Call of Duty's Botched Innovation

Chris Watters reports on the promising new features that failed to deliver in Black Ops II.


Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Gamescom is a huge trade fair held in Cologne, Germany every August and this year, it was a big milestone for Treyarch. For the first time, the Call of Duty developer showed the world several hours of Black Ops II in action. People tuned in to see how the latest iteration of the standard-setting competitive multiplayer mode was shaping up, but if you were watching, you didn't just see the new loadout system, new maps, and new gear. Treyarch also debuted a set of built-in tools designed to let you broadcast the game from your living room and show off your skills, both as a player and as a kind of video game sportscaster.

Having seen these tools on a trip to the Treyarch studios a few weeks earlier, I was already intrigued. I had seen a live Black Ops II match streaming directly from the system it was played on to the Web; the resolution wasn't great, but the frame rate was smooth, and I could easily track the action. I had "codcasted" a match live as three teams of journalists and Treyarch employees battled it out in the room behind me (see the video embedded below). I posted an enthusiastic editorial on what these features would mean for eSports and for the video game community at large.

The ability to live stream straight from a console, in addition to being cool from a technical perspective, would lower the barrier for folks interested in putting their gameplay and commentary out on the Internet for people to enjoy. The codcasting tools would create a new kind of Call of Duty player, a presenter who used the camera controls, overheard map, and picture-in-picture data feed to curate a match broadcast that could be creative, entertaining, and exciting. Furthermore, these features would be a potential boon to the burgeoning world of eSports, sending the message to millions of Call of Duty players that video games aren't just fun to play; they're fun to watch.

These new features were exciting. But when Black Ops II launched, they fell short of delivering what was promised.

Codcasting is in there all right, but the way it's implemented is disappointingly limited. In theater mode, you can codcast films of games that you have already played for the benefit of the few friends that your theater lobby can accomodate. Knowing the outcome of the game and having a feel for the general flow of events may make you better able to create a cohesive presentation of the match, but it takes away much of the uncertainty and unpredictability that make any kind of competition dynamic. The better option is to codcast a live custom game. This lets you channel the excitement of live competition, provided you can get enough players into your match to make things interesting (though you can always add bots to make the battlefield busier).

Yet neither of these options embodies the vision that made codcasting so appealing in the first place. Without the ability to live stream your efforts, the potential audience for the average codcaster is miniscule. Gone is the opportunity for broadcasters without special equipment to play for an audience and cultivate fan bases, and gone is the opportunity for viewers to watch said broadcasters at work. The appeal of the codcasting tools remains limited to competitive gaming leagues and hobbyists who have purchased special streaming equipment. The seed of video-games-as-a-spectator-sport that Black Ops II was set to plant in millions of homes goes unsown.

The seed of video-games-as-a-spectator-sport that Black Ops II was set to plant in millions of homes goes unsown.
This neutering makes codcasting little more than the latest update to the spectator mode that has been in Call of Duty games for years. However, you can still live stream your gameplay directly from your system to the Internet, unless you're playing on the Wii U. When you enter league play, the new ranked multiplayer arena, you can link your gamertag to your YouTube profile and enable the choice to live stream your game. If you're properly equipped, you can even hook up a webcam to send your image out along with it.

When you choose to live stream, the game produces a link that you can then share with your Facebook friends (if you've linked your profile) or write down and send around to people. At launch, you had to get at least ten viewers tuned in to your stream before it would actually show gameplay, but this requirement has been since been removed. Removing this barrier of entry makes starting a stream fairly easy; watching a stream, however, is not so easy.

No Caption Provided
With action this fast, the video needs to keep up.

Black Ops II, like many Call of Duty games before it, thrives on running at a liquid-smooth frame rate, but the streams that the game sends to YouTube are choppy. It's possible to follow the action on screen, but it's a jarring and unpleasant viewing experience. If you don't have a friend's link to follow, you can seek out the dedicated Call of Duty live streaming page on YouTube. Unfortunately, many of the links you find there lead to black screens that mention technical difficulties or tell you that the broadcast is concluded. Others appear to show live gameplay, but the description reveals that the broadcast happened a week ago. And when you manage to connect to a live stream, it is liable to conclude abruptly in the middle of a match.

At this point, the live stream feature fails as a tech demo, let alone as a viable way to broadcast and view gameplay for entertainment.
At this point, the live stream feature fails as a tech demo, let alone as a viable way to broadcast and view gameplay for entertainment. Codcasting has been used in some competitive events, but it remains a pale shadow of what Treyarch showed during the months before launch day. The notes from an early patch reflect that an effort is being made to improve the live streaming feature, at least, and it's conceivable that subsequent updates could bring these tools closer to the developers' original vision.

The plan for these features was ambitious, to be sure, and it had exciting implications for the future. The day may come when the idea of watching video games for entertainment overflows beyond the bounds of the eSports community, but Black Ops II isn't doing anything to bring that day closer. Instead, it stands as an reminder that what is promised does not always align with what is delivered.

Editor's Note: The ability to codcast a live custom game was not noted in the original post. This information has since been added and the ramifications of this feature have been incorporated into the editorial.

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