Activision’s been down this road before, but it’s not paved with yellow bricks and it sure as hell doesn’t lead to Oz.
Back in 2005, a game called Guitar Hero became a surprise hit, letting users play along to popular rock songs with a guitar-shaped controller. Originally published by Red Octane, Activision acquired the company in 2006 and shifted production of new titles into top gear. In 2008, revenue for Guitar Hero III was upwards of $1 billion and the franchise stood shoulder to shoulder with The Dark Night and Miley Cyrus atop the Everest that is American pop culture. The success cast a spotlight on Activision CEO Bobby Kotick and would even see him gracing the cover Forbes magazine. (The subtitle, as you can see, likely didn’t do much to foster goodwill among gamers).
However between 2008 and 2009, like a lot of other sectors in the U.S. economy, the bubble burst. Somewhere in the middle of Guitar Hero On Tour: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades World Tour, Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits Metallica, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, and Guitar Hero 5, revenue from music games fell off a cliff and totaled just $700 million in 2009 compared to twice that number the previous year.
By 2011, Activision realized that the pains on their fingers weren’t sores from a Les Paul controller but rather splinters from the bottom of the barrel. The company announced in February that it was cancelling further plans to develop all music titles in both the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero franchises. The economic lessons of oversaturation had written their first major chapter in the games industry’s history books. And if there’s one thing we can learn from history, it’s that it so feverishly and indiscriminately repeats itself.
Right now, we are witnessing the golden age of the military first person shooter. More than at any other time in the industry, publishers are shelling out millions to develop big budget games with cutting edge graphics, grandiose set pieces, and addictive multiplayer experiences. Chief among them is Activision, who’s now the sole publisher of the Call of Duty franchise including the best-selling game of all time, Call of Duty Black Ops, and the game that appears right on its heels, Modern Warfare 3. Just like Guitar Hero before it, Call of Duty has served as a license to print money for Activision, and the company has now committed itself to developing yearly iterations of the series while being oblivious to the long term implications this will have on the genre. For any notion that Guitar Hero was an outlier, one needs to look no further than the Call of Duty franchise itself.
It’s hard to believe, but not long ago “COD” was synonymous with Nazis, M1 Garands, and how well the latest game resembled Saving Private Ryan. The reason we’re here now is because World War II games of the mid-2000s took the phrase “beating a dead horse” and literally beat a dead horse out of it. When Call of Duty 2 hit the Xbox 360 in 2005, the game managed a respectable 2.3 million units sold and earned stellar critical praise. Call of Duty 3 for the Xbox 360, however, increased sales by a mere .29 million units to 2.59m while review scores moved in the opposite direction.
It wasn’t until Infinity Ward revived the series with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that COD was catapulted to the phenomenon it is today. The game went on to sell over 13 million copies, obliterating countless sales records in its wake. And yet, just how far has the series evolved since then?
Four titles and as many years later, Call of Duty 4’s breathtaking single player campaign, arguably one of the best ever in a first-person shooter, has yet to be surpassed. And with the Makarov hunting, scorched earth storyline reaching a conclusion in Modern Warfare 3, the series will struggle to find a new narrative direction devoid of clichés like the rouge Russian superterrorist or World War 3.
Perhaps the best testament to the level of innovation (or lack thereof) in the series’ multiplayer is the fact that someone who hasn’t bought a Call of Duty game since COD 4 would still feel right at home in Modern Warfare 3. The perks and killstreak systems that have come to define Call of Duty’s multiplayer have gone largely unchanged since being introduced in the first Modern Warfare while the game’s look and feel are only different in the sense that you’re playing on Seatown instead of Overgrown. It’s true that Zombies and Spec Ops modes have both been fantastic additions to the multiplayer over the years, but neither pangs of long term renewability.
These obstacles of devising a fresh and engaging new campaign combined with an aging multiplayer format that seems strung out to its breaking point will likely see Call of Duty lose some of its record setting consumer base as yearly titles continue to be released.
Video games aren’t some sort of resource that people need like food or water, which can go unchanged for over a lifetime and still be in high demand. Video games are an experience. They need to be dynamic. They need to provide some sort of sensation that gamers haven’t felt before or they’ll dry out like the skin on Keith Richards’ face.
Sure, there’s the “everybody’s doing it” phenomenon. Part of what made Call of Duty such a sales behemoth is that it feels like one of those games you have to buy. During the holiday season, its ads banner every other website and its commercials interlude every television program while all of your friends play it until 2 in the morning. This perception is so permeating with COD that it can coax the most casual gamers into feeling like they’re missing out by limiting themselves to anything less.
This can, and has carried the franchise a long way, but what happens when it works in reverse? How many of us already know someone whom has decided to call it quits after Modern Warfare 2 or Black Ops? How many people will really be able to afford the annual price tag on what now constitutes a complete Call of Duty experience?
Consider for a second that the game alone is worth $60. After 3 or 4 DLC map packs – each worth $15 – or the $50 yearly Call of Duty Elite subscription in which they will be included, Activision is asking gamers to pay over $110 per year for the content of one game. And let’s not pretend this is entirely optional to the casual player either. Good luck finding a multiplayer server after a few map packs have been released that caters to those without them.
The advent of DLC is largely due to the fact that gamers want to extend the lifespan of their games without having to pay full price for an annual new release. It’s going to be extremely hard for Activision to have things both ways, and while Call of Duty Elite is offering some tasty incentives, I don’t see consumers willing to pay $50 yearly when many of its features are available free with other games.
Call of Duty has benefited in the past from the lack of formidable alternatives advertising a similar experience, but that’s subtly changing. Battlefield 3 and its 5 million copies sold during launch week, while paltry in the light of Modern Warfare 3’s 6.5 million on launch day, has shown that the potential is there for the game to establish a presence among the modern military fps console crowd.
I also wouldn’t sleep on Vince Zampella and Jason West. The co-creators of Infinity Ward have since broken off and formed Respawn Entertainment amid a messy divorce that was once thought to be a threat to the development of the Call of Duty franchise. While Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t seem to be hollow of any past Call of Duty staples, West and Zampella’s next project away from the grip of Activision has every chance of being the next big thing in gaming.
No one is going to be writing Call of Duty’s obituary any time soon, and this isn’t some devious ploy to short Activision Blizzard’s stock while I buy it all up. I’d simply wager that to keep the franchise strong, Activision is going to have to make changes within the next few years to either their pricing structure or the current annual production rate of each installment.
You can only milk a gaming franchise so much before it goes dry. This principle has transcended genres and generations, and it likely won’t disappear any time soon. It’s unfortunate because while Call of Duty has the potential to become a permanent cultural pastime, instead of allowing each entry to grow and blossom within the culture, the only efflorescence Activision seems concerned with is that of its short run bottom line.