Treyarch Zombies Director Jason Blundell on Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Zombies

We spoke to Jason Blundell ahead of the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Zombies panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so read on to see what secrets he divulged!

by Kevin Kelly on July 19, 2018

What do you hope for players to experience in Zombies when they play Call of Duty: Black Ops 4?

Well, I think the first thing off the bat is like what we said at our reveal: it's our richest and deepest Zombies experience to date. What that means is that, apart from the content you get on day one, there's three experiences that you get straightaway, being IX, Voyage of Despair, and Blood of the Dead, all on disc.

Black Ops 4 represents an unprecedented amount of Zombies content at launch, which we expect to keep fans engaged. And then on top of that, we've pretty much looked at every major system inside Zombies and made significant overhauls. I'd say nearly every major system has gone through that filter, and as such, we've put a lot more power back into the players hands, especially in terms of customization and social systems and other mechanics that allow the players to really control the experience and play the game they want to play it.

If I'm somebody that's been playing Zombies for the last 10 years, what will I be delighted to find, and if I'm someone that's picking up Zombies for the first time, what will I discover?

If you've been playing Zombies for the last 10 years, you will find a refined Zombies experience that has all the hallmarks of everything you're used to, but with a lot more power, a lot more flexibility on how you want to tailor that game, and that's something that we've heard from the community as we've been going through developing Zombies, which is, "Give me ways to change the game," right?

Zombies lends itself to being played over and over again, and our fans sometimes say, "Okay well, I want to be able to make my own challenges – I want to be able to customize it so that I can play the type of game I want to play," and Black Ops 4 allows us to do exactly that.

If you’re a Zombies veteran, you’ll jump right into the flow of things, but you’ll find that the experience is more refined, tighter, and more polished. Additionally, it allows you to change the systems and change the game. All of these changes mean that there is a reason to routinely engage with the community and serve up new challenges and new things to discover.

If you’re new to Zombies, you’ll find that we’ve placed a tremendous emphasis on onboarding – we’re going to help you get your sea legs under you. With 10 years of history, Zombies can be quite intimidating at first, so things like a dedicated tutorial; walking you through; giving you bot support, so if you play on your own you can still switch on other player characters to play along with you to make it a little less intimidating; and putting difficulty levels in as well, so that you can actually set to easy if you want. So, maybe you want to get your skills together, get familiar with the map, and then increase the difficulty as you want to have more challenge.

When did the team decide to go in a new direction with IX and Voyage?

So, “When did we decide we were going to make a new storyline?” Because the story we've been telling for the last 10 years has been the Aether story. And in that story we have different crews: we have the Primis gang, the Ultimis gang, and the Victis gang. And that 10-year story is very complicated, very involved. When we released Call of Duty: Zombies Chronicles, we released a timeline, which I think pictorially demonstrates how complex that storyline is.

We know that there are certain threads and certain areas that we want to answer, some we’d like to close down, and other areas where we want to go further with the Aether story, but at the same time, there's been certain ideas that we've kept on putting aside during those 10 years. We felt that we were really excited by them, but that they didn't fit in the Aether story. At the beginning of Black Ops 4, we decided that we'd reached that fork in the road where we had enough great ideas sitting in the bucket so that we could tell a new story. It frees us up from a lot of decisions made in the past and it allows us to set out a new world, new characters, and new mechanics.

As often happens here at Treyarch, we'll have a bunch of our great ideas and we'll say, "Okay, how are we going to do this?" And then, we'll say, "Oh, let's just do both," and so that's what we're doing with Black Ops 4 as we tackle both the Aether Story and this new Chaos story, which is what we're calling it, and that’s supported from day one. IX and Voyage of Despair are from the new Chaos story, while Blood of the Dead and Classified are set in the Aether storyline – there is an unbelievable amount of story packed into these three experiences.

So, we decided that from the very beginning, but if you're asking, “Where did that idea come from?” Well, it's a product of working on Zombies over the last 10 years, which was sometimes you have an idea and it doesn't fit in perfectly with what you're telling at that time, but you're like "That's a great idea. We should do it." And so those things have been stored up and have been moving with us all this time.

Let's talk Blood and Classified here. You directed the original Mob of the Dead, are you excited to visit Alcatraz again with Blood of the Dead?

Absolutely! Before Mob, the first map that I worked on was Der Riese back in Call of Duty: World at War, and that fit into the Aether story. Mob of the Dead was the next time that I had come back to Zombies. The story was very complicated and very involved at the time, and the writing team and I got very excited about the idea of starting a new angle, a new line into the Aether story.

And so, we said we'd start this idea of a purgatory world, but as it is with many of these things, we didn't just have the "what if" idea; we started an idea and talked about how far it could go, and that actually led all the way to Black Ops III. We set up that world, we set up the constructs, and the idea of the purgatory, the idea of the afterlife mechanics, the idea of a Hollywood cast with the different mobsters.

But we left lots of questions open when we finished that map. You're always left in this different situation where you'd love to spell out all the answers for the community. First, you'd love to take them there, but if you do that, you'd never finish development because there is just so much stuff to talk about, and so much to do. Secondly, that's not what the community wants.

The opportunity to come back to Alcatraz is incredibly exciting because it allows us to put that cherry on top – to finish the idea that we had all those years ago. When we first made Mob, we actually went on location; we actually went out to San Francisco, went out to Alcatraz and we actually built all of the island. But as is often the case with development, we got to a point where we said, "This is too much.” We were drowning a little bit in how much stuff we were setting up at the same time, so we cut it down at the time. Blood of the Dead is going to allow us to go back to that original blueprint and fully realize what we put down right at the beginning.

Are you telling us we get the entire island of Alcatraz?

You do. It's like another 30, 35% more than what we did last time. There are new areas and it's a little bit of an accident, but it's interesting; those new areas were the areas that we wanted to explore narratively, so it made sense cutting it back there. But also worked perfectly for the stories that we wanted to tell in Blood of the Dead as well. It has all worked out quite nicely.

What can you tell us about Classified, the Day 1 Bonus Zombies Experience that’s part of the Black Ops Pass?

So, Classified follows the Ultimis crew. The Ultimis crew is the crew that we started with back in World at War. For those of you who want to study the Latin, that's the Ultimis crew and then there’s the Primis crew. Primis is the new crew that we followed in Origins, and so far is who we followed all the way through Black Ops III.

But Ultimis crew we have not touched in a while. The Ultimis crew is really more stereotypes of their characters: there is a lot more boasting, a lot more breaking the fourth wall and talking to the player, and we've not used them in quite a long time. They are also the gang that we saw in Zombie Chronicles because that featured a remake of those very old maps. So, we saw them a little bit, but we've not made a new Ultimis story in many, many years. This is the first one in a while.

It also allows us to do some fun stuff. Back when Pentagon was done back in the original Black Ops, it was very much made as a one-off map. It was a novelty map. It was a different kind of experience because it featured Nixon, Kennedy, Castro and McNamara and those kind of guys. It was a one-off map made for novelty, but as time went on, we had to solve the question of where did that sit in the big story? And to do so we had to write a lot of assumptions. "Okay, this is what happened." And we've been using that to educate the decisions we've made in the storyline, but we've never actually told the story of, "Why were the zombies in the Pentagon? What did that have to do with the major storyline of the game?"

So, we're actually now able to come back now and spell it out. I think the other thing that's very exciting about that map is that there are a bunch of really big questions the community has had for many, many years, and Classified will finally answer them. There are a handful of answers that are big ones, and they will send some ripples through the community. Classified will stir things up a little bit.

Let's talk about the Zombies community for a moment. Why do you think this group is as passionate as they are?

We assume that all of our players are intelligent, capable individuals who are intrigued with our storytelling and our mechanics, and so we write and design it with that mentality in mind. I think our fans really appreciate that we're not talking down to them; we're making things complex, we're making things that require an attention span that asks you to have a personal investment to get the most out of it. I think that's why they get so excited when they crack a cipher or find an Easter egg step or work out a technique on a map that hasn't been worked out before. That's a big deal. All the way along development, we've played more and more into the fact that we assume that we've got a passionate and intelligent fan base, and I think they appreciate that.

Let's take that one step further. Where does your love for puzzles, clues, and Easter eggs come from?

That’s the warped mind of an ex-programmer, I think. So, when I first joined the industry, I was a coder, and it’s a common trait, the idea of puzzles and logic games and so forth. But as I said previously, that feeling of solving something is really, really special, and the people I've talked to who have played the game and when they realize something or work something out, that leaves an indelible mark in their mind. They're still talking about, "I remember this map when I worked out this." You have different moments like that.

One is when emergent behavior happens, and Zombies is full of that stuff, where you'll hear people the next day talking about, "I was doing this. I was attacking that." That's one type of behavior that we love hearing stories about, and the other one is, "I solved this," or "I worked this out," or "I was the first in the world to find this."

I like to cater to that kind of mentality because I know the excitement it brings me when I've solved those things or seen those things in the past, and because I think our community is awesome. It’s at the point where they're collecting now in groups on Reddit or on YouTube and so forth and then using the power of their numbers to solve problems that no one individual would probably be able to do. So, not only is this an individual achievement thing, there is also a feeling of group solving. "As a community, we did this." You hear “we” rather than “I.” That's the symbiosis of this modern communication and digital world that we live in combined with this game that, as one person on their own would probably struggle to solve it, but as a group they can conquer mountains.

Earlier you mentioned that the mechanics in the game are changing. Can you give us some examples?

So, one thing is that we’ve changed the perk system. In the past, you had static perk machines on the map. You’d have a Juggernog or a Quick Revive or whatever, and they sat on the map and they would always be there, and so once you've learned the map, that's it, there you go. For Black Ops 4, we've changed the perk machine or the altar system, based on which story you're playing, Aether or Chaos. The location is a static place, so the machine is there, but what you assign to that machine is completely under your control. Let's say you and I are playing together, you may assign one perk to that machine that you get when you go there, and I can assign an entirely different perk for myself.

Deciding which perk to choose and then where to assign it is part of the strategy for conquering a map. Especially if we’re playing together, the perks I choose and the perks you choose, if we communicate and work it out, that can complement our ability to conquer the map and get further into the round.

We’ve also changed loadouts, something that we added in Black Ops III. Choosing my weapons, choosing my attachments, and the more I use these weapons, the more powerful I get. So, as I'm going back into these maps, the arsenal is improved and is tailored to my playstyle and how much I've played it.

On top of that, we have special weapons that you can choose, and once I've picked it, as I'm playing through, the more zombies I'm killing, I'm able to upgrade that weapon, becoming more and more powerful. The weapon at the beginning of the match is very different to the weapon at the end of the match, because it gets more powerful as I use it. Also, you only get to use it for a short amount of time, and then you have to wait for it to recharge again. What that will do is give you a different cadence and different tempo to the map, because it's in an incredibly powerful weapon.

Right now in game testing, we'll see situations like, "Oh, my god. We're losing. We're losing, about to die," and then boom - it comes in and then suddenly the tempo of the game and the mechanics and the way it all fits together suddenly changes. That's a very distinct difference from the past, where the way you'd normally start a Zombies map to the way you'd end it was pretty much the same tempo. Sure, the guys were getting harder, assuming you're not doing any of the Easter egg quest. It's just getting harder and that's it. But now, based on how you're killing or what you're doing, means that you can have these moments where the entire tempo of the gameplay changes, and so that's led to a different cadence in the gameplay.

We also have equipment now as well. Different equipment allows you to take on the zombies in different ways. Things like turrets or sticky grenades and special equipment that you use. All of those things coming together means that you can really make a bespoke zombies experience every time you play. Not just for you, an individual, but if you've got multiple players in the same sessions, how will that equipment and your abilities work together?

For people interested in doing what you do, what advice would you give them?

So, this is a fortuitous question as the last time I was at Comic-Con I did a panel there where the very same question was asked of me. I will say now what I said then, which is that it's really about tenacity. I've had a lot of advice throughout my career as I was coming up, and the one that is universally true, and every successful person I've looked at in the industry when I was coming up did it, it was always about facing challenges and success with the same mentality, which is to keep on going, to keep being there. I was definitely never the sharpest tool in the box, if you will. But it’s the person that keeps on going and keeps on trying that succeeds.

For somebody who wants to do what I do, I would say it's about persistence and tenacity. The raw skills, the experience, the knowing a package or knowledge of an IP, that stuff can grow and come with time. Management skills and all those details, those things all grow. It's the tenacity, it's that work ethic, it's that mentality that's the most important thing. It really is.