Interviews// Treyarch's Mark Lamia and Josh Olin

Posted 28 May 2010 17:00 by
SPOnG: Must have been tough to think of all of these elements. It being based on events that actually happened in the Cold War, what sort of research and information did you gather for the project?

Josh Olin: During pre-production and throughout the process of creating the game we brought in Major John Plaster. He's the foremost published author on the Studies and Observations Group (SOG), which was a special elite Black Ops team. He's got a bunch of books, like three or four of them..?

Mark Lamia: I don't know how many books there are, but his Secret Commandos and A Photo History of the Secret Wars were books that we read and we were inspired by it. We brought him into the studio and he met with the whole team ? designers, character guys and he told us a lot of great details about life in the SOG. The thing about the Black Ops guys was that they did pretty much whatever they needed to. So from a gameplay perspective that opened up a lot of possibilities.

What was really cool was hearing about his military background. These guys were the best of the best of the best. Plaster was a Green Beret, which is amazing in itself, and he rose to the top of the class. One day somebody approached him and said 'Do you want to do something even more special for your country, on a top secret basis?' Turns out the Black Ops organisation had screened potential soldiers without them knowing, before they even met them, and from that the SOG was created during the Vietnam War.

They did a lot of reconnaissance and study the enemy a lot, as the name suggests, but they did a lot of other things beyond that remit. They'd form teams with indigenous people in the countryside and would accept these deniable operations under complete secrecy. After studying their missions they would literally go into the armoury and pick up whatever they wanted ? standard issue, experimental, prototype weapons, anything.

Nobody would question them ? they had complete authority. They'd go on their mission and from that point on, it was all up to them. Nobody else in the military would know anything about their orders or objectives until instructed by these guys otherwise. When you hear about all of this, you take that in and create your fiction and it opens up new opportunities for game ideas. For these guys, every mission was completely different. There were no rules, they were quite literally the Godfathers of tactical recon. It was quite inspiring for us to hear Plaster's story.

Josh Olin: Some of the missions he was describing were so crazy that you wouldn't believe it. As game designers it was fantastic, as it really put a lot of ideas into our heads. As well as Plaster, we met with a former Soviet Spetznaz soldier, Sonny Puzikas. The Soviets came from a completely different perspective of that Cold War era.

Sonny was intense to have in the studio ? we didn't know there were so many uses for a shovel! Everything from a culinary piece to a deadly weapon... I think he threw out about 100 different ways of using one. But looking into that mindset is really interesting and helped us add a unique edge to Black Ops. We actually modelled some of our Spetznaz AI on him and his experiences ? we're working on that right now in the studio. Sonny came in and performed some of the movements for motion capture, and also some of the avoidance techniques that the Soviets would use. It was really interesting.

SPOnG: Call of Duty games are known for being action-packed and intense, like a roller-coaster ride. But because of this it can feel at times as if you're not actually influencing things too much in the game - you're just surviving, existing, and nothing more. So I wanted to ask about the AI ? what's the next step there, what do you think is going to be the things that will surprise players?

Mark Lamia: There's a couple of things. Firstly there's going to be more to do in this game. We're introducing different types of gameplay, as we mentioned before. Commanding the squad from up above, piloting a helicopter, and so on. On the ground we'll be adding different AI types. You've already seen two of these in the demo.

In Slaughterhouse, you saw the NVA, and they're more of a traditionally armed force so as a result they would fight a lot like the kinds of enemies you'd have faced before. They have conventional weapons, use cover in a traditional way and co-ordinate their attacks in numbers. Then there's the Spetznaz, who are a much more elite force ? more confident in their abilities and much more professional in their execution.

We'll have some more enemies in there as well. One that I can talk about is the VC, and they're altogether very different. You'll find these guys in the jungle, and that's their home turf where they're at their most comfortable. We did show some jungle stuff in the trailer, so you can get an idea as to how they would retaliate in that, but that's jungle warfare. They will use their environment as much as possible, because they're not a refined training force.

They may not have co-ordinated attacks but they they will use the element of surprise, the verticality of the environment and the landscape of the jungle. Players will have to adapt their play style to deal with these different enemies too.

Josh Olin: Fundamentally though, to answer the question about the player being along for the ride and how that's different now ? in Black Ops, you are the biggest baddest guy you can be on the playing field. You're the best of the best. So for the first time in a Call of Duty game, the player has a voice. You can talk to people, you're the one issuing commands, you're not just the Private Miller in the regular army running around to complete orders from higher up.

As you saw in the Slaughterhouse demo, you actually take control of that Huey ? you were telling it where to go and you took the command of leading the forces down the street. You know what you have to do and you have the tools to do it of your own volition.

Mark Lamia: That's the difference between being a regular soldier on the battlefield and being a part of Black Ops. These guys were the best of the best leaders and we got inspired by what Plaster was telling us about how SOG units could literally take over a General's Jeep.

For a bit of history on the actual level ? the Hue City conflict started with the TED offensive. Up until that point holidays were observed, but this surprise offensive took place all over South Vietnam. Hue City was a centre of cultural significance for Vietnamese people, and initially the marines there were told they couldn't bring in the big guns. After taking heavy causalities they knew they couldn't complete their objective without calling reinforcements.

That's right about where we enter in Black Ops - our game isn't about Hue City in particular, but our narrative runs right through it. The MAC-V compound ? the Military Assistance Command Vietnam compound ? was there and that was also where the CIA would do their operations. So the player has to go in there and get some critical intelligence as part of the narrative - that we're not quite revealing because we don't want to spoil it for you guys. But you have to go right into that really heavy situation.

You're faced with a choice. The Marines are pinned down and calling in for reinforcements. They finally get some assistance, but the Hueys are busy in another quadrant to provide support. Who's to say which mission is more important? So the SOG comes in and decides that the Hueys have to come to the Marines' aid. As a Black Ops soldier, they're at your every command, so you get the chance to control a Huey to clear the area.

You are the commander on the battlefield; as Josh said for the first time you will have a voice, which is something we felt was very important. We are working on a rich storyline and we're doing character development. It's a story that takes place over a long period of time, so there will be some arcs and character evolution. They were all things we wanted to challenge ourselves.
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