Video Games Interview: Treyarch’s David Vonderhaar talks Call of Duty: Black Ops III

The 2015 EB Expo was a huge show boasting equally huge titles, and few titles are as huge as Call of Duty. With Black Ops III right around the corner, we caught up with Treyarch’s Studio Design Director David Vonderhaar to talk about his dev career, what we can expect from the new game and where we go from here.

The Iris: Well, welcome to Australia!

David Vonderhaar: Thank you so much!

Can I get you to introduce yourself to start off?

Absolutely! My name is David Vonderhaar, the Studio Design Director at Treyarch.

Welcome, thank you for joining us! Tell me a little bit about how this project in particular got started.

So coming off of Black Ops II, we knew that we were going into a three-year cycle, which is a big deal for us, that was our first three-year cycle game. We knew that we were going into Next-Gen – PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC – so we were starting, in some ways, from the very start, the very beginning; you have to retool for Next-Gen.

Can you carry anything over?

Yeah, of course, there’s a lot, but there’s a lot of stuff you couldn’t. Like the deferred rendering and lighting – that stuff’s all going to be ripped out and replaced and rebuilt for Next-Gen. The AI system, that was massive – it’s a massive thing to unwind an AI engine and put a new one in, one that we made.

Does it exist under similar principles though, or has it evolved?

No, actually it’s pretty different; it’s a Co-Op game. When you have a Co-Op game, you can’t just script encounters and battles in the same way, it’s very systems driven, very archetypal, very encounter-based. These are all new ideas for us, from making pretty traditional Call of Duty experiences, whereas this one is off the rails. It’s very systems-driven. You have much bigger encounter spaces. If you’ve got four players, the game can’t know where they all are, what they’re all looking at. When you’ve got one, you know where he or she is, you know what he or she is looking at. You can craft an experience that way, a very cool Call of Duty experience. In this case, you can’t – you have to rebuild all that stuff so it was a lot of work, probably a good year, maybe year and a half, of just trying to get ready to make the game, to be honest.

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So when you sat down and said ‘let’s follow this up and go to the next gen’, what were those first principles you were looking at and saying ‘this is how we want to make it different’ and ‘this is how we want to better that experience’?

Easy! Online, online, online. This is an online game all the way though. It’s a Co-Op game, and that changes things. The single-player game didn’t have networking in it. We had to move everything over to the multiplayer executable engine, and then we had to make the adjustments and bring all that stuff over so that it would actually work, because that stuff didn’t even exist in the multiplayer engine. So that was the big one and we were setting up and it took a while, building it in layers trying to get it to work and that’s hard because at the same time guys like me and some other folks, we’re off in the corner of the building trying to craft the gameplay that we think makes sense for the game and the engine’s torn apart, the networking’s torn apart and its chaos, and we’re trying to make something – it was intense. So we were messing up a lot, trying to figure it out, we didn’t have all the tools, the pipeline, the technology. All of that stuff had to get built, rebuilt for this engine and this game and this generation of hardware. So it’s a very intense first year, we weren’t messing around – we were working hard right off the bat.

What made you decide to go that route as opposed to just trying to make a better version of what you did before?

Well, we made a better version of what we did before, so now what do you do? You have to push yourself. Treyarch is culturally set up to just go ‘what is the best possible game we think we can make’ and we study this idea, we go ‘okay, these are the people we have, this is what we’re good at, here’s how we’re structured, here’s where we’ve got the right management for this kind of effort and that kind of effort’ and we talk about these things – we go through a pretty rigorous process as a studio and as a culture to figure out what that looks like and we knew we could do this. We had Co-Op experience, we had lots of online and multiplayer experience – some of the best and most popular online games around so we said ‘we can do this, we can make this game, it’s going to be hard but we can do it’ and that’s where it came from – just saying ‘where’s our line, where’s our bar’ and ‘how do we aim above that’.

What are you most excited about people getting to experience in this game that maybe they haven’t been able to in a CoD game or a Black Ops game in the past?

I’ll give a personal answer. As a Design Director, I’m very focused on game systems. Think about Call of Duty – even Black Ops II – a lot of the game features and mechanics were delivered to you over the level: ‘this is the level where you fly the QR Drone, this is the level where you drive the vehicle, this is the level where you’re the gunner on the vehicle and then you hijack this…’ It’s structured and it should be, because that’s the kind of game that is. This is a very systems game – these game systems exist across multiple levels. You have ranking, you have unlocking, you have create-a-class, you have the CyberCorps, the tactical rigs – all these things are game systems and, as a systems designer, if you trace back my lineage, I’m a systems designer in my blood and this is a systems game. Therefore I’m very excited about it, because I get to finally bring some of that experience and that player-agency-based fun into the campaign game as well as opposed to saying ‘now you’re going to fly the QR Drone’. And we still do that too, but there’s a broader thing going on there, with the way you decide to equip and play. It’s still Call of Duty, you’re still on a journey, but it has some of those elements and those elements are me, that’s me and my core so that’s what I like and what I’m excited about.

So how long have you been with this team and with this brand?

I’ve made every multiplayer, every Treyarch Call of Duty to Big Red One, so over 10 years.

Wow!

Yeah I’m old… Dedicated my life to it.

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In terms of the Next-Gen consoles, obviously the graphics are better and there are aspects of the control that are better. What are the Next-Gen consoles bringing to the gameplay that we haven’t been able to play with in the past?

Great question – I think it’s going to take two or three games for us to truly understand how to take advantage of the hardware, which is always the case. I don’t think we really mastered the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3 until 5 or 6 shows into that game cycle. But these are very powerful machines. 2 or 3 games from now, I think you’ll be seeing things we cant even imagine right now and that’s the beauty of it. First couple games, you’re just trying to get them to work, you know? You go from making it work to going ‘ok what do we do know?’ And it’s so fun!

Well just in the little bit that I’ve played, it’s so smooth and everything is fast and fluid.

Thank you! On the multiplayer side, we really wanted players to feel connected to the player motion and movement – that was the goal. Fluid was the word we were using, and then all the features stem from that goal, there not a result of things like ‘I think it would be fun to wall-run’ – that’s not what we do. To be fluid, you need to feel like you can connect with the environment and move through it and have mastery of the environment as a player – so I’m really glad that you said that because that’s something we worked very hard on and it took… a long fucking time.

I bet! There was a lot of looking at code to make that work …

There’s a lot of it, a lot of debate, but yeah I’m really glad you think it’s smooth, because we do. We think it’s fluid and we worked really hard on it!

It’s pretty fast, there’s no lag.

Yeah it’s pretty fast, 60 frames and a lot of animation to make it feel fluid. You can make things fast, but they don’t feel fluid unless you make an animation state.

And in theory, does that then set up what comes next?

Next, meaning after Black Ops III? I don’t know what comes next to be completely honest with you. We are so trying to get to November 6 and stay in one piece, and then there’s no doubt going to be a season of content after, we have to work on all that stuff.

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There’s some DLC?

Yeah of course, I mean I can’t even think about DLC, really, I’m thinking about November 6! And then maybe I’ll think about DLC

Do you remember 10 years ago when DLC wasn’t a thing? You know, you put the game out and it was done?

Yeah, it’s a really reasonable question but I don’t know and I mean this in all sincerity, because people ask us a lot, ‘ah, you’re near the end, what’s next?’ we have not gone into a room in the studio and said ‘this is what’s next!’ We haven’t and we won’t. We won’t start talking about that for months.

If there was one thing that you didn’t get to do that you’d like to do in the future, is there anything?

I don’t know if there’s anything specifically I didn’t get to do, it’s whether I got to do it at the scale or scope that I had imagined. There’s a lot of stuff in this game that I didn’t want to do, but it made sense to do, because we just can’t quit – we just keep going, we don’t know how to stop. I think what’ll be great about this is because it’s an online game we’ll still be able to continue to work on the game after the game is done – that’s what one of the great things that online games afford you. It’s hard to explain in simple terms, but we go on the design side, we map the whole thing out, we have a big-picture, long-term take. It’s all done visually on a piece of paper that’s 24 inches wide and as long as it needs to be. Some of the features aren’t as long as others so I need to finish that stuff and I think we’ll be able to do a lot of that – and there’s a lot there. So if the feature isn’t compelling enough then we don’t do it, so it’s not like I feel like we compromised the feature in any way, what I feel is that there’s so many amazing things you can do but you only have so much time. 3 years is a long time but it’s not that long.

Not in game development!

No, no – things take a lot of time in game development, to get it right. We’re really good at prototyping and standing them up though.

Well, I’m excited for everyone to play the game, and best of luck in the lead up!

Thank you very much, here we go! What have we got, 30 days? 35 days? Something like that, let’s go!

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Our sincere thanks to David for chatting with us and to Treyarch and Activision for the hands-on session with the game. Call of Duty: Black Ops III releases November 6 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.