How ‘Call of Duty’ Is Changing the Formula With ‘Black Ops 3’

Call of Duty Black Ops 3
Courtesy of Treyarch

The stakes are high for Mark Lamia and his development team at Treyarch.

Their upcoming game, “Call of Duty: Black Ops III,” isn’t just the latest title in the $10 billion franchise, it’s the sequel to the series’ most popular installment. And it’s walking into a crowded holiday season, where it will square off against heavyweights such as “Fallout 4,” “Star Wars: Battlefront” and “Halo 5: Guardians.”

To meet the challenge, Activision is approaching “Black Ops III” in a different way this year. For the first time ever, the game is playable on the E3 show floor. And a public multiplayer beta will be available to fans later this summer — the first time the franchise has done that in seven years.

“This is by far the most complex production I’ve ever done in 20 years,” Lamia said. “To simply talk about it and show people, it would be a disservice, so we wanted to get it into people’s hands and talk less about it.”

In another first, Activision has switched console allegiances with “Call of Duty.” After five years of providing Xbox owners early access to DLC for the game — map packs that are released sporadically for roughly nine months after the game’s retail release — the publisher has now sided with Sony, giving PS4 owners first crack at them starting this year.

Last year’s “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” had a strong Hollywood influence, with Kevin Spacey in a starring role and an increased focus on cinematic storytelling. Though that game was made by a different developer, Lamia said the storytelling methods will again be utilized in “Black Ops III.”

Activision, at present, isn’t revealing the actors and actresses who will be featured in the game, but it has confirmed Marshawn Lynch will be an in-game character. The Seattle Seahawks running back has already completed his facial scanning and motion capture sessions.

“The storytelling and the cinematic nature … will be more integrated than ever before,” Lamia said. “We’ve worked with AAA acting talent at Treyarch [previously], and while all those talents have done a lot to bring our stories to life and immerse people in our fiction, an actor’s performance is all about casting the right people to tell your story.”

There’s a lot of story to tell, too. “Black Ops III” is a game with three distinct parts: The single player campaign (which will let players choose to be either a male or female character — another first), the multiplayer components and the fan-favorite zombie mode. Typically, casting has been more integral to the single player campaign, but Treyarch says it’s trying to bring more impact to the multiplayer mode, with unique voices for each specialist class (such as scout, heavy gunner or sniper).

The game has to first draw an audience though. “Call of Duty” is still a juggernaut, but sales for the franchise have slipped for the past two years. Some wonder if the series has peaked, and note that given the competition this year, this could be the biggest test to date of player loyalties.

“[Activision] has its A-team on this, so this should be a fantastic year for ‘Call of Duty,’ but then you’ve got ‘Star Wars,’ which is the biggest entertainment property in the world against it,” says John Taylor, managing director of Arcadia Investment Corp. “It will be interesting to see who gets more skin on this jump ball.”