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[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.