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.