I was watching one of the Achievement Hunter Let’s Plays of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare when one of the players stated, rather surprised, that “Call of Duty has changed.” I happened to be working on this piece at the time, and thought the quote would suit my needs for an opening since, yes, Call of Duty really has changed. In fact, it bears very little semblence to the earliest titles in the franchise. But it’s still called Call of Duty and that’s all it needs at this point; recognition of a brand and a butt load of chatter.
Advanced Warfare launched for next gen systems, and it seems reasonable to suggest that the game will move a lot of gamers into the new generation of consoles this Holiday season. Loyal fans will continue playing, new fans will age into the hobby, and fewer and fewer will outgrow it. Early adopters will pull in more people, since the nature of Call of Duty makes players want to play with friends. I think we can definitely expect more growth.
But it’s strange, isn’t it? Advanced Warfare is pretty damn sci-fi, and quintesentially nerdier than any of the Call of Duties before it. It’s a trend that we’ve seen since the first Modern Warfare. Games of similar themes don’t sell nearly as well, so it is interesting to wonder if Call of Duty would have the same mass appeal if the franchise started off with futuristic material. If it was merely a matter of gameplay or looking pretty, Crysis and Titanfall, which were developed by core members of the Modern Warfare development team, would be able to boast much better sales numbers than they do.
When Call of Duty launched on the PC back in 2003, films like Pearl Harbor and HBO’s miniseries, Band of Brothers were exceedingly popular. The fact that Call of Duty was such a polished shooter, coupled with an overwhelming general interest in a World War II setting, was all the game needed to build momentum. It was almost unrivaled, having only the Medal of Honor franchise as an opposition. When reviews praised the game, and its sequel released as a launch title for the Xbox 360, Call of Duty moved into an ideal position to capture gamers for a decade to come.
The series grew larger year after year due to a combination of word of mouth, gigantic advertising campaigns, and loyal fans. Every winter, with rare exception, the sales numbers for the franchise’s new releases grew in healthy increments. The original title, despite a limited PC-based audience, saw 4.5 million sales. That number increased to 5.9 million for the sequel. Then 7.7 million. Then 15.7 million for the first Modern Warfare. After Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty games would consistently shatter records in entertainment sales. Black Ops 2 was the largest release in the industry and exceeded the 26.2 million sales of its predecessor, managing to sell 11 million units in its first week of release.
Which makes one wonder if much of Call of Duty’s success can be attributed to opportunistic pairing of themes with real world events to create controversy and generate interest. Modern Warfare was one of the first titles to take the FPS genre into a contemporary setting, even if it was allegorical in nature and merely alluded to conflict in the Middle East. A level that asked the player to take on the role of an undercover agent in a crowded airport and shoot civilians in order to keep his cover in tact gained particular notoriety in the media.
The newest entry didn’t seem to need any clever hook or marketing plan to do well. Its review scores are phenomenal so far, and the game seems to be selling well on its own merit. The most one can accuse Advanced Warfare of, in terms of following trends, is that it rode on the coattails of the popular Netflix show, House of Cards, by casting the lead, Kevin Spacey, in a similar role within the game. But aside from that, people seem to be as aware of Call of Duty as they will ever be, and a core, loyal audience seems to ensure that the franchise will be viable for a long while, so long as they keep calling their games “Call of Duty.” It doesn’t seem to matter how many jump packs, bionic limbs, or ammo printing machine guns they throw into the games.
Now all that’s left to do is wait and see if Activision uses its unique stronghold on the FPS genre to start taking bigger risks than played out concepts like boost jumps and super armor with all that money they have available to them. They may as well, since sales seem guaranteed anyway. Time to change the game.