Crying Doom for
Activision’s Flagship Franchise is not Long for this World
by Nicholas Capozzoli
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
In the fall of 2007 I was just beginning my first semester of grad school. Following a new friend’s suggestion one night, we ventured over to a nearby dive bar for a few pitchers, and to play a video game that the place was featuring as part of their nightly special.
The game was Guitar Hero.
My friend, as it turned out, was well versed with plastic instruments, blasting through Blue Oyster Cult‘s Godzilla as I plinked and plunked my way through alongside him. But as each new track went by I found myself rapidly improving, upping the difficulty and powering through tough solos with aplomb.
A passion was born that night, one that followed through to the release of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. I beat Metallica’s One to the cheers of classmates in studio. I remember the desperate relief and aching fingers that came from surviving Slayer’s Raining Blood.
But in the span of just a couple years my plastic guitars collect dust under my TV. Literally, they’re dust magnets. The most activity that they see is when they occasionally fall over and scare my dog.
The problem is self-evident: the instrument rhythm genre suffered from profuse over-saturation.
A staggering twelve games were released under the Guitar Hero name for consoles between 2005 and 2010, and that doesn’t include portable titles or mobile apps. There was far more than even the most devoted gamer could possibly want, and when the players found themselves sated, the bubble burst hard.
Two years out from the rhythm game implosion, and the genre is a radioactive wasteland.
Mutants like Rocksmith and BandFuse sift through the rubble, looking for scraps. Harmonix, maker of the original Guitar Hero and the Rock Band series, was sold for $50, and that’s not even a joke.
I expect you know where I’m going with this. The common link between Guitar Hero and Call of Duty is, of course, publisher Activision.
Indeed, the publishing superpower has an affinity for annualized, bankable franchises. That practice, however, has resulted in the publisher running a few of its series to death, or close to it.
The motivation that led Activision to such an unsustainable market practice with Guitar Hero is up for some speculation. Perhaps, cynically, they saw a decline coming, and wanted to get theirs while the getting was good.
Or maybe, with Rock Band in the picture, Activision couldn’t set their games aside for a spell, lest they appear to have ceded the genre to the competition. A sort of video game Tragedy of the Commons, if you will.
Or perhaps they went all Of Mice and Men and snapped Guitar Hero‘s little neck with their clumsy, giant publisher’s hands while loving it too much.
Well Call of Duty is their new puppy, and they’re certainly petting it hard enough to draw PETA’s attention.
The stalwart military shooter is on an annual, two studio release schedule that’s seen six major console releases in as many years, as well as a smattering of portable and mobile spin-offs.
It has premium services, celebrity cameos, its own fan expo, and record sales to show for endeavor.
Is Call of Duty too big to fail?
Military shooters are certainly a gaming mainstay, but the genre has been getting a heavy workout as of late and cracks have begun to appear in its facade. Activision’s franchise may not have quite the dramatic flare-out that Guitar Hero suffered, but I’m guessing that it will recede for the same reason: over-saturation.
There’s always an ebb and flow to economics, and Call of Duty may have recently passed its point of peak sales figures. Despite Modern Warfare 3‘s record-setting debut, its total sales figures have reportedly lagged behind those of Black Ops.
Sure, the game is still an undeniable success. But in a world where 38 Studios can sell a million copies of Kingdoms of Amalur and go bankrupt, or Radical Entertainment can be folded after Prototype 2 topped the monthly charts (albeit, with just a few hundred thousand units moved), it’s hard to take anything for granted.
It’s important to remember that Call of Duty‘s marketing costs are likely tops in the industry. Because of the particulars of the game’s cost-to-benefit ratio, and its value versus another potential title, the series need not be brain dead before Activision decides to euthanize it.
Call of Duty is undoubtedly a resource hog, as additional studios are continually being worked into the fold. In addition to the Infinity Ward/Treyarch duo, Activision has also utilized Pi Studios, Rebellion Developments, Raven Software, n-Space, and Sledgehammer Games.
And even though Prototype 2 developer Radical Entertainment was recently downsized, you can probably guess which franchise its remaining few employees will be folded into.
Liers, tumbling stocks and failing businessman, oh my!
That’s to alleviate their own financial woes, yet such a decision doesn’t come without consideration for the future of the biggest draw in Activision’s catalog, and that’s Call of Duty.
Vivendi is betting that the series’ best days are behind it, and that’s where the smart money is.
There’s also 2010′s ugly spat between Activision and developers at Infinity Ward, particularly Jason West and Vince Zampella. Nearly half of IW’s staff resigned, and Activision would later have to foot a large bill for withheld royalties.
It’s also worth noting that there’s time for Activision to release another Call of Duty game before the next console cycle. I have to think that they wouldn’t pass up the chance.
Another title will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, particularly if 2012′s Black Ops II under performs.
Activision might be better served by pulling back their troops and loading up for a big charge on the next console generation, but I don’t think they’ve got their eyes focused on the long term.
Beginning of the end
For non-fans, Call of Duty and its ilk have replaced Madden as the butt of every joke about the industry sameness.
You can bet that new rival Battlefield, once tabbed as the savvy player’s CoD alternative, will come to resemble its competitor more each day. Consider the release of “Battlefield Premium” to be tacit acknowledgement of that.
Even the devoted fans who bought into the Call of Duty Elite subscription package have been undeniably burned by its disingenuous marketing, and they know it. That’s to say nothing of woebegotten PS3 players who suffer through artificial periods of timed exclusivity.
The good graces have worn off; when asked which Call of Duty is their favorite, too many players point back three or four games.
Is it a matter of quality? Each new release is generally well-received critically, and the player base seems to enjoy them well enough (unless you happen to ask them right after they’ve had their killstreak snapped by a camper).
Guitar Hero, however, enjoyed similar praise right up until the floor fell out from underneath it. A lack of innovation could be partially responsible: after adding additional peripherals for drums and vocals, Guitar Hero simply stopped evolving.
So too for Call of Duty, which is built on a foundation of 2003 technology. What is perhaps more damning, however, is that almost no effort was made to mitigate that fact. Shared assets, animations, and features all lend to the feeling that each sequel differs from its predecessors in only the most superficial ways.
How much can they really improve, when the product is fast-tracked to release? The development cycle of Infinity Ward, at least, doesn’t seem to allow for anything other than recycling features.
It might not even be enough for that. Modern Warfare 3 currently enjoys a plague of “spawn trapping”, wherein an organized team camps all the possible spawn locations for their opponents, cutting them down instantly as they appear.
It’s a silly problem to have, and its perpetuity is frustrating.
But who’s to fix it when everyone’s cramming to finish the next game?
The quality of the offerings may not matter if the series couples creative stagnation with a manic release frequency . Look no further than Madden, the poster child of annualized franchises, which has seen a recent decline in sales as well.
No matter how entrenched the audience appears, they can be lost.
[SubEd.: An editor who wishes to remain anonymous would like to point out that Nick has openly admitted to being terrible at video games. Any illusions of Guitar Hero grandeur are most likely subconscious ramifications of watching the relevant South Park episode.]
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
Filed under: 3rd Party Games, Console gaming, Editorial, Game Impressions, New Xbox 360 Games, Oxcgn Special feature, PC News, PS3 News, Xbox 360, Xbox 360 3rd Party Games, Xbox 360 News Tagged: | "Rock Band", Activision, Call Of Duty, Call Of Duty Black Ops, call of duty black ops 2, call of duty black ops ii, call of duty black ops sequel, Guitar Hero, Radical Entertainment, Raven, Rebellion Developments, Tony Hawk