The card game that helped design 'Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's' multiplayer

Jump to
Close

It was a water cooler conversation.

Last year, David Vonderhaar, game design director onCall of Duty: Black Ops 2, and his co-designer Colm Nelson were talking aboutCarcassone, one of their favorite board games. Joking, they tried to imagine Call of Duty as a board game. Then, 'What if Black Ops 2 was a board game?' Then, specifically, 'What if Create-a-Class was a board game?'

That joke became a reality.

The designers' afternoons this past year were regularly spent watching colleagues building decks of "gun cards" on their office table. It was a risky change in the development, one that Vonderhaar believes produced the most open-ended Call of Duty multiplayer experience yet.

Breaking it down

"We wanted to challenge our assumptions about all of the sacred cows," says Vonderhaar. "What things were in the game because they should be in the game, and what things were we holding onto because we'd done them before?"

The reimagining of Call of Duty's multiplayer began with Create-a-Class, the pre-match menu in which a player chooses the weapons and abilities they will take into battle. Previously, the Call of Duty franchise created a "load out" Create-a-Class system, which allows players to choose primary and secondary weapons, attachments for said weapons, and special skill attributes, via a complex text-menu system. It's a burden for newcomers to learn, a hassle to update between matches, and restrained the player's options within strict categories.

Aftermath_-_evac_route_blocked

Shootem

The multiplayer team knew it wanted to give the player more control in Create-a-Class. It also wanted to fix longstanding issues, like the dense text menus in previous games and the limitations of what a player can and cannot carry into battle. Rough edges that couldn't simply be polished away.

"Why don't we get rid of all the [weapon and perk] categories entirely?" says Vonderhaar, recalling the big questions they began to ask. "Why don't we just put everything in a giant bucket. A big pile. What would that look like? How would that work? We built some early prototypes and realized we needed to iterate on that idea rapidly."Around this time, Vonderhaar and Nelson had their idea for a Create-a-Class card game.

"WHY DON'T WE GET RID OF ALL THE [WEAPON AND PERK] CATEGORIES ENTIRELY?"

"We like to wire-frame things," says Vonderhaar, "to put them on poster boards and hang them on the walls. But we never really looked at the game systems that way. Those are usually big Word documents and long Excel sheets with lots of tabulation and math. Pretty boring. You couldn't play them." A board game was just what they needed: A way to visualize the Create-a-Class experience, to make it playable without losing days to intensive coding.

On a board, they would draw a number of available slots, dividing them into categories. Cards, representing everything from a primary or secondary weapon, an attachment or perk, would then be placed on the board until it was full. The rules and layout would change daily. "We'd just print out a new posterboard," says Vonderhaar.

"WE LIKE TO WIRE-FRAME THINGS, TO PUT THEM ON POSTER BOARDS AND HANG THEM ON THE WALLS. BUT WE NEVER REALLY LOOKED AT THE GAME SYSTEMS THAT WAY."

Two design problems were apparent almost immediately:

One, the bucket system didn't work. Some sort of categories and limits needed to remain, and categories were added on a grid design, making it so only so many cards could be played per category.

Two, the system lacked something akin to a bonus card, a card that when played would "bend, break, or mold" the rules of create-a-class. They came up with Wild Cards, a special type of Create-a-Class content - not actually like a gun, an attachment, a perk, or a grenade - that allowed for an unusual bonus to the player. These cards allowed players to fiddle with the system's restraints.

Vonderhaar gives an example: In previous games, you can have only one perk from the Perk 1 category. In BlOps 2, there is a Wild Card, called Perk 1 Greed, that gives you the ability to choose a second Perk 1.

They tested out a number of iterations, printing more and more boards, adjusting the number of slots and cards available to the person building a deck, trying to answer Vonderhaar's fundamental design questions:

"Did they make a class they couldn't make before? Did they manage to create an unrecoverable balance point in the game? Meaning, is this class still counterable? Did they make something so unbelievably good that that's what everyone will do? And how does this class compare to other classes? Is it giving diversity to the system?"

Vonderhaar continues, "If the answers to those questions were 'yes,' they did something that they've never been able to do before; 'no,' this doesn't scare us as game balancers; and 'yes,' there's some diversity and uniqueness about this class compared to other classes made by people playing the board game; [then] once we got those sorted out, we knew we were onto something."

The Pick 10 system was the fruit of their labor. This version of the Create-a-Class card game allows its player to lay down 10 cards to fill spots in a number of categories, from primary weapon to perks, with the option to leave one category empty and add more cards to another. This meant one major shift for Call of Duty multiplayer: the player no longer needed to carry the once obligatory secondary weapon. Or anything else. They could choose how to use the 10 allocations as they deemed fit, and create a much more custom character.

With the basics of the Create-a-Class system in place, Vonderhaar and Nelson began using the board game to fix the multiplayer level and progression system.

There are over 100 pieces of content in the Create-a-Class system, but only 55 levels. How much content would they want to give out over the progression of the experience?

At level 1, Vonderhaar tells me, the player was limited to a small portion of the game's 100 different pieces of selectable content. Each level, Vonderhaar would give the player a few more pieces of content, or cards, culminating with everything available at level 55.

"When people stopped being able to make interesting stuff," says Vonderhaar, "I'd realize we should probably put a little more content at this gate or a little less content at that gate. By that, I would literally hand them [more cards].

Bo2_replacement2

With the basics of the Create-a-Class system in place, Vonderhaar and Nelson began using the board game to fix the multiplayer level and progression system.

There are over 100 pieces of content in the Create-a-Class system, but only 55 levels. How much content would they want to give out over the progression of the experience?

At level 1, Vonderhaar tells me, the player was limited to a small portion of the game's 100 different pieces of selectable content. Each level, Vonderhaar would give the player a few more pieces of content, or cards, culminating with everything available at level 55.

"Guys were like, 'man, I really wish I had a shotgun card by now.' And I was like, 'that's pretty good. I should really give you a shotgun card by now.'"

"When people stopped being able to make interesting stuff," says Vonderhaar, "I'd realize we should probably put a little more content at this gate or a little less content at that gate. By that, I would literally hand them [more cards].

"Guys were like, 'man, I really wish I had a shotgun card by now.' And I was like, 'that's pretty good. I should really give you a shotgun card by now.'"

Vonderhaar says the card game even influenced the multiplayer mode's user interface and aesthetic. "There's a comfort level that we had to make sure that if you were coming into this thing and you'd never seen it before that you could understand it and get it," says Vonderhaar. "That's what the board game was helpful for."

The board inspired the old-school, grid-based organization system, while cards were a visual template for the various in-game content.

"All content you have has a picture associated with it rather than a bunch of names," says Vonderhaar. "You pick a picture of a gun, rather than a name. It's more like building a deck. Each deck is built for who and where you're playing."

It's simple. No more dense text or complex menus. If you can understand cards, you can get the game's new Create-a-Class system.

"I don't know why we didn't think of this earlier," says Vonderhaar.

Image credits

Treyarch, Activision

Bo2_replacement
X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

Spinner

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_5353_tracker