One year ago this week, the head of Electronic Arts told me he had Call of Duty in his sights. Call of Duty was the king of first-person shooters. He wanted that spot. Today, he is convinced CoD is beatable.
This is the way to do it: "Make a better game," EA CEO John Riccitiello told me during an interview earlier this week in New York. "And make a better game again."
Sounds too simple? Maybe even too naive a method for knocking off a monster franchise that sells five million copies the day it comes out?
"If I had to pick the story I'd like to play out next year is we ship a 90 and they ship an 85," he said, referring to Metacritic scores, which he watches as a measure of game quality. "[Activision has]an awful lot of momentum without heir brand, no doubt. What I've witnessed a couple of times in the games industry is the way you unseat a market leader is you make a better game a couple of times in a row. "
The year 2010 was good for EA shooters, he said. He wagers EA's gone from having just a tiny part of the first-person shooter audience to about a fifth. The spring's Battlefield Bad Company 2 (pictured here) was a hit, helping EA gobble up part of the first-person shooter attention that EA's rival Activision had been dominating with the Call of Duty (and related Modern Warfare) games.
For all the press EA's recent reboot of Medal of Honor got, thanks to its modern Afghanistan setting and its use of the Taliban in its fiction, Riccitiello repeatedly cited to me the work of DICE, a studio that has primarily contributed to EA's shooter efforts with its Battlefield games as the architects of what he seems to think is his best shot at Call of Duty. (DICE also made the multiplayer portion of Medal of Honor)
"I think it's interesting that [DICE's]Battlefield Bad Company 2 got the same Metacritic score as [Call of Duty:]Black Ops," he said. He's right. Both games got an 88 at the time of this writing. He's also enthused about DICE's graphics technology, singling out their Frostbite engine and implying that visual punch is key to taking on Call of Duty. "We knew we were building on [the]Unreal [graphics technology]for Medal of Honor which wasn't our foot-forward tact," he said. "We knew that going in. Our next game [Battlefield 3]is being built on the second generation of Frostbite which I think is at least in my opinion is a class act for FPS. I think we're going to lift the game pretty dramatically in the first-person shooter category."
He has a bright view of EA's shooter line-up for next year, which of course will be up against the next big Call of Duty that surely is coming next fall. "I have great expectations to do a lot better in 2011 than in 2010 on the strength of a couple of products like Bulletstorm and Crysis  , but most importantly for us, Battlefield 3, which I feel incredibly good about."
And further down the line is whatever game EA will be presenting from Respawn Entertainment, the former creative team behind the mighty Modern Warfare games. That team made an ugly split from Activison and the Call of Duty games earlier this year and now has something cooking for EA. ("They're working on a really cool product" is all Riccitiello would cough up about them.)
Better games, repeatedly. Riccitiello is convinced that can work, that Call of Duty doesn't have to dominate forever. "Over time we can take the lead."
[Top image of this post is from next year's Crysis 2]