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Interview - Call of Duty: Black Ops' Josh Olin and Mark Lamia speak in London


Call of Duty: Black Ops will be one of the biggest core games of 2010, and Treyarch's doing everything it can to rise to the challenge, stepping into a nuclear-sized impact crater left by the recent Infinity Ward explosion. Call of Duty's future could depend on this game: given the reaction to code showings this month, it appears the IP is in safe hands.

Demoing two levels from the Cold War shooter in London this week - one name WMD and a Vietnam level called Slaughterhouse - the studio left attending journalists breathless. Black Ops appears to be a whole new level for the team behind World at War.

We were lucky enough to get face-time with Treyarch community manager Josh Olin and studio head Mark Lamia at the event. We also spoke to Mark in-depth at a recent LA event for the game: get that here.

[Interview by Adam Hartley]

VG247: How long have you been waiting to make a game like this? You guys have been stuck in this World War II trough for quite a while, so presumably this is a game that you have surely wanted to make for some time?

Mark Lamia: You know, the opportunity to create a game in a totally new space is a fantastic opportunity for Treyarch. It really opened up all kinds of creative avenues for us and ways for us to express ourselves. As you know we have been making WWII games for quite some time and, while we enjoyed that, being able to do something new allowed us to focus on new kinds of gameplay and fresh new experiences. These are exemplified by the variety of things you get to do in the game, the variety of locales and settings, the variety of weaponry and just being able to play as Black Ops in this time period in history.

Basically, they had their own freedom and license to take on their missions how they saw it. So it aligned and fits perfectly with what we wanted to do with a game.

It’s Call of Duty, so of course it looks beautiful, no matter who is developing it. But is it a bit late for this now – with things like the new Medal of Honour and Six Days in Fallujah coming out? Is this really going to offer something different or is it just Call of Duty with a different skin?

Mark Lamia: This Call of Duty will be different than all the other experiences out there and all the other Call of Duty games. What’s important to us when we are developing a CoD game is to ensure that we have retained that ‘essence’ of Call of Duty, why people love to play Call of Duty. And it is that cinematic intensity that only Call of Duty delivers and that people expect. With this game we are also introducing new gameplay mechanics, new weapons, new things to do.

In the Russian mission which we just shared with you, we open it up so you start off the mission by approaching and flying the SR71 – taking off in it, taking control of it, taking control of the groups on the ground and providing them with the intel that they need. Then transitioning within the same level back to the on-the-ground operations with the Black Ops forces. Introducing rappel gameplay, doing a rappel breach, approaching a situation in either an action fashion or a stealth fashion. In the case of the level that you just saw, we started out ‘stealth’ and then we went ‘hot’ for you. And you also saw the high altitude jumping mechanic [abseiling down a cliff face] – so all those new gameplay mechanics you saw were introduced in that small section of that one level. Which is a good example of what we wanted to do, in terms of variety of gameplay and keeping it fresh.

I haven’t seen those other games that are coming out later this year, but I do know that we are doing our own thing and it is certainly new and fresh for Call of Duty. We believe we are going to provide a lot of new gameplay for people and a lot of new places to go in the game.

Josh Olin: We are making a strong focus on deep narrative, and with that comes strong, complicated characters and character arcs, so they are going to progress through the game as you play through it. You know, for the first time in CoD you have a character voice, you are a player, you will have your own identifiable voice. You have your own identify in the game. You are the one who is taking control of the battlefield, and as such you can really effect change and take the direction of the battle one way or the other.

It’s more than just a compelling single-player game of course. We want to tell this great story, this great narrative, but we also have the option of the dedicated [offline] four-player co-op split screen mode. But it was a creative choice in this game to really focus on the character and story and drive that as deep as we can for the single-player game.

Mark Lamia: Yeah, and we also wanted to do co-op, and we feel like what we wanted to do was to create our own co-op mode that is just a lot of fun to play. But we’re not saying too much more right now about what that is.

Josh Olin: And of course, it’s Call of Duty, so there is a deep and replayable aspect to it. And we are having a strong focus this time around on personalisation and customisation for the player, as well as socialisation, extending the game beyond just the match that you are playing in multiplayer at any given time. It’s the first time Treyarch has had this dedicated multiplayer team since day one on a project.

Has the breakdown of Infinity Ward afforded you the opportunity to go into a different kind of era with Call of Duty? Or were you always looking to move away from the WWII scene?

Mark Lamia: From the very beginning we were looking for a new avenue and obviously this game has been in development for over a year and a half now, long before any of the recent events [with Infinity Ward] had transpired. Those things have absolutely nothing to do with the creative inspiration behind what we are doing.

This all comes from within Treyarch. We are making the game that we want to make, covering an era that we feel is fertile ground for gaming that hasn’t been covered. And we are covering Black Ops. This is our game and we are making it our way.

How long is the story campaign? Some gamers complained about how short the single-player story was in the last game.

Josh Olin: We just don’t know yet. It’s not done. We are still very deep in development of the title. Until it’s all packaged up and we know which gameplay mechanics are going to stay and which ones we are going to develop a lot further, we won’t know.

Mark Lamia: We look at this game as like three games in one. And it is going to have that gameplay between the single-player experience and the multiplayer and the co-op… in that there is tons of replayability and there is a lot of game to be played there. We are confident that players are going to be very satisfied. It is probably what made Call of Duty games in the past so successful – the quality of the game and the replayability out of all those different modes. We are trying to create the most robust experience we can at the highest quality level.

Josh Olin: Even single-player has new aspects of replayability that weren’t in other Call of Duty games. I mean, you saw us play through the ‘WMD’ level earlier using two very different types of gameplay. We went in stealthily and then switched to the explosive tips and blew the whole thing to hell. But if you wanted to play through that entire level stealthily you could, or if you wanted to play through the whole thing ‘action’ you could.

Mark Lamia: It’s all about variety and keeping it fresh. You are going to have a variety of different weapons and different vehicles to use in the game. The way we are going to tell our story, the way your character is and the ways the characters around you progress is going to be different and something that you haven’t experienced before in a Call of Duty game.

One thing you mentioned earlier is this ‘essence’ of Call of Duty. What do you mean by that?

Josh Olin: It is what Call of Duty is supposed to feel about. There are some core staples that you really cannot mess up on. You cannot undo certain things, because you will p**s off a lot of fans. That really is founded in cinematic intensity in an action-adventure story. It is not about making a sandbox game; there are other games for that. It is not about giving you a fixed rail that you cannot divert from at all through the game.

It is about cinematic intensity and a great story that we want to walk you through and have it unfold in front of you at a certain pace. And it is about keeping the level of action up alongside that pacing. As you saw in WMD and Slaughterhouse today, we have no problem in just blowing your eardrums out with that non-stop hardcore cinematic intensity. That is still going to be there. But that is going to be mixed in with a lot of great pacing elements.

From those SR71 sequences you can be stealthy, or choose to go through the entire mission in a very hot and explosive way. It is defining where the pacing is right in the game. And for Treyarch we have developed so many Call of Duty games and we are in a great position to capture the exact spirit of what CoD is supposed to be.

Whose idea was it to set the game in the Cold War era? And what has it been like to recreate the feel of that time?

Josh Olin: Yeah, it’s great. Who’s idea? It was the team’s idea. If there obviously wasn’t anything more to do in WWII, then we wouldn’t have done a WWII title last time. But there was. We had the specific theatre that hadn’t been covered before in any Call of Duty, you had that flamethrower and that surprise guerrilla warfare from the Japanese army, just that whole idea that the battle was way grittier than your Eastern Front and Geneva Convention type stuff.

Now we looked at it and thought, “Where else is fertile ground?” You know, Call of Duty has done the WWII thing, it has done the Modern Warfare thing. And it immediately struck us that the Cold War… People had been suggesting it on forums for a while but there was also this perception that no battles actually happened in the Cold War. Well, we started doing our research and we realised that lots of battles happened in the Cold War, but they were these classified operations because had it been discovered that we were operating in Soviet territory or some of these other restricted territories in South-East Asia – had these things come out, then it could well have erupted into World War III.

There were plenty of hot conflict zones around the world during the Cold War era. Which is where we are going to be taking the player – to all sorts of variety of locales. And when we were trying to decide where the game was going to be set, this era really was just the most fertile ground – from the variety of locations through to the possible gameplay scenarios with these different Black Ops operations. It was crying out for a Call of Duty game.

Two of the real stand-out moments in the WMD level we just saw were taking off in the SR71 – which just instantly blows you away – and then that high-altitude jumping scene, where you are abseiling down a cliff before jumping through the window of an electricity substation all guns blazing.

Josh Olin: Well, we did a lot of research. We actually got to go and take pictures of a real SR71 cockpit. We talked to a lot of specialists who have actually flown SR71s, so they could tell us if we had all of the details right or not. We went to NASA to get the pressure suit that the pilot has to wear – because this is a sub-orbital reconnaissance plane, don’t forget; it's flying right beyond the brink of space. The suit looks a little silly, but it is authentic down to every little detail.

And everything in that level is all about pacing, so we start you off as you are walking up to your SR71, so you get to see it and understand what you are about to fly. And then once you are in the cockpit you don’t immediately take off. The cockpit slowly closes and the bridge starts to pull away from the plane. You hear the radio chatter. You do your engine checks and your fuel checks and all that system stuff.

It's this amazing build-up to make you feel that something is going to happen. And you really get the feel for this cool weapon that you are in. And then you get to fire up the engines and you get this very cinematic take-off sequence and you see yourself flying on the very brink of space and then you settle back down again. After the blood-pumping take-off sequence you then get to do some recon for a bit. You get to understand how careful and stealthy these units on the ground have to be because you have to have them avoid the vehicle convoys on the ground, because if they get detected it would set off every alarm across the whole place.

And then you get to be right down there on the ground, so you then get to be the guys that were being guided from the SR71. And you get to immediately learn to be stealthy and stay undetected. And then you get to the action of having to disable the substation and kill the power, and all that.

Is that the first scene in the single-player game?

Josh Olin: Oh no. It is actually fairly later on in the campaign. It is not the first mission. The WMD mission in general takes place in the Ural mountains in Russia, deep behind enemy lines, in this heavily fortified bunker is built into the mountain. It is so fortified that it could almost withstand the direct impact of a blast from a nuclear warhead.

How are you supposed to get in there if it is that well protected? Well, you need to use these Black Ops teams who are specialised. They are the best of the best. And that’s the mission.

Once you get inside – and I don’t want to spoil too much – but you will learn as the player that there's a much more sinister plan under way. But you will have to play it to find out more.

It is just a beautifully-paced introduction into that level. It made me think immediately of those great intro scenes in classic Bond movies. Any other inspirations in terms of Cold War movies, books or writers?

Josh Olin: Awesome! Well if you are thinking that from the little demos we have shown you then I cannot wait for you to see the whole game.

In terms of inspirations, without citing anything specifically because I know how forums and web communities can run away with that, we look at all forms of entertainment media for inspiration and influence – movies, music, other games and real-life veterans of the conflicts. We had a Soviet-trained spy come in to advise us on what they did and on the missions that they encountered, so it is those kinds of things which are really where we pull a lot of our influence from.

The second level that we saw – ‘Slaughterhouse’ – is very different in its look and style.

Josh Olin: Yes, instead of fighting these elite operatives, you are fighting the NVA, and they are trained but they don’t have the same level of training. It's a very different fighting force. And as a level it is also very different because you are thrown right into the thick of it. You literally crash through a window into an over-run American facility – it was the compound where the CIA was headquartered – and when the NVA invaded Hue City this complex got over-run.

Ss the player you are not there fighting the war in Vietnam – because this compound was over-run the CIA sent this Black Ops team in and said, “You need to recover this intel, because if we lose it this is bad.” You are in there recovering this intel. The fact that the Vietnam war is going off in the background is just kind of noise to the player.

You use whatever tools you need to fulfil your mission and everybody else in the military will yield to you because they understand that whatever your mission is, it is the most important thing.

The attention to detail is also superb in that level – down to the graffiti, the shop signs, the papers flying through the air – and there is also some aspects of humour. A character shouts ‘s**t’ when you shoot him in the head, to which your character responds ‘affirmative’.

Josh Olin: [laughs] You know it is not really designed for humour, but you are right. In some sequences you can really chuckle at it. It's not meant to be funny, but you laugh because you were not expecting something to happen.

That type of laughter is like a release. You laugh out loud to release tension. It makes it more real.

Josh Olin: Yeah, we wanted to immerse you in that experience. We are not trying to make a war movie parody or anything like that, of course.

The Cold War was incredibly complex, so it is hard to paint it as a ‘good guys versus bad guys’ story. Does your character have to make difficult moral choices in the game? For example, where you might be unsure which is the best or the right way to complete your objectives in a mission?

Josh Olin: Yeah. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything about our story, but what I can tell you is that the variety of gameplay we're providing the player is going to be unparalleled in any other Call of Duty.

You are not just fighting a normal war and you are not just a common foot-soldier. Our story – like a needle and a thread – is going to weave its way through time and through these points of reference in history. You weave through the Vietnam war and the Battle of Hue City, but it is not about that battle, it is not about the war; it is about your objective in our story.

We've seen two levels – one in Russian and one in Vietnam. Are there any others you can tell us about?

Josh Olin: There are other hot conflicts around the globe that happened during that era that we are going to take the player to. But nothing that we can talk about right now. But they are all based on real-life conflicts that happened, which are used as backgrounds to our missions.

Do you think people playing through the game might actually learn a lot about the Cold War and about these events?

Josh Olin: Absolutely. It inspires them to find out more about it. Like, when we started working on the game and we started deciding where we wanted to go with our own story, people internally really wanted to read all of these stories about the SOG and to find more about what they did and the sacrifices they made. And so when we are telling our game, if the player wants to take a step back and think 'this s**t’s really cool' then that's great. And we absolutely anticipate that is going to happen.

At the end of the day we are here to make an entertainment product, but if there are more people that can understand what these Black Ops teams did, then that’s great. They previously couldn’t get that kind of recognition, because this was all classified until recently.

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Call of Duty: Black Ops

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Patrick Garratt

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Patrick Garratt is a games media legend - and not just by reputation. He was named as such in the UK's 'Games Media Awards', the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. After garnering experience on countless gaming magazines, he joined Eurogamer and later split from that brand to create VG247, putting the site on the map with fast, 24-hour a day coverage, and assembling the site's earliest editorial teams. He retired from VG247, and the games industry, in 2017.