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Treyarch explains why Black Ops 4 won’t have a single-player campaign

Studio head says traditional story campaign was never part of the plan

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - Zombies chapter ‘IX’ - four heroes in gladiatorial arena Treyarch/Activision
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

This year’s Call of Duty will buck tradition and ship without a traditional single-player campaign, developer Treyarch confirmed today. Instead, the focus for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 will be almost exclusively on competitive multiplayer and cooperative Zombies mode.

While there will be activities for players who want to play Black Ops 4 solo — they can play Zombies mode with AI-controlled bots or take part in single-player challenge missions — the bulk of the game is multiplayer.

Dan Bunting, studio co-head at Treyarch, said that’s always been the plan.

“When we set out to make this game, we never started with the idea that we would make a traditional campaign,” Bunting told Polygon in an interview today. “That was just not part of our plan. We started from a place that we were gonna make a game that across the board can be playable with friends. That’s been our mission from day one.

“Of course, through the course of development, as always happens with every game, we’re to challenge our conventions … trying different things. Sometimes those things are bold and crazy and innovative sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t work out. As development goes on though, you’re always pushing the best ideas forward and that’s what was reflected today.”

When Polygon reported last month that the single-player story mode wouldn’t be part of the Black Ops 4 package, sources said that a planned campaign simply didn’t come together in time. Bunting’s response appears to refute that. So I asked Bunting why Treyarch would make the decision to cut the campaign, a feature often seen as a core pillar of the Call of Duty franchise.

“If you look at the Black Ops series and how players have interacted with it,” he said, “how our players are engaged with our games — changes in the industry around us [are] obviously a big part of it — it’s being more and more experienced as a social thing.

“Of course we have a very large Zombies following with the Black Ops franchise ... and when you look at how they interact with our game, whether it’s in the game itself, online, forums, streamers, YouTubers … everybody’s interacting as a community and it’s a pretty massive phenomenon. When you see that kind of a passion for our game that we feel is potentially underserved, we want to make sure we have more of that.

“The same is true of multiplayer.”

Bunting went on to say that over the past decade or so, how people play Call of Duty — specifically how many of them have played online multiplayer — has changed.

“When I first started on multiplayer in the Call of Duty franchise, 10 percent of our population was playing competitive multiplayer,” he said. “Fast forward to 2015 or 2016, you’re looking at 90 percent of our players are playing multiplayer ... If you look at it through that lens, and trying to deliver more for your players and how you’re playing the game, it’s a pretty easy decision. I realize it’s also a challenging decision for other reasons. But we’ve never been ones to shy away from a challenge.”

Bunting said that Treyarch is “constantly ... assessing the game” in an effort to ensure it’s doing the right things with the franchise and doing the right things for its fan base. Given the increased focus on competitive and cooperative multiplayer, I asked him how Treyarch plans to service the Black Ops 4 community with content in the coming year and beyond.

“[Black Ops 4] is built to be expandable, adaptable, [and] it’s going to evolve over time,” he said. “We’ve gone into this knowing that we’re making a game that can be played with friends across the board and going to be played for a long time to come, many years. We learned that lesson in a big way with Black Ops 3. We didn’t necessarily build Black Ops 3 to be run like that. We just learned, evolved and adapted to run it that way. We’re still not done releasing content for that game.

“As long as they keep playing your game, we’re going to deliver. And we’re making a game from the get-go that lives on .. expands, and grows and changes and evolves. I can’t tell you what content we’re going to release in two years. I can tell you that we’re going to release a bunch of content in the year following this game and we’re going to support it in ways we never have before.”

I asked Bunting if the focus on multiplayer and playing with friends would affect how future Black Ops 4 content is released — specifically, if Treyarch and Activision would continue with Call of Duty’s standard release plan of downloadable map packs and Zombies episodes every few months.

“I can’t tell you at this point in time what that’s going to look like,” he said. “But I can tell you that we are pushing hard to release content to our fans in a way that’s going to make them happy and a way that we believe is the right thing to do in this stage in our game’s lifespan.”

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