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The birth and charted evolution of ‘Call of Duty: Ghosts’ Clan Wars

Call of Duty: Ghosts‘ new Clan Wars mode is an evolution of old ideas. More an added layer that sits on top of the series’ traditional multiplayer than a standalone mode in and of itself, the metagame exists to build a fresh hook into your online shooty-shooty, a delectable dangling carrot that houses the promise of bonus XP time and unique soldier customization items. It’s something that the people behind the series have been pushing toward for some time.

“It really is an evolution of what we’ve tried in the past with Elite,” Beachhead Studios head John Linden tells Digital Trends. Beachhead built the first Call of Duty app back before Modern Warfare 3 launched, and the studio applied the lessons learned from that process to its latest app for Ghosts (and possibly future COD games), which hooks directly into Clan Wars. The new metagame is inspired by one of the more popular aspects of the Elite service.

“Elite had a feature called Clan Operations which a lot of people used, but we didn’t feel it was quite as mainstream as we wanted it to be,” Linden explains. “We felt there were some lacking parts to it. It got super, super hardcore clans but it didn’t really get to a bigger audience. We didn’t feel it was as game-like [as it could have been]. It was more just a weekly or a three-day competition type of thing.” 

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Clan Wars evolves the earlier Clan Operations. Launch into the app that pairs with Ghosts and you can access an overhead map dotted with nodes, each of which connects to a specific multiplayer map and game type. Eight clans, connected via matchmaking, fight for control of these points over the length of each Clan War, which runs for a string of days before concluding. A node is captured as clan members score wins in matches on that game type. Nab a node and the entire clan gets an XP boost for as long as that location is held. Close out the Clan War with the highest score and you win some unique cosmetic customization items for your soldiers.

“We like the idea of people focusing on winning matches, and that’s where we’ve really stepped up a lot of the mechanics.”

It’s not like hooks are new to the series. Going all the way back to the first Modern Warfare game, there’s been a concerted push on the part of Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Beachhead, and all of the other assembled studios to create points of investment for players. The basic idea of setting up your own, personal soldier’s battle loadout has expanded significantly over the years, but the fundamental goal remains the same: give players a reason to keep playing, something that creates a sense of continuity that carries from one match to the next to the next.

“People focus on different areas of Call of Duty for different reasons,” Linden explains. “We like the idea of people focusing on winning matches, and that’s where we’ve really stepped up a lot of the mechanics. Every time you win a match in multiplayer, it counts toward your clan. That was the base concept, and then we wanted to figure out ways to reward people for playing short-term and playing long-term, and adding this element of strategy that we kept hearing from the players that they wanted to add.”

The first Clan Wars is now over, a seven-day event that launched days after the Xbox One’s November 22 release. Linden proudly notes that millions of Ghosts players participated, spread across hundreds of thousands of clans. Of course, that could simply be a result of Clan Wars operating somewhat passively in the background, so long as you’re in a clan. This is a new mode, and one that not every gamer may yet know about. That’s part of what Linden and his team are working to address as they continue to monitor data and fiddle with the moment-to-moment rules of play.

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“We’re making changes for the next one,” he says. “The concept is to have these regularly. This isn’t necessarily a one-time event or a once-every-quarter [sort of thing]. We’re still playing around with the exact length… and I think the next one or two wars, you’ll probably see some varying lengths. This next one we’re going to do is a five-day [event]. So it’s a shorter war now. Starting [on December 4], Wednesday, at noon PST, and it’s going to go until Monday at noon PST. And then we’ll probably mix it up one more time before the holidays. Through the end of the year, we’re going to try a couple variations of it and see what everybody likes.”

The next Clan War, which moves the location from a Los Angeles map to an Oahu map, will use a different set of maps and a different set of game types. Linden zeroes in on the idea of adding “concepts” rather than content. Linden offers up an example. “One of the things is, with the first war, we had points associated with when you took over a location. But then we had a lot of people say that, ‘Well I hold it for a period of time and I should get additional points so there’s an incentive for me to hold it down and not lose it.”That’s going to be in this war, and we’re very excited to see how it changes some of the strategy,” he explains.

“The concept is to have these regularly. This isn’t necessarily a one-time event or a once-every-quarter [sort of thing].”

Clan Wars is designed to keep things competitive, so hanging onto a particular node becomes a war of attrition over time. You’ve got one clan defending against seven others. Control is supposed to change hands. Giving the capturing team a steady flow of Capture Points – which determine a war’s victor – gives added incentive to fighting for control of your turf. 

“We’re also going to try to mix up the balance too [of how CPs are distributed],” Linden adds. “There were some modes, like [Team Deathmatch] and Domination that were [worth] higher points. I think we’re going to try to play with these numbers even more. Make some that turn over a lot, maybe in a couple of matches. And then we”ll have a couple of them maybe that take the entire war to capture once.”

The Beachhead team is also working to create stronger lines of communication between clan members, even when they’re not actively connected to the game on a console or PC. “[We've added] a feature called Primary Target where, if you’re a clan leader, you can go into a particular location and [mark it as] the primary target and it’s actually going to notify everyone,” Linden says. “So we’re trying to make it so you can easily communicate [in the app].”

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One area that players can definitely expect to see noticeable improvements is the Clan Wars matchmaking. The system is designed to group up clans that have similar numbers of players at similar skill levels. That didn’t work out as seamlessly as it could have with the first Clan War due to both the newness of the mode and the proximity of the first event to the next-gen console launches.

“A 100-person clan is going to beat out a 3-person clan every time. That was something we did have some issues with [during the first Clan War],” Linden says. “Clans were growing so fast. The Xbox One had been out for three days, so we had some problems where people would start off with a 10-person clan, and then suddenly they’re a 40-person clan. We’ve gotten through that now, so we’ve got some better matchmaking in here. We’ve got a lot more data now. That will start balancing out.”

The plan for now is to keep watching and seeing how things evolve. Beachhead is listening closely to player feedback, and it’s also monitoring the raw data collected from matches. Clans are developing strategies for success in Clan Wars based on what they saw in the metagame’s first outing, but the goal for Beachhead is to keep anyone from getting too comfortable, at least until the right balance is hammered out. At the same time, the team is also considering the possibility of creating an offshoot to Clan Wars that caters to the more committed players in the audience.

“We’re looking at … fundamentally changing parts of Clan Wars for the more hardcore guys too,” Linden teases. “We [want you to be able to] play casually, but if you’re really hardcore and you want to be the best in the world, we’re going to have some opportunities for you to do that as well. You’re going to keep seeing new things happening. We’re going to keep changing maps, we’re going to keep changing modes, we’re going to keep changing rewards and prizes and all that. But we’re really watching. Everybody that wants to play Clan Wars can play, but if you also want to see where you rank in the world … and play that out, we want to give you that opportunity as well.”