Call of Duty is one of the most successful game franchises ever produced.
Its annual success has been all but guaranteed for more than a decade, and that has given it something that every game maker strives for: mainstream recognition. Call of Duty is as well-known as the latest Marvel movie.
But that might be starting to change.
With a far from enthusiastic response to its debut, weaker than usual sales figures, and post-release play stats suggesting Call of Duty just isn’t engaging gamers like it once did, we have to wonder, is the franchise coming to its natural end?
The face of gaming
Gamers draw lines in the sand where casual games end and hardcore games begin, but people who haven’t played a round of Hearthstone or completed a campaign in Civilization see things a little differently.
They might not know what “MOBA” means, or know of shooters like Titanfall 2. But they’ve heard of GTA and FIFA, and they’ve certainly heard of Call of Duty.
There’s a reason these games are as well known outside of gaming circles as they are. Sales. If a game sells millions of copies, through multiple iterations, it’s going to make waves. On the other hand, a sudden drop in sales often leads to it sliding out of favor in the popular eye.
The series’ latest entry, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, is a perfect example. Despite some positive reviews and the most distinctive setting the series has seen in years, it has not generated the hype or the sales that have almost become a part of the series’ identity. What’s going on?
Where did everybody go?
The difficulties Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has faced run all the way back to its initial unveiling; the first trailer for the game was universally panned. The backlash against it was enormous –the trailer received more than 3.5 million dislikes on YouTube in May.
Things didn’t get better in the months that followed. VGChartz, which estimates game sales based on insider information, reported that early pre-orders were far lower than expected. A mere 350,000 pre-orders were registered in the lead up to the game’s release.
Although complete sales numbers are not publicly available, there are already signs that Infinite Warfare‘s sales are in decline, compared to previous iterations of the game. In the first week of sales in the U.K., despite topping the charts, 50 percent fewer physical copies were sold compared to Black Ops 3 in 2015, which was released at a similar time with a similar marketing push.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of all, is that there just aren’t as many people playing (at least on PC). Microsoft started handing out refunds to players who bought the game through the Windows Store because no one was playing. The game hasn’t been popular on Steam, either, with stats showing it peaking with less than 6,200 players as of mid-November, 2016.
Black Ops 3, which released at a similar time last year, has a comparable numbers of players now, in 2016. Looking at historical records, the game had over 30,000 peak players at this time in its life-cycle. Battlefield 1, meanwhile, claims over 80,000 peak players on PC alone.
Jack of all trades, master of none
Has Call of Duty simply reached its peak popularity? After all, there are only so many people in the world that want to play any game, no matter how addictive.
Call of Duty is a brilliantly catchall title. Infinite Warfare bundles together an epic (and expensive to make) single-player campaign for those that love linear, corridor shooter gameplay; a fast paced and somewhat competitive multiplayer mode; a cooperative zombie experience; and a virtual reality demo. Not only that, but the special editions of this game also came with a wholly remastered second game, Modern Warfare.
Although not all of these features have always been there, it’s the ability to draw in all sorts of players that helped CoD become a behemoth. Most other game makers cannot compete with it, partly because they cannot afford to produce what is in essence several different games in one. It would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.
But perhaps the reason for Call of Duty’s success is its own downfall.
For a lot of people, games like Call of Duty contain a lot of filler. If you’re a big fan of single player, you may not spend much time in multiplayer, or vice versa. If you don’t have friends to play with, you may skip over the cooperative missions, and only those with VR headsets can enjoy that experience with this release.
Call of Duty is not the only game to struggle with this. Every shooter franchise is wrestling with this problem. Chief rival Battlefield has wavered back and forth on the issue of single-player gaming, sometimes including a campaign, and sometimes not. Titanfall 2 did include a campaign this time around, but only a short one, after not shipping with one in the original title. Yet Call of Duty is exceptional in its breadth, even compared to these. No shooter franchise tries harder to have a little something for everyone.
Boxed in and falling behind
Perhaps Call of Duty is now trying to stretch itself too thin. What began as World War II franchise, and gained wide popularity as a modern-era shooter focused on pseudo-realistic gameplay, has now become a far-flung science-fiction game. It now has soldiers who look like Master Chief, and spaceships that look like derivatives of modern aircraft carriers and fighter jets.
Meanwhile, more focused games like like Overwatch have really captured the attention and passion of gamers. Learning from MOBAs, and shooters like Team Fortress, Overwatch mixes colorful, memorable characters with a lighter tone and a community focus that has lead to Nintendo-levels of fan art produced for many of its characters. It is accessible, but it’s also fun and centered around online, objective-based play.
Counter-Strike continues to remain popular with its doubling down on serious eSports play. Doom re-imagined itself in the modern age and returned to its roots with single-player and online play designed to emulate the specific feel of old-school shooters. And Destiny is maintaining a dedicated fan base with its online-only, massively multiplayer concept. These games focus on specific audiences, rather than trying to cater to everyone.
There’s no hard evidence to show that Call of Duty gamers are now playing Overwatch instead, but breadth of games appealing to all ages and interest levels today is wider than ever. There is more choice, and games are easier to find. Niche titles are no longer a niche, and that seems to spell trouble for gaming’s biggest shooter franchise.
Between a rock and a hard place
Even if the world of mainstream gaming is destined to become more varied, there’s no reason Call of Duty can’t be a part of it. But Activision will need to decide who it’s actually designing the games for.
We’re not saying it needs to ditch the single player, or overhaul the multiplayer into an ultra-competitive eSport. But Call of Duty has an image problem. It has turned into an amorphous blob of shooter concepts, and fans appear to have noticed. They feel it’s guided by focus groups and marketing dollars, not by people who love games.
As leaner competitors appear in the wings and gamers become more discerning, games that do a few things really well may succeed as big catchall games begin to falter under their own weight.
Gaming is different today than it was 10 years ago. Call of Duty needs to reflect that. But it might mean growing leaner, not bigger.