The developers speak out
As part of my recent visit with Treyarch covering the upcoming release of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, I had the opportunity to sit down with three of the key figures behind this year’s entry into the Call of Duty franchise.
With me were David Vonderhaar, studio design director, Mark Lamia, president and studio head of Treyarch, and Jason Blundell, campaign director and senior executive producer.
Here, they touch on subjects ranging from multiplayer complexity to the whole 1080p/60 FPS debate.
Q: With regards to multiplayer, how do you balance something too complicated versus something that a more casual player can jump into?
David Vonderhaar: We have some philosophies about how we approach our games in general and one of them is we always want the game to be as accessible as possible. We don’t add too much complexity and depth to the specific features that we add to the game.
But we have an over-arching kind of philosophy about making it fun to fail and being fun to fail means that you don’t have to be good at the game to be having a good time. That’s one of those things we really push in a big way.
No matter how many features the game has, we want to make sure there is something for everybody to do and still have fun regardless of whether their the best K/D in the game or the best slayer or whatever, they should just be having fun.
There’s many times in the match where I will willingly throw myself to a wall run that I know I’m going to get killed on just because of that thrill of taking that action, that risk verse reward of it is so much fun.
I think that resonates with players of all skill ranges, especially some of the lower-end skilled players because they can do these things and feel like they’ve made an accomplishment, whether they are getting a kill or not.
The other thing is that every mechanic we’ve added should be extremely accessible to players to use.
For example, when you’ve added specialists, we communicate very clearly to players, hey, this big yellow ring just lit up and it’s ready for you to use. We’ve printed on screen, hey, this thing is ready, press your R1/L1 buttons at the same time to use it.
We make it very clear how to do it and those moments when you choose to use it are at your discretion. Whether you’re a good player, a not-skilled player, whatever, you don’t even have to use the weapon if you don’t want to.
You don’t have to use the ability if you don’t want to. You don’t have to make that thrust jump into the second-floor window if you don’t feel comfortable doing that.
Everything is really just at your discretion and how you want to employ it in the match.
Mark Lamia: Underlying the design philosophy across everything is and always has to be accessible, but also, if you’re going to play it for a long time or as many hours as we hope people enjoy playing this game, it’s got to have depth.
There is definitely depth to all of it. That’s how you get the replayability.
The Specialist was designed in such a way … you’re just going to choose to get a power or ability that you wouldn’t otherwise get if you weren’t good enough to play to earn a scorestreak. We’re going to give you the feeling of that power. Yeah it might happen more quickly if you’re really good, but you’re going to get that multiple times throughout the match.
Q: So that’s something you guys always keep in mind? Not to get too complicated with things?
Mark: Oh yeah. The UX design goes through a usability testing. We go through multiple passes of that to make sure the flow of getting into the game is super simple.
The number of clicks or presses of the keyboard is something we think about, all of those things. It’s built into our matchmaking philosophy and even built into how you get together. We wanted to make that super simple too.
Q: How do you experience the single player aspect of the game?
Jason Blundell: It’s really about you as the player. In this campaign, you can choose whether you’re a male or a female. And that will run through the entire campaign.
There is a male player character voice and a female player character voice and animation set for all that stuff. But how you choose to customize that character in terms of their body, their equipment and weapons, it’s all reflective.
About the camera system, that’s a third-person camera view that you saw there (during the presentation). That’s the first time inCall of Duty that we’re employing a third-person camera system.
That’s really to give another ability to tell narrative in the game. We’re not losing first-person. First-person shared is what we’re calling it. If you got experiences where you move into the same place, then you got first-person non-shared. Like you’re firing on the gun and maybe a co-op player is running around defending out the windows at that point and they can turn and see you doing the action.
Combining all those things together is allowing us to let you identify with who you are. See it and then be able to connect to that story.
In single player, is there AI to take the place of spots that would otherwise be filled by co-op players?
Jason: You got hero NPCs. But if you’ve not got the three other people, then it’s just you. We don’t insert faux AI to represent other people.
Does the difficulty of the game or level ramp up depending on the number of co-op players there?
Jason: Taking on the challenge to create a new AI system and changing up fundamentally how AI reacted was a huge undertaking and a very ambitious one in terms of we had to do it because co-op players can move around that space and have different abilities and get into these bigger and larger maps.
So when you do that and have different powers and abilities, we exposed all these kind of knobs and dials that we can then use to then ramp it, scale it.
Mark: It’s adaptive AI for the number of players that you come in with. If you come in with more humans, we would scale the difficulty appropriately.
Jason: Actually, when we do the analysis of it, it’s actually an exponential curve as well as you go from one to two to three to four. It actually becomes with human players playing it a lot easier, so we scaled the types (of AI) as well.
So it could just not be, hey one guy comes out that door. It’s not just, oh you got two players, so two players come out that door. It could be now we have archetypes, it could be a different type of character that comes out that door. It also could be a different type and multiple types that come out that door.
We have control over all those things as well with this new AI system.
With more systems in place for multiplayer, how do you handle the potential that better players will have more advantages than before?
David: Whether or not that is true comes down to tuning and how do we convey information to players that other players are doing throughout the game at any point in time.
The good things is that every single feature and mechanic that we put into the game has a lot of tuning parameters to it. We are always tuning, always looking at the statistics and numbers.
The interesting thing is that with Specialists, because it’s earned based on a combination of both time and score, you can tune it independently with both of those variables. For example, if you wanted to make it easier for less-skilled players to get and make it harder for more-skilled players to get, you just tune back how much score feeds into that meter.
We’re going to lean to make this a very general purpose thing that every player can get into and use equally.
Mark: Black Ops III is a very gun-skilled based game, just like Black Ops II. I believe that if you’re skilled at using your weapon in Black Ops II, you will also find yourself comfortable and also very skilled and vice versa.
The difference is there will be some opportunities with these powers and abilities that you wouldn’t normally have access to if you weren’t as skilled. We definitely want to reward skilled players, but it’s a fine balance there.
Regarding the debate between 1080p and 60 FPS on consoles, is there a set standard you are going for or is there going to be a difference between the Xbox One version and PlayStation 4 version?
Mark: Our goal is to just make the best looking game we can at 60 frames per second. What you guys were playing was on the PS4 and was at 1080p and 60 frames per second. And the PC version I believe was running at 60, but I have seen it run much higher than that.
It all comes down to decisions about what will make the best looking games. It’s really easy to just say that 1080p is just what looks best, but that’s not entirely accurate or true. I think what looks the best is what looks the best.
If I can introduce an effect in a particular situation, as long as I have that running at 60 frames per second, whether it’s 1080p or not, I don’t even know if you can tell. I don’t know if people can even perceive that.
I just feel like that seems to be something that is a hot button topic, but I think there’s more to it.
So what exactly are you going for? 60 FPS on everything?
Mark: Yes, absolutely. We always go for 60. Whatever we do is 60 frames per second. Right now it’s running at 1080p. I don’t know what else my graphics engineers are going to come to me or my artists are gonna say, look at this, and if it did look better and it was running at a lower 900p and scaled up to 1080p, I’m not sure if you would know the difference.
Past Call of Duty games have been criticized for narrow spaces and going in one direction. How has this changed?
Jason: One of the distinct changes for Black Ops III is opening up the space, really giving you area combat. We’re investing a lot of time into the AI to keep giving you engaging moments and then obviously the cinematic moments were put in there.
Mark: But there’s a variety of moments. When we need you to take in some narrative so that you understand what’s going on in the world, we may slow down the pace. We may want to tell you some story and do a little bit of storytelling and that may be more appropriate before we open it up.
There’s lots of open area spaces where you’re off the rails. But there’s also other spaces. There’s just a variety.
Is the player progression in single player, zombies, and multiplayer separated?
Mark: They are all distinct player progression systems. However, there may be things you can earn in one mode that you can then use in another mode. Like say you earn a camo or something like that. So there is some of that going on. But, the level progressions are different because they are different games.
Tell us more about the AI system?
Jason: First of all, it’s a brand new AI system. Any criticism laid before is gone. It’s a brand new AI system from the ground up with a brand new animation set as well.
When I talk about the archetypes, that’s multiple different types of AI in terms of how they respond. It’s not just a different kind of guy with a different paint job, it’s how he approaches the battle, the weapons he has.
About how long will the single player campaign be?
Mark: So far, it looks like it’s going to be the longest campaign we ever had. But those kinds of questions are difficult to answer because we’re not done making the game. But it’s clocking in as a single play through right now longer than anything we’ve ever delivered.
Because it’s co-op and because people will go back and play with friends and because it has variety, I think there’s more than a single play through going on here.