[Call of Duty multiplayer lead Dan Bunting talks about Treyarch's development strategies regarding Black Ops maps, its DLC, and explains how the "turning point" during World at War's life cycle lead to the infrustracture that made Black Ops possible.]
It's no small feat to maintain the most widely-played game on Xbox Live (based on unique user stats), let alone manage millions of online matches. Treyarch's Dan Bunting has led Call of Duty: Black Ops' multiplayer team through the design of a blockbuster title, as well as several pieces of add-on content, including the recently-launched Annihilation DLC pack.
As the series has grown into a crucial revenue source for Activision -- the publisher plans to launch the beta for COD Elite, its subscription-based premium service, quite soon -- Bunting has his eyes on both the exponential growth of its userbase from game to game and the consistency with which people continue to play Black Ops online each day.
In this interview, Bunting discusses the evolution of Call of Duty as a social hub, the experiences working on World at War that helped the multiplayer team hone its craft, and the occasional difficulty of policing millions of gamers.
If you look back on the history of the Call of Duty series, one could make an argument that its sequels are built on adversity and redemption. Without Infinity Ward's problems building COD2 multiplayer for Xbox 360 launch, COD4's impact might not have been as profound.
Treyarch was lambasted for COD3, then sprang back with World at War and Black Ops. Do you feel like there was kind of a "We'll show them!" spirit in designing Black Ops' multiplayer?
Dan Bunting: I think everybody here has a strong fighting spirit. We've always been motivated to do the best work that we can possibly do within the constraints that we're given. When you look at some of those past games with crazy, ridiculous development cycles like 10 months...
With World At War, as a team, that was our first two-year dev cycle; then Black Ops was another two-year dev cycle. The team itself has had a lot of time to grow together -- the team is critical. Having a team that's worked together before and knows how everyone works and has a very good, strong working relationship -- that's critical to success from a development perspective.
Your team works on a series that's designed with annual updates in mind, which means attention can wane from your title as another installment comes out. From a design standpoint, what would you consider your biggest challenge as regarding player engagement?
DB: I think, with Black Ops, we went really big with some of the social features and some of the out-of-game stuff. We've realized that the game and the franchise is a social platform on its own; it's not just a game experience anymore.
We've really gone to great lengths to cater to players' social needs. We realize, with players spending on average I think the stat is 58 minutes per day, it's just a juggernaut of time spent playing the game, and so we really looked at how can we expand the game not just as a game or a competitive experience, but also as a social experience. We put a lot of effort into that aspect of it.
There have been some critics who have complained about the sense of over-milking the Call of Duty franchise and that the price of DLC maps is higher than other shooters on the market. People have said that Call of Duty Elite serves to further that a bit. How would you respond to that criticism in defense of what you and your team have built for online multiplayer?
DB: You know, we're on the development side, so we don't really have much to do with the business aspect of it, but we just strive to give players the most value that we can possibly give. If you look at how many hours -- in some cases, hundreds of hours -- for some players of entertainment they get, I think it's an incredible value. With Elite, there's a ton of completely free service that gets added on top of the game experience. I think that, if you look at the overall package, it's an incredible value.
Are you at liberty to discuss how Black Ops will fit into Elite at this point?
Activision PR: ...The beta that's going to launch... is going to be launched using Black Ops; and Black Ops will be a big part of what Elite is since Black Ops and all of the games going forth.
When your team designed Black Ops' multiplayer -- the core maps -- what was your process of keeping people interested so they don't just play the same one map?
DB: It's incredibly challenging. We have the most varied and diverse audience that I think you can possibly get in games. If you look at how many millions of players have bought the game and played the game online, you're talking about some crazy diversity. Because of that diversity, everybody has unique needs.
In order to cater to all of those unique needs, we have fixed variety as one of our key cornerstones of design. When we look at the maps, we say: We need big maps. We need small maps. We need wide open terrain maps. We need highly structural urban maps. So we just cater to a lot of different styles of gameplay, and we look at what are the patterns of the majority of players; we lean in that direction for the bulk of our maps.
But, yeah, the design process is a mix of just coming up with "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" kind of ideas and looking at our data and our history and the patterns of gameplay that our customers have exhibited; from there, we just come up with the best designs to fit their needs.
Going from the earlier Call of Duty titles -- the COD3 period to World at War to where you are with Black Ops -- what have you extracted along the way from different experiences and what have been the most valuable lessons that you've gotten from this experience?
DB: (Laughs) That's a really open-ended question. I don't know. We learn so many new things with each new project. I think one of the key learning elements that we've taken away is that you have these really diverse audiences. You have the super-hardcore competitive guys, and you have a mass market, really kind of casual audience that loves to play the game just because it's really fun to hang out with your buddies online.
It's really critical to us that we cater to that diverse audience and make sure that everyone's needs are covered. It's a challenge at times because you can look at what the needs of a competitive gamer are versus the needs of a casual gamer, and a lot of times they're at complete opposition to one another.
A lot of it's just walking a tightrope and making sure that we keep a balance between those two audience; making sure that we meet all of their needs.
There are some who have sworn off online shooters because they're uncomfortable with bad behavior and hate speech in the community. What do you think that both your team and other mutliplayer game designers can do to encourage better behavior from your community base?
DB: That's a tough one. We talk about this all the time. We can design as many mechanics as we want into the game to try to encourage teamwork and encourage good gameplay behaviors, but, at the end of the day, players are just gonna act how they want to act. It's a challenge. We've provided some infrastructure with Black Ops; it's easy to mute players if they're being offensive.
We added security infrastructure where you can report other players if they're being offensive or if you detect them cheating in some way or another, and that has been a huge success for us because it lets us track down players who are the worst offenders of the bunch. But, at the end of the day, players are gonna behave the way they're gonna behave. We try to strengthen the party system as much as possible because playing with friends is a good way to try to mitigate some of that.
Funny you mention that party system. I read a recent argument that party chat has ruined online games because the social element of finding new online friends has been lost. How helpful do you think Xbox Live Party Chat has been? Do you feel like that's done a lot of the legwork in regard to keeping friends together, and how do you manage around platforms that don't have that kind of support?
DB: Well, I think you can't rely too heavily on the platform's system for that. You kind of have to design around your game's needs and your audience's needs. It is very convenient to utilize the party system of the platform, but, really, at the end of the day, we have to make sure that we're catering to the needs of our players and the patterns and behaviors of our playerbase. So we added the friends list in-game, which is a very quick and easy way to party up.
To answer your question about whether we think that parties are a negative influence, no; I think they have pros and cons on both sides. I think it's great to see players partying up with their friends because it makes the game experience more social and more fun for the people that you care about the most, which are your close, real-world friends, people who you just play online with regularly.
The downsides are that it's harder as a lone wolf to go out there and play against people that are possibly partied up as a team, especially if they're in party chat where you can't hear them talking; that becomes a less social experience. So in one way it's more social, and in another way it's less social. I think the net benefit is positive, though; I think it's a much more positive influence than it is a negative.
Can you talk about Treyarch's strategy for the way DLC's been designed -- how you've implemented it, how you've rolled it out, and the evolution of that process?
DB: Yeah, we've been through many different trial-and-error phases for DLC. With Black Ops, I think, it's been our biggest success so far. We've had three DLC map packs for the fans within about six to seven months of launch, which is a record for us. I think it's incredible, and everyone's really excited about the fact that we can support a game for that long and keep the fans interested. That really is our strategy; we just want to make sure that we're keeping new, fresh content out there for the fans to keep them playing our game.
What lessons from developing World at War's multiplayer led to more successful design for Black Ops?
DB: Well, the biggest benefit really is that the team has grown from working on World at War together. Working on that game was the point when this team came together. Several people worked together on multiple projects, but that was the base foundation. Then we rolled into this game where we had a lot of the same team members working together, and we just started from a much stronger place on this project. I think everybody here has learned lessons about how to make DLC and how to ship DLC map packs -- how to make maps that are well designed.
One of our biggest areas of improvement is designing the maps from the last game to this game. I think the maps are much stronger and our DLC maps continue to be even stronger than some of the maps that we shipped with the game because we're continually learning ways to improve on the design and give players what they want and more variety.
As you research player data from multiplayer, what kind of surprising statistics have you noticed? Have you noticed any trends or any dramatic sea change from World at War or even going all the way back to COD3?
DB: That's a tough question because it depends upon how you look at the data. I think the biggest surprise to me is just how big the game is.
Look at the online player counts everyday; it's just massive numbers, and it's sustained with such strength since launch. We've had some pretty consistent player numbers for the past six months. It's great to me to see, from game to game, how that core player base has grown -- just really amazing.
Aside from growth, when you look at heat maps and choke points, how much of that are you extrapolating for your next successive series of DLC map designs?
DB: We track all that data during development as well, so the patterns in the real world pretty much mirror what we've discovered in our own internal playtests in terms of map design, map layout, and map flow. I think, on the map design point, we've been able to refine that down to a pretty solid art at this point. I think that the real-world player data shows what we expected to happen. That's been a success.
I think that a lot of our fans like the smaller maps, which is a little surprising to us because it's more chaotic and less predictable; you can get into some bad spawn situations, and there's a lot of killstreaks in the air, which makes it a lot more challenging to play on a small map. But it's funny that players seem to embrace that kind of chaotic experience.
What's your team strategy for attacking online cheating and glitchers? At what point do you feel like you throw in the towel -- that it's time to move on and start shifting your focus onto the next title?
DB: Well, we hope never to have to do that on this game! This is one of the areas where we learned a lot from World at War just from first-hand experience. The people that were hacking and cheating -- their techniques became so much more advanced between the previous game and World at War.
There was kind of that turning point during that game's life-cycle, and, coming away from that, we realized that it had to be a big agenda for us to develop the tools and infrastructure within the game to make sure that we could track and keep the online experience clean. We've had about probably twelve to sixteenth months of development time spent on our security tools and infrastructure; it's very robust, and it's been incredibly successful in this game.
Black Ops' multiplayer feels designed -- Combat Training comes to mind -- to attract other gamers who aren't solely shooter fans. What other behind-the-scenes elements did you implement to make it more enticing for that audience?
DB: We're always trying to make the game more accessible to mainstream gamers. If you look at the difference in sales figures from the last title to this title to the next title in the series, and it just grows dramatically every time, which means that you've got a lot of new gamers that you have to design for.
On one hand, we have big agendas; like I have a currency system, COD Points, which is one way of providing a platform for player choice. We wanted to give players more control over their rank progression so that they could purchase the weapons and killstreaks and perks that they liked and that helped them the most in their gameplay experience.
Then it boils down to doing a lot of little things with every feature that we put into the game: Just making the control interface intuitive and easy to understand and fluid to use. It's a lot of little details, and it's also some big agendas like COD Points and Combat Training.