Call of Duty's Zombies began as 'an indie game inside a multi-million dollar project'

Treyarch’s Call of Duty games have featured the now-famous “Zombies” mode since 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War, which presented the mode as an Easter egg after completing the main campaign. In recent years, marketing for Zombies has only increased, culminating in this year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III, with a character voiced by legendary weirdo Jeff Goldblum. But just how did Zombies come to be? PlayStation sat down with Black Ops III campaign and Zombies director Jason Blundell to find out.

Call of Duty: World at War still stands as the goriest game in the series, with detaching limbs and characters literally being blown to bits, and given the game’s focus on the vicious combat of the Pacific during World War II, it also put an emphasis on using flamethrowers. This meant that Treyarch had to animated soldiers burning alive, and according to Blundell, members of the team noticed that without the fire surrounding them, the soldiers appeared to be undead.

Without initially telling publisher Activision, the studio then began focusing on the mode, and eventually decided to keep the mode completely out of the game’s marketing materials to make it a strange surprise for players. Oh, how times have changed.

With the first Black Ops, the studio took the Zombies mode from “slightly odd” to full-blown absurdity, letting players control characters like Fidel Castro and JFK, and with the addition of new abilities and a more narrative-focused mode in Black Ops II, fine-tuning the experience became especially challenging.

“Zombie map kind of balancing is more about when people blame themselves,” Blundell explains. When people start blaming the map or a particular enemy for their failure is when something needs to be tweaked.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III is out now on PC, last-gen, and current-gen consoles, and its Zombies mode draws influence on Lovecraftian monsters in addition to its classic walking dead. Although the campaign has been omitted from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, Zombies is still included.