is used to late nights overseeing the creation of what’s likely to be
the biggest video game of the holidays, “Call of Duty: Black Ops.” But
on a Monday in late October, Lamia stuck around even later than normal
“I had just finished playing ‘Black Ops’ at
Treyarch, and when I walked out of the room, there he was standing
there to ask me what I thought,” said
who hosts “GameTrailers TV” on MTV Networks’ Spike. “I’m not sure how
long he stood there waiting, but you could tell he was a little
Keighley told a visibly relieved Lamia he thought it was the best game Treyarch, owned by
The question is whether the best for Treyarch will be good enough for “Call of Duty” fans.
On Tuesday, when “Black Ops” hits store shelves,
investors and fans of the franchise will be laser-focused on Treyarch
and whether it can deliver the same lofty reviews, and blockbuster
sales, as previous “Call of Duty” games developed by Infinity Ward, the
studio that created the series but was decimated when Activision fired
its two studio heads in March.
If “Black Ops” is able to match or exceed the
estimated 20 million copies sold by “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,”
which was developed by Infinity Ward and released last November, it
could prove to gamers and investors that the franchise has a future. If
it falls short, it could demonstrate that gamers are souring on “Call
of Duty” and one of Activision’s pillars is in danger of crumbling.
“It takes a few iterations to build a blockbuster franchise,” said
No one is more aware of this than Lamia. His studio
has developed two other “Call of Duty” games — “Call of Duty 3” in 2006
and “World at War” in 2008. Both have sold millions of copies and were
considered financial successes in their own rights.
But Treyarch historically toiled under the shadow of Infinity Ward, the Activision-owned
studio that many consider to be the best developer of the “shooter”
genre of games. Infinity Ward’s “Call of Duty” titles have consistently
scored better reviews and sold better than Treyarch’s.
“Much of the characterization of Treyarch as being
the B team is accurate,” Wilson said. “Then again, it’s important to
note that just about everybody is the B team if you compare them to
That distinction ended when
fired from their posts as heads of Infinity Ward, left to form a new
studio, Respawn. More than half of the developers at Infinity Ward left
With Zampella and West gone, Lamia inherited sole
possession of one of Activision’s biggest and most lucrative
properties. It’s a role Lamia, who doesn’t boast the artistic
background of many game developers, arguably has groomed for during his
15-year career at the company.
After graduating from Loyola Law School, Lamia took
an entry-level job at Activision in 1995, burning CD-ROM discs in the
company’s lab. He worked his way up to become assistant producer,
producer and then, eventually, vice president of North American
studios. He switched to Treyarch in 2006 and became its studio chief a
Affable and animated, Lamia earned a reputation as a
go-to executive when Activision needed to get things done, whether it
was signing a publishing deal with a developer or making sure a game
ships on time and on budget.
“Mark is an Activision lifer, someone who could
always get the job done,” said Keighley, a longtime game journalist.
“If all goes well with ‘Black Ops,’ I expect he will be the man in
charge of this ‘Call of Duty’ brand going forward.”
Lamia feels the pressures facing his
“More than ever, our work has to speak for itself,”
Lamia said. “The game we made is different and unique. If we can focus
on doing our best work, we can produce work that is at the top of our
Lamia’s studio is the antithesis of Infinity Ward, which had a testy relationship with Activision Chief Executive
and Lamia solicits frequent feedback from the publisher on “Black Ops.”
Infinity Ward, by contrast, wouldn’t allow Activision executives to see
“Modern Warfare 2” until after it had been in development for more than
Since Activision acquired Treyarch in 2001, the
corporate parent has steered the game studio to its own priorities,
including developing sequels of games from licenses such as Spider-Man.
Since 2008, however, it has focused solely on “Call of Duty.”
Set during the Cold War era, “Black Ops” thrusts
players in the role of CIA agents working on top-secret operations
including the Bay of Pigs invasion in
and the Vietnam War. It adds new elements such as piloting a helicopter
and animation created in consultation with a former Soviet special
operations soldier and voice work performed by film stars
“After we made World at War, we wanted to focus on
something entirely new and creative,” Lamia said. “The Cold War was
totally fertile ground, and we’ve added elements that have never been
seen in a ‘Call of Duty’ game before.”
For many gamers, the ability to compete online
against friends and strangers is what makes “Call of Duty” worth
buying. “Black Ops” tries to expand on that heritage with an array of
new online features, including the ability to record multi-player
matches, edit the video to create combat movies and share the clips
with other players.
“A lot of the questions for Treyarch come down to
the multi-player, because that’s where Infinity Ward was off the
show “X-Play” on cable network G4. “For people who have a long-term
relationship with ‘Call of Duty,’ it’s all about online.”
With a budget estimated at more than
“Black Ops” is the most expensive “Call of Duty” game yet made. Its
launch is backed by a massive marketing campaign featuring billboards,
TV ads and outreach to gamers. One ad featured
That said, the company isn’t counting on sales to
hold up as well. Its financial projections assume that “Black Ops” will
sell less during the quarter ending
predecessor, Activision executives said during a recent earnings call.
Wilson, the Pacific Crest analyst, projected sales of 14 million copies
for “Black Ops” for the quarter, compared with a record 16 million for
“Modern Warfare 2.”
Activision is already investing heavily in “Call of
Duty” beyond this year. Along with Treyarch and a reorganized Infinity
Ward, the publisher has established a new studio in
Executives have told investors that a major expansion for “Call of Duty” is coming soon in
“The deck has really been cleared on ‘Call of Duty,’
and now the moment is Treyarch’s,” Sessler said. “The question is if
they can seize it.”
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