Love it or hate it, the Call of Duty franchise—the very name—wields significant influence in the games industry. The series has maintained an incomparable standing in the FPS market, and has become somewhat of a poster child for the entire genre. Because of that reputation, it is also subjected to more intense scrutiny and criticism than the vast majority of games, much less shooters. Without fail, each new installment is met with cries of redundancy, inadequacy, and repetition. At the same time, each new CoD game is all but infallibly successful. With this paradox—heavy criticism and lukewarm review scores being paired with monumental sales figures—in mind, let’s take a look at what Call of Duty truly is to discern how the franchise (and its producers) affects gaming as a whole.
Impressive Industry Figures
Barring the innumerable jackal-and-wolf relationships within itself, the games industry’s primary competition is simply other media outlets, most notably film. Therefore, any video game which brings in impressive figures becomes somewhat of a flagship for the economic credibility and competitiveness of gaming. In this light, Call of Duty is virtually unrivaled. That’s not to say that it’s the only game capable of producing staggering figures (just look at Borderlands 2, The Last of Us, or BioShock Infinite for example), but it is one of the most consistently successful franchises in gaming history.
The original Modern Warfare and the follow-up World at War both moved roughly two million units within their first month, but within the advent of Modern Warfare 2, the series gained considerable speed and broke six million copies within four weeks following launch. The original Black Ops preserved that momentum with eight million units in the month following its 2010 launch—a figure that was quickly beaten by Modern Warfare 3, which moved 8.8 million. A more recent entry, Black Ops 2, moved a comparably negative but still entirely impressive 7.4 million copies and brought in $1 billion in a mere 15 days—the list goes on.
Building the Gamer Population
CoD veterans and part-timers alike will generally agree that the game is fairly simple and easy to get into. As such, Call of Duty serves as a veritable gateway game: something fun and action-based to attract players towards video games as a hobby (addiction, passion, sleep-destroyer, etc.). After all, there is a level of learning involved in gaming. Though it may sound foreign to some, games can be difficult to get into. If, for example, a player entirely new to RPGs was to pick-up Disgaea 3 or Dark Souls, two incredibly convoluted and difficult titles, they’d likely be overwhelmed and turned off by their first RPG experience. The same rule can apply to Gran Turismo 5 for racers, Catherine for puzzlers, and the like. Moreover, games like Call of Duty present a simple and accessible entry to gaming, but are expansive enough to instill an interest in other games. As a result, and comically enough, Call of Duty is an effective recruiter.
Given how watered-down Call of Duty is currently perceived to be, it’s easy to forget how pivotal the franchise proved to be in the early stages of modern-FPS gaming. The series’ catalyst, the original Call of Duty, revolutionized first-person shooters with refined controls, an improved HUD and camera system, and a radical new approach to setting and storytelling in shooters. Though commonplace now, these were relatively unprecedented in the early 2000’s and concreted the boldness of the franchise. Later installments improved upon multiplayer networking in a similar manner, and have continued to set the gold standard for the base infrastructure of FPS online play.
Historically, Call of Duty releases make their debut near the end of the year, most frequently in November. This sets a reliable pattern for Activision, but effectively destroys the month of November for other game releases, especially contending shooters. This isn’t something you can fault Activision for; they’re simply capitalizing on their ability to release games regularly, and aren’t necessarily trying to undermine close releases. Regardless, the month of November is effectively a no-man’s land because the iron fist of CoD typically overpowers potential releases. This distorts release periods and can often lead to annoyingly concentrated schedules for neighboring months. Similarly, it creates an overblown sales par for titles that release in junction with any CoD.
The most infamous stigma surrounding Call of Duty is that the series perpetuates a multitude of detractive business practices that plague the games industry. Holistically, the series has effectively devolved to a monochromatic stream of carbon-copy releases—an issue that echoes the industry’s problem of sequel-saturation. However, the games continue to sell well. Again, there’s a duality here: good for Activision, bad for gamers. The success of the many one-trick ponies of Call of Duty effectively sanctions monotony and encourages emulation over innovation. This is seen in many painfully similar FPS franchises, and often bleeds over into other genres—an effect that may or may not be directly tied to Call of Duty.
Although it can serve as a powerful source of raw statistics for the games industry, the Call of Duty franchise also frequently places video games, as a medium and art, in a disparagingly shallow light. E3 2013 highlighted this perfectly, as the coverage surrounding the coming Call of Duty: Ghosts was based around little but graphical emphasis and gimmicky additions. The game’s showcase was largely poorly received (due in part to its ambivalence), and even went on to spawn a horde of mocking internet memes (i.e. “Dog Bro”). Hysterical as this may be, it genuinely makes the games industry look bad. While cinematic and emotional titles like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us or reasoning-dependent games like Valkyria Chronicles or Portal 2 are out promoting games as a colorful, innovative medium with visceral stories to offer, Call of Duty is basically standing in the corner saying, “Shoot stuff, GRAPHICS, instant gratification, PLAY THIS!”
For the purposes of this article, Call of Duty seems to net zero. I suppose that factoring in the millions spent on repurchasing and repairing broken hardware (which might have been broken through concussive therapy—fixing things by hitting them really hard) may tip the scales in one direction, but I’d rather try a different method.
Readers, what do you make of Call of Duty? Have I hit the points dead on? Am I missing something huge? Comment what Call of Duty means to you—as a game, series, brand, or whatever—below.