The multiplayer team leads from Treyarch offered fans a funny and insightful panel about the making of Call of Duty: Black Ops’ multiplayer mode at Call of Duty XP 2011 – including rare looks at levels and game elements that never made it into the final game. The panel -- officially titled The (Mostly True) Inside Story of the Behind The Scenes Making of Call of Duty: Black Ops Multiplayer That Does Not Fit in 140 Characters, featured David Vonderhaar, Design Director; Phil Tasker, Senior Level Designer; Alex Conserva, Lead Programmer; and Dan Bunting, Online Director. Geoff Keighley presided as the moderator for the panel.
Vahn stole the show by wearing a helmet with his gamertag attached over his head…and then wearing a trollface mask while he mocked both the audience and his fellow panelists with taunts of “Cool story bro” and interrupting other people’s responses with “Too long didn’t read.” After the often rude messages he gets from emotional players on Twitter, perhaps this was his ultimate jokey revenge. The audience, of course, ate it up.
It’s probably best to just go over the coolest things I learned from this panel:
Nuketown wasn’t built in a day.
Actually, it was built in two. Nuketown was a happy accident and was never officially planned. According to Dan Bunting, Vahn saw Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull one night and came in the next day saying “We need to do a map like this!” So the team looked at old nuclear test footage -- “we watched movies of towers been blown to smithereens and it was really inspiring.” The map was rapidly prototyped in two days while the creative fires were burning, and quickly became an official map. Dan said Nuketown’s evolution taught Treyarch a good lesson: “Ideas generate other ideas, and sometimes you have to let someone not do what they’re supposed to do.”
Most levels take a long, long time to build.
Nuketown, however, is not typical of MP level development. Most multiplayer levels are designed and refined over a period of months, if not a full year. Levels go through multiple stages, and most start on paper. Over time, the development includes a blockout phase, where the buildings and paths are more or less locked down, and a detail phase, where textures are added and the levels start coming to life. Level designers have a lot of elements to balance in their work; according to Phil, they are “three parts designer, one part artist, one part architect, and completely insane.”
Mapmaking has rules.
Phil says the primary two rules of level design are you should always be able to see your exit when you enter a room, and paths in should lead players to collide. As you soak up double XP this weekend in Black Ops, look for those design principles at work.
Coward’s Way Out was originally a lot more graphic.
If you’re downed in Second Chance, you hold a button to voluntarily die and respawn. Originally, this featured an animation of the player pulling out a pistol and shooting themselves under the chin – nasty stuff. The animation was actually in the game and submitted to the ESRB…but they have strict rules about depictions of suicide, so even though the team really liked it, it had to be removed. (Yet, as you can see, even the screenshots make fun of Vahn.)
Second Chance: They know.
Speaking of which, Vahn called Second Chance “a totally valid gameplay mechanic that can go horribly wrong in practice. We totally get it. Please, stop yelling at me.”
From Cairo to Cuba
At one point. Black Ops was going to feature levels set in Egypt, and a multiplayer level was created in the same environment. When that content was cut, the team was left with a multiplayer arena in Cairo, fully dressed and designed for the Egyptian theme, and no game context for it. Rather than cut it, they were able to redesign it with a Cuban theme and named it Havana.
Level names change all the time.
Hangar 18 was originally Area 51, until the lawyers stepped in and said that name couldn’t be used. Other times, names change because their themes change (as with Havana) or they simply have too many levels that start with the same letter, and they want to make it easier to tell them apart. A few working titles of interest: Convoy was Gridlock, Summit was called Mountain, Jungle was once Havoc, and Launch was originally Cosmodrome – a name Alex said the team particularly liked.
If the fans don’t want remakes, that means they want remakes.
Dan said the fans made it clear that they wanted all-new maps and no remakes of levels from World at War, so the Treyarch team designed accordingly. Then, once the game came out, fans started asking why they didn’t revisit any of their favorite maps. So, Hazard – originally simply called “mp_golfcourse” – was created as a revised and updated Cold-War version of Cliffside from World at War. Said Dan Bunting jokingly: “The lesson we learned from this is that we will never listen to you again, so stop tweeting us.”
War Museum: The Lost Level
Along those lines, Treyarch created an update of Castle called War Museum, which is exactly what it sounds like. It got as far as being fully decorated but was never released – though it was shown to the crowd in a video walkthrough. It’s incomplete and is not slated for release, but the team couldn’t say if it would never return in some form.
Treyarch vs. Quickscoping
“If you believe what you read on the internet, you would think that Treyarch hated snipers,” said Alex. “The internet is wrong and the truth is less glorious than the reality. We try to create gameplay separations between our long-range weapons and our close combat weapons. By nerfing quickscoping, people thought we also nerfed regular sniping, and that was never our intention.”
Treyarch vs. Naughty Emblems
Dan Bunting said Treyarch kenw what they were getting into by offering players an emblem creator --“we went in with our eyes open – but the beauty is always more important than the ugly.” Even though Treyarch needed to hire people just to police the emblems that the community found offensive, they would do it the same way again – the creativity of the fans that they saw on display was worth it. In fact, they chose some of their favorite fan creations to display to the crowd.
The Legend of Tanbor Fudgely
According to Vahn, Tanbor Fudgely is the fictional creator of FPSes and now part of Treyarch culture – “a reminder to all of us that making games are supposed to be fun. Tanbor keeps us grounded and reminds us that we are just making a game – and he should remind you that you are just playing one.” Among Tanbor’s wisdom, according to Vahn: “Tanbor said ‘I don’t know the path to success, but I know the path to failure is trying to please everybody. Failure is a microevent; it’s not a person.’”
Women are different than men.
An audience member asked why there were no female player avatars in Black Ops multiplayer. Hitbox detection makes for a restriction, so different player avatar sizes and shapes suck up memory and can affect balance. However, that’s not to say Treyarch hasn’t tried: “We tried to make women,” said Vahn, “but they wind up looking like men.” Added Alex: ”They wind up looking like Vahn but with more hair.” That led to more Vahn trollin'.
Vehicles don’t always work in multiplayer.
According to Alex, vehicles haven’t had a strong presence since United Offensive because “you have to make a lot of vehicle gameplay decisions that affect gameplay negatively.” You need big maps, for one thing; a drivable tank wouldn’t be much fun on Nuketown, and a lot of players prefer smaller combat arenas. The RC-XD Killstreak came out of the desire to add vehicles in some form; Treyarch realized that they could scale the car down for the size of the battleground to give people a fun driving experience on every map. And speaking of vehicles, Vahn wanted a kamikaze bomber pilot Killstreak for World at War – and it was playable at one point, but it didn’t make the final cut.
Whatever other secrets the Treyarch team was willing to reveal, we may never know, as the panel ran out of time -- but that was a lot of info to cover in just an hour.