Every year since 2005, Activision has released an entry in the Call of Duty series. History shows that while this is a great way to milk gamers for all they’re worth, it also is a great way to effectively kill a video game franchise. With their primary Call of Duty studio Infinity Ward in shambles and the development of Modern Warfare 3 being handled by three different studios, it seems that Modern Warfare 3 may be the beginning of the end for the series. Will the Call of Duty juggernaught lose its foothold in the market? Well, according to history…
In 2002, Vince Zampella, Grant Collier, and Jason West left their work with Electronic Arts on the Medal of Honor franchise, and started a new studio called Infinity Ward. This humble studio was financed during its early days by the video game juggernaut and EA’s ultimate rival, Activision, and their first game, released in 2003, was the inaugural installment in what would become one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, Call of Duty.
The first Call of Duty didn’t make a big splash in the video game industry. Despite being a World War II shooter, a sub-genre that has pretty much run its course even by the time Call of Duty launched in 2003, the first game still felt fresh by focusing on sound design and by injecting a sense of realism in the series. Instead of having players essentially play the role of the “one man super soldier”, Infinity Ward had AI-controlled companions accompany the player through their campaign in Europe. While this seems like a no-brainer, Call of Duty was really the first game to do this, and while it failed to make much of a splash in the world of PC gaming, it would lend itself to taking the sequel to the next level.
If it wasn’t for Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and the fact that the 360 launched a year before its competition (the PlayStation 3 and the Wii, duh!), I don’t think that the Call of Duty franchise would be where it is today. Call of Duty 2 was in a unique position, as it was given the opportunity to launch alongside Microsoft’s new console, and be one of the initial forces to lead gaming into the seventh generation. Couple this with Call of Duty 2′s amazing campaign and undeniable quality, and it was easily the most popular launch title, even among mega-hyped games and tried-and-true franchises.
Activision had dollar signs in their eyes. While their rival EA was still the main megapower in the world of video games (resting their laurels on franchises such as Madden NFL and countless other licensed games that sold like hotcakes), Activision was beginning to realize the potential cash to be made by building a franchise up, then milking it dry. First they did this with Tony Hawk, which was a surprise critical darling for Activision, and then they began the dreaded practice of an annual release schedule. This schedule forces development teams to rush the process and constantly recycle content–not only that, but the market quickly becomes oversaturated with these games, and the public becomes tired of them, ready to move on to the next big thing.
Tony Hawk had a good run; Activision managed to squeeze out four initial games in the Pro Skater series, which all were financially and critically successful. The series started to lose its luster, despite efforts to turn it into a quasi-Grand Theft Auto clone, and by the time that Activision released a Tony Hawk game that came bundled with a giant plastic skateboard that worked about as well as…well, about as well as you would assume a giant plastic skateboard would work as a video game controller, the Tony Hawk franchise was, for all intents, and purposes, dead.
When the popularity of the Tony Hawk franchise started to wane, Activision luckily had a back-up franchise. They saw the potential in Guitar Hero, a new series by the relatively unknown studio Harmonix, and quickly scooped it up. Guitar Hero was a hit and practically put the music/rhythm genre on the map, though the genre was more or less completely ignored in the past. With the original Guitar Hero making strides and flying off the shelves, Activision jumped on the opportunity–they had found their new Tony Hawk.
Guitar Hero II was a success. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was when the series started going downhill. It was still a game of quality, but Harmonix had jumped ship from Activision to Electronic Arts so they could work on what turned out to be another very successful venture in Rock Band, and Activision handed the reigns over to the former developers of Tony Hawk, Neversoft. With each year, Activision released game after game in the series, with multiple installments released in a single year. This over-saturation of the market quickly led to a general disinterest in the series, and Activision quickly scrapped the series. Not only that, but the spin-offs like DJ Hero and Band Hero also got the axe.
And now Activision has moved on to Call of Duty. Shortly after the original was released on the PC, Activision quickly signed practically all of the original Infinity Ward members to contracts and they quickly got to work on one of the first seventh generation games ever made, Call of Duty 2. Call of Duty 2 was a big success, but instead of having the same studio make each game in the series year after year, Activision has figured out a way to somewhat alleviate some of the pains of series fatigue. They gave development duties of Call of Duty 3 over to a different studio entirely.
Treyarch was known for handling licensed games, and while they had pushed plenty of shovelware out the door, they also released the very successful Spider-Man 2 game. Call of Duty 3 began the tradition of Treyarch Call of Duty games essentially copying the prior Infinity Ward installments with minimal additions. As a result, Call of Duty 3 was still met with a positive reception, but it was pretty much forgotten in the wave of other big-name releases of 2006 like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dead Rising, and Gears of War.
Infinity Ward then took the series to the next level. They plucked the franchise from the tried-and-true World War II setting and took it to modern times, featuring an action-packed storyline filled with epic set-pieces, and one of the greatest multiplayer modes in the history of gaming. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed the industry. It’s one of the greatest and most important video games ever made. Everyone jumped ship from playing Gears of War and Halo 3 online to playing Call of Duty 4. By mixing in RPG elements and making one of the fastest-paced shooter games ever made, Infinity Ward found a formula that was so wildly successful that practically every other shooter has shamelessly imitated.
This was one the series really hit started breaking boundaries and selling millions upon millions. Call of Duty: World at War, Treyarch’s addition the next year, was more or less Call of Duty 4 in the World War II setting. This is when my initial worries about the franchise becoming worn started to set in. Call of Duty 2 is a fantastic game that breathed new life into a dying breed of FPS, and CoD4 is a remarkable, fantastic video game that will go down as one of the greatest games ever made. World at War was just more of the same. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. One of my favorite series of all times, The Legend of Zelda, is notorious for being “more of the same” with each installment, but the difference is that there isn’t a new Zelda released every year. Zelda spreads its ideas out with upwards of five year gaps between installments. Call of Duty could have went on forever if Activision didn’t milk it like it did.
Then came Modern Warfare 2. It was still more of the same, but it had a more polished feel than World at War. After it shipped, Infinity Ward was ready to move on from the series and start working on a new franchise. When Activision refused this, apparently going as far as to break a previous promise to allow Infinity Ward to pursue new ideas separate from the franchise they helped birth, the leads of Infinity Ward, Jason West and Vince Zempella, left. Not only did they leave, but they took most of Infinity Ward with them, and took them to Electronic Arts, where they are reportedly currently working on a science-fiction FPS under the new studio name of Respawn Entertainment.
Activision has since replaced those that have left Infinity Ward, but IW has taken a backseat to, of all studios, Treyarch. Call of Duty: Black Ops actually gave me some hope that the series was starting to go in a new direction. While the core gameplay was all still the same, with the multiplayer being the same experience it was back when CoD4 was changing the game, Black Ops definitely tried new things. Wager Matches were excellent, a ton of fun, and quite simply the greatest addition to the franchise since CoD4′s revolutionary multiplayer component. The Zombies mode, while not my cup of tea, enthralled gamers with its surprisingly intricate storyline and great writing. Treyarch had released a Call of Duty game in which they didn’t just settle with a simple copy+paste like they did with their previous forays with the franchise, and things started to look up…but at the same time, things are looking way down for the series.
Modern Warfare 3 won’t bomb. It’s going to sell millions. Will it sell as much as Black Ops? Somehow I doubt it. I feel like general interest in the series is already starting to die down. This time last year, everyone was hot with anticipation at getting their hands on Black Ops, but this year, Modern Warfare 3 is just another game. Featuring stiff competition from the likes of Battlefield 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and many others, this holiday season is absolutely stacked, and why would someone choose the same experience they’ve been having year after year over a new game with a new experience to be had?
Call of Duty fans argue that each Call of Duty game is different, but this simply isn’t true. Ever since Call of Duty 4, the series hasn’t really changed at all. They have used the same engine (albeit slightly modified) and the same core gameplay mechanics have remained intact. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), the fact that there is another installment in this franchise each and every year hurts the series considerably. Look at World of Warcraft for instance. While Blizzard constantly creates new patches that adds hours upon hours of new content to the game and periodically releases giant expansions, the fact remains that at the end of the day, it’s just more WoW. That’s why WoW subscriptions are dropping at an alarming rate, to the point that Blizzard is offering a free digital download copy of Diablo III for those that go for an annual subscription to their once mighty MMO. The point is that you can change the paint job, you can change some of the under the hood stuff, but you’re still playing the same old Call of Duty, and people are ready for a change.
Combine this with poor decisions on the part of Activision, like releasing miniscule map packs and charging an arm and leg for them, and Call of Duty is on the fast track to joining Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk in the video game graveyard. Modern Warfare 3 is gearing up to be the most disappointing entry in the series since Call of Duty 3, with the game adding virtually nothing new to the experience. In fact, they are getting rid of content for Modern Warfare 3. The Wager Matches that were addicting and a blast to play? Gone. Zombies? Gone. In their place is a new Spec Ops mode that is essentially Horde Mode, which is a practice that’s already wearing thin with every single shooter copying that as well.
In fact, I can’t think of a single thing Modern Warfare 3 is doing to truly set itself apart from its predecessors. Even the fact that they are splitting up the Killstreaks into different “classes” per se can potentially mean nothing. There are three different Killstreak packages that players can choose, which reward you for playing a certain style. However, the Assault package rewards players for playing the game exactly like they have every other Call of Duty–as a lone wolf, playing the game as they have since Call of Duty 4, with absolutely nothing changing. The multiplayer actually has a chance at feeling fresh if there’s a lot of variety with people choosing different styles of play, but can this be expected?
I can imagine Battlefield 3 fans pumping their fists in the air at the demise of Call of Duty, but Battlefield had nothing to do with. Battlefield didn’t kill Call of Duty. Call of Duty killed Call of Duty. While it may just be too soon to say whether or not the series is going to sink or swim, I would be willing to bet the farm that after Modern Warfare 3 disappoints gamers with its sameness in terms of the same-old maps, campaign, and multiplayer, that the Call of Duty juggernaught will be shoved aside and slowly killed off in favor of Activision’s next big franchise. I’ll reserve my personal judgement until Modern Warfare 3 ships on November 8th, but until then, things are looking pretty grim for what was once the king of online shooters.