Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is an unusual game. There is no simple elevator pitch to draw people in; the game doesn’t even have a single-player campaign. However, Black Ops 4 developer Treyarch is hoping that doesn’t matter. The studio’s goal is to replace the single-player/multiplayer binary with such a carefully designed variety of modes and ways to play that all fans will be catered to in some form.
That’s a very ambitious goal, and it may make the game hard to market. The team at Treyarch wasn’t even sure its prototypes would ultimately become a Call of Duty game until deciding to turn Black Ops 4 into a love letter to all the things the series does well with multiplayer modes.
While there is no single-player campaign, there is more than just standard multiplayer. There’s Zombies, a battle royale game mode called Blackout, and short-and-sweet specialist loops. Add in stronger social features (including an exclusive Battle.net launch on Windows PC) and a constant reward system to work at, and Black Ops 4 could become a large community’s preferred choice of shooter. At least, that’s Treyarch’s goal, the developer told us during Toronto’s FanExpo earlier this month.
“We made this game with a purpose,” Tony Flame, game designer at Treyarch, said. “We wanted to give players more ways to have fun with their friends than any game we’ve made before, so the whole game has different play styles that can be catered to.”
Black Ops 4 is the 15th Call of Duty game, so bringing in new players for fun with their friends can be a challenge. Here’s where the specialists — Black Ops 4’s take on character classes — come in handy. Flame uses Crash, the medic, as an example.
“[Crash] is meant for people who are like, my friend wants to play but he or she isn’t so great at gunfighting,” he said. “They want to play, help out the team, and feel welcome.” Crash’s strength doesn’t come from his offensive abilities; he puts down ammo packs that contribute toward score streaks, and he’s capable of healing and boosting the entire team.
Those abilities sound strong and have immediate gameplay impact, and those high points are intentional. “Every time you use an ability, the immediate response should be, ‘Hey, thanks! That was awesome!’ We don’t want toxicity. We don’t want people going, ‘Oh, you didn’t do your job,’” Flame explained. “It’s easy to use abilities, and so we have that archetype for that new player. It’s still effective for players who are good at the game, but some of the specialists will be designed for new players.”
That sense of inclusiveness extends to the character design as well.
“Each specialist, we look at their personality profile, gender, ethnicity, style, and we try and get a wide spectrum of characters that can appeal to different people around the world,” Flame said. It’s a model that games like Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege have found success in, and Black Ops 4 takes a similar approach. “Each specialist comes from a different region, and many of them have personalities and gameplay hooks that loop together.”
Although there’s no traditional single-player campaign, players who want to play by themselves will still have the option to do so.
“If you’re into playing on your own, spending a few hours on gameplay and story, we’ve got an awesome narrative loop with the specialist missions,” Flame continued. “That provides this really cinematic experience.”
The idea is that, whatever the experience you’re in the mood for that day, you can reach for your copy of Black Ops 4 to have your particular itch scratched. Treyarch turned to its rich collection of internal data to make sure everyone has a good experience. How much XP does an average player earn per hour? How about a pro? What about a weekend player? How often should they unlock a weapon? Which upgrades get the best response? The progression system is designed to make sure players are getting a mathematically determined series of rewards to keep them connected and invested.
But casting a net that wide comes with risk. “The challenge is making these changes and making a hopefully better game that can expand that Call of Duty base without alienating the hardliners with strong opinions,” Flame said.
This includes the new battle royale mode, which is meant to be welcoming to newer players and those scared of the fierce competition of traditional Call of Duty multiplayer.
“It’s the biggest map we’ve ever made, with the most players, and it’s paced so new players can get in there and have fun,” Flame explained. “Explore, team up with people. It’s less intense than traditional multiplayer.”
And of course, once you start one game mode, there are incentives to branch out and try other. Playing earns in-game rewards and power bonuses that unlock a new tier of rewards, building off your previous successes. The game sounds like digital theme park, where you always have something to do, some way to progress that is calculated to give you the shot of satisfaction that comes from earning your way to the top.
“It’s tough, because people want things immediately and want them now,” Flame replied when I asked him about rewards, especially in the era of the loot box. “But if you get it now, they’re not special. We have to find a balance.”
Trying to be all things to all people when it comes to online shooters is an ambitious goal, but the rewards can be great; if everything goes according to plan, Black Ops 4 will bring in new players, who may have been intimidated by the game in the past, and keep them playing, while also maintaining the fan base of the original games. But if the gamble doesn’t work, the series could lose longtime fans, while also failing to bring in new blood.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 launches on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One on Oct. 12. Black Ops 4’s Blackout open beta launches Monday on PS4, before launching Sept. 14 on Xbox One and Sept. 15 on PC.