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Black Ops 4: What does no ‘traditional’ campaign mean for a game designed in 2015?

A single story from Polygon about Black Ops 4 has created an avalanche of news over the last twenty-four hours. There’s no direct quotes but Polygon claims an inside source says the game does not include ‘a traditional single-player story mode’. 

Last year’s Call of Duty: WWII followed a traditional structure and setting for the franchise and sold well for it. So any new game eschewing that structure is taking a big risk and if it was designed to be monetised via loot boxes it may land into a firestorm of consumer resentment too. That’s easy to say now, of course, less easy to predict three years ago when the game started development.

A further statement from Polygon said ‘that as Black Ops 4’s release date approached, it became evident that development on the single-player campaign wouldn’t be completed.’

Now, there’s probably some truth in here somewhere. But that second statement simply doesn’t ring true. Black Ops 4 is developed by Treyarch, a hugely experienced team with numerous previous Call of Duty titles under its belt.

"That the [single player] would be abandoned for scheduling reasons… seems highly unlikely from a veteran developer with the full resources of Activision behind it."

The team had a full three-year cycle to bring the game to market, and most likely started pre-production work in early 2015. If the direction of the campaign changed soon after development started for strategic or design reasons then that’s perfectly understandable, but the idea that development work on a full single-player campaign wouldn’t be complete in time – and that the whole thing would then be abandoned because of that – seems highly unlikely from such a veteran developer with the full resources of Activision behind it.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that the game isn’t moving away from the traditional template. A Call of Duty game without a ‘traditional campaign’ and designed that way from the off, seems perfectly plausible. Especially when you consider that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 would have been conceived back in 2015.

That’s the year between the two Titanfall games and the same year that the first Star Wars: Battlefront came out. More importantly still, Destiny was hitting its high point as the Taken King launched that year. In short, big shooters without traditional campaigns were very much in vogue.

And it’s easy to see why, aside from the more recent furores over loot boxes, the industry was making its first big moves into bringing live games with long-term monetisation. Even as arguably one of the most conservative of franchises, in terms of its various modes, it seems unlikely that Black Ops 4’s design wouldn’t have been affected by the trends of the day.

That said, Call of Duty is a franchise that has to please most of the people, most of the time. It still sells lots and lots of physical copies well past its release date – which generally proves there’s a big mass market audience for the game, not just a die-hard core of players.

Against the popular opinion that ‘no one plays the campaign’ achievements tracking sites show that Call of Duty titles have very respectable completion rates for their main campaign modes – with the Black Ops series being amongst the best.

In short, Call of Duty is unlikely to entirely jettison its single-player content – and if it did it would likely suffer in terms of sales. Instead a fully co-op campaign or a pick-and-mix series of PvE missions with a story running through them. It could draw from Destiny or Titanfall in this regard, or even Left 4 Dead or Blink.

Either way it will have an uphill struggle explaining the change, not to those who follow announcements and watch every move the game makes – but instead reaching the more casual consumer, who will pick up the game and expect something to get stuck straight into.

Debate aside, we’ll all find out on May 17th at the big reveal. 

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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