Black Ops 2: David Vonderhaar Talks Pick 10, Balancing & eSports

Tom Hopkins

David Vonderhaar, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's Game Design Director, sits down with NowGamer to discuss zombies, multiplayer and much more.

Published on Oct 16, 2012

Zombies: all about discovery, apparently.

Why haven’t you discussed Zombies much?

David Vonderhaar: Listen, the zombies mode is about discovery. It’s about taking a journey, it’s about finding the secrets and figuring out the easter-eggs. It’s about building an experience. So the reason why we never really get into a lot of detail is because we don’t want to spoil that mode for people. Multiplayer, it’s a total different thing, right?  That’s a very systems-driven game, and you want to make sure that people understand the gameplay systems. But with zombies you want people to have the discovery and I don’t want to spoil it for fans. Neither does anyone else.

It also suggests that’s there’s more going on with zombies than in previous games…

DV: Yeah. That’s fair, but part of it is this zombies mystique, about what’s really going on and where do you go? What does all that mean? It’s part of the fun. Is the world really bigger, or is it all in your head? Who knows? You’ve got to play zombies and find out.

We’ll ask you about it post-launch…

DV: And we still won’t tell you anything [laughs].

Guns: futuristic.

How did you go about designing Black Ops 2’s futuristic new weapons and abilities without pushing too far into the realm of sci-fi?

DV: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is about crafting a plausible reality. In our universe - 2025 is when the game takes place - we’re not suddenly shooting laser beams at each other. These are still weapons, they still have bullets. But you can augment these weapons with technology, which is why you see something like the MMS scope. I know for a fact that’s actual technology because I’ve seen it. This is a real thing, it exists today. The military puts it up to a wall to try and determine what’s behind that wall and do threat indexing.

So, as a designer, we’re playing futurists, we’re imagining what that might be like more than a decade from now. How would it be applied on a scope or an optic? That’s how we think about that stuff. Wer’re taking things that are completely legit, maybe they don’t exist as an actual optic, and then imagining what that might be like as a futurist.

Bootcamp has been expanded in Black Ops 2 – was Call of Duty’s multiplayer becoming impenetrable?

DV: No, I don’t think so. I actually think it’s pretty accessible. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try harder to make sure that there’s an environment for people who just can’t get into it, get them over the hurdle. We’re not trying to force this down people’s throats, but it’s our responsibility to make sure that there’re opportunities for players who maybe want to try multiplayer but have been intimidated by it, and find it overwhelming. So here’s a little bit [of a] better starting spot.

Black Ops 2 represents Treyarch getting closer than ever to the tone of the Modern Warfare franchise – are you worried gamers won’t make the distinction?

DV: I don’t know how to think about that. They’re very different story arcs, there’s a very different type of game. I can’t worry about that. What I have to worry about is making sure we give players a really robust experience across the entire spectrum, and that’s what Black Ops 2 delivers on. Between the campaign and its very traditional story, now you put the Strike Force missions dead in the centre of that, we’re introducing RTS style mechanics in the middle of a Call of Duty game, which actually has outcome changes for the campaign.

Multiplayer itself, from Bootcamp and combat training all the way to league-play and our content creation tools with theatre. Lots of stuff going on there for players. And then zombies. That’s three games in one. Our job isn’t to think about that. Our job as developers is to craft a really great, super-robust, high-value experience for gamers and I think that’s what we’re doing with Black Ops 2.

MW3: Treyarch's not thinking about it.

There are loads of new ideas in Black Ops 2, Strike Force in particular – were the core shooting mechanics in danger of becoming stale given the Call of Duty franchise’s long duration?

DV: I think we’re always looking to find ways to innovate within the core game. I don’t think you say ‘now it’s time’, you’re always looking for ways to craft the next level, and bring the players with you. You have to do that carefully. There’s a lot of people who play this game and they have some very deep expectations about what this kind of game is like, depending on your perspective. I swear to you we could go get 100 people and 50 of them will believe what you just said and 50 more will think that we’re crazy for changing this much. You’ve got to strike a healthy balance, and do it in the right way.

You’ve got the Pick 10 custom loadout system – how many possibilities are there?

DV: There’s over a half a million that you could do.

Can you balance them all?

DV: Yeah, absolutely. We can model all of that stuff. There’s a tremendous amount of data available about how these things work together. We do a lot of instrumentation in the game so we can see how well they’re impacting each other. I’m not trying to tell you that it’s easy – it takes a lot of effort. But it’s not impossible, it’s actually super-possible. What we had to do is make sure that the game keeps a lot of really good instrumentation and data, and then we use that data to make sure that all of these things are going to fit together just fine. The reaction shows that it’s working really well.

The campaign also features more Cold War stuff back in the 1980s…
DV: Yep, there’s a little bit…

Why haven’t you shown it?

DV: Yeah, I don’t know, that’s a great question. What gets shown and who decides that stuff - you’re asking the wrong guy, sorry. I saw in the trailers, they showed some of the Afghan stuff, the horse riding. There’s new mechanics in the so-called ‘old stuff’.

Black Ops 2's Strike Force missions will alter the course of the narrative.

Black Ops 2 is going big on eSports – where will the scene be in five years?

DV: Well if we do our job well, it’ll be a really big part of everything. What better game to do it than a Call of Duty game considering its appeal. But we have to take the steps here, have to make the game intrinsically competitive. We have to make it fun though, regardless of your skill level, and the league-play feature pushes in that direction. Then it needs to be fun to watch – that’s hard for a shooter, right? A first-person shooter, you’re seeing the view of one guy.

That’s why we have to have CoDcasting, so we can pull back and see the perspective. Most of the successful eSports titles don’t have a particular view of one player, they have a view of everyone. And that’s why we have to put these features in our game. So you take that big leap making it fun to watch – and then broadcast it to everyone with live streaming. 

Is it live video or data streaming?

DV: It’s both actually. You can live stream and then you can go back through the theatre, get the data and CoDcast later. So it’s both, not one or the other.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 launches on 13 November for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, following shortly on Wii U.



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