The Call of Duty machine stalled last year, in response to which publisher Activision Blizzard is blaming the slowdown on the latest game’s World War II setting and lack of “innovation.” Sure.
After its most recent earnings missed forecasts by some $US300 ($416) million, the company blamed the poor results on the lukewarm reception of 2021’s Call of Duty: Vanguard. The game’s campaign was something of a time-hopping, globetrotting mess, following a special operations task force as it tries to thwart secret Nazi plots near the end of the war.
“While Call of Duty remains one of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time, our 2021 premium release didn’t meet our expectations, we believe primarily due to our own execution,” Activision Blizzard wrote in an annual report to investors on April 30. “The game’s World War II setting didn’t resonate with some of our community and we didn’t deliver as much innovation in the premium game as we would have liked.”
Activision doesn’t mention that the game’s campaign was extremely brief and cloyingly written, that its Zombies mode was widely panned, or that its seasonal content was quickly delayed. There’s no mention of the toll taken on development at Sledgehammer Games by the ongoing pandemic either, even as the company plowed ahead with its brutal annualized production schedule.
Perhaps most notable, the embattled publisher makes no mention of the fact that its marketing plans for the game were upended when allegations of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination at the company broke last July. Vanguard wasn’t officially revealed until August, months after the franchise’s normal annual debut, and the response was more muted than usual, no doubt in part because many were unsure how to respond to a glitzy promotional campaign by a company recently accused of years of worker mistreatment.
Then, less than two weeks after the game finally came out, The Wall Street Journal published a damning investigation directly implicating a Call of Duty executive in the rampant misconduct. This did enough damage to the company to precipitate a sale to Microsoft, but seemingly didn’t have anything to do with the success or failure of Vanguard.
The game, it should be pointed out, was still a top-seller, just not as much as Activision, or at least its shareholders, have become accustomed to. In order to get back in their good graces, at least until the planned $US69 ($96) billion deal with Microsoft closes, the publisher is promising “the most ambitious plan in Call of Duty history” in the form of Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2, a reboot of a sequel to a spin-off. Activision is banking on the “return to the Modern Warfare setting that delivered our most successful Call of Duty title ever” to reinvigorate growth. In the meantime, it’s urging shareholders to vote no on a new proposal to make it more transparent about misconduct claims at the company.