Call Of Duty: Fortunes of a Faltering Franchise

By Andy Humphreys

With just days to go before the launch of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, the latest in the mammoth shooter franchise, everything is set for another bumper release for Activision. Queuing round-the-block at store midnight launches; tens of millions of copies sold; packed servers as multiplayer numbers surge -- it’s the repeated success story we’ve come to expect every year.

Look beyond all the whizz-bang marketing, though, and you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to see the signs: All is not right with Call Of Duty.

This year’s release, developed by series originators Infinity Ward, is the latest in an unbroken run of five science fiction-flavored games that stretch back to 2012. Although sales for the last few games could never be described as weak, this period has brought an end to the steadily increasing year-on-year growth that was recorded in the early days of the franchise. In fact, Call Of Duty: Black Ops 2, the first ‘future warfare’ title, was also the first game in the series that failed to improve on the previous entry’s sales.

A coincidence perhaps? Or just unfortunate timing -- Black Ops 2 did, after all, follow Modern Warfare 3, the hugely anticipated sequel to what many believe to be the series’ finest hour in Modern Warfare 2. Maybe that kind of growth just wasn’t sustainable.

But even if the empirical evidence isn’t all that conclusive, there’s still an undeniable sense that the opinion of the gaming community is just not quite as positive towards Call Of Duty as it was not so very long ago.

This appeared to come to a head when Activision dropped Infinite Warfare’s reveal trailer on YouTube. From the very start, there was an avalanche of negative reaction, with many citing fatigue with what they saw as yet another generic, cookie-cutter near-future setting. The video went on to become one of the most disliked ever, but many dismissed this as simply an artifact of the rivalry between Call Of Duty fans and devotees of that other major shooter franchise, EA’s Battlefield. And it is surely true that many of the dislikes were no doubt from cantankerous Battlefield players wanting to cause a stir.

But the hate seemed more relentless, more persistent than simply a bit of mischief. And it was clearly coming from Call Of Duty fans, too.

(Incidentally, that video now has more than 3.3 million dislikes).

There’s evidence that gamers may also be voting with their wallets. It was reported earlier in the year by a number of sources quoting VG Chartz that pre-order numbers for Infinite Warfare weren’t looking too great, with a comparison of May’s figures showing a huge decrease of 89% compared to Call Of Duty: Black Ops 3 at the same time last year -- that’s combined PS4 and Xbox One preorders.

Take this with a pinch of salt, of course. This was pre-E3, before many people traditionally start to pre-order, and, with the rise of digital downloads, preorders in general are expected to have declined year-on-year. Activision has moved to discount the reports too, describing the figures as ‘highly inaccurate’. But still…you can’t help wonder if this does reveal a trend. After all, even if this information is only half-accurate, that would still indicate a considerable decline on the previous year’s figures.

So, let’s assume that there is a degree of bad feeling towards this year’s Call Of Duty within the broader gaming community. Is it really all just a rebellion against yet another futuristic addition to the Call Of Duty series?

Dig a little deeper, and it becomes obvious that much of the negative sentiment seems to be rooted in Activision’s surprise bit of fan-service -- Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Remastered (MWR).

Of course, it’s not the remaster’s existence itself that’s the problem. Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a well-loved classic that for many people was a watershed moment in the history of online console multiplayer. It introduced many of the elements of the Call Of Duty online experience which became fundamental to the series’ identity, such as killstreak rewards, enduring game types such as domination and search-and-destroy, and the create-a-class system, a version of which can still be seen today. In this age of the needless, cash grabbing remaster, Call Of Duty 4 is a game many people are genuinely excited to revisit.

In fact, the excitement is so palpable that there seems to be far more hype surrounding the release of MWR than Infinite Warfare itself.

The problem is in the way Activision has chosen to release the remaster. Packaged as part of the more expensive ‘Legacy’ special editions of Infinite Warfare, and with no currently announced plans for the game to be sold separately, gamers have voiced their displeasure at having to pay for both .

Activision’s thinking behind the decision is pretty clear: they were clearly worried that releasing MWR would cannibalize sales of their new release. Understandable you might think, even if it does seem incredible that there should be this amount of hoo-hah over the re-release of an almost decade-old game.

But MWR is simply not the generous ‘bonus’ Activision would have us believe it to be, or at least, it has evolved to be much more than that. Its inclusion within the Infinite Warfare package has been engineered to use the inbuilt nostalgia and popularity of Call Of Duty 4 to bolster the popularity of the newer game. 

And it is this fact that has led to the publishers, in a staggering lack of faith in Infinite Warfare, to decide to allow play of MWR only with the Infinite Warfare disc present in the drive. This is an unequivocal move to stop gamers buying the game purely for the MWR component, installing it, and then trading it in at their local store, Infinite Warfare un-played. This behavior leaves only one logical conclusion:

Activision does not trust Infinite Warfare to sell on its own merit.

They know that if a mass trade-in of Infinite Warfare occurred not long after release it would be incredibly damaging to the brand’s image. They also know that this year’s new Call Of Duty game has failed to ignite the level of interest that has been a given in previous years, and they need only look over at the swirl of positive press surrounding Battlefield’s return to 20th-century warfare for a sobering comparison. And they know that selling a new game based on the inclusion of a much older one is not only patently ridiculous but also totally unsustainable as a business model. It’s a situation they can probably scarcely believe they find themselves in.

But of all the things that Activision know, the most significant is that things must change, or they risk an irreversible decline in their most bankable franchise. Not this year, and perhaps not in the next couple of years, either, but over time, if Activision and its developers do not listen to the wants and desires of their community, Call Of Duty will become less relevant, less popular, and will wither as gamers move on to the inevitable next big thing. We’ve already seen just this year that serious contenders in the multiplayer-focused shooter genre can arrive at any time --  Overwatch being the most obvious example. Just how long before one of these titles begins to seriously eat away at Call of Duty’s now seemingly much more partisan fanbase?

This is why next year’s Call Of Duty developer (Sledgehammer Games, if the rotation holds true) MUST make wholesale changes to the game’s setting and overall feel, in direct response to the community’s reaction.

Because even Call Of Duty, the biggest selling games franchise of all time, is not too big to fail.