Millions of gamers are counting down the days until the latest instalment in the outrageously popular Call of Duty franchise hits shelves on October 25. Activision releases a new title every October, like clockwork, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will be the 16th in the sequence.
Cumulative sales exceed 300 million games and the series has earned more than $15 billion for the studio. It has captured a place in the hearts and minds of gamers and its evolution has been a joy to behold over the past 16 years.
Call of Duty was initially released as a competitor to EA’s Medal of Honour. It thrust players into the heat of battle in World War II, allowing them to control British, American and Russian soldiers as the fighting raged on around them.
It introduced many hallmarks of the beloved series – a number of playable characters, sensory distortion, cinematic set pieces – and it was well received by critics. It won several Game of the Year awards from reviewers, but it was only released on PC and it was deemed a modest commercial success.
A Path to Greatness
Call of Duty was released a year later as a launch title for the Xbox 360 as well as a PC game, and that helped it grow sales and boost its footprint. The Xbox 360 version sold over 250,000 copies in its first week and it eventually went past the 2-million-unit sales mark.
Call of Duty 3 marked a real step change for the series as it eschewed the PC platform. It was a launch title for the PS3 and it was also available on the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii. It was also the first game not to be developed by Infinity Ward, as this one was handed to Treyarch. Fans praised the multiplayer mode, but they found the campaign uninspired.
The most influential game of them all was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which saw Infinity Ward take the brave and inspired decision to shift the action to modern day warfare. It was set in a fictitious near future war amid Middle Eastern unrest and Russian ultra-nationalism, and it received universal acclaim from critics.
Gamers loved the evocative storytelling, the pulsating gameplay and the graphics. It also revolutionised the multiplayer feature, through experience points, allowing participants to unlock weapons and customise characters. This would also up an important new revenue stream for the series in future, as it has bolstered physical unit sales with microtransactions.
A Huge Critical Success
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is rated as one of the greatest games ever made, in any genre, and a remastered version was released in 2017. It is interesting to see that the next game in the series will be Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, as Activision is clearly bidding to capitalise on the existing love for the game.
Treyarch released one more game set in World War II, and in 2009 Infinity Ward released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which sold more than 25 million units. By this point, the series was a behemoth.
At this point, Treyarch began developing the Black Ops series, and the first one hit shelves in 2010. It was also an enormous critical and commercial success, shifting 25 million copies and earning rave reviews by taking the series in an exciting new direction.
Finding a Rhythm
The following year saw the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which sold 30.7 million copies and remains the bestselling Call of Duty game of all time. It followed a crisis that saw 40 members of the Infinity War team leave to set up a new studio, but Sledgehammer Games was brought in to help a revamped Infinity Ward finish the game.
The series then slipped into a brilliant rhythm, with Treyarch, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games sharing development duties on a rotating basis. There have been a few missteps: Call of Duty: Ghosts, the first post-Modern Warfare title released by Infinity War in 2013, went down like a lead balloon with many critics. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Call of Duty: Black Ops III, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, also split opinions.
Some would argue that the series peaked in 2010-2012, with Modern Warfare III sandwiched between the first two Black Ops titles. It has certainly never replicated that commercial performance, but many fans have enjoyed the most recent games in the sequence.
It returned to its World War II roots in 2017 and the game was a huge success, grossing more than $1 billion in its first six weeks. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was released in October 2018 and by the following month it had already become the bestselling game of the year, ahead of Red Dead Redemption.
It ditched single-player, narrative-driven campaign in favour of solely focusing on multiplayer. This decision as controversial, and next release will bring back the campaign mode when it is launched in October, but it makes sense given the soaring demand for multiplayer games.
First-person shooters like CS:GO and Overwatch have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years by focusing on multiplayer gameplay, releasing on a free-to-play basis and charging players for optional microtransactions. Activision has not yet struck the right balance when it comes to in-game transactions, as many have been heavily critical of its model.
Cracking the World of Esports
Yet it is sure to pursue them aggressively when it releases Modern Warfare next month, and it will be interesting to see how the community reacts. Activision must also be keen to crack the thriving world of esports with the Call of Duty series.
Black Ops 4 is the 14th most lucrative esport of all time, having handed out $7.15 million to players, but the series lags well behind CS:GO, Overwatch and even Rainbow 6 Siege when it comes to competitive gaming.
As you can see from these exciting Unikrn markets, the number of CS:GO tournaments taking place throughout the year is huge. The scene contains many famous names, lucrative sponsorship deals and massive franchises. Overwatch has a thriving Pro League and it is constantly growing in popularity.
Those two games have now built up passionate communities over a number of years. The core game stays the same, and it is improved with updates, allowing an elite group of pros to come to the fore. An obstacle for Call of Duty is that a new game is released each year by a different studio, and the gameplay often changes significantly, making it difficult to sustain a pro scene.
Striking a Balance
Others would be happy to see the series abandon any hopes of becoming an esport. Geoff Smith, a multiplayer designer working on Modern Warfare at Infinity Ward, said the need to keep the gameplay perfectly balance in order to make it a viable esport has taken the fun out of recent entries in the sequence.
There has been a divide between the casual Call of Duty community and the professionals in recent years, with the former calling for a return to the arcade-style fun of the early instalments and the latter demanding greater balance.
It will be fascinating to see how both groups respond to Modern Warfare, but it is all but certain to become the bestselling game of 2019 due to the enormous popularity of this series.