All the research suggests that Call of Duty has peaked.
Last year’s Modern Warfare 3 sold significantly fewer units in the UK than 2010’s Black Ops and 2009’s Modern Warfare 2.
Anecdotally, MCV has been told that online traffic and magazine sales for Call of Duty editorial and covers have dropped year-on-year.
Yet it’s wrong to suggest Call of Duty is in a death spiral. Modern Warfare 3 is the fifth best-selling game in UK?history, and is close to overtaking Modern Warfare 2 to become the second highest grossing UK game since records began.
Activision’s shareholders may disagree, but when a game is selling this much, does it matter if it’s peaked?
ANSWERING THE CALL
Yet as the movie makers behind Saw will attest, releasing a blockbuster every year can lead to diminishing returns as consumers get bored of the formulae.
And with a drop in sales for Modern Warfare 3, there’s more pressure on Activision to try something a little different with Black Ops II. Developer Treyarch has sought to ‘surprise’ fans this year, with a futuristic setting and a new-look multiplayer, both of which took centre-stage in the game’s high-profile live-action TV ad.
“‘Surprise’ is one of the many messages around Black Ops II,” Activision’s UK boss Peter Hepworth told MCV
“Black Ops II delivers innovation at every level, and for many this will drive a re-assessment of a franchise.
“With 40m players it’s important to deliver an experience which feels fresh every year, while retaining the features which our core fans know and love. With such a massive community you have to ensure there is something for everyone.”
Each year Activision has sought to raise the bar in terms of spectacle. The firm has recruited Hollywood talent – and not just for the game. Even the live-action TV ad was directed by Guy Ritchie and starred A-lister Robert Downey Jr.
“Every year Call of Duty pushes media boundaries to ensure we deliver a high impact campaign,” continued Hepworth.
“This year is no different with presence at key events such as the Champions League Final and The Dark Knight Rises. At launch the campaign will be unavoidable, encompassing TV, press, radio, outdoor and digital.
“Call of Duty is now blurring the lines of entertainment with many parallels with Hollywood and cinema being drawn. This link is apparent in the level of talent which Treyarch has been able to recruit to create the most ambitious Call of Duty yet, such as scriptwriter David S. Goyer [who co-wrote the Batman trilogy], musical talents such as Trent Reznor [who won an Oscar for The Social Network score] and Jack Wall, as well as A-list actors Sam Worthington and Michael Rooker. The TV ad is the embodiment of this.”
In terms of revenue, Black Ops II will almost certainly be the biggest entertainment launch of the year. Activision’s marketing muscle, plus its A-list supporting cast will ensure that.
The game’s biggest rival is the new James Bond movie Skyfall, which made £37.2m in Box Office receipts in its first week in the UK. Compare that to last year’s Call of Duty, which generated over £90m in its first week, and Black Ops II would need to suffer a 60 per cent drop in sales year-on-year to tumble behind Skyfall (it’s important to note that cinema tickets are considerably cheaper than video games, so Skyfall has a larger audience).
But the real challenge for Activision and Call of Duty is how it is performing in three months’ time. Modern Warfare 3’s sales curve dropped off sharply after launch, far more severely than in previous years.
Can Black Ops II prove a longer-term success? It won’t be easy. Next year is a busy one for video games, with a congested Q1 release schedule, plus the highly anticipated arrival of Grand Theft Auto V in spring. It will be interesting to see what Activision has planned for Black Ops II in the New Year.
DOES IT MATTER?
Ultimately a bit of perspective is needed. Will Black Ops II beat Black Ops? Probably not.
We’re talking about a game that has sold almost 4m units in the UK, generating well over £150m. If next week’s shooter comes even close to that it will be deemed a triumph, particularly when you consider how the games retail market has struggled this year.
Next week UK stores are expecting to make around £80m in less than a week from one game alone. Even if it has peaked, even if it is in decline, Call of Duty is still the biggest entertainment launch of the year.