20 years later, Call of Duty’s one release per year model has become obsolete, here’s why.
For the first time in two decades, Activision will deviate from its golden rule and shake up its traditional release schedule to call of duty. The franchise has been growing at the rate of one game a year for 17 years, but that’s all about to change. Indeed, the latest information provided by the studio does not mention any new title for 2023, a great first that upsets more than just a schedule.
Initiated in 2003, the license call of duty quickly became a benchmark in the world of first-person shooters. 20 years ago, it was a real revolution in terms of mechanics, but also concerning the way of telling stories. War is becoming trendy and players are asking for more. Only two years after the first opus, Activision establishes its tradition and the releases become annual.
Since then, water has flowed under the bridges, and the institution that has become call of duty struggling not only to reinvent itself, but also faces the difficulties that its notoriety confers on it. If we do not know what caused this change of situation, does it mean the inevitable death of the franchise in the same way as any fashion, or the simple urgency of renewing itself?
Unattainable expectations as it stands
If the rhythm of annual releases has been able to hold so long, it is above all thanks to the ingenious organization of Activision. The parent company has added several studios over the years, and today there are more than fifteen. Among them, names as famous as their games: Treyarch, Infinity Ward, Raven Software or Sledgehammer Games. These alternate from year to year, which has given the franchise its eclectic catalog.
The frantic pace of releases is therefore not so much for the studios, which generally have at least two years ahead of them to design their next entry. Nevertheless, produce a call of duty in 2003 has nothing to do with producing a game in 2022. Given its reputation, developing an opus of the license requires a lot of financial and human resources in order to best meet the expectations of players, which are always greater and more precise.
The current stakes are therefore substantial and definitely have an impact on development time. The technological means may be “fast”, but they do not follow the pace initiated by Activision. Whether we are talking about improvements at the technical level, graphics, fluidity, gunplay or even playing comfort, modernity has a cost and it is not necessarily pecuniary.
Driven by an increasingly lively consumer society, the requirements of the players are less and less attainable. A situation which has also created the problem of the “crunch” – period at the end of the creation of a game during which the working conditions of the developers are significantly degraded in order to finish the title on time whatever the cost. Since the discovery by the general public of this harmful practice for workers in the industry, the studios have no choice but to comply with two solutions: postpone the release date of the game in question, or release it in the state even when it is not completed.
A fading rhythm
At Activision, managers have chosen not to deviate from their rule, sometimes to the detriment of the quality of their video games. A decision which proves to us that ease often rhymes with mediocrity, and which is reflected in the most recent opuses. During his long career, call of duty experienced moments of weakness, which are always debatable. But that’s not worth the setbacks that have befallen the franchise in recent years.
In 2018 came out Call of Duty Black Ops 4which had somewhat disappointed fans of the saga due to its lack of a single-player mode… although the worst was yet to come. It is in 2020 that a real disappointment sets in with the release of Black Ops Cold War, which kept its promises for a few weeks before quickly running out of steam. The observation is felt with the players but also in the press, while the title digs up a Metacritic score of 76, very average for the franchise. This descent continued the following year, with the arrival of call of duty vanguard and its Metracritic score of 73.
Among the critics, many are those who regret the lack of coherence but also of quality between the different games, which was to be expected given the way Activision works. Balancing therefore suffers from one game to another, and players get lost on the functionalities present or not in-game, the multiple versions of weapons or the feelings of gunplay. It’s even worse since the studio decided to link the seasons of its multiplayer games to those of its battle royale. Warzone.
The latter is also one of the rare exceptions to the decline of the franchise. Released in 2020, the game took advantage of international lockdowns to boost its popularity. A palpable success still today, which was able to see the light of day thanks to a good dose of innovation. Accessible free of charge, Warzone unites players in gigantic maps, for large-scale games on the principle of every man for himself, until the best wins.
In addition to this particular phenomenon, Activision is forced to rely on the reboot technique to bring audiences together around a traditional multiplayer game. In 2019, Modern Warfare sees the light of day, 12 years after the release of the original game and only 3 years after its remaster. The game does not change hands, and Infinity Ward brings a breath of fresh air and modernity to a blockbuster.
The studio is therefore choosing to bet on a safe bet to revive players’ interest in call of duty, which slowly fades away. Without surprise, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 released a few days ago takes the same path. However, betting on reboots to restore its image and justify the pace of releases Isn’t it the sign of a poor strategy ?
Starting out stronger, but differently
This situation demonstrates that Activision must make a decision: is it better to make a good game once in a while, or an average game every year? If the last option currently allows the firm to secure its base of players and to ensure an almost automatic cash flow, does this not risk in the long term to tire the players? This is a reflection that actually applies to all players in the industry and which is already showing its relevance for many franchises: FIFA, Assassin’s Creed, etc
Technology will never advance as fast as gamers expect, and each game that comes out plunges us into a self-contradictory consumer society. Today, gamers want to have a finished product in their hands upon release, a game that doesn’t compromise and doesn’t have to wait for the next one to be forgotten if it fails. For this, a radical change must be made. But breaking its rule of annual releases would require Activision to review the business model of the studio.
The next games could thus turn to a model of game service at the Warzone, Overwatchor Fortnite, which can be a trap as much as an escape. If today Activision combines several models, the mixture of the two tends to be chaotic and standardization will always be beneficial. A release every two years would allow, for example, the studios to focus more on what the title will bring to the franchise in addition to new sets and a barely redesigned user interface.