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Interview: Call of Duty: Black Ops producer Dan Bunting

Treyarch is no stranger to the Call of Duty franchise, having created Call of Duty 3 and World at War, but, up until it began work on this November's Call of Duty: Black Ops, it was stuck in the past -- World War II, that is. After getting our first look at its take on more modern combat, we spoke with Black Ops producer Dan Bunting to find out what to expect from the series' move into the Cold War and the world of deniable operations. Oh, and zombies -- we had to ask about those.

Joystiq: Black Ops seems to me to be "modern warfare" -- with a lower case "m" and lower case "w." It's a lot different than the Call of Duty games that Treyarch has made in the past. What's it like going from World War II to a more modern setting?

Dan Bunting: It's a completely untapped era; there's been a small number of games that have covered that in the past. It's a really rich time frame to draw inspiration from for creativity. The team is completely jazzed about the theme of the game, and taking more of a special ops angle to it. The Cold War era, there are so many stories there that people don't even know about. A lot of people don't even know what the Cold War is, but there was a kind of birth of these special operations happening during this time frame.

We start with Studies and Observation Group in Vietnam, which was SOG, basically the predecessor to the Black Ops, in a lot of ways. These guys were behind enemy lines to do covert missions. They were given carte blanche; these were deniable operations so nobody really could know. It was classified, so they had free reign to do whatever they needed to do to get the missions done. That means that you can have some really great game design elements and story elements to draw from there. In the beginning it was just an explosion of creativity. We've been working on World War II games for so long, it was just a completely fresh, new era for us.

Do you see Black Ops as a foundation for a franchise? You can do more stories in here. Like you said, it's a rich setting. Is this another one-off game or is it a place you think you're going to spend time in?

Who knows? We'll have to see where it goes. Right now we're just focused on making this game the best game it can be. We haven't even looked that far in the future yet.

You've got scenes in Vietnam -- are these all being tied together with a single narrative?

There is. There's a singular narrative that runs through the game and it spans across many years through the Cold War era. Parts of it are in Vietnam; parts are in other locations throughout the world.

What type of time span are you talking about? The Cold War is expansive.

Yeah, it's a big era; but it's late '60s to mid-'70s. All the characters involved in the narrative are intertwined. So it is one narrative that you're following; you play it from a couple different perspectives, but you follow this one narrative and all these character arcs overlap one another.

"We've dedicated teams to single-player campaigns; we've dedicated teams to the co-op portions of the game and to multiplayer."

Technology: what kind of changes have you guys made? I know that on World at War, you guys used a slightly updated version of the CoD4 engine. What have you done here? This looks a lot better.

We have a really strong tech-team. It's just been constant enhancement of the game engine -- the tech that we have. We brought some of the new technologies over from the previous game and we made them better; we brought new technologies in now. It's a constant evolution; we're always improving.

What kind of things has Treyarch targeted specifically to improve? Is there anything in particular, say from World at War, that you looked to address?

You can see from the game footage, the lighting is really nice, a lot of texture work. The things we can do with textures have really improved. Of course we've got texture streaming. That's a big technological advancement -- to get the streaming in there, because then you can make the world a lot bigger; you can have a lot more vista space, a lot more lines of sight all the way off into the horizon.

There's going to be multiplayer obviously, but then studio head Mark Lamia has also said there's going to be co-op: four-player online co-op and two-player split screen. He said it would feature "unique gameplay." Is that going to be something like Modern Warfare 2's Spec Ops, or is it going to be full campaign co-op?

I can't talk about it any more than what you heard Mark talk about earlier. But we've had a team dedicated to that part of the game. We've dedicated teams to single-player campaigns; we've dedicated teams to the co-op portions of the game and to multiplayer. So we have dedicated efforts that specifically design that portion of the game for the needs of the gamer who plays that part.

Zombies. You guys put zombies in World at War ...

Just come out and say it! [laughs]

... and it was definitely one of those things that I think a lot of people weren't sure about at first, right? It didn't have the same feel that the earlier games did. But, sure enough, it becomes one of the most popular, or probably the most popular component of that game's online functionality. Number one: how did you feel about the audience reception to zombies in the game. And is that the type of thing you would do in Black Ops?

Well, like I said I can't go into details about co-op or what it's going to be. Zombies in World at War was a huge success and we were blown away by how well the fans received it.

Is there going to be a killer clown mode? In the demo there were some unique gameplay elements. One of them looked to be sort of like the breach mechanic in Modern Warfare 2 where rappelling down through the window and it went into a slow-motion scene. Is that a one-off event or is that a type of gameplay mechanic that you'll see throughout?

Well, that's just an example of the kind of variety of experiences we've put throughout the campaign. You saw with WMD it was just a much more stealth-driven experience you had and all of the kind of mechanics that were built into that were about building up that stealth vibe. So the breaching into the window, it's about going from stealth to kicking off the action.

On the other end of the spectrum you had Slaughterhouse which is full-on intensity, chaos, very big, lots of action. That's the other end of the spectrum. So we're representing that there's a wide variety of gameplay experiences that the players are going to have in Call of Duty: Black Ops. And you're going to get that, each level's going to be custom created for that experience that it supports.

So on the WMD level we had the breach type of rappelling mechanic; the actual rappelling mechanic; and also at the end BASE jumping. In the beginning it was the plane ...

SR-71 Blackbird?

"You're going to see a very different side of the Vietnam War than people might be expecting."

Right, the SR-71 Blackbird. So right there in that one level you've got four new gameplay mechanics that you guys have never done before, all in one level. Is that representative of the rest of the game?

Of yeah, definitely. Each level has to have its own range of variety. Not only do we have variety across all of the levels and across the entire game, every level has several moment of unique experiences that you're going to have. That's Call of Duty style. We've got to give players a very cinematic and immersive experience. And each of those mechanics that you experience just helps to further immerse the player into the action. So that's something you'll see a lot more of.

Getting back to the setting, there have been other Vietnam shooters, none of which have done very well critically or commercially. Did you guys consider those games when you were working on this? Did you play them?

We looked at a lot of games for inspiration. But you know this is a different story that we're telling about Vietnam. I don't think any game has actually ever covered the special operations in Vietnam. The kind of birth of the black ops that happened in that war. So you're going to see a very different side of the Vietnam War than people might be expecting. But that said, it's Call of Duty, it's very Call of Duty type of experience for you to get out of that.

From a historical perspective is it hard to present that stuff in a political vacuum? There's a lot of controversy over the role of black ops and special ops at that time, the role of American imperialism during that time. Is that something you guys considered and how did you address that?

At the end of the day it's an entertainment product and we're creating an entertainment experience. It is more about the story that you're living through in this game. It's a fictional story that's inspired by a lot of real life events. So, we're not trying to make any political messages or give any history lessons. It is about experiencing this game within the context of that war.

A fictional story is very different than the experiences Treyarch has had in the past on the Call of Duty games, that are very much set in World War II with a concrete, not-classified background. Did it give you more freedom? Was it constricting or difficult?

I don't think we changed a lot about our process. We still do the research, we still have our military advisers who come in. I don't know if I talked about Major John Plaster; he was our adviser who actually served in Vietnam with the Studies and Observations Group. He was one of the guys who was behind enemy lines and actually went into these secret operations in Vietnam. So the authenticity that motivates the creativity in the game is still very much part of what we do. He wrote a book that goes through all of the history of the SOG and the operations that they had in the Vietnam War, weaponry that they used. He has been a huge resource for us in terms of inspiring the weapons and the kind of modifications of weapons that they did for those operations.

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