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Activision Blizzard pulled out some pretty big guns yesterday with news about Call of Duty Modern Warfare II, the new installment of Call of Duty coming on my birthday on October 28.
The company needed to do that, after wandering in the deserts of game delays and a horrendous sexual harassment lawsuit. Activision Blizzard always seemed to bring bad news to the surface, even to the point that it decided to sell itself to Microsoft for $68.5 billion.
We still have to see if these guns will shoot straight, as we’re going to find out how good the game is with the multiplayer beta starting today. But based on what it showed, the scale of Activision’s investment in Call of Duty is pretty staggering.
With this kind of investment, it feels to me like Microsoft should make Call of Duty available to Sony and any other platform that wants it after it acquires Activision Blizzard. Activision Blizzard’s strategy is set up to monetize across as many platforms as possible. I think Sony might have to worry about losing exclusivity of getting Call of Duty betas a week ahead of Xbox and the PC, but it may not have to worry that Microsoft would take Call of Duty away from PlayStation users in the future.
It had at least seven and more like eleven game studios working on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II — perhaps 2,000 game developers by my estimation — including leads Infinity Ward, Beenox, and Raven Software. That’s a pretty big clue that the scale of investment has changed.
To review COD history, Infinity Ward started Call of Duty way back in 2003. Treyarch joined the Call of Duty roster in 2005, and then Sledgehammer came on board in 2011. After a messy divorce with the Infinity Ward founders (who then started Respawn), Activision started a rotation, with one major studio doing a game every three years so that a high-quality, three-year project could come out every year. Activision was easily outgunning EA’s DICE studio, which made a new Battlefield game every few years. And Call of Duty became a billion-dollar annual franchise, dominating the lucrative first-person shooter market.
That worked fine until a new disruption came out in 2017 with the rival PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), the pioneer of the first widely popular battle royale title. PUBG has sold more than 75 million copies to date, and it put Activision into a panic.
Activision spread out in 2019 with Call of Duty: Mobile, developed by Tencent’s TiMi Studios for Activision. The free-to-play mobile title generated more than 650 million downloads, widening the funnel for Call of Duty games. But Activision’s studios responded at first to PUBG with relatively weak reactive battle royale games, as it was knocked off guard by PUBG.
Then it made some major studio changes, marshaled its resources, and stage a major comeback with the launch of free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone. Coming in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, the social play of Warzone was a godsend for homebound people playing remotely with each other. It was a huge hit with more than 125 million downloads. The result of mobile, battle royale, and Modern Warfare 2019 was a massive increase in the worldwide Call of Duty player base.
The next two installments — Cold War and Vanguard — were weaker and kind of squandered the advantage. But the company took its lumps and continued to invest more. The success of Warzone stunned even Activision and it decided to double down on the battle royale and free-to-play franchise. And that’s how it unleashed its triple-barreled shotgun blast yesterday.
The next generation of Call of Duty
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II will debut on October 28 with both a single-player campaign and multiplayer. The campaign has been toned down a bit from the disturbing civilian massacres of Modern Warfare of 2019. It is more focused on fun, as well as a mainstream audience.
On top of that Warzone 2.0 will debut on November 16, with an all-new map, better graphics, and improved gameplay such as combat in the water. It was crafted with the same proprietary game engine as Modern Warfare II, as was Warzone Mobile, which is coming in 2023. These three projects represent an attempt to unify the Call of Duty experience across all platforms for gamers. Add to that the Ricochet Anti-Cheat technology that seems to have greatly reduced cheating in online play.
The graphics look pretty incredible, particularly the versions targeted at the high-end PC, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5. Yesterday’s demos showed a lot of nice touches when it comes to game design.
You can trick multiplayer enemies with inflatable decoy soldiers. You can fight in massive 32v32 battles with dozens of AI characters fighting in the game battlefield. You can hang on a ledge. You can lean out a car window and shoot. You can dive underwater and ambush someone on the shore. Multiple circles converge upon each other in the final Warzone moments.
Warzone 2.0 has a big map with subzones that are maps from the multiplayer game. It’s like the game designers actually talked to each other across the studios. Yesterday’s debut matches of the Warzone 2.0 gameplay looked pretty amazing, right down to a cliffhanger victory for streamer NickMercs.
All of these refinements reflect careful attention to detail, and they just might be enough to convince players to come back to an intellectual property that seemed to be wavering. After Battlefield’s poor performance last year, Activision Blizzard has a chance to recapture a lot of lost ground and more.
The ante for competing in the first-person shooter game market just got bigger. Call me a Call of Duty fan boy. But I’m going to be diving headfirst into this year’s Call of Duty. And rivals might do well to dive out of the way.
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