Dan Bunting of Treyarch and Dan Vondrak of Raven Software revealed the long-awaited Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War, a sequel to 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops.
In a recent press briefing, the game development leaders described the new game, which debuts on PC and current generation consoles November 13. It’ll also be available on the next-generation consoles when they arrive, and players across the generations and across different platforms will be able to play together in multiplayer.
The game is a direct sequel to the original game and it is set in 1981, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The president authorizes a CIA operative, Russell Adler, to go after a Soviet spy, code-named Perseus, who has eluded capture for decades. Intelligence suggests that Perseus is active again and something big is going down.
Treyarch and Vondrak described the story, the gameplay, the graphics, and other details in a press briefing. And a group of press was able to ask questions after the presentation.
Here’s an edited transcript of the Q&A session. This is one of four stories about the Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War reveal. See our coverage of the main announcement, the gameplay, and the Warzone/Zombies post.
Question: Having been involved in Black Ops for more than a decade, what does a Black Ops game mean to you?
Dan Bunting: Well, we talked about it a lot. It’s the stories that are not ripped from the headlines, but between the headlines. In fact, we talked about that a lot as we developed the creative for this game. Just thinking about, what is the pure essence? The Black Ops series cuts to the heart of a lot of the paranoias of society, the fears of what war might mean, what kind of espionage operations are actually happening out there. Conspiracy theories almost develop a life of their own. In some ways, that allows us to add an edge of excitement to our fiction and our narrative.
That was a big part of what we wanted to capture in this game, that zeitgeist of not only the original Black Ops and the Cold War era, but also things that are happening today. Bringing this story to a contemporary audience and making it relevant.
Question: Dan Vondrak, what was your favorite part of developing a game in the 1980s era?
Dan Vondrak: I grew up in the ’80s, so there’s so much about it that I loved. For me, the music, the vehicles, the clothing. All that was great. But I think what I probably loved the best is, I think Black Ops is at its best, like the other Dan just said, when the conspiracies are there, and they’re grounded in real history. I can pull up an article today that explains something about a doomsday device on either side of the Cold War, and there’s part of you that would believe it. That’s what was so much fun about the ’80s. We dove into real documents, talked to real people that were working in high positions back then. The conspiracy theories you think are crazy, some of them have more truth than you’d imagine.
That was a huge part of it, but obviously, being from the ’80s, I love the clothes and the pop culture. I just couldn’t get all my favorite cartoons in, unfortunately. That’s probably it for me.
Question: Is Sam Worthington returning as Mason?
Vondrak: No. We did not have Sam return as Mason this time around. We ended up choosing a different voice for that character.
Question: We heard a bit from Natalie [Pohorski, a narrative producer at Raven Software] about what COVID meant for the performance capture. How did that impact the overall development, and how has each team handled it?
Vondrak: When COVID first happened, there was a serious worry. How can we possibly continue to develop through this? I was blown away. The IT guys got everybody set up. Three days after, we were working from home. We were suddenly having virtual meetings that felt a lot like the meetings we have.
The No. 1 impact was just the more organic conversations, back and forth. But when it came to the hard things — we thought mocap was going to be a serious issue. We thought V/O [voice over] was going to be a serious issue. Like Natalie said, in some ways, we could schedule V/O sessions a lot easier. Instead of getting every actor together and booking a whole session in the studio, we could grab guys for half-an-hour at a time at their home. We were able to pick up lines almost like it was temp V/O, except it was final coming in.
From a mocap perspective, luckily Raven has their own mocap stage, so we were shut down for a while, but we were able to reopen in August following all kinds of safety procedures to make sure no one was put in harm’s way. Then we also used mocap studios in Turkey and Sweden. We did remote sessions, and they would build the areas just like we set it up using Maya files.
The organic conversations definitely were an impact, but it’s amazing, with today’s technology, how quickly we got back into the groove of doing video reviews. At first, when we started video reviews, there was a 10-second delay. Then we got it down to three seconds. Then we realized we could record and delay that 3 seconds so we could watch in real time and even pause. In the end, we ended up finding our groove.
Question: You mentioned Maya files and things along those lines. Does Raven’s development engine differ from Infinity Ward’s?
Bunting: All the development studios within the Call of Duty franchise are constantly working together, constantly sharing tech, constantly sharing ideas, [having] philosophical debates. It’s an incredible thing when you have this large of a group of developers all collaborating toward a common goal of making Call of Duty the most awesome franchise in the world. A lot of the tech we have is shared. We pulled a lot of systems over from what Infinity Ward developed for Modern Warfare.
Ultimately, because of the way that the production schedules time out, we have to start on one project while other projects are still in the middle of development. We’ve built on the years of technology that we’ve been developing for this next generation consoles and making sure that we’re pushing further ahead. We’re also sharing a lot of tech in the process.
Question: How far back does cross-gen go?
Bunting: We’re talking about the current generation of consoles and the next generation of consoles. We’re not going further back on consoles that were not released in this generation. But everywhere this game is going to be released will play together on the back end.
Question: Can you talk more about the classified gender-neutral character?
Vondrak: It was important for us, when we started the character creation system — as I mentioned, I grew up in the ’80s, and my formative gaming years were in the ’80s. Back then you didn’t have these deep character creation systems. You had to make everything up in your head. We’ve had pre-defined roles for Call of Duty for a long time. One of our goals was to get back into the mindset that we have, for the ones that grew up in the ’80s, where everything lived in your head.
When it came to that, we didn’t want to exclude anybody from that. That’s why the place of birth was important for us. That’s why the military background was important. The option to leave it classified was super important. There’s only so many backgrounds we could have, so many places of birth we could have listed in the game. I said, “Hey, if we don’t have something that someone wants, let them leave it classified, and they can be that mysterious, shadowy Black Ops special operative character they want to be.”
When it came to gender, the same thing was thrown out. Why can’t we leave that classified? There’s no reason we can’t do that. We’re already going to make it change the he and she, so it was easy enough for us to use those different pronouns there as well. That was where the decision came into play for that choice.
Question: Does the character speak, and if so, what do they sound like?
Vondrak: We made the choice, and this was a strong philosophical thing we wanted — we didn’t want the character to have a voice. We wanted the player to be the one with the voice. This stems back from — again, it wasn’t a production thing. It was a philosophical thing. There were debates either way. For the ones that want it, the people that want the voice — I feel like sometimes that can be really jarring, when you’re playing a game. I remember playing all the way back in Baldur’s Gate. It must have had about two dozen voices to pick from, but at the end of the day, I think I picked the voice I hated the least, basically. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel like your character.
You can come upon a dialogue tree in the game, and the way you read that response in your head, but then suddenly the voice says it — well, that’s not what I was thinking it was. We didn’t want that disconnect for the players. That made it even easier for us, when it came to gender, to not have the player’s character have a voice, but instead give the player the voice in their head to hear the different dialogues.
Question: Are the stories of Black Ops 2 and the Cold War chapters involved in Black Ops 3 and Black Ops 4 still considered canon within the wider Black Ops universe?
Bunting: We’ve gone to great lengths to try to preserve what is the canon of the Black Ops universe. You can imagine, when you’re going into the future, the 2060s and 2070s, it’s hard to keep all of that put together. But we do have a lot of documentation internally that keeps that narrative in a way that’s consistent.
Because of the way that this game is conceived, the idea is that it’s a direct sequel to Black Ops. We left a lot of space. When Black Ops was released, it didn’t go into the ’80s. Black Ops 2, in the flashback missions, went back to the late ’80s, but there’s a wide range of years in there where no details were covered. We felt like it was a perfect opportunity for us to go to this awesome era and get into the ’80s part of the Cold War and go deep on that, building it as a direct sequel to the original Black Ops campaign.
Question: Is there just one level set in Vietnam? And given the differences that you showed in gameplay, do you have a choice of whether or not to engage lethally?
Vondrak: There’s more than just the one Vietnam mission. That’s all I can say for now. We wanted to make sure — if you remember the premise piece, one of those pieces was “decades in the making.” We loved the idea that it stretched across that timeline. It allowed us to tie back into Black Ops, which we had a ton of fun doing, getting some narrative connective tissue there.
As far as engaging non-lethally, no. There are definitely some missions where we have different silent kills, and certainly in KGB headquarters there you’re going to want to stay away from anything openly lethal, or you’ll get in trouble there. But no, we did not make a full non-lethal playthrough for this Call of Duty.
Question: Was there another Vietnam-centric game or experience being worked on that you pivoted on in order to create the hallucinatory experiences in this game?
Vondrak: No. Funny enough, two of the earliest missions that we brainstormed were two of the ones you saw today. I’m being so careful to not say any names. But KGB headquarters and the Vietnam mission you saw, from day one those were our push to say, “Hey, here’s how we can do a non-linear Call of Duty.” But no. Again, there are other Vietnam missions in there as well, but it’s all there to tie back to your past. That’s part of what makes Black Ops so cool, when they do say, “Something happened back here,” and they try to remember it. We love that mystery. The Vietnam level you saw was created that way from scratch.
Question: What part of “Perseus” is real? Is it all fictionalized, or partially based on your research?
Vondrak: Oh, man. It’s super-based on research. We’re huge fans of Black Ops, the original Black Ops. We started writing down — when we started off, we were just saying, “Hey, if you were going to make a love letter to Black Ops, what would it involve?” And one of those things was internet searchable history. That was a big thing for us. When we played, a bunch of us on the team had stories about how we would go google up the Soyuz rocket and learn that there really was an accident there. We wanted to tie a bunch of that in there.
Perseus, 100 percent, actually came from a bunch of our initial research into all the espionage stuff and the Cold War stuff. What we know of him — that’s the greatest part of it. I’ll let you guys google it. What we know about Perseus, there’s a bunch of stuff. We dug deep. It’s all based on real history there.
Question: What considerations did you have as far as portraying not only Reagan but other real-world people that you engage with?
Vondrak: It was super-important. We watched speech after speech. We talked to some people that worked closely, members of the Cabinet and stuff like that. Always, first, do the research. Make sure of what they sound like, what their back history was, anything interesting that we’d want to pull out for that historical character. We wanted to make sure we picked characters that we knew, for a wide audience, globally, would be known. We’re trying our best to not just make this about America, not just make this about a particular region. Pick areas where we knew there would be big iconic characters.
Question: Cold War breaks the three-year dev cycle. Did that create any challenges for the team at Treyarch, which had just come off of Black Ops 4?
Bunting: Any time that you have a shorter dev cycle, it’s going to be a new, different challenge. A big part of that consideration was that Raven had already been working on a prototype to represent what the Cold War looked like in a Black Ops game. From the campaign point of view, they had a passionate vision about this, and that was contagious. It got everyone excited about how — Dan Vondrak just said this. It was like a love letter to Black Ops. They took so much detail into how you create a real sequel to the original Black Ops, bring some of those characters back and expand it in new ways. It convinced us that this was the right partnership.
In a shorter time frame, if we partnered with someone like this, can we combine forces to get it done? That’s what we did. The team rallied quickly, adapted very fast, and started to work right away. We’ve been doing a lot of work toward building the tech out for the next generation. Just the opportunity of getting — when the next-gen consoles launch, to have a Black Ops title be a launch title? That was the thing that sealed the deal. It was too important. We wanted to make it happen.
Question: Can you go into more detail about the relationship between Raven and Treyarch as you’ve been working together, even more remotely than just working from home?
Bunting: Our relationship with Raven has been great. We’ve been working together for 10 years. The first project we worked on together in a partnership with them, from the development side, was the original Black Ops. We’ve done work alongside Raven developing Call of Duty games for every title we’ve worked on since then. We’ve built a long-standing relationship working with Raven.
When we first started, of course there was a lot of — we’re making a Black Ops game. We wanted to make sure that the vision they had was the right one. We did a lot of challenging assumptions and testing our creative boundaries. At the end, everybody came out with the best result. We’re all super excited about this game.
Question: Can you talk about how many endings there are in total? If you don’t want to get into specific numbers, can you talk about replayability? Will players have a chance to go back and make other decisions in order to experience the full breadth of the game?
Vondrak: Absolutely. You guessed it. I’m not going to talk about the number of endings. But we’ve built it in such a way where I want the player to be able not fret over that. I know you know it’s like to worry about it — “Oh man, am I making the right decision?” Play the game how you want. Make the decisions you want. See the ending sequence that you want to see. And then we allow you–we’ve created multiple save slots for Call of Duty, which is awesome. If you want to go back to the same save slot, you can go into the mission, make a different choice, and it’ll record the choice you made and any changes that need to happen in the later missions. Then you can replay the ending again and see how that affected it.
That was something that we felt, philosophically — let players plug and play, see the different choices, and not be so hung up when they’re playing through the first time. Go ahead and play through it, make the choice that feels right for the character you’re playing, and see how it ends.