Whichever way you look at it – the UK/US Day One of 6.5m, or $400m in 24 hours, or 75 copies sold a second – Modern Warfare 3 is a juggernaut.
As a Call of Duty game, it was always going to be, of course; there’s probably a graph on an Excel spreadsheet buried in Bobby Kotick’s laptop that shows a nice red line pointing upwards, plotting the trajectory of Modern Warfare, World at War, Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, and now Modern Warfare 3.
Potential threats to that trajectory loomed large this year.
The games market is struggling, in line with the economy and retail in general; digital content continues to surprise, subverting the boxed game model Call of Duty has milked so well in recent years; and even Activision’s big rival EA put up a decent fight by launching against its flagship game.
But Call of Duty still delivered the goods. How?
NEW ROUTES TO MARKET
Activision’s UK boss Peter Hepworth marks part of it down to a bigger ‘retail footprint’ than before. More non-traditional outlets than ever – petrol stations, grocers, even WHSmith got back into games, albeit temporarily, for this – demanded a seat at the table for the MW3 launch.
No corner of the UK was left untouched, he adds.
“Retailers want to be part of the opportunity – with 2,500 different stores open there was somewhere near pretty much everyone for launch. We’ve launched over 20 titles this year, including other innovations like Skylanders which mixes toys and games. There’s huge opportunity now to reach non-traditional markets.
“There are parallels to the movie business here in that context: some consumers only play these kind of entertainment experiences. And, when times are tough, we have to keep innovating – people make fewer choices in terms of what they buy, and you have to make the right offering.
“But we are helped by having an extended spectrum of retailers supporting us. That will help us in some ways ‘kickstart’ the market.”
Yet Activision has invested heavily in the content within Modern Warfare 3 – not just how it’s deployed – in order to ensure the game isn’t just an easily-forgotten mainstream hit.
“The state of the economy and lower consumer spending has created a tough market and that has driven us to create a better value proposition,” says Hepworth. “There are three games in MW3, really: the longer single player, Spec Ops, and multiplayer enhanced by Elite,” he adds.
Mark Rubin, the game’s executive producer, echoes the sentiment: “When times are tough, people are looking to save money and not overspend. Our game is such huge value compared to what people spend. Gamers play it four or five times a week, it is such a great piece of value rather than going to the movies or buying a book.”
Part of the package, however, has also been an entirely new creation: Call of Duty Elite. Activision has been on a mission with its game-specific social network, reiterating over and over throughout the summer and onwards that the service is basically free.
But it has premium elements, with a subscription – sales of which are the real mission for Call of Duty this time around.
Through Elite, Activision is building and cultivating its audience – and also finding new ways to monetise them at a time when many say time is short for the boxed model the franchise is built in.
There’s still place for retailers in this more digitally-minded franchise, however – which goes someway to explain why trade excitement for the game was higher than ever last week.
Hepworth says Activision will start “working with retail partners to educate gamers about what a great opportunity to enhance multiplayer the free service is – and how they can upgrade to the premium service if they wish”.
Still, though, Call of Duty is a phenomenon unlike most other entertainment franchises – and that’s the real reason why it once again sold like hot cakes last week.
Cynics will have you believe that the core audience is just a fervent mass of abusive, angry forumites never happy with their lot – the typical too-hot-too-cold-never-just-right crowd. But Activision is convinced it has a broad cross section of people who share a passion.
Certainly, the corporate design behind Elite is to make the game a regular year-round talking point amongst anyone that wants in.
Says Rubin: “We see it talked about so much outside of the games media. It’s a reference point for pop culture, we see it on talk shows, sports shows, or referenced in sitcoms. It’s become so pervasive it’s more than just the game itself. And Elite fills that gap so that people can interact and be part of it even when they aren’t online and playing.”
He says the thrill of hearing the name on TV hasn’t ever really worn off for its creators. “It is still a surprise – when some show, no matter how obscure, talks about our game, you can be assured emails ping around the office sharing links and talking about it. We are so, so proud – and surprised every day by how much people love this game.”
He adds: “What we have found is that Call of Duty has become such a phenomenon. Not just with gamers. It’s beyond gamers. It is the game for people who aren’t gamers.”
For a large number of consumers, Modern Warfare 3’s launch was their ultimate gaming moment of the year. For many others, it was their only gaming moment of the year.
So that leaves one last question – what about that showdown between CoD and Battlefield? Certainly, Modern Warfare 3 made an impressive debut, and Call of Duty has a promising future through its Elite service; the game barely blanched in the face of Battlefield stepping up a level.
All in all, last week was an interesting closing note to the Activision vs EA battle that has run through the media this year – not least of all MCV.
“We’re aware of what’s going on in the market, but we’ve been focused on this. The only way we have been able to speak of such a great launch is because we were so focused on that, not the competition,” concludes Hepworth.
Rubin adds: “From a developer standpoint we are always aware of the competition – but some of those games don’t really fall into our purview. I think some titles were made by the media to be a challenger, but it wasn’t a real fit in the end. From our perspective we are happy in the environment we are in and don’t feel any pressure.
“We want to compete with ourselves more than anything else.”John Riccitiello, take note.