'Black Ops 4' Studio Head Talks Battle Royale, Appealing to New Audiences and Future of Franchise

Treyarch exec Dan Bunting answers burning questions about the upcoming 'Call of Duty' sequel.
'Black Ops 4'; Inset: Dan Bunting   |   Courtesy of Activision; Screengrab
Treyarch exec Dan Bunting answers burning questions about the upcoming 'Call of Duty' sequel.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is gearing up for launch this October, bringing the frenetic first-person shooter action the franchise is known for back into gamer's homes.

Not only is Black Ops 4 the first Call of Duty to not feature a narrative campaign mode, but it also will feature a Battle Royale multiplayer mode (titled Blackout), popular maps from previous games in the franchise and a "best of" approach to both gameplay and locations from the Black Ops series.

Heat Vision caught up with Dan Bunting, co-studio head at Treyarch which is behind the new game, to dish about all the new features from the latest entry in the franchise, what sets Black Ops 4 apart from previous titles and what the future holds for the series.

How does Black Ops 4 set itself apart from past games in the franchise?

Black Ops 3 was a game that was all about movement and fluidity and gameplay athleticism where it’s all about bouncing off walls and jumping through the air. All of that was the core game, a “guns up” philosophy that had you keeping your gun engaged through all movements. And that was a really fun game, we still have a massive audience still playing it. But with Black Ops 4, we wanted to take things in a different direction, have a little bit of a slower pace, and I wouldn't say that the pace of the game is that much less, but we at least wanted it to feel more tactical, so you get to coordinate with teammates. We don’t force teamwork on anybody at any time because at the end of the day it's Call of Duty, you go home after work and crack open a beer and just veg on the couch and play, so we want the game to feel comfortable and familiar to players, but also add a new layer of tactics to it.

How did you do that?

We did that through the "Specialists" feature which was we introduced in Black Ops 3, but it was not as significant into the core kind of gameplay mechanics as it is now, where specialists each have an ability and equipment that allows them to kind of fill a role on the team. Whatever the makeup of your team composition is of specialists is going to change the dynamics of how your team plays. It’s a big change, but the game is still very fundamentally familiar to players. I think it’s going to feel like home to Black Ops fans. Some have described it as kind of the "best ofs," sort of the feeling of Black Ops 2 and the feeling of Black Ops 3 because we did keep a lot of the kind of movement fluidity, we just kept it boots-on-the-ground and more grounded combat.

When we look at the landscape of shooters right now, obviously Battle Royale is driving a lot of the conversation. A Battle Royale mode was announced for Black Ops 4, can you talk a little bit about that?

We’ve introduced with this game a brand new way to play with Blackout, which is our kind of spin on the Battle Royale genre. It’s a perfect fit because it starts with the core Call of Duty combat that people love for multiplayer — the tight gunplay, the responsiveness, the fluidity — all the things that people love about Call of Duty, and particularly Black Ops, and we’ve added on top of that the layers of the legacy of the Black Ops series where we’re bringing characters, weapons and vehicles back from before. It’s got land, sea, and air vehicles, as well, in addition to many of our fans’ favorite locales like Nuketown — as kind of a location in the larger open space — and then some other maps that we’ve talked about, like Turbine from Black Ops 2. A bunch of other favorite iconic locales from both multiplayer and zombies are coming to fill up that space

So both the gameplay and the maps will be a bit of a "best of" from past games? 

Yeah, it is, it is. I mean, it’s a celebration of the series and I think to our fans that have been around for all this time, I think they will really appreciate that. We’re going to continue to surprise and delight in new ways.

You mentioned yourself that Black Ops 3 still has a massive audience. The shelf lives of games seems to be getting longer and longer. When you release a new title, knowing that the last one is still doing well, what goes into that type of thinking? 

It’s always challenging and I think that our ideal scenario is that all of those players will come over to the new game because it’s got enough new and exciting things to offer, but we want this new game to live at least as long as the last game did. That’s kind of our hope. We always want to build, expand, and grow the game to react to how our audience is engaging with it.

Is there a point where the Call of Duty or Black Ops franchises stop rolling out new games?

Well, I couldn’t speak to the overall franchise in that respect. I can just tell you, with the games that we make, we’re continually building it more and more to grow over time, and this time we learned a lot from Black Ops 3. I mentioned that we’re still updating and adding content to that game and it’s three years now since launch, so we didn’t think that people were going to be so engaged with this game for so long that we’d still be adding content three years later. It was just never a thought that even crossed our minds, but we’ve adapted. The studio’s been very flexible and kind of agile in that respect and we figured out how to run two developments essentially at the same time. This time around we built this game with the idea that launch day is just going to be the beginning and we’re going to continue to add, update and expand the game as time goes on.

Is there one particular thing that you’re most excited for fans to see from this new title?

For me it’s like picking your favorite child. You can’t really say which part of the game you want to play the most. I think there’s something for everybody, which is kind of one of our development philosophies because we want to make sure that there is a large, robust game experience that provides some entertainment for every kind of player. Not every player is gonna want to play everything, but you want to have enough variety in there that you hit those different gamer desires and, in that way, you can expand your audience and keep them engaged for a long period of time.

The Call of Duty franchise already has such brand awareness, that the unique challenge I imagine you guys have is how you get more players when so many people already know what this game is. How do you appeal to new gamers?

I mean, it is true, it’s a nice problem to have. I think with every game we look at how do we evolve as a franchise? Because while there is definitely a solid, strong core audience, every year there are new players coming in to the gaming ecosystem and as they have grown up they have developed different taste in games. We’re always hyper-aware of what the game industry at large is doing, how it’s moving, how it’s evolving, and how our fans, and potential fans, are engaging with games these days. So, we want to make sure that the game is growing along with the industry around it.

Black Ops 4 is the first Call of Duty without a campaign mode, right?

Yeah, it’s the first Call of Duty that doesn’t have a traditional story campaign. It’s always a hard decision to change something that dramatically, but for us it’s just been a sequence of events over the last several games and the last few years, where we’re just seeing more and more players playing online, playing with friends, playing socially, and they’re engaging with that kind of content in ways that are tremendously more than they were doing ten years ago. We wanted to be able to free our team up to focus most of its energy on delivering more of that kind of experience because that’s where most of our fans are engaging. Of course, we all love those story campaigns and it is a hard decision to shift, even from a development point of view, but I think that it’s the right time to do it and Black Ops 4 is a game that we started from the beginning to be played with friends for a long time to come so that’s where we focused most of our energy.

I think it’s a savvy move, honestly. You're listening to your audience.

Yeah, exactly. I’ve said this before, but we want to go where our fans are going, we want to go where the audience is going. If we just get stuck in old ways of doing things just because that’s the tradition that’s been there, I think that’s not the best way to approach it. We want to make sure to deliver as much as we possibly can. We’re also trying to tell stories in different ways now. You think about fans of games, they do love the narrative side of it, and so we want to make sure that we’re also delivering on the narrative front. Zombies is bigger than it’s ever been. We’ve got a whole new storyline with fantastic characters this time around, so we’re going to take players on a bunch of new journeys in this game. We’ve got multiplayer—it has specialists that are characters, they each have backstories and histories to them that is an interesting thing for us to explore.