Iterating on the most successful multiplayer video game in the world today would be hard enough in solitude. But doing so in the centre of an online amphitheatre with 20 million voices screaming conflicting views of what to change and what to leave well alone must be nothing short of paralysing.
For every player you appease by, for example, reducing the damage value for the shotgun by 5 per cent, you outrage another. Competitive multiplayer shooters are cat cradle's of design choices. Tiny tweaks echo and amplify through the game, often with unanticipated repercussions. Change one and you change them all, risking losing what made you popular in the first place.
"Trying to manage tens of millions of voices is extremely challenging," admits Modern Warfare 3's producer, Mark Rubin speaking at the COD XP fan event in Los Angeles this week.
"But it's one of the things I firmly believe we are getting better at. The way in which we parse feedback has vastly improved so that now we are able to not only find the obvious stuff that the majority is saying regarding how to balance different guns or perks, but also the finer-detail stuff without a clear majority behind it. The truth is that no feedback is 'wrong'. For that player, it's truth. So it becomes a question of how we choose to act upon it."
There are, of course, some immovables. "Developing games is all about prioritising processing power," says Activision Publishing's CEO Eric Hirshberg. "Any game engine has to be immensely more efficient to render at 60 frames per second instead of 30, but that's what gives Call of Duty its quintessential feel. That's been our priority with MW3."
Likewise, the core matchmaking modes are all present and correct. Free-for-All, Team Deathmatch and Domination are each playable across the 16 maps that the game will launch with, while the majority of the perks - augmentations that can be applied to your character - return unchanged.
The RPG-esque experience system introduced by Call of Duty 4 that unlocks new perks, weapons and emblems is still the familiar backbone to the experience, although Infinity Ward claims this has been more meticulously balanced than ever before so as not to allow players at the top of the tree to dominate those at the bottom just for having invested more time.
But there are numerous headline tweaks to the format, amends that Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward creative strategist, claims make this "the most balanced Call of Duty experience ever." In addition to tweaks to map layout, speed of character movement and perks, "every area has been meticulously balanced," he says.
"We listened to the fans. As such there's no longer a Commando perk, no Last Stand, no shotgun as a secondary weapon. And we've added in more choices to support a wider variety of play-styles than ever before."
One Man Army and the game ending nukes of MW2 are also gone. Meanwhile, core to the support of different play styles is the reinvented Killstreak system from Modern Warfare 2, now redubbed the Pointstreak system.
In the previous game the team found that Killstreaks, bonuses awarded to players for unbroken chains of kills were too focused on player's gunning for kills. "In MW2 Killstreaks were basically optimised for Team Deathmatch play," says Bowling. "In objective-based games there was no benefit for the player who wanted to focus on clearing objectives. To combat that we've changed Killstreaks to the Pointstreak system, which rewards diverse play styles. Now it isn't just about kills: you earn points for assists, objectives and so on."
This broader, fairer system allows further specialisation by players. When selecting a loadout for their character, players can choose between three Strike packages to plug their Pointstreaks into, each one offering different bonuses and working in a fundamentally different way. The Assault Strike Package works in the same way as Killstreaks in MW2, rewarding players with offensive bonuses such as Predator drones and helicopters.
Meanwhile, the Support Strike Package offers support-style rewards such as UAVs, SAM turrets etc. In contrast to the Assault Strike package these do not reset on death, but instead accumulate over the course of the match. Lastly, the Specialist Strike package simply rewards players with new perks as they progress a Pointstreak. After the 8th consecutive kill your character receives every perk in the game, before resetting back to none when killed.
In play each system feels diverse thanks to the different preset strings of bonuses (28 in total across all three packages) but they've also been keenly balanced. The various benefits to each approach encourage teams to mix up their Pointstreak packages with a spread, thereby hopefully avoiding one being far more popular than the others in the months following the game's release.
A set of new perks make up the shortfall of those that have been removed following fan feedback from the previous game. 'Recon' paints the target on the player's mini-map with explosive damage, while 'Blind Eye' makes you undetectable by air support or sentries. 'Assassin' is a counter measure that renders your character invisible to UAVs. 'Quickdraw' provides faster aiming and 'Stalker' lets you move faster while aiming. Finally, 'Marksman' allows you to identify targets on the map at a longer range.
A great deal of focus has been placed back on the gunplay for MW3, something that producer Rubin believes fell by the wayside on Infinity Ward's previous title. "The weapons feel in your hands as you are running around a map is incredibly important," he explained. "We lost focus on this in MW2. COD4 had this - the guns felt right and unique and different to one another. We want people to be using all weapons, that every option fits and have its place."
That said, whereas Black Ops awarded players for specialising in different weapons with challenges, penalising those who specialised in a certain gun from an early stage, MW3 rewards those players who just want to stick with their favourite option for the duration of their multiplayer career.
Each of the game's 40+ weapons gains experience and unlocks new attachments (e.g. red dot sights, silencers, dual scopes and various camouflages etc.) in step with that progress as per the previous games. But also guns come with a host of Proficiencies, weapon-style perks that reduce recoil when firing, allow the use of twin attachments, reduce your flinch when shot or reduce the sway of your weapon while running.
Alongside your primary and secondary guns - which include the XM25 20mm grenade launcher, which allows you to set your targeting distance before exploding the round in the air near the target, and the Armsel Striker, a shotgun with a 12-round rotary cylinder - a host of lethal and tactical options must be selected to supplement your loadout. Lethal frags and Semtex are joined by claymores, C4 and bounding betties, while tactical options include concussion, scrambler and EMP grenades.
Activision chose to show off a handful of the 16 multiplayer maps at the COD XP event. Two in particular stood out, one set in a London tube station, post bombing, that allows players to fight on two vertical levels - the station concourse around two burned out tube trains, and on the walkways overhead, a series of choke points on stairs and through ticket barriers providing focal points for drama.
The other, a Parisian stage, meanwhile, is the perfect locale for Domination, its tall houses providing a network of alleys that open into small communal fountain areas with benches and shrubs to crawl behind when trying to take command of an area.
Of the two new game modes revealed at COD XP, Kill Confirmed was the standout rule-set, also a clear favourite of the UK teams competing in the event, who fared better here than in the objective-based matches. In Kill Confirmed a kill is only logged when you collect the dogtags dropped by the other player. The opposing team has a chance to deny the kill by collecting the dogtags first, forcing players to consider the safety of an area before rushing forward to collect a point for their team.
Finally, Spec Ops mode was playable at the event. This is broken into two modes: Survival, with Robotron/Horde-esque waves of enemies rushing the players, who aggregate their cash rewards to spend on weapons, equipment and airstrikes. Meanwhile, mission mode makes a return from MW2, allowing players to team up with a friend locally or over Xbox Live for 16 different time trial and objective-based missions.
For fans of the competitive aspect to what remains contemporary gaming's biggest-hitting series, the huge list of amends and new features offers a significant step on from MW2 and Black Ops. More casual onlookers, however, will probably be underwhelmed with what - for all the Elite social features and bulking up - initially feels in the hands like an incremental step forward.
But the devil is in the detail, more specifically the balancing, and with some smart amends to the fundamental design of Killstreaks and Weapon proficiencies, the playing field across the game has been subtly levelled.
As always, time will tell whether the balancing stands up in the weeks and months that follow release, but few would argue Infinity Ward and its numerous development partners on the MW3 project have their focus in the wrong place when it comes to perfecting Call of Duty multiplayer. Iterating it is no doubt difficult, alone or in public, but their success to date suggests there's a strong chance Modern Warfare 3's will remain one of the most popular and sustainable competitive online playpens when it launches in two months' time.