Changing times - what future lies ahead for Call of Duty?

Christopher Dring
Changing times - what future lies ahead for Call of Duty?

Activision doesn’t like to make things easy for itself.

Call of Duty: Ghosts – the tenth game in the blockbuster shooter series – already faces an uncertain next-gen transition, plus renewed competition from major rivals such as Battlefield 4. Yet, as if that wasn’t difficult enough, Activision and developer Infinity Ward has also seen fit to make this year’s game an entirely new Call of Duty sub-brand, with fresh characters and a new game engine.

“It’s been pretty incredible and it hasn’t been easy at all,” Infinity Ward’s community manager Tina Palacios tells MCV.

“But because we are developing the game on five different platforms simultaneously, rather than having a lead SKU, we have brought in help from [sister studios] Raven and Neversoft. So there are a lot of people getting their hands on the game to make it as good as possible.”

The early response from the game has been positive, although Palacios admits consumers always want to see more. But the real challenge for Activision is in communicating this new-look Call of Duty to the masses, whilst also surviving the jump from current to next-gen.

One of the questions MCV has been asked more than any other is about the next-gen transition. How many consumers will hold off buying the current-gen version of a game in favour of the next-gen edition?

FIFA 14 (which launched on current gen machines in September) has given us an early indication, with its launch sales down 24 per cent year-on-year. And it follows comments from Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg, who stated that although Ghosts has more pre-orders than the last time it launched a Call of Duty sub-brand (2010’s Black Ops II), it is lagging behind the last couple of releases.

One of the questions MCV has been asked more
than any other is about the next-gen transition.
How many consumers will hold off buying the
current-gen version of a game in favour of the
next-gen edition? FIFA 14 (which launched on
current gen machines in September) has given
us an early indication, with its launch sales
down 24 per cent year-on-year. And it follows
comments from Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg,
who stated that although Ghosts has more pre-
orders than the last time it launched a Call of
Duty sub-brand (2010’s Black Ops II), it is lagging
behind the last couple of releases.

 

“Pre-orders are doing well for Ghosts in what has been a challenging year,” says UK senior brand manager Kevin Flynn. 

“We find ourselves with good momentum going into the final few weeks of the campaign with our mainstream launch plans ready to give a final push. The next generation has caused uncertainty with our core audience as has been identified by Eric Hirshberg. Next-gen has taken a very respectable share of pre-orders and our Prestige Edition on Xbox One and PS4 has already sold out.”

Due to this ‘uncertainty’, Activision has launched a series of upgrade offers to encourage core fans to pick up the PS3 or 360 version and then, for a small cost, move over to Xbox One and PS4 when they’re ready. These offers have not been heavily promoted just yet, but they will be, says Activision.

“We have a communication program which educates consumers as to what represents the best option for them,” says UK sales director Angela Dickson. “This includes an infographic, which aggregates all of the upgrade options. Additionally, we are working with some retailers on unique communications, which are applicable to their distribution or communication channels.”

And the Activision hierarchy are not oblivious to the challenges faced by local teams in maintaining Call of Duty’s presence in the marketplace. The firm’s CEO Bobby Kotick told investors earlier in the year that it will be splashing the cash to keep the franchise front of mind come November 5th.

Flynn says: “Our TV plan will be bigger and better than ever and our digital activity is more targeted and more premium in its execution than ever. And if Mr. Kotick says we’ll be ramping up our efforts then I should do what I’m told.”

The High Street will play a major role once again in the launch of Call of Duty: Ghosts. With midnight openings, special edition SKUs and heavy in-store presence planned for launch. But the Activision UK team has gone another step further this year.

“We’re continuing to explore new opportunities and broaden our presence in our existing retail base,” says Dickson. “This year, we will also have a greater range of licensed merchandise, which will increase in-store awareness. For example, with Tesco, we’ve have an exclusive gifting pack, which will be available across a large number of stores. We see this is an excellent opportunity to extend brand presence, and is a great way to encourage gifting purchase.

“We’ve also partnered up with Monster Energy on 23m cans in the UK alone. Each can comes with one of five items of DLC and some of those cans will even win you 15 minutes of Double XP. The cans themselves are branded up with our Ghosts image and that’s going to give us some stand out presence across some new consumer touch points across the UK including for example newsagents.”

Outside of the next-gen transition, Call of Duty faces some fierce competitors this year. EA is the biggest aggressor to the brand, and will launch its rival Battlefield 4 just four days before Ghosts.

“We’re continuing to explore new opportunities
and broaden our presence in our existing retail
base. This year, we will also have a greater range
of licensed merchandise, which will increase in-
store awareness. For example, with Tesco, we’ve
have an exclusive gifting pack, which will be available
across a large number of stores. We see this is an
excellent opportunity to extend brand presence, and
is a great way to encourage gifting purchase."

Angela Dickson – UK sales director, Activision


But Flynn, who worked on the last Battlefield game before joining Activision, is not concerned by the rival modern-day shooter.

“Call of Duty and Battlefield are very different franchises that do different things really well,” he insists. “I don’t think the proximity to each other is damaging for Call of Duty. Every Q4 is full of triple-A titles and this year is no different which is great news for gamers.”

The problems faced by Call of Duty are certainly good problems to have. And according to the latest buzz feeds, Ghosts has far more awareness than any other game due this Christmas. And last year’s title, Black Ops II, has just surpassed 3m units sold. Outside of FIFA and Grand Theft Auto, no other franchise comes close to that sort of figure.

Yet 3m, impressive or not, is a slight dip on previous years. And with pre-order levels a little lower, is it a case of Activision managing the decline for Call of Duty?

“Absolutely not,” retorts Activision UK managing director Roy Stackhouse. “In fact more people are engaged with Call of Duty than ever before, and I believe Eric Hershberg summed it up perfectly when he said: By just about every measure we look at, Call of Duty has never been stronger. This franchise is not only still vibrant, it is still growing.

“Sales of the game, sales of the downloadable content, number of monthly active users, the number of daily active users, average play, social media influence, whatever you look at, hard measures or soft measures, this is a franchise that is still on the rise after all this time.”

Does that mean then that Call of Duty can hope to reclaim the sales crown it lost, emphatically we might add, to Grand Theft Auto V last month?

“Congratulations to the team at Rockstar for their success,” concludes Flynn. “We look forward to getting the record back before the next GTA title.”

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Tags: Activision , brand , franchise , series , call of duty , cod , future , ghosts

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