The Rise and Fall of Treyarch Studios

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has received a lot of media coverage since its October launch, and the majority of it has been less than stellar to say the least. While many would say this is unsurprising given the franchise’s history the past number of years, I’ve tried sticking with the game because of how much trust and respect I have for Treyarch, the developers behind this and the rest of the Black Ops series. However as time has gone on, I and many others have become tired of how Black Ops 4 has been handled, to the point that I feel inclined to look back and figure out where it all went wrong. I want to preface this by noting that this isn’t written with ill intent, but out of disappointment with a developer I believe can be so much better – hell, I even consider Black Ops 1 my favourite FPS of all time, so to even be considering publishing this has been difficult.

Treyarch began making games in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2002’s Spider-Man that they first started making their name. Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and Ultimate Spider-Man were all successful releases, with Spider-Man 2 in particular being hailed as the best Spider-Man game of all time by many before Insomniac’s 2018 effort came along. This combined with their fantastic work on the standalone expansion Call of Duty 2: Big Red One led to them becoming the developers of Call of Duty 3, a job that was done well but didn’t quite make them the behemoths they are now. The same happened with their follow up World at War – while a phenomenal effort, audiences were burnt-out on World War shooters at the time, so they remained under Infinity Ward’s shadow due to that studio’s runaway success with Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2. That all changed in 2010.

That year, they released Call of Duty: Black Ops, a game that immediately had the biggest launch in franchise history and received acclaim both from fans and critics. It especially resonated with hardcore fans as it was clearly made by a studio that listens to the fans – the removal of the controversial deathstreaks, broken perks like One Man Army, the toning down of explosive damage and a plethora of other issues that riddled previous entries won everyone over, and Treyarch were now on even footing with their fellow studio for many. Fan trust was cemented with their post launch support, which saw the overpowered Famas weapon receive nerfs, the broken Ghost and Second Chance perks be banned in a new playlist and various other changes. The connection with fans was at an all time high.

This carried over to their next release, Black Ops 2. At launch, the game received a mixed response from fans due to it being too similar to predecessors and because the launch zombies maps were underwhelming relative to World at War and Black Ops 1’s offerings. However, Treyarch took this feedback to heart and quickly turned the game around, to the point that the game is now considered a standout entry in the series for most players. With Infinity Ward starting to stumble with Ghosts and new addition Sledgehammer Games failing to capture interest with Advanced Warfare, it was down to the now fan favourite studio to pick up the slack with Black Ops 3. While not as beloved as the previous Black Ops games, Black Ops 3 was again well received. Although it had numerous flaws, it was clearly created by a studio that knew what fans wanted. Then they made their first mistake.

Loot boxes were added to the game. While they appeared in Advanced Warfare, they received heavy criticism in Black Ops 3 due to how terrible the system was. Most new content, including new weapons, were stuck in the supply drops, and unless you paid a ton of money or grinded for months, you’d never get everything the game has to offer. Despite this, Treyarch remained in good graces because, fundamentally, they had released a solid product, and the majority of fans put it down to it being an Activision issue rather than Treyarch. Three years later, the hotly anticipated Black Ops 4 released, and this is where people started to realise that maybe the blame isn’t entirely on the publisher.

At launch, Black Ops 4 was well received, to the point that it became the highest selling game of 2018. It received praise for its fast paced multiplayer, superb attempt at the Battle Royale genre with its Blackout mode and Zombies (especially the map IX) was another hit. While Treyarch received some backlash due to not including a campaign and delaying some features promised for launch (League Play, Factions, etc.), they were still beloved overall. That began to crumble two weeks later.

At the end of October, a system akin to Fortnite’s Battle Pass was added called the Contraband stream. This received a negative reception due to the fact that, in a $60 game, players were forced to pay up to $200 to obtain all of its items. Well, there was another way to earn it, and that was to play for 200 hours. Such a large amount would be ludicrous in a free to play game, so to see it in a full price release was borderline insanity. But this was just the start of the problems. While they listened to the feedback and reduced the next stream to 100, including adding a “free daily tier skip” earned by winning one match in multiplayer or earning a merit in Blackout, they gained selective hearing when it came to practically everything else.

The aforementioned features promised for launch not only kept getting delayed indefinitely, but Treyarch never gave updates, to the point that they never responded to complaints about Combat Records until April. An entire SEVEN MONTHS after launch. I’d argue the continued delays are forgivable, especially considering they had to rework a lot of the game from the ground up just six months before launch, but the fact that absolutely no communication was given for so long is what started decimating fan trust. This carried over to everything else. Zombies received scarce updates. Multiplayer only got new content in the form of reskins of existing maps, a few new weapons and a collection of mostly terrible cosmetic items, including a bizarre amount of cat and alien stickers (just what FPS fans want). This was all underwhelming for sure, but this wasn’t even the nail in the coffin.

What pushed it over the edge was the scummy monetisation. On top of the $60 game, $50 Black Ops Pass (there’s so much they did wrong I haven’t even been able to touch on this trainwreck) and $100 Contraband stream, they added even more microtransactions. While charging even more for outfits, camos, taunts and those damn alien stickers were bad enough, they pushed it even further by charging $1 for a gun reticle. $1 for a gun reticle. And yet, it’s even worse than that, because that exact same reticle was available for free in Black Ops 1. But this is all cosmetic, so what’s the deal, right? Even if charging for additional cosmetics on top of buying the game, season pass and the Contraband stream wasn’t bad, they began charging for melee weapons too. Most recently, one was sold for $30, something even former Sledgehammer Games head Michael Condrey criticised. And they still didn’t stop there.

Loot boxes returned. On top of everything detailed above, loot boxes returned. Despite the backlash they received in Black Ops 3. Despite the backlash Star Wars Battlefront 2 received for theirs. Despite the $60 game, $50 season pass, $100 Contraband stream, $1 reticle and $1 alien stickers. In 2017, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone noted that they struggled with their most recent season of the show because reality was becoming more ridiculous than anything they could come up with. The folks at Treyarch and Activision must be huge South Park fans then, because it feels like they really wanted to prove that statement right. And I’m STILL not done with how scummy it is.

The thing that somehow made it even worse is the way they introduced it. The previous two Contraband streams included earnable Reserve Cases if you reached the end of it, however they removed them with the new one coinciding with the loot boxes’ release. Naturally, this caused fans to voice their disgust that the Reserve Cases had seemingly been moved from “free” bonuses to paid extras, so after just two days they added them back to show they were listening. This irritated me because it was a clear attempt to distract people from the fact that they added loot boxes, by making people think they were listening by changing something they were angry about. I hadn’t seen manipulation like that in a long time, to the point I was almost kind of amazed that such a big company could be so toxic.

So how does this pertain to Treyarch, you might ask, as the monetisation side of things sounds like an Activision issue rather than them. While Activision are a big factor in it, the reason I also put blame on Treyarch is because we have only seen this kind of thing in Treyarch games. While Advanced Warfare, Infinite Warfare, Modern Warfare Remastered and WWII did include a number of microtransactions, none were even close to the level of those seen in Black Ops 3 and 4. This is exemplified by the fact that the aforementioned Michael Condrey, in his Tweet about the $30 melee weapon, noted that “they”, in reference to Sledgehammer Games, chose to only include supply drops at the launch of Advanced Warfare, suggesting that the developers do have a say in the monetisation elements.

All of this adds up to Treyarch’s reputation lying in flames. The lack of communication. Pathetic monetisation. Consumer manipulation. A season pass in an age of free map updates. $1 reticles. $30 melee weapons. Freaking alien stickers. It’s heartbreaking to see such a fantastic studio become this. So what happens now? Honestly, not much. If a developer can destroy their reputation in one game, they can rebuild it in one game. In fact, they still could rebuild it before the end of Black Ops 4’s life cycle.

I still believe Treyarch have the potential to be the studio that made them beloved again, and small steps like adding a Barebones playlist in response to the backlash of the Specialists and multiplayer and Blackout heads Tony Flame and David Vonderhaar (respectively) constantly updating fans on ideas on social media show they’re not completely lost. However, in light of everything detailed here, one could understand my skepticism. Despite this, perhaps stupidly so, I still hold a very small amount of hope that they were just in a bad rut the past seven months and that Black Ops 4 will end on a high note. Maybe that’s just my previous passion for this studio making me delusional, who knows, but I do know that I really want them to prove me right.

What do you think of the situation? Are you still hopeful for Treyarch’s future, or has Black Ops 4’s recent issues been the breaking point of the franchise for you? Let me know in the comments or via my Twitter profile @JoshsJots.

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