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Treyarch Talks Designing Black Ops III And What An Extra Year Does For Call Of Duty

by Brian Shea on Apr 29, 2015 at 01:20 PM

The Call of Duty franchise is often criticized for its iterative nature. With Black Ops III, Treyarch is hoping to address those complaints through a bevy of new additions to the gameplay. From the MOBA-inspired Specialists to the Titanfall-like movement mechanics, Black Ops III has ambitions to deliver the biggest steps forward the series has seen when it launches on November 6.

During a recent visit to Treyarch, we participated in a roundtable discussion with studio head Mark Lamia, campaign director and executive producer Jason Blundell, and game director Dan Bunting about the new design, mechanics, and features making their way into the latest Call of Duty.

Designing Immersion With New Parameters

Black Ops III is the first Treyarch made Call of Duty game given a three-year development cycle thanks to the addition of Sledgehammer Games to the rotation. According to the team, the added year of development was of utmost importance for all of the changes and additions to this year’s release.

For the campaign, players are not only given new abilities that can be used on any level, but those levels are designed to be more open and playable with up to four players. All of these changes inspired Treyarch to take a new approach to artificial intelligence in Black Ops III, allowing for different experiences over the course of multiple playthroughs. “The A.I. system is completely rewritten.” Lamia says. “It’s adaptive, it has to deal with emergent situations, it has to deal with the variety of different characters that you have. Call of Duty hasn’t seen a new A.I. system in a very long time.”

Treyarch also reworked its graphics engine for this release to include deferred render and new lighting and effects systems. “I wanted to bring back just those insane battles that only Call of Duty could do,” Lamia says. “There is so much stuff going on that we simply could not render all of that at that quality at 60 frames per second. You just can’t do that unless you do an overhaul of that whole system.”

On the next page, we discuss how Treyarch anticipated the technology of 2060 in Black Ops III.

Predicting The Future

The futuristic technology in Black Ops III has progressed dramatically from the previous entry in the series. With cybernetic augmentations that allow for extraordinary abilities on the battlefield and a Direct Neural Interface that lets you communicate with comrades like never before, Treyarch has made a lot of assumptions about where technology will be heading in 2060.

“It very much is our opinion of the future from our Black Ops universe because we made certain statements about 2025 and we don’t know,” Blundell says. “And then you move on to 2060 and you’ve got to build on that. In some ways, it’s a continual effort to kind of move far enough ahead and if you’re pitching far enough ahead on some level, you think ‘Well, did I just go too sci-fi?’ No, actually, because the technology is racing far faster than you could possibly imagine, so I think we’re striking a really good balance in terms of taking the assumptions we’ve made from Black Ops II and then taking what we feel is a logical step forward into the realms of Black Ops III, but we’ll have to wait until 2060 to see if I’m wrong.”

Many of the assumptions made in Black Ops III sound outlandish, but the technology is rooted in what we already have and research into what we could have by the time 2060 rolls around. At one point in the conversation, Bunting recalls the research he put in to show to Lamia that underwater bullet prototypes are in development to support the idea of implementing underwater combat in this game. These kinds of exchanges seem as though they were common during the conceptualization phase of Black Ops III.

“This is clearly a fiction, but you’d be surprised at the amount of research they go through – or I make them go through – when I go ‘really?!’ as they come up with their next [idea],” Lamia says. “Of course, whatever we do has to fit with the game, but we want to make it fun. We don’t start from fiction. We start from fun for a lot of the multiplayer stuff. Jason sometimes likes to start with the fiction to put some boundaries because he’s got a different issue: He’s gotta immerse people in a fiction.”

Head to the next page to learn how Treyarch is making Black Ops III’s campaign fun whether you’re with three friends or going it alone.

Creating An Unpredictable Narrative To Support More Players

Though the campaign takes place a few decades after the events of Black Ops II, the effects stemming from the destructive events of that game are still being felt. According to Blundell, that’s where the connection Black Ops III has to its predecessor. “Because our timeline is moving many, many years into the future, it’s not a character connection in that way, it’s more of the world setup and the organization developments and the technology development,” Blundell says. “It’s not Alex Mason now has anti-aging cream and he’s okay in the future, but it’s the world that’s been set up and those decisions then have changed the world and there’s a unique story inside that world.”

The narrative also provided Jason Blundell the unique challenge of immersing people in a campaign that was designed for up to four players to tackle together. Because of this, certain cinematic moments where players are supposed to be the ones committing an act are explained through the soldiers’ DNI interacting with one another to provide the same first-person experience to every player.

Outside of the narrative, designing a campaign that is fun for solo players all the way up to groups of four led the team to think about the spacing in the campaign’s missions. This spatial design approach not only makes sure there is enough room for players, but also that players can approach objectives in certain areas in different ways. Along with this idea came a full reworking of the series’ A.I. – a venture that goes hand-in-hand with the more open level design.

“There’s no way you’re going to experience everything in that area unless you do multiple playthroughs,” Lamia says. “In the games that we’ve made in the past, you could scour every inch of whatever we put in there because it was more of a linear path development. This time, we don’t even know what you’re coming in with. The designers have put different things in the world and different things that you have to fight against that you could just approach it completely differently.”

For the first time since he’s been working on the franchise, Blundell noticed that playtesters were having different experiences playing the same area of the campaign. “That wouldn’t normally happen in a Call of Duty campaign,” he says. “We were handing it out in a very predictable way and maybe there’s that moment where I got the kill and I didn’t die, but now there’s things happening in organic ways where […] these kinds of stories start to be told of how the A.I. was moving, how the players were moving and supporting each other, and what they’re taking in and then those combinations change the experience.”

Despite this shift toward more open design, the team at Treyarch isn’t treating “scripted” like a dirty word. “It’s okay to still tell narrative and have mostly scripted scenes where with all the detail and all the tons of animations that we invest in help tell story do those kinds of setups, and it’s also okay to have small-area battles, but we’re going to have big-area battles, and I think there’s a combination of all of that, that makes it all work together,” Lamia says.

On the next page, Treyarch discusses how the multiplayer was designed and has evolved.

Taking Risks To Evolve The Popular Multiplayer 

This time around, the Call of Duty multiplayer feels demonstrably different from previous releases thanks to added player mobility. Now, players can wall-run, power-slide, and boost jump from point A to point B in a Titanfall-like flurry of movement. However, this new navigation system wasn’t added without consideration to every other aspect of the multiplayer’s design.

The added year of development played an instrumental role in making sure these changes were integrated properly into the core Call of Duty gameplay. “In the two-year development cycles, the kinds of risks we’re taking right now, we wouldn’t be able to do with just two years because it needs so much iteration,” Bunting says. “[We iterated on the first set of multiplayer maps for] a year. That’s three maps we were working on and each one was constructed in a different way so that we could learn how the different map shapes and the different ways that you pace combat felt differently with the different moving mechanics as they came in.”

Even the added personality-driven Specialists, which the team admits were inspired at least in part by MOBAs, were a direct result of Treyarch having extra time to fully develop the idea of less generic soldiers with unique abilities and weaponry. “Before there was the Pick 10 in Black Ops II, we were going down the path of starting to do character archetypes, which we had dabbled in with every single game before that,” Bunting says. “This time, having the three-year cycle was a place and time where we actually had the time to flesh that out.”

Don’t feel like using the new movement mechanics? Check out what Treyarch has to say about that on the next page.

Play How You Want 

In addition, the maps are designed with multiple playstyles in mind. Players who don’t want to use the new movement options in gameplay aren’t required to, because Treyarch is consciously catering to those players at the same time.

“The paths are all there if you decide you don’t want to chain movement or wall-run or whatever,” Lamia says. “I do think you’re going to want to, […] but for players that don’t want to do that, it’s not a requirement and the game rewards players just fine who are just about staying ‘boots on the ground.’ So, if you play Black Ops II, this should feel like a natural evolution of momentum, but also if you want to play just like Black Ops II, you can as well.”

Although players aren’t required to use the new traversal mechanics to be successful, the maps are designed and built from the ground up with the upgraded movements in mind. “We had the core movement set in quickly, but movement goes hand-in-hand with map design,” Lamia says. “You have milliseconds to think about it in the map, and we didn’t want you to have to think about if you could pull off a particular kind of move. It just has to kind of be natural where you just look at it and then you’re able to do it. There was a ton of iteration.”

Whether you’re talking campaign or multiplayer, the experience of Black Ops III appears to have greatly benefitted from the extra year. Treyarch is also promising big additions with the upcoming reveal of the zombies component that it popularized within the series. With so many new mechanics and ideas implemented in ways that deliver a Call of Duty feeling, Black Ops III is shaping up to be an ambitious take on the formula fans know.

To learn more about how these changes have been implemented, check out our hands-on impressions with Black Ops III’s multiplayer.