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Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Tony Flame interview – ‘It’s a balancing act'

GameCentral speaks to the lead design of this year’s Call Of Duty, about how the new game is a spiritual sequel to the very first Black Ops.

Reviewing video games for a living isn’t something that’s greatly impacted by the coronavirus, but things do get more difficult when it comes to previews. These now have to be so carefully organised, considering all the technical difficulties of streaming, that we’ve only had a handful this year and have never played most of the big name games until they arrive for review.

That includes Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, which is due out on all formats this Friday and yet was only officially announced a scant few months ago. Interviews have also become very difficult, which is a shame as meeting developers face to face is always one of our favourite parts of the job.

We’ve done some video conferencing interviews but it’s not the same, with email Q&As being even more limited. That’s nobody’s fault but the coronavirus though so we still took the chance to speak to Treyarch lead designer Tony Flame by email and try to eke out some new information about this year’s new Call Of Duty…

GC: Given the huge success of Modern Warfare how do you go about designing a follow-up, knowing that, for various reasons, it doesn’t make sense to deviate too far from the existing template? How do you put your own stamp on the multiplayer experience and still include innovations to the formula?

TF: Black Ops has been an extremely popular, successful franchise for the last decade. Our fans expect fast paced, tightly balanced, fast and fluid first person shooter gameplay from Black Ops and that’s what Cold War delivers, with a rich feature set that lets players go deep on their playstyle. Whether players want the classic 6v6 tight multiplayer experience, step it up to 12v12 vehicular combat in Combined Arms, or go squad vs. the world in the massive 40-player Fireteam Dirty Bomb experiences, we’re pushing the gameplay on all fronts.

And to your point, while we’re driving the Black Ops series forward, we will be living side-by-side and completely integrated with Warzone. This is something we’ve never done before. We’re connecting Call Of Duty across the different series, so you can play Cold War and your progression and everything that you earn will carry over into Warzone and vice versa. You can actually be playing both games at the same time and they will update in coordination with each other.

You’ll have new shared themes, seasons, events and they’ll all carry over between games. So with the new Black Ops Cold War game that’s also fully integrated into Warzone, you’re getting a massive amount of new features and ways to play Call Of Duty this season and into the future.

GC: Black Ops is usually characterised as having a faster, more arcadey style of play to other Call of Duty sub-series, but is that how you see it? How would you say Black Ops distinguishes itself from other Call Of Duty titles and other first-person shooters in general?

TF: We’re always looking to strike a certain tone with Black Ops – as fun and epic as possible, while staying balanced and fair – all while playing in the shadows of ‘the history you thought you knew’. For the multiplayer experience that all starts with our weapon balance. We’ve always focused very heavily on making sure that every weapon is relevant for different playstyles, so players never feel like they can’t compete and there’s not necessarily a best weapon.

We also really want to push the action, so map design is crucial. Our map design funnels players into fun engagements with just enough options, but not too many. And that leads into our combat design, created to push the action. Also, we always want to provide counterplay to players that are being too stationary.

So, the defence is not overly powerful and the offence is always the preferred option for a skilled player. Roll all that up and it’s what Black Ops gameplay is all about. Plus, we’ve upped the ante on the whole experience with a Scorestreak system that’s more accessible for everybody while also having some intense new content that people haven’t even seen yet.

GC: Black Ops is usually also seen as less serious than the other sub-series and yet Cold War takes a lot of cues from Modern Warfare in terms of the lack of specialists and things like the removal of wall-running. How different can a Black Ops game be now, given that Warzone is a constant between them all? And do you risk losing what has always made Black Ops feel so distinct?

TF: Given the popularity of the Black Ops series over the last 10 years, we’re focused on what makes this series distinct. There has been a lot of different kinds of Black Ops games. Look at the first Black Ops game, it took place in the Cold War era. It was very military and inspired by real world events, people and actions. With Black Ops 2, we took that into the near future, Black Ops 3 went into the distant future, and Black Ops 4 carried that forward before Warzone was even out.

We had made a commitment to our time period and the feel of our game. Cold War was always going to be a spiritual successor to the first Black Ops that took place in the same 70s/80s era. And that went back to the roots of the series and redefined it with everything that we’ve learned since.

That’s always been the spirit of Black Ops, with the classic combat and gunfights, the reward system, specialists, etc. And you’ll see remnants of that in Cold War with the Scorestreak and Field Upgrade systems. All of our lessons carry forward to that.

We’re really happy to have the unique opportunity to integrate with Warzone, with an awesome experience that so many players are already in and that we can hook into with all of our weapons and progression to bring what players love about Warzone together with what we’ve created. It’s been a lot of fun to work on.

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GC: Long-running series, from Pokémon to FIFA tend have similar problems, both in finding space to innovate and also what seems to players to be the largely arbitrary removal of existing features, in favour of new ones. I’m sure it’s not arbitrary, so how do you go about deciding to remove something like mounting, for example, but keeping other features from existing games?

TF: We always have to ask ourselves, ‘What is sacred?’ A lot of the time, we start development like that. What are the things that we have to keep? And of course, there are always different opinions about that. But we always circle back to what’s important about our game in the fast paced, fluid, aggressive nature of a Black Ops game.

We want players to always be moving, so don’t want to encourage them to slow down and stop to wait for something to happen. You can absolutely play that way, but we don’t want to overly encourage it. We want to push players to move, to engage in action and to interact. So, Downturn is an example of that. It slows you down a little bit. It works for the Modern Warfare style of playing, but for the type of game we’re making, it’s all about action.

So, every single change that we make is rooted in a fundamental question about how we can improve and what is sacred for the Scorestreak system. We listened to a lot of feedback about the streaks not being powerful enough and this new system allows us to make incredibly powerful Scorestreaks while eliminating and controlling the spam problem and also giving access to all players who will then become more invested in the system and the game.

That’s an example of why we needed a change and why we’re committed to making that work with the game and providing a great experience. That’s just one example, but we’re always asking if there is something that we can improve upon, what it is and what is sacred to the game.

GC: The alpha was fairly controversial amongst fans, with heavy criticism levelled at the weapon balancing and sniper rifles in particular, as well as the lack of recoil and weak sound effects. You’ve clearly been listening as some of these issues are directly addressed in the beta but how do you prioritise these sort of problems? Is it based purely on fan feedback or also partly your own intuition?

TF: Well, certainly both are important. It goes beyond my own or our own intuition, because we have a lot of people here in the studio so it’s beyond any single person. We’re always talking about how we feel about these and many times the community will validate either how the majority of us are feeling or maybe even how a minority of us are feeling. It helps us quickly rally towards a solution.

For the weapons, it was the alpha. We’ve never had an alpha out there publicly and we knew there were a lot of things that weren’t going to make that build that we had already planned. So that went along really well with a lot of feedback that we got. We know that there were problems to solve. We got even more insightful feedback about them and we were able to quickly implement solutions because we already had planned on working on many of those things anyway.

GC: There’s been some concern that the map design is too ‘busy’, that it can be difficult to parse the action at times. Is that become an intrinsic problem for modern video games, now that the level of detail possible, and the number of in-game objects, has increased so much?

TF: It’s a constant balancing act to provide the best visual fidelity and immersion for players. We want them to look at our game and think that it looks incredible, that it looks realistic and like it’s a place they can actually be in. At the same time, you’re trying to provide readable gameplay so that people can understand where they are, what the destinations of the map are, where their enemy is, what the cover is, and how each part of the environment has a purpose in the gameplay.

It’s a constant balancing act between those two and many times they’re at odds. We start by making the game look as good as we can while also having a foundation for what the benefits are for gameplay across the map and we slowly merge those two together. They eventually get to a point where we have to decide one way to go for each individual decision – every single piece of cover, every wall, every one of those is a decision point about the detail and the visual fidelity versus the gameplay. We always do our best to get it right.

When we playtest it, we’re making changes constantly and getting feedback from the community. It’s a consideration we keep in mind as we make more maps and as we refine our gameplay and the look of the game. It’s also something we’ll keep in mind with every post launch map, which are free for everyone across all seasons. So, there’s a constant stream of new maps that will continue to improve the balance of the gameplay versus visual fidelity.

GC: Another side effect of the increased level of realism is that it begins to feel increasingly strange that maps have very few destruction effects. That’s never been a Call Of Duty thing but is that something you may think of adding in the next generation?

TF: So, we do have destructive elements in our maps. We have cover that destroys, we have dynamic portions of the map that provide different gameplay opportunities while also lending to that fiction of an environment that you can interact with. From a gameplay standpoint, we also find that our players like the consistency of understanding how a map flows, knowing where enemies can be when they enter a location and going too far down. Destructible cover out can interfere with that.

So, we’re always looking for opportunities to create a more interactive environment without sacrificing the fundamentals of a first person shooter and map design. We’ve done that in many ways with Black Ops Cold War and we’ll continue to explore that throughout the cycle of downloadable maps that will come out through the entire season of the game.

GC: On a personal level it must be daunting to know that your game will be played by millions and end up as one of the most popular video games of the year. We hear a lot about the vocal minority complaining in video games but what is your experience of the fandom and how do you cope with the pressure and the intense emotions therein?

TF: I’ve been lucky to work on Call Of Duty for the past 13 years. The entirety of my game design career. I learned early on that people are going to engage, especially in multiplayer games. I’ve found that with every game that I’ve worked on, it’s has started with a significant amount of constructive feedback. And honestly, it helps make our games better.

Working on multiplayer means that you’re never going to make everyone happy all of the time, and all you can do is continue to listen reflect, respond, and be as engaged as possible, always working toward making the best experience we can.

Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War will launch on Friday, November 13 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC.

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