Putting the ‘Has Call of Duty Peaked’ Debate in the Proper Context

New toys in the upcoming Black Ops II

Earlier this month Games Industry featured a piece outlining the possibility that the Call of Duty franchise had reached its peak.  Since then this prediction has been echoed all over the internet on blogs and other mediums, with most agreeing the biggest culprit is player apathy in a “tired genre.” The best representation of this was in a Gamasutra piece yesterday which shows Modern Warfare 3 US sales failing to match Black Ops sales by almost 3 million.

While the series may have peaked, one graph with only three data points, outlining “poor” sales doesn’t quite do it for me. There are many factors, some the developers have no control over, which can influence the success or lack of success in a title. While it’s easy to chalk-up MW3’s poor performance compared to Black Ops as player boredom, I don’t think it’s that simple. If anything the formula of giving people more of the same has been successful for years, how come all of a sudden users are bored? I don’t buy it.

 It all started with the original Modern Warfare

I should probably mention that I have always been a fan of the CoD franchise, and although I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, there was a time when these were my go-to games, games I played when I had nothing else to play. With that said I can understand that while some fans of the franchise could be bored, I just don’t think that’s the whole story.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the Modern Warfare series made by Infinity Ward with the Black Ops series made by Treyarch, at least not in a side by side sales comparison. If every Call of Duty game was made by one company then I would be ok with it, but they’re not. Black Ops was a new game in an old franchise, made by a new developer in a new setting. Much of its success could be attributed to the refreshing changes made in a series we all thought we knew, and I don’t necessarily believe that just because MW3 didn’t do as well comparatively means the entire franchise is past its peak.

Original Gamasutra article can be found here.  

How the data is arranged can also be misleading. If you look at the graph (above) from Gamasutra’s piece then yes, it looks like Black Ops was the peak for the CoD franchise, but this one graph doesn’t tell the whole story. If you look at both developers individually you will see that the data paints a different picture. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare sales have always gone up compared to itself. In the US, console sales (that’s Xbox 360 and PS3 only) for MW1 were 8.3M, MW2 was 12.99M, and MW3 were 14.19M. If you look at Treyarch, World at War sold 9.25M and Black Ops sold 14.34M. Take a look for yourself over VGChartz if you’re interested.

So yes, if you lump both companies together it looks as if the franchise has reached its peak, but if you look at the games by developer, both have shown an increase over their previous iterations, data that does not, in fact, show any sort of apathy by players. Just because Black Ops was more popular than Modern Warfare doesn’t detract from the fact that each Modern Warfare game has done better than its predecessor. Maybe some people just don’t like Modern Warfare.

There are other factors to consider as well, factors that are not expressed in simple sales figures. The consoles that these games are played on, for the most part, are much older than they were when the franchise was introduced. As we near the end of this console generations’ lifecycle, sales for all titles will most likely dip across the board, something that has more to do with the hardware than the mindset of CoD fans. Someone who is the victim of a red ring of death or any other kind of hardware failure at this point in the lifecycle may just simply wait until the next generation of consoles is released. This could cause a dip in sales that has nothing to do with in-game content.

If I see this I’ll just wait for the next generation

There’s also a big difference in when both games were released. Modern Warfare 3 was released just a week after Battlefield 3 which almost certainly had an effect on sales. But Black Ops wasn’t really tested in the same way as there were no direct competitors to speak of during the fall of 2010. I would go so far as to say that it’s impressive that MW3 still managed to do better than MW2 with Battlefield 3 thrown in the mix. Would Black Ops have sold as well if the release dates were reversed? I don’t think that Black Ops success shows a lack of enthusiasm in the entire franchise from its fans, I think it shows a lack of competition from other developers. Again, even if some chose Battlefield 3 over MW3, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s because fans are bored of the whole CoD franchise, maybe just Modern Warfare.

 Released a week before Black Ops, 007: Bloodstone is not Battlefield 3

So while yes the franchise may have peaked, it’s not necessarily because the genre is simply “tired.” It’s more likely that a combination of external factors, outside the control of developers and users, that helps to determine the success of an individual title. Lumping Black Ops sales figures in with Modern Warfare isn’t really an accurate way of looking at things, and doesn’t necessarily show anything more than the fact that Treyarch, and not Infinity Ward, is now at the helm of the CoD franchise.

So what’s my prediction for Black Ops II? Well considering that once again Black Ops has no real direct competitors I would say that it will sell more copies than MW3, but probably less than Black Ops I. Not because fans are bored, but because of all of the factors I mentioned above, including the fact that both the Xbox and the PS3 are at the end of their lifecycles. That said if fans are tired of anything it’s not the whole CoD franchise, it’s probably just Modern Warfare.

  • Nick

    In terms of quality the series peaked with Call of Duty 2.

  • J. Morales

    I don’t think that gamers have “suddenly” got tired. I think this . . . resentment, complaint . . . not sure what word to use, has been building up for some time. Put screenshots of MW1, 2, and 3 up next to each other, you can barely tell the difference. It’s not just that graphically the games haven’t changed, it’s that gameplay wise they’re not really changing. When reviewers open up the review for MW3 with the words “this could be a MW2 map pack” (yet it still gets a 9 or 9.5 -_-), that’s not a good sign.

    Clearly, Activision realizes this because they’re trying to introduce changes in Black Op 2. Will it be enough? I don’t know. No franchise can continue forever and I think CoD might, maybe, be reaching the point where it has worn out its welcome. Big maybe though. We’ll have to see what happens with Black Ops 2.

  • Skellgrimm

    The problem isn’t one of outside influences, it’s that Since Modern warfare, or even (stretching it slightly) Call of Duty 2, there have been only changes akin to reskins and map packs to the game. Admittedly, that’s to be expected in the same series of games, but new playstyles? Actual innovation? Nope, but you’ll get some new perks, reskinned guns, some extra reticles to target with and some new overlays when you call in yet another UAV!!!

    That’s why people say the series may have peaked. It’s starting to stagnate, and if anyone debates otherwise, tell me of all the differences between modern warfare 2 and modern warfare 3 that aren’t cosmetic.

  • og bobby j

    am i the only one who thinks black ops and really the treyarch produced games have been rather awful?

    i feel like mw1 was the best, and there were significant changes in game play in mw2. mw3 changes were minor…

  • brian

    Black Ops 2 has Halo 4 and Borderlands 2 to compete with this year.

  • Mutant Turd

    I’m gonna go ahead and say it, it’s us, the gamers fault. We constantly want the next game to blow us away, we have huge ideas for things we want to be in the game, we come up with everything inside our heads and then when the game comes out and it doesn’t meet our expectations, we bash it. Unmercifully, we bash it. Now I’m not saying that developers haven’t dropped the ball on some games, but mainly it’s us. Gamers have become the biggest groups of whiners and bratty people in the world. We are not owed anything yet we believe we are.

  • GrandWazoo

    I think black ops 2 could do better than MW3 simply because so many fans raged about how black ops was a far better game than mw3. Those people will buy black ops 2, even if they end up playing it once and rage quitting.

  • Draugr

    CoD has become an experiment by Activision to see how much they can repackage something and sell it to the same people without them catching on.

    I’d like to think it’s because some of the slower people are just now realizing they’ve been paying way too much for expansion packs.

  • Andy

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my experience

    Total time playing the games

    Modern Warfare: 10 days

    World at War: 4 days

    Modern Warfare 2: 6 days

    Black Ops: 4 days

    Modern Warfare 3: Didn’t even bother…

  • James C. Elm

    no real direct competitors? what about halo 4…then again, i pre-ordered both o_O or maybe they just didn’t consider it because halo 4 is a 360 exclusive game, i suppose that’s possible

  • Deke

    @og bobby J

    I absolutely agree. I’ve never understood the love for Black Ops.

  • jrmint

    I totally disagree with this post. If you ask a lot of people you know who were CoD players and switched over to something like battlefield 3 it was absolutely because the series has gone stale. these figures and your example laid out this way would of course make it seem that it was because of the competition of battlefield 3. But lets face it arena based shooters are starting to become the way of the past. Being a fan of the FPS style of play I am anxious to see the genre go larger, much larger. Planetside2 seems to have this idea down pact, and the battlefield series has always had this idea. CoD is just too small. The whole series has made its money and fan base off of one simple laid out design. It’s time for a change. Who ever is making the title at the time is irrelevant. The game play is the overall picture, and I think the CoD style of small arena based shooter is too little too late for this day and age gamer.

  • Dave, you make some good points. However, half of everything said falls to the ground once you factor in the reality, that to 85% to 90% of the gamers out their sopping up COD games, don’t realize that there are two different companies making the games – and in many cases, don’t even realize there are two separate story lines being told. The majority of gamers, if they are aware of a brand name behind the COD brand itself, would identify with Activision, and not Infinity Ward, or Treyarch.

    This lack of knowledge is made glaringly apparent back in E3 2007 when Infinity Ward, introduced the original Modern Warfare sans the Call of Duty moniker attached. And even among core gamers, pro gamers, and the gaming press who watch over these things closely, walked out of E3 2007 having tallied up the most important games of that E3, with barely any mention of Modern Warfare at all. Matter of fact, in post-E3 2007 polling (again, among the core gaming and gaming press community) conducted by Nielsen, Modern Warfare did not even show up anywhere near the Top 10 most anticipated games of 2007. It literally was not until Infinity Ward relented and allowed Activision to slap the Call of Duty name all over Modern Warfare, that the popularity of the game took off, and it went on to become one of the highest grossing games on the planet that year.

    The fact of the matter is, if core gamers and the gaming press at large cannot see past the Call of Duty name to know there are two developers out there working on those games, then how on Earth do you expect the average Joe gamer to know better either? Hell, I had at least one cousin trying to figure out what had happened to the characters from MW2, once Black Ops came out; he didn’t even realize there were two completely different, unconnected story lines. And none of his buddies whom he plays CoD with, realized it either.

    So if the average Joe gamer, who is responsible for 85% to 90% of all game purchases, even Call of Duty, have a difficult time differentiating one CoD series from the other COD series, then how on Earth are they going to prefer one series over the other, as you suggest?

    Fact of the matter is, to the average Joe gamer, all CoD games are CoD games, and all CoD games are made by the same people. And once you accept that truism, then half of this articles entire arguments just fall apart.

    Now the one thing the article does get right, is the discussion of competition, in the form of strong competition to CoD. This is an outside force, but it is not an outside force that Activision has zero control over. Fact of the matter is, if you make CoD better, and I don’t mean more cutting and pasting, I mean an actual better series of games, then there is far less reason for gamers to choose a competitor over CoD. As the owners of the biggest shooter on the planet, Activision has direct control over that. The nature of being #1, is that it is not someone else’s position to gain, so much as it is the champion’s position to lose.

    And the fact of the matter is, strong competition to CoD is simply not going to up and disappear – it’s only going to get more vicious out there. EA is throwing just as much of their muscle behind Medal of Honor, as they are throwing behind Battlefield. And unlike CoD gamers which are forced to sit through annual updates, year in and year out, Battlefield fans, and Medal of Honor fans, get to take a break every other year and recharge their enthusiasm over those franchises – it also helps that neither Battlefield, or Medal of Honor, are exact, carbon copies of each other. And you have all this competition before we introduce the other 800lb gorilla into this cage match. Halo 4 is out this year. The Halo franchise at it’s peak, despite being locked to a single console, is the single biggest competitor to the CoD series. Halo 3’s numbers alone, despite being exclusive to the Xbox 360, eclipses Modern Warfare, eclipses World at War, and nearly equals MW2 and MW3 . . . and that was back when the Xbox 360 had 20 million systems sold. Currently near 70 million units, the Xbox 360 user base represents almost 3.5 times their 2007 numbers, hence it’s 800lb gorilla status. Halo 4 is going to sell ridiculous numbers. With Halo 4 being the start of a new Master Chief-powered trilogy, expect no quarter to be given from 343 Industries over the next 4 to 5 years as the new trilogy plays out. And we still have whatever the Respawn Games (the one-true Infinity Ward) is working on, plus Bungie’s new series, all right around the corner.

    My point is, stiff competition is not going away. And if CoD cannot adapt fast enough to the changing landscape of the gaming market, CoD players will continue to grow apathy towards the CoD series. Whether that means that Black Ops is truly the peak of the entire CoD series, is still debatable. But if stiff competition is the largest mitigating factor to kick a CoD game in the nuts and cause it to loose millions of players, then the entire CoD series is in very dire trouble. Maybe instead of grinding out their games every year, and merely copying and pasting every aspect of the games, Activision could give the series a year or two off to completely reinvent itself from the ground up, and then come back stronger than ever

    . . . yeah, who am I kidding. Activision is easily the greediest company in gaming (sorry EA and Zynga, your greed simply cannot compete with Activision’s). They have proven time and time and time again, that to them it is all about all the money they can make today, and to hell with the fiscal future of the company. Bobby Kotick and crew will happily ride Call of Duty into the grave like they did True Crime, Tony Hawk, and Guitar Hero, before they would ever dare give the series a break. Whether Blacks Ops is the peak of the CoD series is still debatable. But one thing certainly is not. Activision has no problem destroying the series, before they allow it the opportunity to evolve and get any better. So even if Black Ops is not the peak, then the peak of the series is not far off. More than anything, the slacking sells of Modern Warfare 3 is just a reminder that even the great and mighty have to die sometime.

  • jrmint

    I agree TachyoniCargo on the fact that Activision is easily one of the greediest companies I’ve ever heard of. And ever since they teamed up with Blizzard it made that fact even worse. I still believe CoD peaked already but you are right that it might be still too early to tell. But it is a shame what is happening to the series. I remember a time when Medal of Honor was the go to fps for WWII shooters and then “Bam” CoD came out. CoD was a great game at that time IMO. I kinda lost interest after that point in time but I can understand why others didn’t. It’s a damn dirty shame that Activision runs every flagship title they own into the ground. Profit shouldn’t be the only driving factor in the gaming industry and I think many companies fail to see that.