Call of Duty is a franchise with simple design: an online-heavy, fast-paced first-person-shooter with little rewards every few seconds of play, a lack of consequence, a co-operative minigame, and a cinematic thrill ride of a single-player campaign. So how is it that the success of a series so simple seems so confusing to gamers and developers?
Activision’s favourite piggy bank has a massive market, so naturally, publishers and developers are hungry for a bite. They adopt one or two aspects of Call of Duty and hope for the best, against all common sense. Similarly, gamers who aren’t fond of the series point to Activision’s prior efforts at releasing games in a constant stream, Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk, proclaiming that Call of Duty is soon to crash and burn. More and more informed players turn away from the series every year, yet somehow each successive game smashes sales records.
There’s more to Call of Duty than a yearly release and ‘accessible’ multiplayer gameplay. This article will take a look at why Call of Duty is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The Marketing Department Fallacy
It’s no secret that publishers and developers are eager to cash in on the amount of gamers that Call of Duty brought into the fold, with some saying it outright. They borrow elements from the blockbuster series without really thinking of the implications. Expecting first-week sales in the millions, developers add online deathmatch modes, near-future settings, poorly-implemented Quick-Time-Events, high-octane set-pieces or simplify the gameplay, then are confused when the game doesn’t reach expected sales figures as Activision’s behemoth, despite the fact that it’s in a completely different setting, genre, or franchise.
Contrary to shareholder belief, Call of Duty isn’t just the sum of its parts. “Call of Duty contains aspect A, 1, and X. Call of Duty sells a lot. Therefore, games with aspects A, 1 and X sell a lot.” This seems to be the reasoning behind the development of so many games. The truth is that it’s not the individual elements that sell the game, but how they come together and complement each other. Call of Duty is about instant satisfaction on almost every level. Offline, objectives are spoon-fed in a series of pre-set challenges, new instructions and weapons are regularly thrown your way, checkpoints are frequent and health regenerates by hiding for mere seconds. Online, respawn time is practically instant, players die quickly, points are rewarded often for the smallest of tasks, Killstreaks keep flowing in, and every match you’ll have moved closer to unlocking more weapons, perks, or customisation options.
The end result is a game that is similar to Call of Duty, but simply isn’t. Call of Duty isn’t some of its design choices; it’s all of them working as a (mostly) cohesive whole. Having a scant few of its features isn’t what will bring in the sales, especially considering Activision’s ability to keep its fans near-constantly satisfied.
The Yearly Dose
Every November, a new Call of Duty is released. The clockwork schedule dissuades some from buying the games (including myself – I have the same relationship with sports games), but the timing for each release is a highly effective strategy. Fans will have a clear idea when the next game will be out as soon as they’ve bought the most recent one. A November release allows sales and post-release hype to build up and pile on enough peer pressure to have the games shoot to the top of Christmas lists. Once players start to tire of the latest instalment, a DLC pack is released to reignite interest. And maybe another. And sometimes even a third. Black Ops holds the current record with four packs, with Modern Warfare 3 set to equal it in September, releasing its fourth pack of content which was previously staggered across each month to Call of Duty Elite subscribers.
What gamers often refer to as ‘Jewing’ is, in reality, simply releasing a steady stream of content to keep the fanbase’s interest solely on Call of Duty. It’s a similar strategy to World of Warcraft: as players start to become bored with the current product, they decide to purchase the next expansion to see if that holds their interest. And when the excitement over Cataclysm died down, it was time to hold out for Mists of Pandaria. Activision keeps the carrot dangling in front of the customer’s nose, keeping them pushing straight ahead rather than move away to another competing series. In other words, they’re managing to saturate the market just enough to remind everyone they’re always the big player in town. The ones in charge of the monopoly. Why play something that’s Call of Duty-sorta-like-ish when an authentic dose of the franchise is always just around the corner?
The Missing Link
Critics of Call of Duty refer to two of Activision’s recently-buried franchises, Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk, pointing out that they too had frequent releases with not much difference between each instalment. The problem here is that it assumes these are sure-fire signs of a series doomed to die out, when this isn’t always the case. For example EA’s sports franchises like FIFA and Madden released year after year keep the company afloat, having moved so fast that they’re releasing the 2013 games in 2012.
Correlation does not equal causation. It’s the same pitfall that other developers fall into when trying to emulate Call of Duty’s success. Even though release schedules may have played a part in dooming Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero, frequent instalments alone aren’t the death knell. It’s like social conservatives claiming that ancient Greece and Rome fell because of homosexuals. I don’t have a master’s in classical civilization but I’m quite sure the collapse of the Roman Empire had more to do with lead in the water, decaying infrastructure, a thinly-stretched military force, increasingly corrupt government officials, rivalries in the senate and barbarian hordes at the gates, rather than consenting adults spending their free time buggering each other.
‘Frequent releases’ isn’t a good argument for claiming a series is set to fail without looking at the specifics and how that may affect sales, such as exactly how frequent the releases are, what the competition is like, and if customers are satisfied with the unchanging product.
Let’s have a look at release dates for main entries in each series on a year-by-year basis. ‘Main entries’ excludes ports such as the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II, games released across console generations are counted only once, such as Guitar Hero III, remakes such as Call of Duty Classic and Guitar Hero Arcade, and small-scale side-releases such as Guitar Hero on Tour and other handheld titles. This is about comparing how saturated the central market is.
It’s clear that the Call of Duty release schedule has been consistent since the second game, a steady stream of content where each title is given its proper timeframe for hype and marketing pre-release and support and DLC post-release. It’s very rare, if ever, that an event relating to a Call of Duty release, game or add-on, isn’t plastered everywhere and made known. Being constantly in the public eye with consistent, reliable releases keeps competition from even setting foot on Call of Duty’s territory.
By contrast, Guitar Hero, rather than a ‘steady stream’ is the result of opening the floodgates. After the series gained momentum, Activision saw it was making them money and they ran with it. They ran with it far too fast for its own good. Ever since themed spin-offs like 80s, Aerosmith and Metallica became a regular occurrence new titles came at an alarming rate alongside a slew of DLC that usually goes unnoticed. I struggle to remember a time after Guitar Hero III where fans would seek out track list information and write wishlists. The games simply weren’t given room to breathe, and a lack of dedicated advertising time restricted attention from reaching anything above a murmur. In fact, on one occasion buying one game via pre-order got you the next one for free. It’s hard to get excited about a product when the next instalment is so close and so similar.
Plus there were those other music game projects published by Activision…
Come to think of it, wasn’t there some other music game franchise with rather frequent releases that was compatible with many of the same peripherals?
And didn’t said series’ developer release disc-based content packs regularly?
Oh, and one last detail…
There comes a point where a string of ‘frequent’ releases is ‘too’ frequent, especially when competition is taken into account. It’s when you can’t discern one title’s release from the next and become lost in a sea of games. Guitar Hero ended up rushing headlong into a situation where one of its greatest competitors was the damn Guitar Hero franchise itself, and it has yet to return from its slumber, despite promises that the series will resurface. Call of Duty prevents this via equally promoting each release and having the games maintain their identity by splitting it between two development teams and different time periods (though the games are looking to be homogenised with Black Ops II adopting a future setting rather than a historic one like Treyarch’s previous efforts, Black Ops and World at War – in fact, the original Black Ops, with its Russian villains, bio-warfare plot and numerous urban and tundra sections with a grey-and-white palette was often indistinguishable from Modern Warfare).
Should a franchise reach this point, a mix of an unchanging formula, a loss of identity and releases that drown each other out, it’s in a stagnant state and vulnerable to being taken out by a competitor. This is exactly what happened to the Tony Hawk franchise. Although its release schedule didn’t show the same problems that Guitar Hero did, from Underground and onwards, the series started to show signs of desperation. Underground added on-foot and driving gameplay. Though the ability to get off your board was a welcome change as it allowed you to move around with a bit more precision and climb to good starting points, the game added forced on-foot stealth sections into the missions and driving levels with cars that handled like oversized skateboards, detracting from the core of the game. Underground 2: World Destruction Tour went a step further with Jackass humour, the power to change the levels through certain missions (these included launching cannons, releasing wrecking balls and opening a portal to the underworld) and crazy playable characters. Because what the series needed to feel fresh and exciting was the chance to play as Steve-O riding a mobile bucking bronco, right?
Throughout the current gen, Tony Hawk released a slew of mediocre games without the advertising and attention to keep the series at its previous levels of praise. With the series wallowing like a pig in shit since the start of the seventh gen, it was time for a new challenger to step in.
2007’s Skate was an often frustrating but immensely satisfying game that rewarded mastery of its unique controls and punished mistakes. It made Tony Hawk’s gameplay seem so shallow, unrealistic and mechanical by comparison. Unlike the Underground games, Skate knew where its focus was, developed other elements around it, and kept it at the forefront of the gameplay. With Activision’s franchise feeling as aged as the Hawkster himself, the rising Skate series signalled alarm bells for the older skating sim.
Struggling alongside the young upstart, Activision’s franchise continued its stagnancy with more dull titles and light advertising. 2009 saw the series handed over to new dev team Robomodo, who attempted to revitalise the series with its special controller. Robomodo’s Ride and Shred suffered from lacking polish and attention from the inexperienced crew, leaving Skate’s sequels to dominate throughout 2009 and 2010. The 2011 instalment of the Tony Hawk franchise was called off, fearing another thrashing from EA’s competing game. In 2012, a HD release containing elements of early games was announced by Activision, hoping to return the series to its roots. Not having learned their lesson before, Activision relied on Robomodo for the title which, unsurprisingly, didn’t go down too well.
Just like Call of Duty’s success isn’t just down to being a simple game with online multiplayer, the collapse of Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk wasn’t merely caused by a minimum of one release per year. Looking at the advertising, specifics of the release schedule and state of the competition it looks like Activision have learned from their prior mistakes and finally found a winning (well, for them, anyway) formula when it comes to publishing their big-name titles.
The Road to War
After all this, I’m begging the question “If Activision have learned what they need to do to sustain it, how can Call of Duty be killed, if it can be?” Let me offer one answer with another question: “Does it need to be killed?” Competition in the industry – any industry – is definitely good for the end user. If you remove a big competitor from the equation, do developers really have to push for anything anymore? Although Call of Duty’s continued presence often promotes the attitude that ‘simplistic games with online’ sell, would that notion disappear if the franchise ceased to exist next year? I highly doubt it.
Firstly, some developers would continue to do that remembering the success that Activision’s giant had. Secondly, what’s more likely to end this trend are sales figures that speak for themselves. Dragon Age II suffered a poor reception both critically and commercially compared to Origins, whereas with Mass Effect 3 Bioware were more keen to stick with the franchise’s core, building on what existed rather than reinventing it (well, until the ending) and benefitted from it. Thirdly, this isn’t the first time this has happened.
Remember back in the early 2000s when first-person shooters like Timesplitters Future Perfect, Black, even Call of Duty and especially Killzone aspired to the title of ‘Halo-killer’, implementing features like two weapon limits and (at least partially) regenerating life? It’s been years since I heard that phrase. Halo was never ‘killed’. It was eclipsed a bit by Call of Duty, perhaps, but there was no coroner, no funeral for it as the top-selling FPS franchise. It keeps its own identity but doesn’t match up to Call of Duty’s sales. Call of Duty probably won’t ever ‘die’, just ‘be there’ with its own levels of success.
Gaming trends come and go. You can chart a progression through generations when JRPGs and platformers were at their height, the decline of different genres, the phase when Pokémon wasn’t so cool, the period of shooters collectively known as ‘Doom clones’, the rise of WRPGs on consoles, and of course, the charging glut of modern first-person shooters that Call of Duty spearheads. Call of Duty didn’t rise to fame overnight, but it got a great boost in its momentum when it took advantage of an opportunity. After a string of games based on World War 2 that mostly usurped Medal of Honor, a new trend of gritty near-future and modern-day shooters emerged, such as Black, Half-Life 2 and Project: Snowblind (distant cousin to Deus Ex), with next generation following with titles like Killzone 2 and Haze. The release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare couldn’t have picked a better time: when a new console generation and a genre trend started to really pick up pace.
In being the second seventh-gen game in the series, the original Modern Warfare had the security of being part of a well-established franchise but showed what the new systems were capable of by flexing its graphical muscle running on the ‘new’ (as ‘new’ as Quake III tech on steroids can be) IW engine, and having a feature-packed online mode to take advantage of hardware that was ready and waiting to connect straight to the internet for online gaming, much more widely played than the previous generation. Call of Duty 3 laid the groundwork with its console online capability and downloadable content packs, Modern Warfare built upon it and filled a gap in the market when the PS3 was craving a highly-polished shooter and Halo 3’s reign had started to lose its hold on the Xbox 360.
If such an opportunity is to appear again, it’s most likely going to be about a year after the PS4, NeXtBox (admit it, you’d buy it with a name like that) and possibly the WiiU hit the shelves. Perhaps a new trend of shooters will start to pick up pace rather than playing follow the leader, a highly polished innovative title doing for shooting what Skate did for skating. By some bizarre twist of fate, Infinity Ward or Treyarch might drop the ball and release a game that will be overshadowed by its competitor. Maybe a different genre will become more prominent – or maybe Activision will have a brand new, polished Call of Duty ready for release with the launch of new systems. Only time will tell, but if Activision’s current strategies are anything to go by, it won’t be very soon, if ever that Call of Duty bites the dust.