Writing this year’s Call of Duty success headline was a complicated task.
If we wanted to put a positive spin on things we could have gone with: ‘Call of Duty reclaims its crown as the biggest entertainment launch of the year’ or ‘Black Ops II is the fourth fastest selling UK game of all-time’.
Likewise, if we wanted to go the other way we could write: ‘Call of Duty sales down over 20 per cent year-on-year’ or ‘Black Ops II fails to surpass Modern Warfare 3, 2 or the original Black Ops’.
The problem is all of those headlines are equally true, which makes Activision’s next step a tricky one.
To begin, a bit of perspective is needed. Although there was no Battlefield to contend with this year, Black Ops II did have a lot of competition. It was the third in a line of consecutive mid-week blockbusters (Halo 4 and Assassin’s Creed III came before it). It also arrived later in the month than usual, right in the middle of November and a good distance from that all-important payday. So sales could creep up once consumers have a bit more money in their pockets.
Also, the overall games retail market is 28.7 per cent down year-on-year. So Black Ops II’s performance is actually ahead of the market.
But that argument conflicts with the current mantra that the big games are getting bigger. Those other annual blockbusters – FIFA and Assassin’s Creed – actually enjoyed record-breaking launches this year. Why didn’t Call of Duty?
We reached out to the games retailers themselves this week to gather their thoughts. Many were delighted by the performance. Not only did they shift a significant number of Black Ops II games, they also sold quite a few headsets, strategy guides and – one thing that’s not included in the data – Season Passes, which lets consumers pay for all the game’s DLC in advance.
Others weren’t so happy. One online retailer said it was its ‘least profitable game this year’, while another suggested that: “Activision’s expectations may have been too high.” However, we don’t know what Activision’s internal projections were.
HMV’s games boss Andy Pinder – who was involved in the game’s official midnight launch on Oxford Street (you can read our report on that on page 10) had this to say: “It’s not easy creating stand-out events when so many retailers opened around the country at the same time. So perspective is called for, particularly given the consumer backdrop and the number of major releases.
“Given all these factors, we’re happy with our performance on this title, which we believe will keep selling throughout the festive period and beyond, so any final judgement should be reserved until after then.”
Pinder has a point. It’s not been the franchise’s most spectacular start, but you can’t judge a game’s sales after just five days on sale. Black Ops II still has plenty of selling left to do.
WAKE UP CALL?
The lack of innovation in the retail market this year has been alarming. You can count the number of new IPs on one hand.
And although it’s unfair to suggest Call of Duty has not innovated this year (it really has) it is still another first-person war shooter, arriving days after another first-person sci-fi shooter.
For the core games sector, there has been a distinct lack of risk-taking.
“People want to be entertained and if they are getting entertained by the same thing over and over again, that’s not entertainment, that’s just boring,” Hartmann added.
So should Call of Duty take even more risks next year? Perhaps even try and reinvent the first-person shooter all over again?
Activision certainly has the development talent at its disposal, and it would be a good time to do it – just ahead of the next generation, and at a time when EA will be smelling blood as it prepares the next Battlefield game.
But it’s not as easy as all that. Call of Duty is still a retail behemoth. Still the biggest entertainment launch of the year. Reinventing it could bring in a new audience but it could also alienate its existing fans, of which there are millions.
This is the tough choice Activision will be facing as it readies the next chapter in the Call of Duty story.