Activision enlisted H'wood vet to steer 'Black Ops II'

Activision wants to keep its “Call of Duty” franchise fresh after the last three installments were record-breaking hits. Now David Goyer, who helped reboot the Batman and Superman films, has much of the success of “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” riding on his shoulders when the military game invades retailers on Nov. 13.

The gamemaker and developer Treyarch handed the storytelling reigns to Goyer after the writer-director-producer served as a script doctor on the first “Black Ops,” released in 2010. This time, it wanted Goyer to experiment with telling a different kind of story through a videogame from its inception — and Goyer came up with a plot that spans decades and generations of characters.

Last year’s game, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” became the biggest entertainment launch of all time when it sold 6.5 million copies in the U.S. and U.K. within 24 hours, earning $400 million. If Goyer is worried about living up to those numbers, he’s not showing it; he’s as stalwart as the soldiers in the series. But he credits his work in TV for guiding him through the gamemaking process.

After exec producing “FlashForward,” “Blade” and “Threshold,” he’s prepping his newest series, Starz’s “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which he promoted at New York Comic Con over the weekend.

“Doing a TV series is slightly more analogous to doing a game (than a movie),” Goyer told Variety. “You’re doing eight episodes. If you think of those episodes as levels of a game, each episode is always in various stages of pre- or post-production. You have to have the overall map in your mind. That requires a skill set that is more adaptable.”

With “Black Ops II,” Goyer wanted to up the storytelling challenges, “telling a branching narrative with multiple endings that have never been done on this scale,” he said.

Game is set within two time periods: One takes players back to the 1980s, where new villain Raul Menendez seeks revenge against the U.S. for crimes committed during the Cold War and manages to gain leadership of a socially networked movement backed by millions of followers. The other sends them to 2025, where Menendez has grown into the world’s most dangerous threat as a new Cold War erupts between China and the U.S.

“Our objective with this game was to show that these geopolitical conflicts are complicated,” Goyer said. WWII was the last “truly black-and-white war,” and “most of the conflicts since then have been more nuanced and have more than one side.”

Goyer also wanted to “push against the conventional wisdom that you’re not supposed to have a strong story and strong characters in games because it gets in the way of the player’s enjoyment,” he said. “I wanted to challenge that with a well-rounded villain.”

“The more specificity you can build into a character or a villain the more real the gaming experience becomes,” Goyer said. “The more well-rounded the villain, the more satisfying it is when you beat them. To do that, you’ve got to present the villain with a real point of view. You don’t have to agree with the villain’s ideology, but you have to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s important in a TV show, movie and games, too.”

In “Black Ops II,” players get to control Menendez in some levels to better “understand where he’s coming from,” Goyer said.

Some levels Goyer came up with would have been too challenging technically to design, like a level where players ride on horseback through Afghanistan. The animals were replaced by trucks.

Goyer will likely continue to experiment with games. As a screenwriter, he considers them “a fun way to exercise different muscles,” he said. But they increasingly also provide “more creative freedom” and “experimentation” that the film biz doesn’t afford itself anymore, he added.

While Activision’s experience with Goyer has been successful, he said it can be tough for non-gaming screenwriters to make the transition to games. “Increasingly you are seeing high-profile film and TV writers migrate to games, but not everyone can do it,” he said. “You have to be a gamer. You have to have a certain kind of sensibility. You have be to very organized. For younger screenwriters and television writers, it will become less and less of a problem.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more