Is the Call of Duty Bubble About to Burst?

With strong competition from Battlefield 1 and a lot of negative reaction to Infinite Warfare, has Call Of Duty begun to burn out?

This article first appeared at Den of Geek UK.

We’ve been here before, looking at how well Activision’s flagship video game title is faring after such a long run at the top spot. Waning interest from consumers and constant assaults by the likes of EA have taken their toll on the Call of Duty franchise, and with the latest release, Battlefield 1, doing very well indeed, it’s not looking all that peachy for Activision’s annual mega hit.

Or is it?

It was revealed recently by Gfk Chart-Track that the week one sales figures for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, always a big benchmark for the bean counters, are down by a massive 48.4 percent on Call of Duty: Black Ops III‘s release last year. That’s almost half of the revenue lost in the important early period. What’s more interesting is this figure even takes into account the lack of a last-gen version (there’s no PS3 or Xbox 360 edition this time around).

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Battlefield 1, meanwhile, managed to beat the combined week one sales figures of the two previous games in the series, Battlefield Hardline and Battlefield 4, delivering a sign that things are really picking up for EA’s major threat to Call of Duty‘s dominance.

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It should be noted that these figures for Call of Duty, as well as other numbers coming from the Gfk Chart-Track report don’t include digital sales. This is very important, as previous games have performed very strongly here, and there’s no real reason to assume Infinite Warfare won’t do the same. This may push the week one figures much higher. Also, Activision confirmed that Call of Duty has been rated as having the best week one launch in the shooter/action genre, with the publisher stating that it’s very happy with the performance, and believing the fans feel the same.

The charts at the time of this writing show Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare sitting pretty at the number one spot, with Battlefield 1 now at number two. The other big shooter of the year, Titanfall 2, currently occupies the fifth spot, being bested by the recent re-release of Skyrim. These are some big names, also including the likes of FIFA 17, and Football Manager 2017. This is important to note, as Call of Duty still has some big titles to deal with, and it’s managed to do it again this year, despite the drop in sales. In fact, even with such a drop in week one sales, it only paints a clear picture of just how massive Call of Duty‘s fan base is. Despite a nearly 50% drop in sales, it remains the second biggest release of the year so far, behind EA’s FIFA 17. Even with (potentially) half of its fans missing, Call of Duty still manages to dominate its competitors. Is this enough, though, or is it a sign of the beginning of the end?

Call of Duty has consistently sold millions upon millions of copies, and even in years when the games have been given a rough time by critics, the series makes plenty of money. Let’s take a few examples, beginning with the title that really kicked things off for the series, Modern Warfare. These figures are taken from research done in April 2016.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare arrived in 2007 and eventually sold around 17,160,000 units. This was a massive improvement on the previous major entry, Call of Duty 3 (2006), which sold 6,650,000. It was a turnaround moment for Activision and the series. The title took a drop for World at War (2008) to 14,900,000, but then sprung back with Modern Warfare 2 (2009) with a huge 25,000,000 units sold.

Upping its game since the mediocre World at War, one of the series’ developers, Treyarch, hit pay dirt with the fan favorite Black Ops (2010), which sold around 30,300,000. However, the record breaker was Modern Warfare 3 (2011), which smashed sales records and eventually shifted around 30,700,000, pipping Black Ops to the post. Black Ops II (2012) did slightly less than its predecessor, shifting 29,600,000.

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The next release saw a big drop, and Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013) was, and still is one of the most criticized entries in the series, and sold around 27,700,000. That’s a lot of units for a game nobody really massively liked, but it’s important to note that Ghosts was the first Call of Duty on the current generation of consoles, and this undoubtedly helped shift copies regardless.

Developer Infinity Ward’s next title, Advanced Warfare (2014) did worse, amazingly, and sold 21,700,000 units, likely feeling the fallout from Ghosts, but this was improved by Treyarch’s, Call of Duty: Black Ops III (2015). This sold around 23,800,000.

This brings us to Infinite Warfare, the eventual sales of which are obviously to be seen, but with such a large drop in week one performance over Black Ops III, it may not be looking good, especially as Black Ops III is one of the lower-selling recent releases in the series.

There’s a surprising amount of fluctuation going on here, and the sales figures aren’t quite as smooth as you may expect for a title Activision clearly banks on each and every year. Let’s put that into a bit more context with the amount of actual money Call of Duty has made Activision.

According to shareholder reports issued in 2015, Call of Duty has made Activision over $11 billion, and that’s a year ago, so you can up that amount. This figure could actually be higher or lower, and experts have argued that the latter is most likely, but regardless, that’s a lot of money, and it’s no surprise Activision is so invested in the series. The best-selling entry, Modern Warfare 3, made a cool $1.22 billion on its own, while the last entry, Black Ops III, made only $590m. Compared to the heights, that’s quite low for a game many would argue is the best.

This signifies quite the drop in sales, and the best performers, Modern Warfare 3, Black Ops, and Black Ops 2 are all over four years old. While Ghosts and Advanced Warfare did better, making around $1,08bn and $840m respectively, there’s still a clear sign of decline.

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Amidst this financial background, the games themselves are, in many people’s opinion, struggling to keep up, and there’s a big feeling that with Infinite Warfare, the series has lost its sense of direction, and shows Activision and its dev teams are desperately trying to keep the series alive, hence the totally new direction, and going for a full-on sci-fi space war theme.

This isn’t anything new if you think back. As good as it was, Black Ops 3 was very similar to EA’s Titanfall in many ways, and even the previous Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, which has similar mechanics. The series has moved increasingly towards an out-and-out sci-fi setting for a while, and Infinite Warfare is the culmination of that.

The reasons for this could be many, but it’s not unreasonable to deduce a couple of major ones. First, it’s a simple evolution of a series, and one that has to change and keep up with the other titles arriving on the market. As good as Modern Warfare was (and still is thanks to the remaster), the relative simplicity isn’t going to please everyone. Sure, there are purists who long for the simpler times of Call of Duty, but those who relish the extra layers presented in the likes of Black Ops 3 may well want more, and look for new additions each year. That’s the optimistic side.

On the flip side, the changes in direction may be an effort by Activision to keep sales figures up and to try an appeal to new players and a more varied market. After all, mainstream appeal may be a dirty phrase for a lot of gamers, but in business terms it’s the golden goose. The more people you can attract, the more money you’ll make. By trying out different settings and game mechanics, even ones as radically different as Infinite Warfare, Activision is trying to keep the game’s appeal as wide as possible. Adding in the remaster of Modern Warfare to the new game, as an exclusive bonus no less, was a clear ploy to attract the purist fan base, and keep players who are obviously losing faith in the new games. Activision wanted to have the cake and devour it, too. Think of this tactic what you will, but from a business sense it was genius, and a clever, if sly way to retain those fans with franchise fatigue.

As effective as this move may have been, though, it does betray a possible waning sense of confidence in the Call of Duty series by Activision, at least in the recent release. Surely there would be no need to make such a blatant move if the series was as healthy as ever, and if the publisher had total faith in Infinite Warfare on its own. If so, why would there be a need to utilize Modern Warfare as a sweetener, and not sell it as its own thing from the off? If the series is doing so well, why return to a nine-year old game?

Activision may put its usual spin of all’s well at the Call of Duty camp into its statements, but the 50% drop in week one sales and the need for the bolting on of Modern Warfare would appear to contradict that. How many people actually bought Infinite Warfare solely to get their hands on the remaster of Modern Warfare? If this hadn’t been an option, would/will Infinite Warfare have the same fate as Ghosts or World at War?

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Of course, to say that Call of Duty is in a lot of trouble is just plain silly. While the 50% drop is, indeed interesting, and does show signs of change, it’s just the week one sales, and the title will undoubtedly keep selling for a long time to come, and don’t forget the season passes, DLC, and microtransacitions.

As I said earlier, even with this drop in sales, Infinite Warfare still managed to beat all of its direct competitors, with only FIFA managing to outsell it in week one. It’s still a major hit for Activision, and a big money spinner. Love it or hate it – and most of us hate the microtransactions, that much is cast iron in terms of certainty – Call of Duty isn’t going anywhere. It’s also good for the games industry as a whole, as it still promotes competition and is always forcing others to up their game. It’s a big factor in why we have games like Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 (EA really wants to beat Call of Duty), and if Call of Duty dropped out of the market, other licenses would likely become complacent, filling the gap many consider Call of Duty to currently occupy.

Lastly, the games are just fun, and are some of the most well produced and solid shooters around. Granted, there’s definitely an element of franchise burn out there, but not many other shooters can touch the series for silky smooth, 60fps play that makes PvP approachable for anyone, regardless of skill.

Space, though? Maybe it should be left to that other slightly successful, fateful online FPS Activision has…