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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.

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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." 

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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."  

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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+