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Isn't Call of Duty Today Just Like Guitar Hero Was a Few Years Back?

Internal Activision memos suggest the publisher is well aware of the question everyone is thinking.


I didn't write that headline, actually. Activision did. I pulled that line from two internal Activision memos sent to employees, then passed to me, following the announcement the publisher was closing its once-massive Guitar Hero business unit and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock would be its last Guitar Hero--for now, anyway. The news and memos were circulated in early February, largely discussing why Guitar Hero's going away, the unexpected death of True Crime: Hong Kong, and Call of Duty's future. The memos provide interesting insight into Activision's perception of the future for two of its biggest brands.

Today, we'll look at Call of Duty. Tomorrow, Guitar Hero.


Let's first return to the original question. It's one that's been asked before, moreso since Infinity Ward and Activision bumped heads a little more than a year ago. In terms of sales, Treyarch held its own with Call of Duty: Black Ops. It was bigger than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

But it's more interesting that Activision is asking itself this question. One of the memos, penned by Activision publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg, is mostly presented in a question-and-answer format. 

"Isn't Call of Duty today just like Guitar Hero was a few years back?" is one of the first questions. 

Here's how Hirshberg responded: 

 == TEASER =="This is a great question and one we have thought about a lot," wrote Hirshberg back in February. "But there are several key differences between the two franchises worth considering. Guitar Hero quickly reached incredible heights, but then began a steady decline. Call of Duty, on the other hand, has steadily grown every single year of its seven-year existence." 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare sold more than two million copies its first month in the US. With Modern Warfare multiplayer then solidly dominant, Modern Warfare 2 went on to sell 4.7 million copies in North America and the UK on day one. Then, Call of Duty: Black Ops sold 5.6 million copies day one across NA and the UK—and it's still going. Basically, each subsequent Call of Duty, explosively so since Modern Warfare, has continued to sell more and more. 

"Guitar Hero," continued Hirshberg, "was a new genre which had incredible appeal, but which had not stood the test of time. Call of Duty exists in a genre--first person shooters--that has shown remarkable staying power and wide appeal over a period of decades. Plus, Call of Duty has inspired a massive, persistent, online community of players, making it perhaps the 'stickiest' game of all time." 

Hirshberg is right. Since its emergence, first-person-shooters have proved the most reliable of genres. Even when the genre's in a rut, eventually someone comes along with something new, and games sporting notably remarkable multiplayer shifting the genre as a whole (see: Halo 2, Modern Warfare). 

But nothing lasts forever. Here's how Hirshberg portrays Activision maintaining its hold:

 "If you really step back and dispassionately look at any measurement—sales, player engagement, hours of online play, performance of DLC—you can absolutely conclude that the potential for this franchise has never been greater," he said. "In order to achieve this potential, we need to focus: on making games that constantly raise the quality bar; on staying ahead of the innovation curve; on surrounding the brand with a suite of services and an online community that makes our fans never want to leave. Entertainment franchises with staying power are rare. But Call of Duty shows all of the signs of being able to be one of them. It’s up to us." 

Hirshberg's comments portray an Activision that believes it deserves more recognition for innovating.

"Activision doesn’t always seem to get the credit it deserves in terms of innovation in my opinion, but there is no short supply of it, even in our narrower slate," he noted, after listing several ways Activision intends to remain competitive, both with and without Call of Duty. "As I said, when you look at this list of projects and the innovations embedded within them, it is a pipeline any company would kill for."  


Those other projects? Bungie's next franchise (of which nothing of note is mentioned in the memo), the secretive "Beachead" online service designed to extend Call of Duty's online presence even further, a free-to-play, microtransaction-based Call of Duty designed for China and extensions for Call of Duty that "are more complex and have more potential on their own than most stand alone console games." 

Oh, and Spyro. (Hey, the Insomniac Games original was pretty good.) 

Black Ops proved Infinity Ward's formula for success remains one that players are willing to pay for. Repeatedly. Electronic Arts has been extremely vocal about its desire to dethrone Activision's dominance, whether through a reboot of Medal of Honor or continued iteration on the Battlefield franchise. Battlefield 3 likely represents the company's best chance of, if nothing else, making a dent.

Activision has already said there will be a Call of Duty game released later this year. There was no specifics of the upcoming title featured in either memo. 

"Call of Duty is one of the biggest entertainment franchises in the world," said Hirshberg. "We have assembled an unprecedented team of some of the finest development and business talent in the world to keep this game ahead of the curve."

Will the next game change the formula? Does it need to? Soon enough, we'll know. Patrick Klepek on Google+
254 Comments
Posted by MisoRonery

Great read Klepek.  Their point of view on the longevity of the first-person shooter genre as compared to the rhythm game market is fascinating.  They will surely test just what the staying power of the franchise is to its limits.

Posted by MacGeorge

Extremely well written and readable article, Patrick is doing great!

Posted by SpudBug

They have no intention of doing anything that risks or changes this franchise while each iteration continues to sell more. I hate cod and all he devs that copy it.

Posted by Xeridae
@SithLibrarian said:
" Wow, what a great debut for Patrick! Nice job and welcome aboard!

A question though,

 "Activision doesn’t always seem to get the credit it deserves in terms of innovation in my opinion, but there is no short supply of it, even in our narrower slate,"

Activision is just a publisher, right? What could they innovate? Distribution? Selling Modern Warfare 2 on Games on Demand for $60?
"
I couldn't agree more. Also, just because they sold a lot of games doesn't mean they innovated on them much at all. Black Ops was a big disappointment for me in terms of innovation. The way they portrayed the game was that there would be a lot more customization then there really turned out to be. If it weren't for the new game modes (some of which are derived from counter strike and rainbow six) this would have just been modern warfare 2 with new paint. I feel that DICE has done much more in terms of innovation.
Posted by Shaka999

Welcome to Giant Bomb Klepick. Always loved you on 1UP.

Posted by the_OFFICIAL_jAPanese_teaBAG

to be honest because i thought black ops sales were going to tank because treyarch basically just used the same formula in CoD 4 but i guess not...  i thought the same old formula was growing stale but to each his own i guess

Posted by dvorak

The best part of the article is this:

you can absolutely conclude that the potential for this franchise has never been greater," he said. "In order to achieve this potential, we need to focus: on making games that constantly raise the quality bar; on staying ahead of the innovation curve; on surrounding the brand with a suite of services and an online community that makes our fans never want to leave.

The real irony here is they know what they have to do to achieve true loyalty to the brand from the mainstream gaming populace, and also still retain respect from the more hardcore gamers. They have a clear idea of what they have to do to keep on the money train, so at this point it's all about how they bring that to execution.
Posted by ptys

Well it's good to hear they are aware of their strengths and vulnerabilities, but the whole reason why the franchise may inevitably fail is their business mindset. I think the best thing they could do to extend the life of the franchise is to take a break, but that will ultimately cost them huge sales figures in the short term at least.

Posted by the_purgatory_station
@niamahai said:
" won't releasing internal stuff like this get GB into trouble? "
Posted by AhmadMetallic
@MattyFTM said:
" Fantastic article. I look forward to reading more stuff like this from you, Patrick. "
hey man, easy on the pressure
Posted by Chaoskiller2000

Maybe there wont be one this year? Yeah long shot I know

Posted by dskillzhtown

 

It will be succesful until another yearly release can get a multiplayer following.  COD knows how to give people bite-sized experiences with minimal time between booting up and playing. Not even alot of load time before the matches start. 

Posted by FuzzYLemoN

They don't even have to kill it; just do it every 2-3 years instead of EVERY SINGLE YEAR.

Posted by GaspoweR
@TurboMan said:
" Innovation
  
  
"
YYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!
Posted by VirtuaXav

Very nice read from Klepek, stick around duder.

Posted by bryGPO

great start for Klepek!


The increased investment for Guitar Hero hurt it I think. As Call of Duty doesn't have to push new hardware in addition to new software on you, it seems to be an easier value proposition. Also, the online multiplayer is a large portion of the experience in Call of Duty, whereas you can have the same gameplay experience with Guitar Hero multiplayer (in a party context) regardless of the online component.
Posted by MordeaniisChaos
@xavmeese said:
" Very nice read from Klepek, stick around duder. "
Posted by Agent1337

Call of Duty game in China? What?

Posted by go_diego_go

Great job  Klepek,


I think that it is easy to see that Activision pays attention to its customers.  It seems that Activision is looking to prey on the seemingly shorter and shorter attention span that customers these days are having.

It is more and more the norm to see an 18 month or shorter cycle between games.  It gives enough time for everyone who is going to play the current CoD a chance to get in on the fun.  While also allowing enough time to put out DLC for the early adopters.  Plus 18 months is long enough for a person to play themselves out of a game and want a change of scenery.  

It is obvious to say that as long as we (the customer) are willing to pay for a $60, 4-6 hour single player campaign, no dedicated servers, and $15 map pack (gouging).  Activision will be more than welcome to pump out a new CoD every year.
Posted by Kyreo

First article, great work Patrick.

Posted by TeamAliceFTW

The first person shooter genre probably won't die out. If it does, it won't be anytime soon. One of the facets of video games is that whether all too realistically or not, it puts the player in a situation with extenuating circumstance that they're not always in. Call of Duty, on the other hand, however indomitable it may be now, that cannot go on forever. Even if they keep innovating, someone else with come along with a bigger and better idea, which may even be later this year with BF3.

Posted by GeneralDAS

You are all FRAGS

Posted by TechHits
@Phoenix87 said:
" I concur. They will milk it dry, and then fire the whole team when it stops making money for them. "
you concur? The Article doesn't say anything about milking the franchise. It's about Activision wanting to produce a innovative  product to keep the user base that they have slowly collected. Did you read the article before posting?
Posted by Kyle

Hirshberg makes some interesting points but, no one, absolutely no one, can tell me that you can continue to lead like this on a yearly release schedule; there's just no fucking way.

Posted by Napalm

The only reason Call Of Duty sell so much is because it's easy mode gameplay. Point and shoot. Autolock. These things have turned Call Of Duty into casual games on the Xbox 360. There is literally no barrier for entry, and no other requirements besides knowing how an FPS controls. The customization isn't deep. They just jam-pack it with as much as shit as they possibly can. 


Also, awesome article Patrick.
Posted by michaelfossbakk

More of this, please, Klepek.

Posted by Bouke

Good article and good to see Patrick Klepek writting for Giantbomb!

Posted by dagas

I'm surprised people haven't cought on the fact that every game is just a series of checkpoints where you need to get from A to B before you are killed by spawning enemies. There is very little in terms of tactics since the game is made so it constantly pushes you forward. It doesn't reward patience, but rather rushing. 


I also can't understand how some people call CoD a "realistic shooter". If so then Need For Speed: Most Wanted is realistic since it has licensed cars and Ace Combat is a simulation since it has licensed planes.

I loved the first game, second one felt like more of the same, third one barely worth playing. MW spiced things up a little bit with a change of scenery and crazy story, but it was still the same gameplay since then it's more of the same again.

When it comes to MP it's just pull LT and then RT faster than you opponent. But people play it because of the unlocks just like people play facebook games or grind in MMO's. I swear people would watch paint dry on a wall if they were given points towards gaining a level. It shouldn't be called prestige it should be called junkie. Points have destroyed games. Facebook games, MMO's, gamerscore, online shooters etc they all have points and people play games for the points rather than the game. What troubles me the most is that despite the fact that I see this I still have an urge to level up in ranks, levels or get points in many games. At least I don't play facebook games I still have some dignity left as a gamer...
Posted by Lamashtu
@dagas said:
" I'm surprised people haven't cought on the fact that every game is just a series of checkpoints where you need to get from A to B before you are killed by spawning enemies. There is very little in terms of tactics since the game is made so it constantly pushes you forward. It doesn't reward patience, but rather rushing. 

I also can't understand how some people call CoD a "realistic shooter". If so then Need For Speed: Most Wanted is realistic since it has licensed cars and Ace Combat is a simulation since it has licensed planes.

I loved the first game, second one felt like more of the same, third one barely worth playing. MW spiced things up a little bit with a change of scenery and crazy story, but it was still the same gameplay since then it's more of the same again.

When it comes to MP it's just pull LT and then RT faster than you opponent. But people play it because of the unlocks just like people play facebook games or grind in MMO's. I swear people would watch paint dry on a wall if they were given points towards gaining a level. It shouldn't be called prestige it should be called junkie. Points have destroyed games. Facebook games, MMO's, gamerscore, online shooters etc they all have points and people play games for the points rather than the game. What troubles me the most is that despite the fact that I see this I still have an urge to level up in ranks, levels or get points in many games. At least I don't play facebook games I still have some dignity left as a gamer...
"

Pretty much mirrors my opinions on CoD games. When I played CoD2, I was really frustrated by a lot of what I thought was totally fucking busted (what comes to mind was an easily accessible alley-way in one of the British missions that I thought was a great flanking opportunity, only to realize after dying trying to go through there a few times that it was in fact a Wehrmacht monster spawning closet). CoD4 polished it a little bit, but the infinitely spawning enemies with shitty AI made me shout "What the fuck is wrong with you, IW?" The perks system redeemed the multiplayer for me, but I eventually burned out on it, and had no interest in prestiging.


I will say that I have a better opinion of Treyarch's takes on the series. Even though they still use the same fucked gameplay model (which is something Treyarch really can't help), at the very least, the narratives they create aren't so totally up their own asses like MW2 was with Price spouting pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

Posted by CrimsonAvenger

I wish call of Duty would go away, each game is getting worse and worse. Unless they give you something else to do besides shoot people or set one of the games in World War 1 I won't buy another COD game.

Posted by Kowalski

Call of Duty is so overatted, Battlefield is so much more fun and fair.

Posted by lordbazuco

I think I'm gonna put my money with battle field 3 instead of the next cod. Im getting too sick of cod

Posted by MechaDestroyer

I always figured the only way Call of Duty will be dethroned is if another big, huge FPS game comes along and changes everything again.  Much like how Half-Life came along after a few years of Doom clones and, BAM, everything changed.  Call of Duty won't go away.  As mentioned in that memo, FPS games have been around for 20+ years in their current form (I consider Doom to be the foundation of the genre) while music games had nowhere to go creatively after World Tour and Rock Band 2.

Posted by EpsilonSE
@Lamashtu said:
" @dagas said:
" I'm surprised people haven't cought on the fact that every game is just a series of checkpoints where you need to get from A to B before you are killed by spawning enemies. There is very little in terms of tactics since the game is made so it constantly pushes you forward. It doesn't reward patience, but rather rushing. 

I also can't understand how some people call CoD a "realistic shooter". If so then Need For Speed: Most Wanted is realistic since it has licensed cars and Ace Combat is a simulation since it has licensed planes.

I loved the first game, second one felt like more of the same, third one barely worth playing. MW spiced things up a little bit with a change of scenery and crazy story, but it was still the same gameplay since then it's more of the same again.

When it comes to MP it's just pull LT and then RT faster than you opponent. But people play it because of the unlocks just like people play facebook games or grind in MMO's. I swear people would watch paint dry on a wall if they were given points towards gaining a level. It shouldn't be called prestige it should be called junkie. Points have destroyed games. Facebook games, MMO's, gamerscore, online shooters etc they all have points and people play games for the points rather than the game. What troubles me the most is that despite the fact that I see this I still have an urge to level up in ranks, levels or get points in many games. At least I don't play facebook games I still have some dignity left as a gamer...
"

Pretty much mirrors my opinions on CoD games. When I played CoD2, I was really frustrated by a lot of what I thought was totally fucking busted (what comes to mind was an easily accessible alley-way in one of the British missions that I thought was a great flanking opportunity, only to realize after dying trying to go through there a few times that it was in fact a Wehrmacht monster spawning closet). CoD4 polished it a little bit, but the infinitely spawning enemies with shitty AI made me shout "What the fuck is wrong with you, IW?" The perks system redeemed the multiplayer for me, but I eventually burned out on it, and had no interest in prestiging.


I will say that I have a better opinion of Treyarch's takes on the series. Even though they still use the same fucked gameplay model (which is something Treyarch really can't help), at the very least, the narratives they create aren't so totally up their own asses like MW2 was with Price spouting pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

"
Wow, I'm glad you guys wrote all of that, because I would have gotten too tired to finish half way through. I'm in complete agreement, with only one addition, working off of Lamashtu's comment. It's not really just bad AI, it's unnecessary AI and they know it. When you get infinite spawns, you just run to the next trigger point, and the spawns will stop. It worked in the TV station in MW1, it worked in the Favela in MW2. At that point, they are abandoning the gun part of run-and-gun. The franchise defining gameplay uniqueness is the creation of a sense of speed and frenzy by utilizing a archaic FPS trick. ALL COD's are based off of the same one trick pony. Once people get tired of it, COD will either radically change or die.
Posted by agentboolen

Nice long rant about how successful COD is...  Geee thanks Giantbomb for putting this up there.  Also i didn't see anything on True Crime in this article, I guess that was older emails?    

Posted by Tebbit

Spill the beans on Spyro, @patrickklepek

Preferably the " Activision has decided to give Insomniac their game back" beans.

NOT the "Activision has given development rights to Neversoft in the form of Tony Hawk's Pro Spyro" beans.

Posted by Solemn

As much as I love Call of Duty 4, it over-hyped the series and that resulted in Activision trying to milk the series by rushing a CoD release annually, and every single CoD after CoD4 is just mediocre.

Posted by bornagain888

Facebook has replaced Myspace, and in the same way something will take people's attention away from C.O.D. Look at how far Halo popularity has deminished in a few years. I'm glad it's not up to me to predict what will get hot next.
Posted by geirr

Someday Activision will buy Nintendo and put Shigeru Miyamoto on the CoD teams,
then we'll really see some effed up innovation!
.. YEAH!

Posted by UnsolvedParadox

Welcome to Giant Bomb, Patrick!


Call of Duty will be fine if they stick to 1 game and 2 map packs per year, hopefully Activision learned their lesson about 2-3 releases per year for the same franchise...

Posted by Azteck
@pepsimaxofborg said:
" Someday Activision will buy Nintendo and put Shigeru Miyamoto on the CoD teams,then we'll really see some effed up innovation!.. YEAH! "
That's just what CoD needs to stay afloat!
Posted by VegasAceVII
@Phoenix87 said:
" I concur. They will milk it dry, and then fire the whole team when it stops making money for them. "
This exactly.  It's just a matter of time.  After it dies, they'll try a REBOOT or REMAKE, lol.
Edited by BitterAlmond

I've always preferred the Battlefield series to Call of Duty, which I think is shallow and entirely reflex-based. Battlefield moves at a bit of a slower pace and requires a bit more conscious thought and teamwork. It's only a matter of time before the gaming community moves to more thoughtful, team-based games like Battlefield and Team Fortress 2.

Posted by ValiantGoat

The next CoD game really needs to have dedicated servers. I may have to switch to Battle Field 3.

Posted by afrofools

Wow I didn't see that coming, the mention of True Crime: Hong Kong being cancelled. Expect the unexpected, though I kind of thought it might get cancelled, it was still a surprise to see in this article.

Posted by DystopiaX

People will get tired of it eventually. You can't continually release the same thing and expect more people to line up-they have been experiencing growth, but it won't last forever, even if it does take longer than most of us think. The next big innovator will come around and people will flock to that instead.

Edited by itsjoncharles

Ugh, I hate the CoD franchise to bits. Innovation exists in no way - they're just churning out sequel after sequel. It's not even like the multiplayer runs flawlessly (look at the hit detection). At least with Battlefield, the experience is consistent and different from what CoD is offering.


Still, millions of uneducated people will continue to buy it without even thinking about the game.
Posted by Cheesebob

The Klepmyster has started with a bang!

Online
Posted by onan


"I know you're asking, 'but isn't this just like Guitar Hero?' but let me tell you, no, it's not. it's an EFF-PEE-ESS! Don't you know? Those have more staying power than this whole 'music' concept. I know you're thinking that's a silly thing to say, but look at the numbers, the numbers don't lie. People are tired of MUSIC and want it to go away. Well, we're way ahead of them. As you know we 've already disbanded the Guitar Hero Business group, but now that it's finalized I'm pleased to announce we've fired all composers throughout Activision and hired on a talented (and affordable!!) group of fertile cats that we're going to stick into a room with a microphone in order to score all of our future titles. With the newest veterinary medications, we'll be able to keep them in heat year round!"

 

Excellent article, PK. Much respect. :)

Posted by boylie
@PenguinDust said:
" Great read, Klepek. 

I think that Activision asked the wrong question.  It shouldn't have been "Isn't COD today like GH was a few years ago", they should have asked, "Isn't COD today like Tony Hawk was a few years ago."  The memo correctly points out that the music genre was a flash in the pan.  I wouldn't say it exploded since it existed before GH, but that game made amateurs feel like rock stars even if it was only pretend.  Playing with plastic toy guitars will only get you so far. 

The extreme sports genre on the other hand was much more widespread and lasting than the recent music game genre, and yet the Tony Hawk games have become a punchline within the gaming community.  Why is that?  Oversaturation is certainly a factor.  With every X-Games participant getting their own jumping-spinning-trick filled game, they all became indistinguishable.  And, after a while, the basis of the games all felt alike.  There was a sameness that crept in starting with the bad games and eventually undermining the flagship title, Tony Hawk.   But the genre itself didn't die.  It's just that all the "innovation" Activision tried made things worse year after year.  Finally, they lost the crown to EA's Skate. 

Call of Duty is in that same position albeit in a more stable genre than extreme sports.  The modern military shooter market is incredibly crowded these days and it's very hard to distinguish one game from the next.  Today, COD has brand recognition, but that might not be enough as was the case with Tony Hawk.  Gamers will seek out newer and more innovative games occasionally especially when something that's been around for so long starts to feel "uncool".  Battlefield 3 might be that game, or Bungie's latest project or perhaps whatever Respawn Entertainment is working on.  If I could predict the future, I'd have Michael Patcher's job, but I do believe that change will come whether Activision likes it or not and public perception has a lot to do with how quickly it arrives. 
"
^this man speaks truth.