With Modern Warfare 2 breaking sales records and its developer, Infinity Ward, in a state of collapse, following the highly publicized departure of the studio's founders and many of its senior staff, all eyes are on Treyarch to pick up the torch and deliver the most robust and polished multiplayer experience the franchise has seen yet.
But how far does Vonderhaar look to find competition? "The benchmark is always the last game that the studio's made, or that Activision's published," he said. "Multiplayer CoD games command three of the four top spots on Xbox Live right now. We're filling stadiums of people every night with players." And that fan base, which is shared across Infinity Ward's two Modern Warfare titles along with Treyarch's zombie-infused World at War multiplayer, hasn't shied away from upgrading annually.
But first, there's a challenge that Vonderhaar notes: A lot of different kinds of gamers buy Call of Duty games and never go online.
"The thing that was really important to us going into this game was that we really had come to understand the diversity of the people who play MP, or want to play MP, and what happened for us was we had this opportunity to create this game that can spread that spectrum of player and personality and type." Even in Treyarch's own ranks, Vonderhaar notes that "there's lots of different people here and they like lots of different things" about Call of Duty multiplayer.
Vonderhaar cites three main reasons why some players don't take their Call of Duty game online. The first, and most obvious reason, is of course the toxicity of the online community. "The atmosphere, the environment, is pretty hostile in some cases," Vonderhaar admits. "Mom jokes. Lots of dick conversations. Lots of hatred and racial bigotry." Yup, that sounds like Xbox Live to us.
The second reason "is that the difficulty level of a single-player campaign game" doesn't always prepare players for the multiplayer experience. "Some people just want to be told a story; they want to go watch the movie version," Vonderhaar said. "Those types probably aren't ever going to be big into MP, but I'm going to sure as hell try to get them in. There's so much to the game that's not in single-player; it's a real shame to leave those people behind."
And lastly, "you have to string together a lot of mechanics [in multiplayer] that you don't normally have to do." Whether that's throwing back grenades, sprinting or calling in killstreaks bonuses, you'll need to juggle these actions in any round of multiplayer -- and many campaign-focused players will be unaware of these mechanics. A frenetic round of CoD multiplayer is hardly the ideal place to learn about them.
When asked why Black Ops doesn't include a skill-based matchmaking system like Bungie's Halo 3, Vonderhaar explained, "There is no skill-based matchmaking. There never has been in any CoD game." Outside of tradition, the reason for that is simple: speed. "Speed of matchmaking is more important than anything else," he said. "There's already a lot of stuff that you have to do outside of the game [...] waiting around to play? Not fun."
When pressed on the topic -- after all, Bungie has managed to execute skill-based matchmaking for some time -- Vonderhaar admitted, "We've thought about it. We've talked about it. Of course we have.
And that's why we have Combat Training, because it's still super fast and you can still play with your friends if you're not very good at the game [...] It's really important for us to get players into the game as fast as possible."
There's so much to the game that's not in single-player. - David Vonderhaar, Treyarch
Another feature that Treyarch discussed, but didn't include, in Black Ops was a clan mode. Like skill-based matchmaking, Vonderhaar said clan support didn't make the cut because it was "overly complex" and got in the way of that pursuit of fun. "For us it was important to keep the Party system simple so you go into the lobby, you invite your friends, [...] you can all move around the parties and go to wager matches and go over to live games and [...] when you back out, you can take your whole Party with you," he explained. "We studied it, we looked at it. [Clan support] is too hard. You start fighting with having to create all this stuff. Are clan tag names reserved? Are they not reserved? And you get into this loop of questions that appeal to certain players but then isolate so many more, and it's really important to us to not isolate and carve off sections of the game that other people can't enjoy because they're not clan types."
Treyarch is less worried about carving off and isolating one particular group of players: cheaters. Watching the team at Infinity Ward struggle with Modern Warfare 2's bizarre glitches and griefers, Vonderhaar said, "There's a whole layer where those exploits come from that you have to move down deeper into the code so that they're not as forefront." Some of what cheaters exploit is actually some of the "same tools that game designers use to help balance the game," we learned. It's left high-level and gets exposed. Part of Treyarch's strategy is simple: "push those things deeper and put them behind the wall, and that will take care of a lot of [the glitches] right away."
In fact, Theater "started as a bug tool," Vonderhaar said. A funny bug was being sent around the office -- specifically, a guy's face was "stretched out and distorted"– and the team loved it and thought, "We have to share this with people. This is too good. We cannot hold this as a bug tool. This is something we can give to people to use." And so they did!
The Theater provides players with six slots to store clips and screenshots to share with friends. While Vonderhaar said, "I'm sure the business people are kicking around various ideas" for more slots, "the six slots you see on the floor, that's what comes with the game." Curiously, the stations we saw at the event listed 18 slots in some areas and just the six in others.
Call of Duty: Black Ops will be released on November 9 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. A Wii version will also be available at that time.