In just a matter of weeks Call of Duty 9 will likely be unveiled.
But if you work at Activision, thinking about that now is supposed to irk you. Because yesterday the wider games media decided that Call of Duty has peaked. Modern Warfare 3 sales are 4.2 per cent lower than what Black Ops achieved the year before. It’s game over. It’s Activision’s next Guitar Hero.
But let’s put that 4.2 per cent into context.
The global games market is suffering severe cyclical and economic pressures. In the UK, the market is down 28.8 per cent (according to GfK Chart-Track) so far this year. Modern Warfare 3 may be down, but it is still comfortably beating the market.
Modern Warfare 3 was also the first Call of Duty to actually get some ‘real’ competition. EA’s sustained marketing and PR campaign for Battlefield 3 was intense and likely tempted a few of COD’s die-hard fan base to try the game out. Many of them bought both. A minority – part of that 4.2 per cent – only bought Battlefield.
But for all the caveats and excuses, Call of Duty’s sales are still slightly lower than before. Fewer people bought 2011’s title than 2010’s. So why is that?
The popular reason is that the more ‘casual’ COD players have moved on to other forms of entertainment. According to the vocal minority on Twitter and the forums, Call of Duty hasn’t changed one bit since the original Modern Warfare from 2007 – and apparently fans are now bored.
It is true that Call of Duty’s core gameplay has remained largely the same down the years, but it is unfair to say it hasn’t evolved and that its fans have lost interest. In fact, and this is the important bit, Call of Duty’s customers are playing the game more than they have ever been.
Modern Warfare 3’s launch marked a change in how Activision is measuring the success of its FPS franchise. It’s no-longer about how many gamers bought it, but rather how many are still playing it six months later.
True, the social network that's been built to develop and monitor this – Call of Duty Elite – had a difficult start to life. For one thing it almost immediately went offline due to traffic overload on its first day live in November. But this service is probably one of the most important things Activision has put together since the franchise’s very inception a decade ago.
Elite has 7m members, 1.5m of which have paid the £34.99 annual fee to become a premium member. The smartphone app has been download 2m times. But those aren’t the really interesting figures.
Take Call of Duty Elite’s clan options. Developer Beachhead launched that in the middle of December with little to no promotion. In the first minute, 40 clans had been set up. By the end of the day the number was 25,000. Now there are 670,000 clans.
That’s 670,000 groups of gamers, registered on Call of Duty Elite, showing their commitment to play regularly. To likely pay regularly.
It’s statistics like this that are important to Activision in this day and age. Not ‘4.2 per cent’.
The firm is the most profitable publisher in the video games industry. Sure, it wants Call of Duty to sell more and more games each year. But chasing market share is what EA likes to focus on. Activision’s message – both internally and in its corporate interviews - is about keeping consumers ‘engaged’ and selling them additional content.
Modern Warfare 3 may not have sold as many individual games as Black Ops.
But it looks set to become the most lucrative game in the series.