Summer vacation is half done, and all eyes are turning to November, when Call of Duty releases its latest iteration, Advanced Warfare. This year, as with past years, when the game hits shelves, at least 10 million people around the world are going to buy it for whatever machine they own. Activision is already digging up several holes to make room for the new pools full of money they’ll be swimming in, while lighting up victory cigars with $100 bills. There’s simply no question that in terms of sales, COD is the king. But for how much longer?
Since 2007, the Call of Duty franchise has surprised everyone, pulling in sales of over 13 million with Modern Warfare, a massive leap from the 1.2 million that WWII-based Call of Duty 3 sold the year before. With each passing year, those sales increased, culminating in over 24 million people around the globe buying Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 since its 2012 release. The problem is, this simply can’t continue forever. There are some gamers—probably younger, or simply naïve ones with little head for business history—that might believe this is impossible. Some people can’t conceive of a world where Call of Duty isn’t now-and-forever the bestselling franchise of all time. These people believe that their great grandchildren will STILL be buying and playing COD decades from now. But no product or brand name is forever. Borders was once the most powerful bookstore in the world until Amazon came along. Apple was once the unquestioned king of smartphones until Google lumbered in with their Android OS fueled devices. And even in games, before Call of Duty was the “eternal king” of the FPS genre, that crown was once worn by another franchise that went by the name of Halo. All of which is to say that only an irrationally loyal fanboy would ever insist that from now, until the end of history, the Call of Duty franchise will always rule the sales charts.
In fact, the opposite is already happening. As with other brands under Activision’s care such as Tony Hawk: Pro Skater, Guitar Hero and even World of Warcraft through Activision’s partner, Blizzard, sales are going down. Last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, while still raking in ludicrous amounts of money, didn’t surpass Black Ops 2, and this year’s Advanced Warfare is very much taking the science fiction route, having exhausted both modern and near future settings for the franchise. With soldiers that look more like Master Chief than marines, Activision’s new science fiction shooter finds itself going head not just with The Original Spartan himself and the Halo collection. COD now finds itself competing against its own sibling, who has a three-month head start. Destiny, made by none other than Bungie, the original creators of Halo, launches in September and offers a new, distinct “shared world shooter” concept rather than the same old FPS conventions COD has relied on all these years.
It almost seems like Activision itself, having suffered the effects of “franchise fatigue” a few times already, is hedging its bets against COD’s decline and preparing a new franchise to take its place. They’ve even gone so far as to state that $500 million has been invested in Destiny’s future. Meanwhile, COD, with its three studios feverishly working to ensure an annual release every year, have been crippled by the departure of key staff from Infinity Ward, creators of the COD franchise that founded Respawn Entertainment to make Titanfall. These three studios are clearly working such hectic schedules to satisfy investor demand for COD sales, not out of any love or sense of ownership for the franchise. Activision is letting Bungie pursue their dream game, while stamping out the dreams of three other studios to ensure a COD game comes out every year.
But if Call of Duty does finally fall out of fashion, what happens to all those gamers that used to buy it every year? Obviously the hardcore remain, buying whatever games they prefer in whatever genres they enjoy, but what about mainstream gamers? If they only buy COD and maybe a Madden or FIFA game every year, will they just not buy FPS games anymore and contract the market, or will they actually move on to another game? Activision is hoping they’ll move to Destiny, obviously, but there’s no sure way to predict—or control—the game an audience decides to make their next big thing. If that were the case, then Titanfall would have been COD-killer EA had cultivated it to become.