Call of Duty: Black Ops Interview

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posted 12/4/2010 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
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One of the harder things we have to deal with at Gaming Nexus is that sometimes our interview requests get lost.  This happens a lot and it happened with our interview with the Treyarch folks (who are a little busy these days supporting the game).  Sure the game  has been on store shelves for almost a month (and sold tens of millions of copies to boot) but there are still a few interesting nuggets about the game that you might find interesting.

Could you introduce yourself and talk about your role on the project? What kinds of things do you do on a daily basis on the game?
My name is Josh Olin (aka JD_2020), and I’m Treyarch’s Community Manager. I interface directly with the fans of the franchise to ensure their voice is heard here at the studio, and to provide them updates on relevant happenings around Treyarch’s current projects.

Do you feel like you’re under a ton of pressure following arguably the most successful iteration of the COD franchise or are you just committed to making the best game possible? Were you at all impacted by the situation at Infinity Ward?
We put a ton of pressure on ourselves up front when beginning the Call of Duty: Black Ops project, regardless of the industry climate. Every new Call of Duty game seeks to take a big step forward from the previous entry, and Black Ops is no different.


Lots of games and studios, most recently Medal of Honor, have hired military and technical advisors; given the sensitive nature of the era that's covered, in every context of that term from the range of emotional sensitivity to the Vietnam era to the fact that many of the real-world actions that are represented in the game are still classified. Whom did you contact and what kind of information were they able to provide? Could you talk about some specific changes they suggested or advice they offered?
Retired Lt. Colonel Hank Keirsey (US Army) has been the Military Advisor for the Call of Duty franchise since its inception. His expertise is always valuable, and very helpful in the creation of Black Ops.

For this project, we brought in additional advisors with first-hand experience in Cold War military tactics. Major John Plaster, formerly of SOG (the Studies and Observations Group) was actually on the ground in Vietnam, carrying out similar missions to the ones we depict in Black Ops. He was able to provide first-hand anecdotal stories that really inspired the development team to create some of the compelling visuals on screen.

We also met with Sonny Puzikas, a former Russian Spetsnaz operative. He provided a tremendous amount of insight into how their training and tactics different from ours. We were able to actually build an in-game enemy AI type out of what Sonny taught us, which make the Spetsnaz soldiers in Black Ops a far more formidable opponent than in any other COD game to date!


In writing a game essentially about the Cold War and having so many conflicts to choose from (Korea, numerous African bush wars, Cuba, Vietnam, etc etc), what influenced your setting decisions? Could you talk about a few locales that you thought about and then scuttled for one reason or another?
Call of Duty: Black Ops isn’t actually about the Cold War, per se. It just takes place during the Cold War. It’s really about a specific fictional conflict that you are trying to resolve, that took place during that era. As such, any locale that could have relevance to our storyline was fair game – and it worked out well, since the Cold War was very much so a global conflict. There were deniable operations being carried out pretty much on every continent during that era.

Vietnam was such a major conflict during the era, it would have been difficult to avoid it. It also offered such a wealth of great material to work with as game creators, we found ourselves struggling to pick which elements from Vietnam to cover in the game. As you well know, Black Ops isn’t just about Vietnam. But there was so much material there, it’s almost like we could have made a full game just out of the Vietnam conflict. Having more options than you know what to do with can be a great thing, but also a pretty frustrating thing when picking just what interesting elements to cram into the box!


What did your team do to get in the Vietnam era mindset? What movies did you watch, what music did you listen to, etc etc? How did you avoid getting caught in the cliche’s of the era?
There’s a ton of era-specific cultural references to play off of. From movies, music, novels, other games. We feed off all of it, and of course toss our own creative mindset into the mix.


Call of Duty has a reputation as a fairly realistic series as far as equipment and weaponry, but there's been a departure from that starting in World at War (using the "aperture sights" and alien blaster as an example). Now in Black Ops, you have a variety of weapons that have modifications that did not exist at the time. I've heard the "these operators had the ability to customize weapons" argument and I can suspend my disbelief to a certain degree, but I wonder what is the guiding design philosophy; after introducing alien weapons in WaW, where do you feel your creative boundaries are?
The Call of Duty series has always been about entertaining players with an immersive narrative experience set within a historical context. It’s an entertainment product first and foremost, and that’s been the case going all the way back to the original. From a design perspective, the franchise has also been strong in providing players with a ton of gameplay variety. Our guiding design philosophy is to continue the tradition of building an immersive fictional narrative while providing players with a wide variety of weaponry and gadgets that stay true to the greater Cold War era.

What’s interesting about the Cold War as a period in history was that so much of it was shrouded in mystery, even to this day. The SOG and other CIA field operatives were given a wide range of prototype and modified weaponry, and that gave us a perfect foundation to be creative in providing gameplay variety to players. We had to be able to utilize weapons that were within a few years of our narrative in order to support the Black Ops fiction, make sure gamers have enough gameplay variety, and still maintain a feeling of authenticity.

Now, ray guns and alien weapons? You must be talking about Zombies… we’ve been open about the fact that the fiction of Zombies is completely separate from the story campaign, and the same rules don’t apply. Anything is fair game – even our medium of story-telling is completely different. You have to look for the hidden clues and participate in the community of fans to follow the story in Zombies.


Will Call of Duty: Black Ops have the same opt-out choice for the more disturbing content like World at War did? Did Treyarch receive positive feedback from putting that in the last entry they worked on?
Yes, and yes. We’ve heard a lot of great feedback from people who appreciate that we provide this option.

How does the 3D on the Xbox 360 work without native support built into the device? Was it difficult to add the 3D functionality for the Xbox 360? Will you develop future cross platform or Xbox 360 games with 3D as a feature?
Stereoscopic 3D is simply the rendering of each frame twice, side-by-side. The Xbox 360 hardware is perfectly capable of this feat. So while you may have to set your TV and game to 3D on the 360, this is a small couple of button presses to experience the spectacular 3D effects Black Ops is capable of.

Stereoscopic 3D is also supported on the PlayStation 3 and the PC as well. The PC in-fact can achieve even more stunning visuals with the added processing power of high-end rigs. You can crank up the resolution and obtain some stellar visuals not possible on the other console counterparts!


What new things can we expect on the multiplayer side? I know you have to say you love both of your children equally but was more development effort put into the single or multiplayer side of the game?
It’s not best to measure it in terms of “equal” so much as “ample.” All 3 teams (SP, MP, and Zombies) have ample development resources allocated to deliver the game design we intended. Many of the disciplines are shared as well.

Multiplayer was designed in parallel with Singleplayer from day 1 of development.


Modern Warfare 2 had some serious issues at launch with cheats and glitching. What are you doing to ensure that doesn’t happen with Black Ops?
We have always been strong supporters of our community and maintaining the quality of the game post-launch, and we’re putting an even bigger effort forth on Black Ops.

For one, we are cracking down on players who exploit or mod the game. We’ve developed a suite of tools for use both in-game and internally at the studio to identify and enforce our policies.

We have a live ops team that monitors and tracks players who don’t play by the rules and ruin the experience for everyone else. We’ve already been very active in enforcing this.


Why the decision to bring the zombie mode back? Do you think that’s going to become a signature of all Treyarch Call of Duty games from here on out or not?
I think the better question would be, why wouldn’t we? It was arguably the most popular aspect of Co-Op in World at War, and essentially developed its very own cult following. It is something Treyarch’s fans have been looking forward to for the last two years, and with so many questions still yet to be answered, these next two years will be especially interesting ;).

We'd like to thank Josh for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Wiebke who helped coordinate the interview.