[‘What Should Be Next’ is a weekly column where I examine and discuss certain trends, franchises, genres and ideas in the gaming industry, and where they should be headed.]
You can hate it or love it but the one thing you can’t do is deny is the power of the Call of Duty franchise. Its a multi-platform industry giant that just when you thought hit it’s peak shows less and less signs of slowing down. In this piece I’m calling it a franchise but I’m sure it wouldn’t be too much of a reach to consider it a platform as it has become bigger than the consoles themselves. Unfortunately, sales numbers aren’t exactly a reflection of the game’s quality but there is hope in changing that. I believe I know what should (and needs to) happen so that that they can live up to those numbers.
Bobby Kotick’s way or the highway.
Activision is to over-saturation what peanut butter is to jelly. For the past decade we’ve seen Activision use this business model and bury other prominent franchises. Guitar Hero is one that immediately comes to mind.
Whether or not the rhythm genre was built for longevity in the western market is not what I intend to argue but what was done to the genre by Activision was disturbing and also plays as a good example of what’s happening to Call of Duty. They (Activision) reignited the rhythm genre here in the States with the original Guitar Hero. Then following the launch of the second title, the game’s creators weren’t exactly seeing eye to eye with Acti’s vision (see what I did there), they decided to jump ship to build the game that would destroy their original creation.
So how does Activison fight off this insurgence? They flood the market with so much that even regular consumers become tired of rhythm games. Video game news readers and bloggers are one thing, we’re cynics by nature: but to have the average consumer read through the bullsh#t is a whole other issue and that’s what quickly killed off the rhythm genre.
Talk about history repeating itself. Although the circumstances (and money involved) are certainly different, one can’t help but to compare the Harmonix and Guitar Hero dilemma to the situation that surrounded the now defunct Infinity Ward, and it’s former bosses Jason West and Vince Zampella.
What happened to the magic of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare?
The Call of Duty franchise has become a yearly entry, equivalent to any sports title like Madden or MLB The Show. And because of that, the same stigmas that are attached to those kinds of games; complaints that it should be patched updates or that there’s not enough innovation from game to game are definitely at the top of most players’ lists.
This isn’t to knock any previous entries in the series, but do you know what made Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare so special? The game’s engine. That’s where the innovation was. Five years ago at E3, Activision did what Battlefield 3 did this year; they floored everyone with superb visuals on an incredible engine. Do you remember the first time you saw the ghillie suit in action? Of course you do, because it was amazing. Unfortunately that magic or whatever you want to call it has since been lost somewhere along the way.
Infinity Ward created the proprietary IW 3.0 engine from the ground up. It’s what provided for the graphical jump between Call of Duty 3 and 4. But since the hay day of the original Modern Warfare it has received just minor and incremental updates for every game that’s used it. Infinity Ward never had the chance or the time to get back to create what wougerld be the next evolution in their game engine, and to say that it shows is an understatement. If you turned off the heads up display on COD 4, World at War, MW2, Black Ops, and MW3, the only way that you’d be able to discern the five titles would be by the weapon being held in the players hand, and considering the game’s span a half decade, that’s a damn shame.
Now, it should come as no surprise why other developers usually just license game engines. I mean, to create your own is an investment of millions of dollars. To a not-so-large video game studio, this is usually not even an option. With video games you always run the risk of high investment and low return, and unlike movies (except for Avatar and Lord of the Rings), games take years to make and so to keep it within a 36 month window, developers usually opt to not create engines from the ground up.
So what makes Activision the exception to the rule? Why am I holding them and their series to a higher standard than everyone else? Well, for starters, the money. We’re talking about the highest grossing (not just video game) entertainment series of all time. To stand at the top of the mountain like they do, and not change things up is a slap to the face to anyone and everyone that enjoys their games.
Everyone likes to refer to Activision CEO Bobby Kotick as a devil of some sort, but I like to think that he’s more of a sheep herder. Every year, he herds his Call of Duty sheep to the local game store to sell them the same product they bought a year prior.
Here’s what should be next for Call of Duty: Activision needs to open up that ginormous wallet of theres and start investing in an engine to push their series forward. This year was the first time since the release of COD:World at War that the rest of the industry didn’t take their new releases and high tail it into January like they usually do. We had the likes of EA, with the help of Battlefield 3 taking on the 500lb gorilla that is Modern Warfare 3 head on. Even first party games from the bigger development houses thrown into the mix as well.
The point is, while the series still sells a ton, no one is scared of it anymore. And as more and more publishers continue to put that pressure on Activision and their beloved franchise, even more eyes will be on the series to see what they can do to finally change things up. New game engine or bust.