Eric Brinkley talks Black Ops, National ESL CTF Cup Preview

I think any title can be competitive as long as there is a demand for it.

Call of Duty: Black Ops, as we all know, is not a perfect game. Since its release numerous PC & PS3 gamers have brought up concerns about the game’s performance on their specific platforms as well as overall game playability. After the most recent patch was released, Treyarch provided a limited update November 19th and did not provide another until November 29th. Thankfully, another substantial update was provided today by JD2020, but the previous stretch of lack of communication and game performance has caused many within the competitive community to question Black Ops’ eSports potential.

As a result, Treyarch has taken significant heat from not only the competitive community, but also the more general PC and PS3 communities. While some of these assertions should certainly fall on Treyarch shoulders, it is unfair to completely smear Treyarch for the work they have put into developing Black Ops. For this reason, I felt it important to gain the perspective of someone working within the game development industry and the various issues concerning game development many of us either may not be aware of or simply do not understand.

Eric Brinkley

Eric Brinkley

My good friend Eric Brinkley, community manager for the game portal ijji.com, took some time out his schedule to answer a few of my questions regarding the dynamic of video game development. Eric, also known as “snatcch” to the Call of Duty community, is a 23 year old gamer living in Anaheim, California. Previously he was a competitor playing for such teams as DFi in CoD1, Pandora’s Box/Genetic in CSS, VerGe in CoD2, and most recently pureEsports in CoD4 and Team Zephyr for AVA’s world championships in Korea. As the community manager for ijji.com he is currently working on the Sci-Fi FPS game Genesis A.D.

One of the many slights against Treyarch concerning Black Ops’ performance problems is that the company and their parent publisher, Activision, are simply out looking to make money. When Activision announced Black Ops had become the single most successful entertainment launch in history with sales exceeding $300 million dollars, it seemed to only add fuel to the fire. Developing quality video games is not an easy task though, and the dichotomy between developer and publisher can be difficult for both parties to achieve their objectives.

Eric explains, “The complex relationship between game developer and game publisher can get hectic at times as both sides have a direct vision or goal they’re striving for, and sometimes those directions can conflict with each other. Also resource management can get in the way of prioritization; the publisher can be asking for numerous things but the developer only has so much of a budget or manpower to make it happen.”

Despite this, the relationship between developer and publisher changes based on elements such as resources and prior working history. “It really depends on what developer or publisher you’re working with, but generally both sides have to compromise with one another to release a product that can be deemed successful from a business standpoint,” he adds.

…product sales are priority number one, and retaining interest is more helpful in promoting DLC sales (particularly for console) later down the line.

In addition to this already complicated situation is the claim that Activision and Treyarch simply do not care about the PC community. It took Treyarch over 10 days to make a significant announcement to the PC community regarding the status of their released patch and plans for another. As I already stated in a piece over at CoDSource, lack of communication between the developer and the PC community is what would worry me the most. This leads back to the original question, does Treyarch/Activision simply not care about the PC market?

According to Eric, “It really depends on the market you’re targeting. For ijji, since it’s a Free-2-Play audience, we really have to keep our ears attuned to the community or audience playing our games if we want to keep them within our portal and playing our games.” But unlike ijji, Treyarch/Activision does not cater to a Free-2-Play audience. Herein, “Things get more complicated in the retail industry as they’re worried less (relatively) about the concurrent user base and more focused on initial product sales. Those product sales are priority number one, and retaining interest is more helpful in promoting DLC sales (particularly for console) later down the line,” says Eric.

A.V.A

A.V.A. is an extremely popular Free-2-Play game offered by ijji

Armed with this knowledge, does communication and/or interaction with the game’s market audience correlate with the release of quality games or is this simply a privilege the audience receives from the developer/publisher? Eric warns, “Issues like these get very complicated when you compare a large franchise like Call of Duty to that of something smaller like Crysis or even our F2P games like A.V.A and Genesis A.D.”

“When you have a large franchise that basically sells itself like Call of Duty, the developer can be free to create the game how they see fit. With smaller titles, their sales are almost completely based on some sort of drawing point, whether it is a massive graphics engine or armor suit system, or even the fact that the game is completely free to try and play.” he continues, “With those smaller titles, audience interaction is more important for the publisher because they need to attract gamers to their specific title without having the massive marketing budget or ooh’s and ahh’s we’ve seen over the years with major title advertisements.”

Specifically related to Black Ops, Eric explains, “For large franchised games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, the audience is essentially a massive group of gamers who are anxiously awaiting the next title because it’s something new but similar to the game they all know and love.” I would tend to agree with Eric on this point as while the weapon speed and overall feel to the Call of Duty series has changed over the years, the core game mechanics and principles have not. “In that sense the audience is fairly lucky to have interaction with the developer/publisher considering the massive user base they have to cater towards,” remarks Eric.

Another factor of game development for large franchises is their ability to develop cross-platform. To put bluntly, this is done for profits, which has caused many to stir when looking at the difference of the Black Ops game experience on the Xbox360 versus PC or PS3. Earlier in the week, Crytek boss Cevat Yerli claimed that – in general – developers’ focus on PS3 and 360 is holding back game quality on PC – a format he believes is already “a generation ahead” of modern day consoles.

…there will always be room for game developers to cater towards the niche of hardcore PC gamers because the audience demands attention.

So does such a focus on console development hurt PC game development? “The simplest answer I can give in terms of PC game development is a hesitant yes, only because these large titles have such a huge following that even PC gamers anxiously await the next title to come out.” Eric continues, “Under the surface however, there are going to be developers that are focusing more on the PC platform because it gives them more freedom or flexibility to be innovative. Even when you look at companies like Blizzard who are completely focused on the PC, they have been able to garner massive sales because their games are, simply put: good.” All hope is not lost, however, Eric adds, “While we haven’t seen a PC shooter come out in a while that is completely ground breaking and not a cross-platform port, there will always be room for game developers to cater towards the niche of hardcore PC gamers because the audience demands attention.”

Now I may be somewhat biased since I am not a console gamer, but I cannot recall the last widely successful, non-mega-franchise (i.e. Call of Duty), game that was released on both PC and console. Herein, the more general question then becomes can PC games be developed cross-platform anymore?

Black Ops

Seven years of Call of Duty via @JD_2020

“I think it really depends on the development resources distributed between the platforms,” says Eric. “As we have seen with Treyarch and Black Ops, the game was developed mainly for the Xbox 360 and then ported over to both PS3 and PC. We can see the neglect of resources put into both as gamers on each platform are still experiencing technical difficulties relating to platform optimization that the 360 does not have. If a company is willing to delve resources equally over all platforms and survive publisher pressure to release as soon as humanly possible, I believe it is feasible that we see a cross-platform game possess both quality and innovation,” he concludes.

Unfortunately though, we live in the present, and presently Black Ops’ performance on the PC platform is a mess. So why release a game many in the competitive community as well as general PC community have begun to label a beta? “I believe Treyarch was given a strict release deadline to maximize profits,” says Eric. “With that looming deadline, I believe they were forced to cut a few corners on the technical end so that their game features would have a chance to come to full fruition.”

That being the case, many have begun to wonder how is it taking so long to provide updates and patches for both the PC platform? Surely these issues were noticed during QA testing? “From what I understand from speaking to a few people who were at one of Treyarch’s release parties in San Francisco, the game was only really extensively tested on the 360,” he reveals. “Obviously we can see that now because the 360 is the only platform not experiencing a plethora of technical issues.”

The (previous) lack of communication would only concern me if I felt like the developer can’t figure out what is causing the issues, or if their resources prevent them from fully devoting the time and money to address them.

Despite this, as previously mentioned, lack of communication is what would worry me the most and not the actual state of the game’s performance. I’m fully confident the game can fixed to correct the issues that were missed while the focus was on the Xbox, but whether Treyarch/Activision will commit to such fixes remains to be seen. Eric contends, “From what JD_2020 has said in recent days, the lack of communication has been because there is no set date on when they can get everything fixed and released. I can understand that as there are always complications when fixing technical issues; it’s always easier said than done.”

The latest update from Treyarch today did provide substantial information to the PC community, and in Eric’s mind, “The (previous) lack of communication would only concern me if I felt like the developer can’t figure out what is causing the issues, or if their resources prevent them from fully devoting the time and money to address them even if their main revenue comes from the consoles. As of right now I don’t think that’s the case.” I know the competitive community certainly hopes so at least.

Looking on a possible bright side, however, Eric points out, “Gaining the attention of Treyarch has not seemed to have been a problem in the past with World at War: even as the competitive community moved away from it, they were still dedicated to fixing issues and adding features to make it a better experience on the PC. I believe that will still be the case in the months to come.”

Black Ops Error

One of the many errors gamers are experiencing with the PC version of Call of Duty: Black Ops

With all of this in mind, we are ultimately led to wonder, what if Black Ops cannot succeed as a competitive eSports game? I know Ian Tannehill from CEVO is worried about the game’s playability and Wantsome from E-Rev voiced concerns to me about spawn locations in the CTF gametype. Despite this, Eric remains optimistic and offers a unique perspective, “I think any title can be competitive as long as there is a demand for it.” He explains, “Right now Black Ops has features that make it a very promising competitive title such as the enhanced theatre mode and multi-gametype maps that the community seems to be picking up. As for the technical issues, it’s obviously a big hindrance right now but given time I think they’ll be able to fix it all up.”

Looking toward the future, Black Ops brings up a core issue that has plagued the entire eSports community: the contrasting relationship between game developers and competitive gamers. “To be honest competitive eSports is such a blip on the radar for huge titles like Call of Duty; the revenue coming in from the casual base ensures that the development focus is keeping them happy,” says Eric.

“Over the next few years I see eSports collectively coming back from the ashes it was burned to following 2007; it’s just a matter of adaptation.” He continues, “Once we realize that we aren’t playing games in 2004 anymore and start thinking progressively, eSports will again begin to flourish. When you look at MLG and what they have been able to do with the console base it’s just astounding. They host events all over the country selling out almost instantly and gamers from all over the country practice just for a chance to make a name for themselves. Leagues and organizations can really learn a few things from how they conduct their tournaments.”

“In conclusion, I’d like to say thanks for everything you’re doing for the competitive community Ted. Also a big shoutout to Carter Salley, Walley Fipps and Travis Delucia,” remarks Eric.

I’d like to thank Eric for taking the time to address the many issues stated above and be sure to check out ijji.com. I think it’s very clear that game development and eSports has a long a way to go and while the current scene is severely lacking, there is great potential.

Once we realize that we aren’t playing games in 2004 anymore and start thinking progressively, eSports will again begin to flourish.

Eric Brinkley

Big thanks to Eric for taking the time to talk Black Ops.


National ESL Preview

So unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know ESL’s first community cup is scheduled to begin this weekend. The event will start Sunday, December 5th and conclude Monday, December 6th featuring a 32 team single elimination bracket. The event bracket and results will be available here once the seeding is completed. As stated in last week’s entry, ESL will prohibit the use of perks while allowing the inclusion of several attachments.

As for the teams, it’s hard to make definitive predictions considering this is one of the first official competitions for Black Ops. E-Rev did a great job at trying to predict the top 5 teams in North America. Unfortunately, not all the teams listed will be participating in the ESL CTF Cup, so we’re just going to have to make due with the teams that are competing. The favorites will easily be eMazing Gaming and VisionValorVictory (vVv), as both teams have arguably the most skill and experience of anyone competing.

The rest of the competition will most likely be rounded out by the different team’s E-Rev has listed under the “Honorable Mentions” headers. Because the tournament is single elimination, seeding will play a huge part in how the tournament results fall. It’s not ideal, and I don’t put the blame on the ESL admins as they cannot really use anything but random seeds, it’s just the harsh truth. Also, because the first few rounds are best of one, teams strong on those particular maps should be better suited to advance.

All the action will kickoff this Sunday, December 5th at 8pm EST. E-Rev TV will be broadcasting throughout the event and I might even make a guest appearance or two so be sure to tune in for all the action.

Wrapping Up
Due to the length of this entry and the ambiguity surrounding the teams currently registered for the CyberGamer tournament, I’ve held off previewing the event. The tournament is scheduled to start this coming Monday, December 6th and will run throughout the month of December. Next week, I will have more on the CyberGamer tournament as well as hopefully some other cool stuff as my semester comes to a close.

Stay frosty…