May 19, 2022

How Call of Duty Zombies Was Shaped By Jason Blundell

Following Blundeell’s departure, we take a look back at how he helped shape one of CoD’s best modes.

Last week, we reported that Jason Blundell, co-studio head of Treyarch, had left the Call of Duty developer. Often credited as one of the fathers of Call of Duty’s mega-popular Zombies mode, Blundell had been involved in the series since World at War. The Zombies community speculated that this departure might have actually happened in secret, several months ago – but that’s just speculation.

It’s unknown how much input Blundell had in Treyarch’s 2020 game – which will reportedly be Black Ops 5 – before departing. The upcoming title will supposedly act as a fresh start for the franchise. Including a complete reboot of the Zombies mode. With the future of Call of Duty Zombies uncertain, we thought it was time to reflect on how Blundell shaped the once-secret minigame that Activision was scared to promote, into an integral part of the Call Of Duty experience.

Though Blundell’s influence was perhaps most present in more recent titles, his involvement actually hails back to Zombies’ genesis in 2008’s World at War. In its early days, Zombies was struggling to find its identity – was it just another wave-based horde mode, cashing in on the trend, like Halo’s short-lived Firefight? Or did it have room to be something more? Something with its own heart, purpose, and legacy?

Blundell’s input in this era was, on the surface, minor. But, it laid the groundwork for what the simple horde mode would eventually become.

World At War

Genesis

At first, the decision to add a mode consisting of zombified Nazi soldiers seemed incongruous with the grounded nature of the game. However, inspiration struck during the development of World at War‘s campaign mission, Little Resistance. Shell shocked soldiers were animated with limps and raised arms, dizzied and searching for shelter. Led by the future creative director of Zombies, Jimmy Zelinski, the animation team noticed that these movements echoed the depictions of the undead in George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead series. An idea sparked.

The embryonic mode swept Treyarch offices during World at War‘s development as a way to relieve stress. Zelinski’s team developed AI and a character model, modified an existing multiplayer map, and created a simple horde mode. Players would need to survive waves of enemies of increasing difficulty. Thus, Call of Duty Zombies was born. Staff continued to develop the minigame as a pet project. They had no expectations that Zombies would actually make it into the final game.

However, it seems Activision saw an opportunity. Gear of War 2 was due to release just a week before World At War, boasting a Horde Mode as it’s key co-operative mode. This positioned Gears 2 perfectly as the year’s go-to couch co-op game. Call Of Duty Zombies could be strong competition.

However, Activision were concerned about how audiences would receive such a zany mode in what had, until now, been an incredibly gritty WWII story. They decided that the mode would remain a secret until players completed the campaign portion of World at War. Once Reznov had planted the Soviet flag in the Reichstag, and players watched the credits roll, they would find themselves in the very first Zombies map; the now-famous Nacht Der Untoten; a modified version of the Airfield multiplayer map.

Up to four players would find themselves barricaded within a destroyed building, fending off waves of zombie Nazi’s. As players progress, they earn currency which can be gambled on the famous mystery box. This wager provided players with a random era-appropriate weapon – from machine gun, to pistol, to bazooka – or, if players are really lucky, the famous coveted Ray Gun.

Early Success

The horde mode proved to be a hit, as early fans began hitting high scores and eager theorists began conspiring. At the time, I remember hearing legends of someone that hit the unimaginable round 25. As well as the myth that at round 100, players would have to fight a mecha-cyborg zombie Hitler. This was not true, no matter how much shaky camera footage Jake Chillcott claimed to have on the playground.

To say the response to the mode was positive would be an understatement. Eventually, Treyarch allowed players to jump straight into Zombies from the main menu. At this point, Zombies had become as big a selling point as the campaign and multiplayer modes.

However, Nacht Der Untoten was a small map, lacking many of the recognisable staples that make Zombies so addictive. The community was clamouring for more.

Treyarch answered that call by packaging their next Zombies map, Verruct, into World at War’s first DLC pack. The Asylum-themed map introduced Perk-A-Cola’s, which were essential for those aiming for higher rounds. DLC 2 followed this up with the Japanese swamp map Shi No Numa, inaugurating Hell-Hounds, and finally providing name, face and voice for the player-characters.

However, evolution of the mode proved limited. Maps were expanding, but not innovating.

Enter stage right; Jason Blundell.

Zombie Puberty

Or rather, just move a little closer centre stage; Jason Blundell. It’s worth remembering that, though the mode was primarily lead by animator Jimmy Zielinski, Blundell had been working in a Producer capacity at Treyarch since 2006’s Call of Duty 3, and would likely have been involved in Zombies’ infancy. However, with 3 maps now under World at War‘s belt, Zombies was maturing. It needed someone to provide direction as it grew; someone to teach it how to shave its peach fuzz, as it were.

By the time World at War‘s DLC 3 rolled around, players were ready to explore the genesis of the undead. A German factory, home to Nazi experiments of the occult, and the accidental birthplace of the zombie horde. Der Riese offered heaps of new story details and character backstory but, crucially, thanks to Blundell, it offered a new way to play.

Blundell recognised three key problems that were restricting its player base, and holding it back from standing on its own.

A) The lack of an immediate call to action left new players, probably fresh off the boat of the objective-based campaign mode, confused by what to do, and why they were doing it.

B) The available weapons lost effectiveness in higher rounds, limiting those aiming for leaderboard scores.

C) Though maps were expanding in size, navigating the spaces was often difficult and led to unnecessary deaths. Players were often cornered in Verruct’s tight, winding corridors, or slowed by the swamps of Shi No Numa.

Teleporting, Packing and Punching

Players spawning into Der Riese are immediately presented with Blundell’s solutions to these problems. As the screen faded in from black, characters found themselves purposefully positioned in front of a mysterious blue machine with a large, quirky sign boasting;

“PACK-A-PUNCH – INCREASE YOUR FIREPOWER!”

But players must simply watch, as the machine was slowly locked behind a strange metal machine straight out of David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

The player looked down and notices the giant teleportation pad in front of them.

A dying tannoy announces critical power levels, and that teleporters are shutting down.

The would act as the call to action.

As we mentioned earlier, until this point, Zombies had never really had an immediate call to action outside of “survive as long as possible”. This was perhaps the biggest problem holding Zombies back from standing on its own, putting it closer to the definition of a toy, than a game. A toy gives you things to do – a game gives you challenges to conquer.

It was this call to action in Der Riese that attempted to truly gamify Zombies. Players had tasks to complete, a goal to aim for, and a reward to earn.

The Task; link the teleporters
The Goal; unlock the Pack-A-Punch machine.
The Reward; the ability to teleport and upgrade weapons.

This structure also acted to solve those succeeding problems. Pack-A-Punching a weapon doubled its damage and capacity, giving even the starting Colt M1911 a fighting chance in later rounds.

Teleporters now offered a new route to navigate the expanding map. Spaces could now be open and wide, but still allow for players to navigate it efficiently. Players were no longer trapped in narrow corridors. Instead of backing themselves into corners, survivors could scurry into one of three teleporters, hold out for as long as possible, before zipping to the centre of the map at the press of a button.

Impact

Blundell’s Pack-A-Punch became a staple of Zombies, appearing in every single subsequent map. It even transcended Treyarch’s Zombie mode, crossing over (in some form) to Infinity Ward’s and Sledgehammer Games’ cracks at the Zombies formula. Teleporters set the stage for the now-essential transport utility, with its varying forms in different maps. Ascension‘s Lunar Landers, Shangri-La’s Minecart, and even Der Eisendrache‘s Wundersphere are riff’s on the same 10-year-old formula of “zip from A to B”.

Blundell’s approach of creating tasks to complete with rewards would take centre stage as the producer took on a more senior role as Zombies aged. The horde mode became less focused on survival, and more geared towards giant, multi-step easter eggs, buildable weapons, and complex quests. During Black Ops II’s DLC run, Blundell directed 2 fan-favourite DLC maps – Mob of the Dead and Origins. The success of these led to him becoming Game Director for Black Ops 3, and eventually becoming one of Treyarch’s studio heads.

But we’ll get to that era another day.


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