The Call of Duty Black Ops 4 is here – An exclusive interview with game designer Tony Flame!
Available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, the next entry in Activision’s popular shooter franchise is set to revolutionize the series with expanded multiplayer, including the all-new Blackout mode. We already dipped our toes in the Multiplayer and Blackout modes during the Call of Duty Black Ops 4 Beta, but there’s a lot more in store for fans this year.
To tell us all about it, at Fan Expo I interviewed Tony Flame, Expert Game Designer at Treyarch on the new Black Ops. From how story will weave its way into Multiplayer, to how Zombies and Blackout tie together, to how game progression is evolving, our chat covered the hot topics. Read on to learn more about this fall’s most anticipated FPS game!
Paul Hunter: Let’s start at the beginning, one of the first things you announced is that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is dropping the Campaign and integrating story elements into the Multiplayer. What was the reason for not including a traditional Campaign and how are you infusing the Multiplayer with story?
Tony Flame: Great question. We’ve been working on Black Ops games for a long time, and even from the very beginning, the first Black Ops was narratively way different than anything we’ve done before. That set the stage for how we tell stories in Black Ops. It’s different every single time. You might have noticed the Black Ops games are getting further and further away from the normal Call of Duty formula. That’s true for Black Ops 4, and true from the very beginning.
The mission statement for this game is for players to have more ways to have fun with their friends than anything we’ve ever done before. It’s about making a game where you’re playing together with your friends, and you’re having fun. You look on your friends list and see all these different people you can join up and squad with in any part of the game.
So that drove a lot of our creative decisions, and as we were making the campaign we found ourselves steering back towards a more multiplayer focused experience. There came a pivotal point where we said “we’re really excited about doing a Blackout mode.” We didn’t have a name for it at the time, but we wanted to do a massive mode where we could put in all of the Black Ops universe, and people could play it together. We wanted Blackout to have more players in it than ever before. We also wanted to do more Zombies than we’d ever done before. And finally, we wanted to tell a story with the multiplayer Specialists to be central to all of it.
So that’s the stewing pot for how it came about. The answer is there’s going to be narrative tied throughout the entire game. It’s going to live through Zombies, and Blackout. Multiplayer is going to have its own story focused on Specialists. There’s a mission for all 10 Specialist and they each have an epic cinematic as well. You’re going to learn how to play as each Specialist, and learn their story. That cinematic quality is going to be there. For the core player we feel like we’re delivering that narrative experience, and it ties them into what we really want to deliver: an online experience you can play with your friends for years to come.
Paul: You touched upon the Specialists, and obviously they were introduced in the last game. Some Specialists were brought back, and you’re introducing some new ones. I’m curious to know, how did you decide which ones to bring back? For the new characters, how did you design them? Did you start with a loadout and add their background, or vice versa?
Tony: It’s gameplay first. We’re developing the gameplay as we develop the narrative, but the gameplay really is the foundation. We knew we could move parts of the gameplay around, so we started with what kind of gameplay do we want.
We knew, for example, we wanted to mix up the spawn system. That’s where the Tac Deploy comes in, it’s a device that lets you choose your team’s spawn point in Multiplayer. So we thought, who does this fit really well with? We then looked at the Specialists, their character, their background, their roles, and their total loadout kits.
This same process happened for our other abilities, like the Reactor Core for Firebreak, and the Tak-5 heal boost for Crash. We had these abilities on different characters during development, so we move them around. Over time, we decided ‘OK this is the right kit’, or ‘we’ll change this ability to be a better fit for this character’. It’s a mix of the character, the gameplay, and development iteration over time to get the right balance. What we end up with are 10 super defined characters, all with their own personalities and backstories, and their gameplay kit matches up very well.
Paul: You mentioned balance, and considering you have very Specialized characters, balancing is super critical to ensure gameplay is fair and fun. How do you approach balancing, and what kind of gameplay tweaks do you think we’ll see post-launch?
Tony: What we can do with this game that we couldn’t do with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is balance Specialists with their whole kit. They’ve all got their Specialist weapon, and their special issued equipment we can adjust. This lets us do things like say ‘you know what, this character has more powerful equipment compared to another character, so let’s try adjusting their Specialist weapons’.
In previous games, everything had to be 1:1, everything had to be equal and balanced with one another. Black Ops 4 gave us the freedom to look at each character’s individual kit, and how you play them holistically. Not every character will be of equal value in every single situation. If you have an objective game mode where you’re protecting something, Torque, who sets up defenses, will be very good for that game mode. Maybe he’s not as useful in a mode like Team Deathmatch where you want more of all-purpose Specialist.
We also gave players the option to opt out and just pick a grenade, so there’s still that ability for players to fine tune and customize, but the core is right there in the Specialist kits. From the beta, we were able to make some really nice changes, and this applies to the whole game—weapons, character balancing and everything else. Our day one launch is going to be the most balanced game we’ve ever had in the Black Ops series because of the really valuable beta feedback.
Paul: Call of Duty has explored many different eras, from WWII through to the recent sci-fi entries. Why was it important to go back to grounded combat for Black Ops 4?
Tony: It’s all about grounded combat, and a gritty militaristic feel; it’s familiar, it’s relatable. That’s where we’re strongest. Focusing on the most refined gun mechanics we’ve ever had, all wrapped into this tactical, team-based gameplay.
Paul: The game engine for Black Ops 4, is this a modified version of the Black Ops 3 engine, or something new you’ve created in-house? The reason I ask is because Blackout looks to be the most ambitious mode ever for a Call of Duty game. 1500x the size of Nuketown, the most players ever for a CoD game mode. How is all that possible?
Tony: Treyarch is a big studio, it’s a team of veterans working together for 10 years or more for many of us. We’re making the next engine for the next game every single time. Blackout we couldn’t do without making massive changes to the engine, so we did that. It’s going to run beautifully at a smooth frame rate, it’s going to have a ton of players—way more than we’ve ever had for any map—and it’s by far the biggest map.
I was thinking about that walking over here, one or two blocks in Toronto is about the size of a typical Multiplayer map. Blackout’s like the whole city! You drop in a wingsuit, you choose where you’re going to land, and it’s different every single time. We have chunks of different Black Ops maps as you navigate through the world. One second you might say ‘whoa, this is like the barn from Fringe’ and the next it’s ‘wait, I’m in Nuketown right now!’ There’s all kinds of Blacks Ops’ miniverses spread throughout the map, it’s a celebration of the whole series.
Paul: I heard you’re introducing mixed ballistics into Black Ops 4, what can you tell me about this?
Tony: So that’s in Multiplayer. We always want to do what’s best for each mode, and a mixed system including bullet drops makes sense in Multiplayer. You have small guns like SMGs and pistols, and you don’t want someone to snipe a player across a multiplayer-sized map with them. So mixed ballistics is a good way to solve that. In Blackout, everything is ballistics because you can shoot a really far distance. You don’t want to be hit scanning someone a mile away, that’s just not realistic. So there’s a lot more mastery involved to hit your targets.
Paul: Let’s touch upon game progression. Will it be exactly as we saw in the beta, and what can fans expect?
Tony: What you saw in the Beta that’s the model that we’ll be using. There will be more levels, of course, and more content will be opened up. There’s a lot of things we haven’t revealed yet in terms of different progression systems, and different ways to progress.
For example, we’ve talked a little bit about how Zombies is going to have its own systems. On a basic level we have difficulty settings. If you just want to experience the story and find easter eggs, or take off the pressure a bit, you can put it on an Easy mode. That’s the fastest way to enjoy the narrative of each of the three giant Zombies experiences. Or if you’re hardcore, and want to brag to your friends about beating the hardest difficulty and making it to round 65, you can do that too.
There’s also going to be a factions system in Zombies, which actually ties into the narrative. You pick one of four factions, and each faction has challenges and progression that goes along with them. There’s going to be a vast amount of systems. The goal for us is to build a game people will be playing for years to come.
Paul: Is this the first time all game modes are interconnected and tie into to one another?
Tony: Blackout is the merging of Multiplayer and Zombies, it has elements of both. Multiplayer has its own realm, and Zombies too, then you’ll find both in Blackout. There won’t be zombies in Multiplayer … but there will be zombies in Blackout.
Paul: You’re going back to Pick 10 create a class, and that’s something fans were asking for. Did you bring it back based on the feedback?
Tony: We experimented with a ton of different systems but ultimately came back to Pick 10. It’s not just exactly Pick 10 though, we’ve got a lot of new toys to play with.
The way the attachments work on the guns is completely different, there are attachment upgrades now, which we’ve never had before. Guns have different upgrades per gun, so they each have their own customization. A lot of the guns have what we call an ‘Operator Mod’ where you have to put a wild card on it, costing 2 points, and they’re super powerful. They answer the question of ‘what is the ultimate upgrade for this particular gun?’
We’ve also got a new gear category, which is more powerful than perks, and gives you the definitive version of your playstyle. Do you want to regenerate your health faster? Do you want to absorb another bullet of damage? Do you want to earn your Scorestreaks faster? The gear slot is pivotal. Our goal was to retain a lot of the choice Pick 10 offers, but also have really chunky, meaty decisions.
As well, we’ve got a couple new wild card options that lets you rule break in a few ways. You can take two secondaries now, and you can pick all perks in the same category. There’s lot of new toys in create a class this time around.
Paul: Thanks a lot for your time, I’m excited to learn more as we approach the October 12th launch date!