Years ago, sometime after the release of the original Modern Warfare, I remember attending an Activision press conference. The whens, the whys and the wherefores are lost to the annals of my fragile, unreliable memory - but I’ll never forget Activision’s key message.
Exploit key franchises, maximise revenue.
Even then, I remember being puzzled by it. EA were on the comeback trail then, trying to regain the credibility lost in that exact same pursuit.
But who was I to question? Back then Guitar Hero ruled the world, Modern Warfare was fresh, Tony Hawk was still relevant – Activision had just acquired Blizzard and become the largest video game publisher in the world in the process.
Today? Things are a little more sketchy. Activision’s constant updates to Guitar Hero have left it a bloated corpse, Tony Hawk is... well, probably best not to talk about that, and Call of Duty? Well, no-one’s really saying it out loud, but the backlash is stirring. Perhaps not in the mainstream, but amongst the niche, two games a month, core consumer base - the Call of Duty brand is in decline.
It may only be a matter of time before that attitude goes mainstream.
And that’s why the introduction of Call of Duty Elite – the handling of it, the way it was announced, the product itself – could be a major turning point for the series.
First the product itself – an extensive attempt to broaden the brand of Call of Duty by moving it into the social networking sphere, by adding video functionality, extensive statistics, the ability to create groups and clans – putting aside the fact that most of these features (perhaps not collectively) are available for free in other games currently on the marketplace, launching a service like this without a price tag is just willing consumers (and the press) to speculate wildly as to the cost.
And for a publisher like Activision, with an accumulated reputation for milking franchises, that’s not an ideal situation to be in.
Now, let’s talk about the way the news was released. Embargos, in this day and age, are almost offensive to begin with, but asking the majority of the gaming press to sign an embargo for the release of their Call of Duty Elite previews, then allowing the Wall Street Journal, of all places, to release the news first is an utterly mindboggling move.
Firstly – why break the news on an easily misunderstood service via a publication that doesn’t understand games? Surely this is a no-brainer.
Secondly – why alienate the gaming press who write, promote and discuss your products for a publication whose audience absolutely couldn’t care less about your product?
Seriously – what is wrong with this picture?
Gamers are already on the brink. And as successful as Call of Duty is, it is far from infallible.
A note unearthed by Patrick Klepek at Giant Bomb provided an interesting insight into the mentality over at Activision. Despite the rapid decline of Guitar Hero, they are steadfast in their belief that the Call of Duty franchise is unassailable; that multiple entries into the series are sustainable - mainly because Guitar Hero, as a new type of game, was quickly endorsed by the mainstream then abandoned, while Call of Duty is part of a storied history of first person shooters, with a stronger and more resilient fanbase.
History makes fools of those that tempt fate. I’ve yet to hear a single positive comment about Call of Duty Elite. The reaction has been overwhelmingly negative, and that’s a direct result of the manner in which the information has been released. That negativity will spread quickly. Those at the core, those that read the news on Kotaku or any other site – these are the people mainstream consumers go to for information, for recommendations on what to buy - not the Wall Street Journal.
The barbarians are at the gate, Battlefield 3 is at the gate, and we get the distinct impression that a sea change is in process. On paper the Call of Duty franchise has never been stronger, but numbers can be deceiving. At the moment the feedback has been resounding. Gamers are getting tired of the Call of Duty template, they want something new, and a paid subscription fee for an extra layer of statistics and features is not it.
This year could be a turning point for the Call of Duty franchise - and Activision had better make sure it points its prize pony in the correct direction.