There's a new way to play Call of Duty. No, it isn't the new multi-team matches. It's not the new loadout system, it's not the ranked division play, and it has nothing to do with zombies. In fact, the most exciting new feature in Black Ops II doesn't even involve firing a weapon. It's called codcasting, and it might be the most innovative and impactful thing that the massively popular series has done since redefining online multiplayer combat in 2007 with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Here's how it works. You start by joining an online multiplayer lobby. You are not placed on a team, however, and you don't have a presence on the battlefield. Instead, you can cycle through every player's point of view and see exactly what they see as they play. You can also call up a map of the stage that shows each player and which way they are facing, akin to an Advanced UAV killstreak reward from Modern Warfare 3. Additionally, you have the option to activate a kind of picture-in-picture mode. Here, you see a list of all the players and their statuses, whether they are dead, on a score streak, or contesting an objective.
All the while, your voice and video feed are being recorded and streamed live over the Internet or just saved to your hard drive (depending on the settings you choose). Codcast, shoutcast, broadcast commentary--whatever you call it, the result is the same: a video of a Black Ops II multiplayer match as directed and narrated by you. All you need is a system, a copy of the game, and a solid Internet connection (exactly what the threshold for "solid" is remains to be seen).
So what's the appeal? Well, omniscience, for one. Even the most skilled Call of Duty players have only a limited idea of what is happening on the battlefield at any given time, but with codcasting tools, you can know so much more. You see who is fighting whom, and who is waiting to mop up the remains. You can use the map to predict where skirmishes will flare up, and then jump to a player's view and watch him or her react to the enemy you knew was coming. It's still nigh impossible to track everything that's happening at once, but it's a heady feeling to know far more than you're used to.
There's also the thrill of living vicariously through other players. Follow a soldier on a hot streak and wait to see what deadly rewards he or she unleashes, or tag along on the doomed forays of players who are out of their depth. Of course, you don't have to be codcasting to get your voyeuristic kicks. Black Ops II lets players instantly live-stream their gameplay to the Internet, and even supports various USB cameras so players can give you a glimpse into their living rooms.
Yet the thing that makes codcasting so intriguing is that it is a creative endeavor. The game is the raw material; by shaping what people see and hear, you create the viewing experience. You could deliver play-by-play commentary and track the hot players as they fight for supremacy. Or perhaps you take a broader approach, constructing a dramatic narrative of the overall ebb and flow of the match. You can analyze team strategies and tap into team chat to hear what the players are saying to each other. You can even recruit a broadcast partner and develop a team dynamic as you both codcast the same game simultaneously. And then there are always the comedic options, such as using funny accents, doing celebrity impersonations, peppering in some goofy sound effects, or simply singing your match commentary like a Call of Duty musical.
Whether you play it straight or go straight off the deep end, the opportunity for creative performance is there for you. Perhaps equally important, the audience is out there too. Shoutcasting has been around for years, as anyone who has watched MLG, NASL, or other competitive gaming league play knows. Even if you're just live-streaming your own gameplay, there are big online communities like TwitchTV that revolve entirely around people watching other people play games and talk.
Black Ops II hopes to engender a similarly creative community, and it has two big things going for it: accessibility and scope. To get up and running on a site like Twitch, you need both hardware (a PC, maybe a capture device) and software (a video streaming program) solutions. Granted, these are getting easier and cheaper to acquire with each passing year, but live-streaming still requires an extra investment of time and money, as well as the confidence to jump through some technical hoops. Codcasting also requires hardware and software, but you don't need anything beyond the basics. If you can play Call of Duty online from your home, you can live-stream and codcast from your home. And if previous Call of Duty sales are anything to go by, Black Ops II is going to be in millions and millions of homes by the end of the year.
This kind of scope and saturation bodes well for codcasting, but there's another reason that this feature is so promising. Treyarch is taking inspiration from the activities of the passionate gaming community and is using its massively popular platform to bring the results to the masses. Other game companies have had great success with this approach before, notably in Valve's acquisition of mod developers and the subsequent creation of popular games like Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead. Just as avid players knew about these games and enjoyed them (or in the case of L4D, eagerly anticipated them) before their official Valve releases, so too have motivated shoutcasters and live-streamers found enthusiastic audiences in eSports and on Twitch. Only now, their potential audiences are going to multiply many times over.
And you can't think about video game audiences without thinking about eSports. Black Ops II is poised to throw open the doors of opportunity for amateur and professional broadcasters alike, giving them a new avenue to hone their skills and develop a fan base. This bumper crop of talent will likely be a boon for the eSports community, but the real potential for eSports growth lies in the very nature of codcasting.
Unlike spectator sports, whose broadcast style the eSports community and Treyarch's codcasting presentation tools are vigorously trying to emulate, video games evolved as a private pursuit, something you do in the comfort of your own home. The player plays, is rewarded by in-game results, and is thusly motivated to continue, creating a positive feedback loop. Video streaming technology and competitive gaming leagues put this loop on display for the vicarious pleasure of the viewing public, but it can be hard to channel that enjoyment if you haven't experienced it yourself firsthand. You feel out of the loop, and rightly so.
However, codcasting isn't gameplay for the sake of the player; it's gameplay for the sake of the audience. This key difference busts that traditional feedback loop wide open, actively welcoming in gamers and non-gamers alike. It's no longer "come watch this cool thing that I like." It's "let me show you why I like this cool thing." Codcasting doesn't merely include the viewers; it actively reaches out to grab their attention, tailoring content to their needs with the sole purpose of entertaining them.
This is perhaps the most profound implication of codcasting and live-streaming. If eSports promoters and avid live-streamers can cultivate an audience that likes to watch games even if it doesn't care to play them, then they create immense potential for growth. Through codcasting, Treyarch will give a whole new crop of enthusiastic players the chance to entertain new audiences. These tools are on the way and the barrier for entry is lower than ever, so despite what Black Ops II's marketing slogan may tell you, the future is bright.