Lobbies are something that few multiplayer veterans expend much brain power on, yet millions have totalled up hundreds of hours of free time waiting within them, steeling ourselves for the next online skirmish before we're thrown back into their digital queues for another round.
For decades, these lobbies have generally followed a standardised menu format, listing all the relevant information about an upcoming match before a loading screen signals an imminent launch. But the advent of battle royale, and all the shake-ups it has brought to the PvP scene, has encouraged developers to reconsider what a multiplayer lobby can be. This leads me to Warzone, and the most fun I've ever had in a Call of Duty game.
Infinity Ward describes Warzone's in-game lobby as a "pre-match warm-up", and it isn't wrong there. Every single player currently waiting to enter the session will be dropped into an indiscriminate area of Verdansk, Warzone's map, equipped with a randomised loadout, and the freedom to do whatever they please.
Players are able to kill each other, and even earn experience points and complete challenges in doing so, but there's no leaderboards or K/D ratio to worry about here. It's a win-win sandbox where the usual Call of Duty rules don't apply, and thus, unfettered chaos reigns.
Warzone's lobbies are an interesting experiment on how the rules of engagement can radically influence player behaviour. Free from having to worry about their online stats, soldiers in the pre-game lobby are empowered to play creatively, rather than competitively, without any permanent repercussions.
That encouragement to play hard, not smart, usually ends in a countless number of hilarious self-owns, but it also increases the likelihood of both witnessing, and performing, some of the greatest, most ridiculous power plays you'll ever see in a Call of Duty game.
I'm talking helicopter road kills, in-air pistol whips, suicidal C4 team wipes… you wouldn't believe the things I've seen go down in a pre-game lobby. Unless, of course, you've played a single match for yourself; in which case, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
This means war
But Warzone's in-game lobbies aren't just a cathartic free-for-all for 150 players to "get it out of their system" before the main event. They can act as a valuable training ground, and grind, for players new and old; a shooting range to practice with weapons and loadouts they're not familiar with, a makeshift race track to get to grips with the handling and physics of each vehicle, and an endless freefall simulator to become an expert in the art and science of the perfect landing.
I'm not just pulling these arguments out of my arsenal, either. Infinity Ward itself has stated that it deliberately designed Warzone's lobbies in this way, specifically as a means to provide players with the "opportunity to test out weapons, gain XP, learn the topography of Verdansk, and, ultimately, have fun."
In other words, the architecture of the in-game lobby, right down to its positive-sum reward system, was far from an afterthought that just so happened to be the perfect 'amuse-bouche' for the main course. Infinity Ward put thought and care into a fundamental system that, historically, is thrown together with little creativity or ambition. With the advent of next-gen, and all that entails, on the horizon, this emerging trend excites me, and it should excite you too.
Imagine future multiplayer games where every lobby provides a different kind of playground, each with its own challenges, rewards, and interactive scenarios; a far cry from the boredom of having to watch a textual list of players slowly enter the queue for your upcoming session. PS5 architect Mark Cerny even used lobbies as an example to illustrate the power of the upcoming console's SSD, explaining that developers "don't just want players to be waiting" in the next generation of PvP.
Throwing 150 players into a pre-game lobby filled with vehicles and hundreds of fully explorable buildings was something most developers didn't think was even possible on consoles at the start of this generation, but the technical advances being made by Sony and Microsoft with the PS5 and Xbox Series X, alongside the renewed willingness of developers to push those boundaries, suggests that Warzone's PvP warm-ups are just the beginning of a new format that's not only here to stay, but continually evolve.
Like that of main menus, loading screens, and opening credit sequences, multiplayer lobbies are transforming from a procedural requisite of baseline game design into a holistic and valued part of the interactive experience itself. Who'd have thought that Call of Duty would return to the frontlines of industry-leading video game design in 2020?
We've started a new series that pits the team against each other with some fiendish gaming tests. Check out Challenge Radar Episode 4 here.