Call of Duty: Black Ops II Interview – John Rafacz Talks Future Warfare
Written Monday, June 25, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
From World War II to the present day via the Cold War, Call of Duty is a franchise that's visited a variety of periods in time, crafting its own brand of blockbuster military action around its slick and honed first-person shootery. It's a formula that's won the series a legion of fans and broke sales records year after year. Whether you like it or not, it's here to stay.
For Black Ops II, Treyarch is exploring uncharted territory for Call of Duty, pushing what it started with Black Ops' 60s-set Cold War narrative into the near-future, picking up with Alex Mason's son, David in a world where the world now fights over rare earth elements rather than oil.
It's a bleak and frightening vision of the world circa 2025, so we spoke to John Rafacz, Treyarch Communications Director, in the hope that he'd be able to allay our future fears and answer all of our Call of Duty: Black Ops II queries while he's at it.
If you could just start by giving us a brief overview of Black Ops II's story and where it fits in with the continuing Black Ops arc...
Black Ops II is a direct sequel to the first Black Ops game and takes place in 2025, and when looking at near-future warfare, Treyarch quickly began to uncover a world that relied heavily upon the use of drones and advanced robotics. It didn't take too long for us to think about what would happen if someone were to come along, steal the keys and hack into the infrastructure to turn all of these things that are meant to protect us, against us. In the LA level that we've shown, that's what happens.
You're playing as David Mason, who's the son of Alex Mason from the first Black Ops and you're on a special detail to protect the President of the USA. And in a very Call of Duty way, things go sideways very quickly, leaving it up to you to come through and save the day.
You told us during the presentation that you're working with author and robotics expert PW Singer on Black Ops II, who said that you weren't pushing the future technology far enough. How have you responded to that? How far have you pushed the future tech in Black Ops II?
With Black Ops II we actually worked with a variety of consultants. We had a couple of guys who helped us craft Cold War One fiction and one guy in particular who was instrumental in helping us understand our near-future fiction, Peter Singer. He's a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and is someone who advises world leaders on long-term planning and just happens to be an expert in robotics and drone warfare. Core to the Call of Duty experience is this sense of plausible authenticity. No matter which Call of Duty game you're playing, there's got to be this belief that it could really be happening and we wanted to make sure it was no different for Black Ops II.
But when you talk about 13 years out, it can be a tricky thing. You and I could sit here and talk about what'll happen a year down the line and kind of be on board, but by the time you start thinking about 13 years out, you could have a variety of opinions. Plus, this is the first Call of Duty game that doesn't benefit from volumes of research on the past. We've still needed to rely on that for Cold War One, but really the sources of inspiration are coming from today's headlines and Singer really helped us understand what we were doing on two levels. First there's the geopolitical arc, and Singer really helped us understand that in 13 years we won't be fighting one another over petroleum or oil any more. We're going to move on to rare earth elements.
Things like palladium and other metals and minerals like that then?
Exactly. This would not be here, those would not be here (points to laptops and other electronic devices in the room). It just so happens that the same earth elements we rely on for our smartphones and tablets are things used in stealth technology, night vision goggles and so on. It adds to this geopolitical tension, so in terms of this wrapper of Black Ops II's universe, Singer helped us understand what that looks like. Then on a more granular level, you've got this gun and then you start talking about the Cognitive Land Assault Weapon (CLAW): that four-legged thing is being used right now in Afghanistan by Special Forces to carry heavy loads around, and so we answer the age old question of what would happen if you were to put a gun on it.
Singer is someone who would probably see that perhaps moving a little further, a little faster. He was a really good reality check in terms of how Moore's law applies to things. If you look 13 years back, you could get a multi-million dollar mainframe that now has the computing power of your $300 Xbox 360 (or PlayStation 3!), so it was really the art of taking these things and adopting new form factors while still remaining true to Call of Duty. So even though Singer may have felt we could have taken things further at times, we ultimately zeroed in on what felt right for the experience.
With a third of Black Ops II taking place in the past, are we going to see how those events tie-in to David Mason's story in 2025?
So yes, two thirds of the game takes place in 2025 and you meet your old friend Woods, who's now older and wiser, and able to tell you stories about Cold War One. The desire to set the game in the near-future and one of the things that led to the future setting is that by talking to an older man, he can help lay the foundations back in Cold War One for a lot of the people, experiences and themes that you see grow and arc into 2025. We are able to establish this context and sense of growth over time and generations that you just haven't seen in this kind of story before. That's creatively one of the things we wanted to bring to it.
In gameplay terms, what are the core Call of Duty tenets that you're looking to build upon and evolve for Black Ops II?
When you talk about core tenets, it's really broken down by mode. There's a certain look and feel to any Call of Duty experience that remains true across all the modes, but for single-player it's a range of things. It's a new setting, an ambitious storyline and it's a variety of gameplay. Now that takes place on two different levels. Just looking at the Los Angeles mission, you're doing everything from sniping to commandeering a SAM turret, using your quad-rotor drones and flying an FA38 strike fighter. There's a lot of stuff to play with, and when you look at that variety, that's really borne out in our Strike Force levels, which are non-linear experiences that take place parallel to the single-player storyline.
When you play these levels, you can take control of anything, you can play as a soldier for traditional Call of Duty-style boots-on-the-ground gameplay, take control of one of the robots, the QR drones and you can go into overwatch mode and do whatever you need to do to advance the action and succeed. And ultimately that factors into the political wrapper that concludes single-player. That's just single-player! Then you've got Zombies, which is back, bigger than ever and is being built using the multiplayer engine, which means that the dev team is able to open up the gameplay in ways that maybe we hadn't been able to previously with things like 4v4 and some new modes.
Then there's multiplayer, where especially if you're talking core tenets, it's that smooth 60-frames per second experience that is something we don't compromise on. That's core to Call of Duty. Now there are things around that core that we could perhaps experiment with a little bit. We've got three distinct modes that cater to a variety of expectations to the Call of Duty experience.
Do you think that experimenting with or playing with the core Call of Duty multiplayer experience is something of a risk given how established it is, carrying certain expectations?
Well, let's be careful how we use the phrase “playing” with it. When we talk about challenging assumptions [of multiplayer] at no point has anyone ever expressed any interest in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But at the same time, as we listen to the community and make our level best effort to speak to the variety of expectations that 30-40 million fans have, we've evolved a few things and added our own spin on certain aspects. But to those that hold multiplayer sacred: we're not “playing” with it.
Does having certain expectations and preconceived notions of what Call of Duty multiplayer should be make what you can do with it somewhat restrictive then?
I'm not even sure it has as much to do with multiplayer as much as it does with listening to what people are really asking for. Whether it's from a random tweet or a forum thread comment, there's hopefully the thing that someone loves, but if it's something that someone hates and they're complaining about, what is it that they're really going after? It's the art of being able to scoop those comments up, listen to them and really dissect the true intention of what the community is asking for. It's really more about getting that right and then everything else follows.
And I suppose Strike Force is part of taking Call of Duty in another direction with a mode that requires strategical thought. Would you agree with that?
There's a little bit of that, but let's be honest. There are some who say Call of Duty is too linear, so all of a sudden we've got your non-linearity, so it's a way to make sure that we're meeting the expectations that people have while adding a healthier sense of diversity in how that story's told.
Your success and failure in Strike Force will determine how Call of Duty: Black Ops II's campaign wraps up, so how many permutations and endings will that result in?
Right now we're still in development, so we're still calculating how many Strike Force levels a player encounters throughout the single-player campaign and of course that ultimately affects the number of permutations. I think the most important thing to understand is, [having] the right expectation of what that entails. Because when we talk about shaping the ending, we'll all share that core single-player experience and these Strike Force levels speak to that geopolitical wrapper. The analogy I use is, we're all playing for the same present but we'll encounter different gift wrapping.
With so many modes, has it been decided where the post-release support is going to go? Are we looking at additional Strike Force levels, more Zombies DLC or something else entirely?
Right now, it's all about November 13th. But of course this is not Treyarch's first rodeo with Call of Duty, so I have a feeling that those conversations are just on the horizon.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II will be launching worldwide on November 13th, 2012. Check out our first look preview here.