Exclusive COD HQ Interview with Treyarch Design Director, David Vonderhaar

COD HQ is very happy to bring this exclusive interview to the Call of Duty community. We were able to sit down with Black Ops’ Design Director, David Vonderhaar, and get his thoughts on Black Ops, designing multiplayer, and a little bit about his history with the Call of Duty franchise.

Q: What has your role been in the development of Call of Duty: Black Ops?

I am the game design director for Call of Duty: Black Ops.

My focus has been nearly exclusively on the multiplayer game. On a day to day level, my responsibilities have me spending my days working on game features and systems design.

This ranges from everything from the game economy and unlock systems, the Theater feature controls, Wager Match play testing and refinement, weapon review, game mode and spawn system set-up, core movement like diving to prone or mantling, user interface and experience (UI, UX) and a lot more.

In this role, you answer a lot of questions. “How are we going to (Insert Item Here)?”

As a designer, it is your job to have a vision and communicate to the development team how gamers will interact with game systems and features. You prototype those ideas on paper, in the game editor, or in script. You test those ideas with co-workers and fans of the game, and then work with engineering, art, animation, and sound departments to bring those ideas to life. Once implemented, you then tune and finesse those features.

As the design director, the job gets a little broader than any specific feature. You have to make (sometimes unpopular) decisions about the game design in the best interests of the entire game.

Q: Black Ops is bringing a lot of new features to the Call of Duty multiplayer experience, from a brand new currency system to Wager Matches, character customization, an emblem editor, and a Theater mode for match replay. What was the main inspiration behind these ideas? Were they designed in tandem or were new ideas adopted over time?

Each one is inspired by something different.

The currency system concept was born from an idea that we wanted to give players more control of their play experience. We had been unlocking content when you level up for three games. We always liked that system, but we also knew we wanted and needed to do something new.

Wager Matches were born from a simple brainstorming conversation about what you do with money. You could use it to try and make more money betting on yourself (where Contracts came from) or you might try and make lots of money gambling it on games of skill. We are big poker players. Wager Matches were born from this very simple concept that if Black Ops was like a tournament poker game, what might it be like?

Character and weapon customization is something the fans had been asking about for a very long time. We thought we finally had some good ideas about how to do this in a faction based game, that wouldn’t minimize or trivialize the role of the factions.

These ideas definitely influence each other even if they are not designed in tandem. For example, once we knew we were going to have a game economy, we knew that we were going to need lots of things to sell in that economy to keep it interesting. That’s why you purchase images, layers, and backgrounds in the Emblem editor and why there are so many of them available.

The entire process is extremely iterative and collaborative. You don’t have to be in the design department to participate. A good design starts off as a fairly simple concept that can be prototyped quickly. We usually know nearly right away if the idea is going to be fun. If it’s fun right away, then it is usually worth fighting to get the kinks out the design that come up along the way. If a good percentage of the team believes in the idea, you get excellent execution and polish.

Q: The Call of Duty series is renowned for its excellent multiplayer. What’s been your greatest accomplishment?

Whenever you try and do something new or tweak or modify something that people know and love you are always under a lot of scrutiny at all levels. Our greatest accomplishment as a design team was having faith that some of those “crazy” ideas like a game economy and fake gambling your fake currency in Wager Matches were going to be engaging and fun for people.

In the end, everyone was very much in sync about what the vision was and what the game was supposed to be when it was done. It sounds simple, but this is a really hard thing to accomplish.

Q: What’s been your most memorable experience in the months leading to launch?

About a week before the September 1st MP reveal event Dan Bunting (Online Director) and I toured the Science Center (where the event was held). The scope of it was mind numbing. I remember going home that night in awe of what kind of show Activision was going to put on just to reveal the MP portion of the game.

September 1st was a beast of a night and I’ll never forget it.

Q: What about the Call of Duty series and Black Ops in particular appeals to you, and how did you become a member of the team?

I became a member of the team when I put 40,000 COD POINTS in an envelope and slid it under the door of Mark Gordon (Treyarch CTO) office. He then allowed me to be hired through waving his magic wand over in the general direction of the HR offices.

I’ve been involved since Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, so this is my 4th Call of Duty MP game. Every year the stakes get higher, the resources get better, we get better as game makers, the team is maturing, and the audience for the game is still growing yet we still have a lot of energy and feel like we plenty of places we can take the game.

Q: Anything in particular you’d like to say to all the Black Ops fans out there?

Stop yelling at me! The hardcore fans will get that joke.

This is just the start. We worked hard to make the best game we possibly could for our fans, and are committed to supporting the game after launch.


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