The series’ biggest successes don’t come from innovative ideas, but old ones done well.
Call of Duty lost its way.
Call of Duty is one of the oldest franchises in gaming. After Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Activision began releasing new Call of Duty (COD) games every year. That makes 15 games in 15 years. The latest COD game is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is the second time they’ve released a game called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It gets confusing.
Four studios release Call of Duty games: Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Raven Software and Sledgehammer. Infinity Ward started the series and made the first four games, but the original creators, Jason West and Vince Zampella, left in 2010 after contract disputes. Infinity Ward still lives on and makes games in the series, but without its original creative direction.
I’ll be going through the rise of Call of Duty, the decline, and the resurgence.
The Rise of Call of Duty
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, 2007 -> Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, 2012
The franchise used to be on top of the world. The first three games sold alright and established the franchise. However, starting with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, they released the biggest hits of their era. COD 4 shattered expectations and changed the way the world viewed shooters. It was one of the bestselling games of all time. They released World at War the next year. It deviated from the modern theme, and came close to, but did not exceed Call of Duty 4. Modern Warfare 2 was a return to form. It outsold Call of Duty 4 by almost ten million copies. The year after that, they released Black Ops. It was the biggest game of all time when it launched. It looked like Call of Duty would start breaking records every single year.
They didn’t quite make it. After Black Ops, they released Modern Warfare 3. It didn’t match up to Black Ops, but it was still a huge success. The capstone of Call of Duty’s era of dominance was Black Ops 2. It hit $1 billion dollars in sales faster than any other entertainment property ever to that point. It was also the last time a Call of Duty would reach those heights for a decade.
The Decline of Call of Duty
Call of Duty: Ghosts, 2013 -> Black Ops 4, 2018
What happened? Call of Duty lost its way. After the smash hit of Black Ops 2, they released Call of Duty: Ghosts. For the first time since World at War, people saw Ghosts as a step back for the franchise. Black Ops 2 had refined the game to a level Ghost’s couldn’t match. The solution? Change things up.
They made Advanced Warfare, a game which completely changed the way Call of Duty played. Gone were the days of real-world weapons and tight, grounded gunplay. Instead, they introduced flying movement options, robot suits with chain guns, and a futuristic aesthetic. To be fair, Black Ops 2 also had a futuristic theme. However, Advanced Warfare pushed far beyond what Black Ops had been willing to do. Audiences didn’t like it. It sold worse than Ghost and Modern Warfare 2. It heralded the true decline of Call of Duty.
They managed to recover slightly with Black Ops 3. BO3 was another deviation from the standard COD formula. They introduced characters with ultimate abilities, not too dissimilar from games like Overwatch. It didn’t sell well, but it wasn’t the disaster that Infinite Warfare was. The next game, Infinite Warfare, doubled down on a lot of Advanced Warfare’s features. Advanced Warfare failed to outsell Call of Duty: Ghosts, but Infinite Warfare didn’t even outsell Call of Duty: World at War. It was the worst selling COD title since Call of Duty 3. They followed it with WWII, which barely outsold World at War. The last title in their six-year slide was Black Ops 4. It also failed to outsell World at War. Call of Duty looked like it had fallen off.
The Resurgence of Call of Duty
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, 2019 -> Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, 2022
Call of Duty didn’t return to having the largest game launch in history by innovating. They did it by polishing.
There was a time when the Call of Duty franchise innovated. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed multiplayer shooters forever with its progression system and loadout customization. For years, every other shooter needed to be Call of Duty. Then, the leadership behind the series left. They formed Respawn, who has recently innovated on the Battle Royale genre with Apex Legends. That left multiple studios to maintain the series, but none of the original creative spark. So far, Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Raven have succeeded through polishing, not innovating.
They did it with horde mode. Gears of War created horde mode, a mode where players would defend an area against waves of AI controlled units. Treyarch implemented and furthered the mode with Nazi Zombies, a horde mode in Call of Duty: World at War. They have created the most successful hoard mode of all time.
More recently, they did it with the battle royale (BR). PUBG and Fortnite set the world on fire with the BR genre. Battle Royale games pit a large group of players in an increasingly shrinking arena, akin to the Hunger Games. Every shooter added a hoard mode, and Call of Duty had to do the same. Though it was not world-beating, Treyarch created a BR in Black Ops 4. Infinity Ward showed just how good they were at polishing when they created Warzone. Warzone is one of the biggest BRs in the world. They didn’t add much to the genre. They took a lot of existing ideas and they put a Call of Duty twist on them. They polished, not innovated.
Odd Studio Out
I left a studio out: Sledgehammer. I think Sledgehammer proved that they do know how to innovate. Most of the failed Call of Duty games rolled out half-baked ideas and innovations that didn’t change the core gameplay loop. Advanced Warfare took COD in a new direction. It was the most innovative COD game since Call of Duty 4. The problem was that it wasn’t a COD game.
They changed too much, and the game didn’t feel right to COD players. However, this just shows the potential Activision has with Sledgehammer. A lot of the changes in Advanced Warfare went on to be successful elsewhere. The movement system in the game is similar to the movement system in Apex Legends. The future aesthetic is similar to Titanfall or Halo. In a lot of ways, Sledgehammer carries the torch handed off by West and Zampella. They just haven’t been a good fit on Call of Duty.
The Future of Call of Duty
Call of Duty players just want to play Call of Duty. There’s a lot of crossover between COD players and fans of other shooters. However, time has shown that when people buy a COD game, they are looking for something specific. COD finds itself in an interesting position. On the surface, COD would be perfect as a live-service game. Just release a new COD every 3–5 years instead of every year, and just provide new content for the game during that lifecycle. However, that doesn’t fit the business model. Even poor COD launches made millions, so why pass up on selling a new game?
Call of Duty should embrace what it is and market itself like a sports game. Instead of messing around with Vanguards or WWII, they should release yearly versions of the games. Modern Warfare 2022, Black Ops 23. That way, they can keep polishing the games every year, keep adding new content, but not worry about having reinvent the wheel every single year. People don’t want a new wheel anyway.
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