The Customer is Always Right

Call of Duty is a franchise that has shaped the landscape of the video game industry. While critics will quickly point on the repetitive and stagnant nature of each annual release, Call of Duty has historically been a franchise that prided itself on delivering gamers an entertaining and addictive multiplayer experience. Activision's franchise is worth over $1 Billion,  but recent sales figures from Call of Duty Infinite Warfare have been in decline compared to Black Ops 3. Our goal today will be to examine how Activision has deviated from the classic formula attributed to Call of Duty's previous success.

The late 2000's were dominated by games like Halo,  Resident Evil 4, God of War, and Half Life 2. The brain-trust behind Call of Duty's primary studio, Vince Zampella and James West, pleaded with Activision's CEO to create a contemporary shooter to make Call of Duty relevant in a changing market. The series had historically focused on World War 2 and catered to a more mature gamers. The game's had sold fairly well, with each averaging between two-to-three million units sold annually. However, Zampella and West had bigger aspirations, and envisioned COD becoming a staple piece of  every gaming library.

The gaming industry was in transition.  Thanks to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox's multi-media functionality, more people were buying gaming consoles, since they could now enjoy CDs and DVDs. The online gaming experience's brought on by the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, further expanded the market allowing friends to connect  co compete each other regardless of their proximity. Xbox Live specially marketed this with their ad slogan, "Jump In", encouraging everyday people to casually play video games. The gaming market was once stereotyped as a demographic of children, but had now grown to encompass teens and adults. 

Zampella and West were well aware of this trend and convinced Activision that their next game needed the following staples:
  •        A relatable and modern setting.
  •         Intuitive controls and basic gameplay.
  •          A fun and rewarding multiplayer experience.  
These ideas resulted in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This title married a action-packed single-player featuring  multiple cinematic moments with an additive online multiplayer experience that kept brining players back. While the singleplayer featured memorable missions and characters, the multiplayer mode ultimately defined this game's success. Matches were quick, weapon-classes were customizable, and gameplay had an easy learning curve, yet a competitive player base. Furthermore, the game frequently rewarded players with attachments, unlockable weapons, camos and avatars after every match, creating a sensation akin to playing slot-machines - even if you were losing, you were still getting something in return.

Modern Warfare sold over 18 million units, almost as much as all prior Call of Duty titles combined. Activision quickly copied the formula in Modern Warfare 2, 3, and Black Ops. With each title now selling between 20-30 million units annually, Call of Duty had become a juggernaut of the gaming industry.   The franchise's detractors would often point out that series was relying on repetitive mechanics, though the game continued to sell well due its multiplayer experience that attracted casual gamers.

Call of Duty Unit Sales  from 2003-2015

A strange schism occurred in Activsion around 2011. Zampella and West were fired by Activision  over creative differences. The two visionaries took a contingent of their compatriots from the Infinity  Ward (property of Activision) and founded Respawn Entertainment, which was owned by Electronic Arts, a direct competitor to Activision. The newly created studio quickly released a trailer for a new first-person shooter - Titanfall - set in a futuristic environment that blended fast-past and highly acrobatic gameplay with the gunplay seen in Call of Duty. Titanfall's trailer was critically acclaimed and generated excitement in what was going to be the future of first person shooters. Whether or not Activision choose to  transition Call of Duty to a Sci-Fi setting because of Titanfall remains a contested topic.
"No matter how hard you try and try, people will always be convinced that Advanced Warfare is a ripoff of Titanfall. When people play [Advanced Warfare] in November, it will speak for itself." - Michael Condrey of Sledge Hammer Games 
Either way, Call of Duty's folly was not a futuristic setting where players could double-jump and wall-run across a map, but rather a critical misstep in handling downloadable content (DLC). Every Call of Duty game, going back to the original 2003 release, featured an expansion pack or DLC that featured new maps, weapons, or decorations. Black Ops 3 controversially chose to make the all DLC weapons un-lockable by a lottery system. Players could either collect in-game tokens ('Crypto-Keys') by playing matches or simply by these tokens for real-world money. A player could not simply buy a weapon, and instead they needed to play a lottery system that was littered with cosmetic items.

Fans became irate when they quickly realized they could gamble real world money without even earning any DLC weapons through the lottery system. This system was patched to better the chance of earning weapon drops, but still left a sour taste in gamers' mouths who demanded a traditional DLC system. Customers who bought a season-pass DLC system, which previously guaranteed users DLC weapons, were given nothing in return.  Activision teased a remedy to this situation with a 'weapon bribe', which randomly awarded players a DLC weapon. This was only released on a few occasions, when it should have been released with every map-pack.

A Typical Lottery System in BLOPS3

Tempers reached a breaking point in May 2016, when fans gave the official teaser for Infinite Warfare an overwhelming negative reception. The trailers received over three million dislikes, making it the most disliked video for a video game in the history of YouTube. The trailer  itself was not bad, but fans of the series had demanded that Call of Duty transition back to a 'boots on the field' shooter without futuristic combat with advanced movement.  Infinite Warfare appeared as a 're-skin' of Black Ops 3, with the same exactly DLC problem. To hedge this negative reaction, Activision attempted to quell their critics by releasing an HD remake of Modern Warfare. This backfired when customers were required to not only buy Infinite Warfare, but also pay an additional $20.

Well, That's Big Impact

Call of Duty has proven an old adage of the service an entertainment- 'the customer is always right'. Instead of delivering a game and DLC system that fans wanted, Activision relied on brand recognition to coast their way through 2017.  While many erroneously speculated that Call of Duty was doomed due to the initial success of EA's Battlefield 1, Infinite Warfare was still the best-selling game of 2017. However, its sales figures were not as dominant compared to previous installments.

While the reports of Call of Duty's demise have been greatly exaggerated, this is a clear warning sign to Activision. Fix the DLC system and give your fans a traditional first person experience that does not require additional money.

Bonus: Do you know Activision actually advertised Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare as a 'return to the franchise's roots'? See for yourself on the Infinite Warfare homepage. (Screenshot, see bottom right-hand corner)