It was supposed to be the fight that would define the year.Call of Duty had met its match. For the first time ever, the game was to go up against EA's long-running Battlefield series.
Although both have had similar lifespans, they had until this Q4 never launched head-to-head.
EA entered the fight with typical over-confident swagger. It kickstarted the PR battle with an early March reveal and snipes from all execs – Riccitiello even said he wanted Call of Duty' to ‘rot from the core'.
Keen to loosen Activision's yearly claim of having the world's most revenue-generative game, EA aimed to halve CoD's share of the market. It claimed to have retail and media on its side, it cosied up with PlayStation to match the CoD-360 alliance, it even decided to launch two week's before MW3.
Then Battlefield came out. Critics said they weren't as keen as they'd hoped, the game briefly topped the charts before nestling in a low Top Ten slot… then Activision turned up with the now typical lavish launch and claimed the title of ‘fastest selling game of all time'.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
What really happened was that both games won. But they also both lost.
Battlefield 3 showed that you can take on Call of Duty. It shipped out 12m units. The PR storm alone helped raise the profile of the game, franchise and publisher. It truly questioned whether CoD can conquer forever.
At the same time Modern Warfare 3 wowed fans, retailers and non-gamers. The juggernaut crashed through sales targets and estimates to just about top 2010's Black Ops.
Yet here's the other side of the argument. Although Activision broke the $1bn barrier faster than ever (just 16 days), it's still just the ultimate retail game. The franchise is built on a foundation of hype, pre-orders and day one sales. Elite's additions, although exciting, have yet to be proven. So right now, Call of Duty remains a video game in the very traditional sense.
That's fine for Activision today. It has always focused on safer bets and quickly cuts its losses (it ditched Guitar Hero earlier this year). But not necessarily fine for Activision tomorrow. No doubt its best minds are working on how it will survive in a world where the console might not exist or where a game has to deploy across browser, mobile and console all at once. If they aren't, they really should be.
Battlefield has done well but never lived up to the promise – nay, threats – that it would upset Call of Duty. Activision's title didn't even blink. Momentum for Battlefleld 3 dropped off early on, retailers and other industry nose-tappers tell us. If you want to judge it on market status right now, Battlefield has been resurging, but only thanks to a price cut and bundling. MW3 has – and will, as all CoD's do – held its price at around 45. EA's missile made the ground rumble, but didn't shake Activision's foundations.
The bigger lesson is that it's tough even at the top. Activision and EA had similar games locked up in a pointless battle to gain or protect market share. And in the end, little changed. If that's all the big boys could manage, think how punishing it would have been if lower-tier publishers were caught in the same battle.