Call of Duty is Dying, and Activision Knows It

In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and an annual Call of Duty release. Officially announced today, Call of Duty: WWII will be releasing sometime this fall. The three-team/three-year development cycle means it turns to Sledgehammer Games to deliver “the hallmark, blockbuster franchise moments that fans love.” Will it release on November 3? Will it have zombies? We’ll find out more with the full reveal on April 26. For now, the only thing we know for certain is that Activision has their work cut out for them.

Every year it’s the same schedule. The new game is typically announced around the time of the NBA Finals, then released in the first week of November. The only recent change is last year’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare selling nearly 50% less units than the previous title, Call of Duty: Black Ops III. The reaction to Infinite Warfare‘s announcement was so negative that fans took to disliking the trailer on YouTube en masse, making it the most disliked gaming video ever. In contrast, EA’s Battlefield 1, revealed just four days later, became the most liked gaming trailer.

Note: While Infinite Warfaredidn’t resonate” with fans and the sales fell below expectations, the game was still the top selling game of 2016, followed by Battlefield 1, which sold “nearly double” 2013’s Battlefield 4.

The reason for this reaction is likely due to the stark contrast in setting between the two games. Over the past few years, Call of Duty has shifted it’s focus towards futuristic combat, making it more akin to EA’s Titanfall series, which is developed by former Infinity Ward founder and Call of Duty series creator Vince Zampella and his team at Respawn Entertainment. This kind of twitch gameplay does not seem to be what most Call of Duty players want. The quick-scoping, wall-running, drop-shotting multiplayer might be welcome if you’re a competitive gamer, but it severely impacts the experience for the rest of us.

If you ask the majority of Call of Duty players what they want, you’ll hear one phrase more than anything – “boots-on-the-ground”. This means practical, infantry-based combat and not the “nimbly bimbly” navigation that started with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare‘s Exo suits. A good example of this is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, released in 2007. It’s such a good example that Activision decided to remaster the game and release it alongside Infinite Warfare.

“Of course we know that there are people in our community who are nostalgic for the boots-on-the-ground style gameplay, and that’s why we made Modern Warfare Remastered” said Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing during an investor call in May 2016. However, players are forced to not only purchase both Infinite Warfare and Modern Warfare Remastered together, but the disc for Infinite Warfare is required to play the latter, despite not sharing any assets. There are still no plans to allow the game to be purchased separately.

Understandably, the Call of Duty community was furious. Activision knew what they were doing with this move, forcing consumers to purchase Infinite Warfare even if they have no intention of playing it. Not only does this boost the number of units sold, but also the overall dollar amount of sales that come from an additional $20 per unit. There’s no reason why for this other than to support Activision’s bottom line.

Two weeks after Infinite Warfare‘s unveiling, Microsoft announced that Call of Duty: Black Ops was playable on Xbox One through backwards compatibility. Everyone went nuts. So nuts, in fact, that sales of Black Ops rose over 13,000% on Amazon overnight. Personally, I saw almost 85,000 people playing the multiplayer at a given moment. Not bad for an, at the time, six year old game. Call of Duty fans let Activision know what they wanted. They also let Larry Hryb, Director of Programming for Xbox Live at Microsoft, know how they wanted it.

BlackOpsPopulationThis image was captured via Xbox One on May 19, 2016 – two days after the game became backwards compatible, and nearly six years after the game’s release.

Hryb is the de facto face of Xbox, with his Major Nelson website being the primary source for first-party Xbox news, including when Xbox 360 games become compatible with Xbox One. Despite not having anything to do with the backwards compatibility process, Xbox users repeatedly requested Call of Duty: Black Ops II for the program. It got so bad that Hryb created a automated workflow to auto-respond to all tweets bringing up the subject.

Their prayers were finally answered earlier this month when Black Ops II was made playable on Xbox One. As with the original game, Black Ops II‘s playerbase skyrocketed immediately afterwards. This was helped by the game being included in Xbox’s Spring Sale for $19.99, and both GameStop and Walmart offered the Black Ops Collection – which also included the multiplayer-only Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops III – for the same price. Sadly, all those deals are now gone, but that didn’t stop nearly 132,000 people from playing the game last week.

BlackOpsIIPopulation.pngOf the 131,635 people playing Black Ops II, only 59,826 were engaged in the multiplayer.

These population numbers would hold more merit if we could compare them to more recent releases. Sadly, none since 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts has shown an in-game player count. The only metric we can use to gauge the number of players are the Steam Charts for the PC version of each game. Despite PC game sales generating dramatically higher revenue than consoles in 2016, Call of Duty players do not reflect that. Infinite Warfare on PC only had a maximum 15,312 concurrent players at it’s peak. Still, comparing that to the over 70,000 for Black Ops III shows a steep decline in interest year-over-year. As you’d expect, the most popular Call of Duty title was Black Ops II with over 70,000 players as its all-time high. Infinite Warfare currently ranks sixth in the list of most popular Call of Duty titles on Steam.

Another major factor in the waning interest of Call of Duty over time is the lack of innovation in the series. As Paul Tassi at Forbes pointed out, it’s difficult to discern which of the recent future-set games is which. It’s strange to see three games, developed by three different studios, each developed over the course of three years, feel so iterative. There’s no individual identity between these games.

The “Zombies” game mode, made famous by the Nazi zombies in Call of Duty: World at War, was previously only an aspect of the titles developed by Treyarch. It was almost as big of an innovation as the loadout/perk system of Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer before it, which has bled into all manner of games developed since. That all changed with Infinity Ward’s Ghosts, which shipped with “Extinction” mode. The major difference here is you’re fighting aliens rather than the undead. This was followed up Sledgehammer’s “Exo Zombies” in Advanced Warfare, only teased at in their Survival mode (which itself originated in the Modern Warfare series), then later released as DLC. The Zombies mode is so popular that not including it is simply not acceptable, as it could incur a loss of sales.

I’m a big Call of Duty fan. The original Modern Warfare was one of the first games I purchased for my Xbox 360, and is the reason I started enjoying multiplayer shooter games. I get very excited when new games get shown off, have been for years. I probably want to see Call of Duty succeed more than most.

I’m also part of the problem. I buy the game every year – often times the big, expensive versions with the ludicrous add-ins. I’ve got a fridge, night vision goggles, and an action camera I’ll never use. I even sacrifice my health when Activision partners with Mountain Dew for in-game rewards. There’s millions of people out there just like me, and with a dedicated fan base no matter what, it’s easy to get complacent. It’s the same problem that plagues yearly-released sports titles like Madden NFL and NBA 2k.

Maybe this year it will be different. Maybe Sledgehammer will finally be able to break out of the shell and be the new, fresh face of Call of Duty it always could have been. After working together on the critically-acclaimed Dead Space, Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey founded Sledgehammer Games in 2009. They approached Activision about making a third-person Call of Duty title, a first for the franchise. I doubt WWII will be as drastic of a change, but that’s the kind of creative thinking the games need.

It used to be that games set in World War II were passé in every sense of the word. Now, we welcome them with open arms. But will it be enough to draw people back to Call of Duty? Can Sledgehammer Games innovate enough to make their new game stand out from the blurred vision of current-generation releases? It won’t matter, Call of Duty: WWII will become 2017’s largest selling game regardless. Besides, jet packs in World War II are factually accurate.

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