanted to make, we wanted to have projectile-based weapons, right? It does change the gameplay, a lot, if you do have a lot of energy-based weapons. So that’s a creative choice that we made. I hear what you’re saying and if we want to make a sci-fi game we can do that, but that just wasn’t what we wanted to make.
In terms of the weapon attachments in particular, where they all based on research or where you just making up things that seemed cool or would aid the gameplay?
ML: Yes! Yes, all those things. All those things. There’s a balance.
The Millimetre Scanner for example, that lets you see through walls, is that a real thing?
ML: So that’s a very good example. So how would you guys come up with that? That seems pretty far out there. Here’s how we do it: so when we want to come up with a cool gameplay mechanic and a future-ised piece of technology we actually create internally our own story for how that came about, and is that even remotely possible? And then if we’re not sure or not we’ll decide whether we’ll take creative licence or not.
Here’s how we deal with that one: Millimetre Wave Scanner. You flew here today, did you go via one of those booths where you had to hold your arms out?
Well, no but I’ve been in the American ones like that.
ML: So, the inspiration for the Millimetre Scanner was literally drawn from that. Except right now…
They’re big machines.
ML: They’re big machines! Well, as processing power increases and we know that as things become more powerful you can get things in smaller form factors. That’s the creative process, that’s entirely made up – by us – but it draws upon an inspiration from today. What we try to do is take today and go and say, ‘Okay, where can we see some of these technologies going? And does it make sense for gameplay?’
Sometimes we start with gameplay and back into it, sometimes it starts with inspiration of something out there and, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool in gameplay?’ and sometimes it might make sense. But that’s a perfect example you used right there.
I assume this question must come up a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever asked it of any of the Call Of Duty guys: do you ever intended to include pilotable vehicles in Call Of Duty multiplayer?
ML: We have done. Have you driven the A.G.R. [the remote control tank –GC], have you flown the Dragonfire? The core gameplay is that you’re a soldier on foot, but we have these gameplay mechanics that allow you to control…
Okay, yeah. I guess. But is there some technical limitation preventing you from having larger vehicles or levels?
You won’t get to the next gen and think, ‘Oh, we can have vehicles now!’
ML: No, no. No. So let me give you a perfect example of that. So, four years ago we made a game called Call Of Duty: World At War. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. Did you play the multiplayer? Did you drive the tanks?
ML: Let me go back six years ago and Call Of Duty 3. You could drive vehicles in that too and that was our first game of this generation for Call Of Duty. So we are more than capable, it’s just not creatively where we’re headed with the game design. So it is not a technical issue, it’s just a very complex game where you have to make choices about where you’re placing your emphasis. We do have vehicles, they are more rewards – they’re set-up almost in a way like mini-games that you get to play, in some instances. We have them in the campaign but the core experience is weapon in hand, boots on the ground.
So will Call Of Duty always be close combat, infantry warfare?
ML: I have no idea what we’re going to do after this. But it’s not a technical limitation of our technology or the hardware. It’s pure choice.
And just finally, you’ve already said that 2025 is the only setting for the multiplayer but is there not a thought to have at least some maps that use the ‘80s setting from the campaign story? I mean the music would be better for a start.
ML: [laughs] As a child of the ‘80s I couldn’t agree with you more on the music part.
But all you have to do is have a DeLorean or something coming in and you can still use the same weapons.
ML: [laughs] The multiplayer, because it’s a systems-based game and we have all the fiction tied into it with the technology and everything – it is set for the year 2025. But as you know some of the weapons that we’ve had have been around for many, many years and you’ll still see some of those weapons in that timeframe. It’s really about how they’ve evolved and the technology that’s going to be put on weapons. That was kind of our creative approach to this.
You’ll see some future-ised weapons, you’ll see some weapons that you can see today that have been around even for a little while. Just right now if you look back you can see an AK-47 which has been around for a long time but has also evolved. So you’ll have some of those things in the game.
But I think what’s interesting is that you’ve seen the Yemen level, well for all intents and purposes that level, the environment around you is probably a hundred years old at that point. But there’s bits and pieces in some of the rooms that shows you there’s some technology around. So when you say ‘Go back to the ‘80s’ it’s not necessary. Our future fiction for the multiplayer is set in the year 2025 so we can have all that stuff available. So it’s a creative choice.
So there’s no multiplayer level set during a Pet Shop Boys concert in the ‘80s?
ML: [laughs] No, no there’s not.
Okay, great. Thanks for your time, I know you overran a bit there.
ML: No problem, that was good – I enjoyed it.
Formats: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC
Developer: Terminal Reality
Release Date: 2013
Video: Check out the
Call Of Duty: Black Ops II multiplayer footage
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