Sometimes, especially these days, it’s easy to forget how crucial Activision is and has been to video game history. After all, Activision is known as the very first third-party developer, bringing many classic titles to the various Atari platforms back in the day. And as time went on, Activision followed trends, had ups and downs, but is still arguably the biggest dog in that kennel. Lately though things have really been weird for Activision, and the company seems to be struggling for an identity. In the meantime, Activision has really leaned on IP from eras past, banking big time on nostalgia to drive sales and positive interest. Yes, that even includes Call of Duty. Here’s what I mean.
Just a few years ago, Activision was all over the place. Not only was Call of Duty on top of the world, but Activision was producing all kinds of licensed content, from Marvel Comics to Transformers and more or less anything under the Nickelodeon brand. There was also Destiny, which despite its troubles was a huge exclusive to have, especially with legendary developer Bungie under its umbrella. Sure, Activision wasn’t always a big critical darling, but it always had stuff coming out on the regular and maintained its position. Skylanders was also a huge deal for several years.
Despite Activision’s record profits, things haven’t continued in the same way. Call of Duty seemed to have reached its peak, never quite hitting its previous heights. Skylanders and the rest of the “toys to life” genre burst its bubble in a way that put a ton of people out of work, and Marvel completely jumped ship after the Spider-Man brand started to suffer under the yearly iteration formula. A brief partnership with Platinum Games was almost cool, but ended up being disastrous for both parties. Blizzard has been fumbling to maintain its fanbase while driving profit, and the Bungie situation utterly imploded.
But while a lot of that was going down, Activision seemed to almost trip over a new success. Crash Bandicoot of all properties, which Activision had already tried and failed to brandish before, came back with a vengeance. The N. Sane Trilogy sold like illicit substances in rural states, and put both Crash and Activision back in the peoples’ good graces. A Spyro trilogy followed, as well as an equally well-received Crash Team Racing remake. But it isn’t just the fluffy mascots doing the work.
Call of Duty has also reversed course, and found renewed success by revisiting old settings and characters. A reimagining of Modern Warfare has proved to be a hit, which itself followed a turn back to the WWII setting that was a needed return to form. The next title appears to be dialing back the Black Ops brand, after the fourth entry took a different, divisive approach (no campaign).
Activision isn’t entirely relying on nostalgic branding, as it is certainly moving forward with new experiences like the standalone Call of Duty battle royale game, the mobile version, and of course a slate uf upcoming Blizzard sequels. But at the same time, the most exciting upcoming releases are a remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2, and a Crash Bandicoot 4. Activision somehow managed to capture lightning in a bottle with its new approach to older IP, and that seems to be carrying the company forward while it figures out what else is next as we head into the next console generation. It’s a strange trajectory for sure, but for now one that seems to be paying off big time.