Modern Warfare 3 sold 13.45 million units compared to Black Ops 2′s 11.22 million despite the latter being a better game overall—in my humble opinion, at least.
Does this point to a growing weariness toward the Call of Duty brand? Do two-plus million fewer units point to some encroaching fatigue over the franchise’s relentless yearly release schedule? Should Activision be worried?
Black Ops 2 launched one week after the release of Halo 4. Modern Warfare 3 launched alongside Battlefield 3 but not quite so close, with EA’s shooter landing two weeks prior. It’s possible that Halo 4 cut into week one Black Ops 2 sales, with a number of people holding off on their Call of Duty fix until later in the season.
Black Ops 2 pulled down $500 million in its first 24 hours, and was the fourth all-time biggest video game release in the UK. That it did not apparently beat MW3 in first week sales may indicate that the franchise cannot break records year over year, but this level of sales is hardly indicative of fatigue.
Treyarch’s latest is the best-selling game of 2012, and will likely retain that title even with the highly anticipated Far Cry 3 on the near horizon.
Fatigue is almost certainly inevitable, but we’re not there yet. There’s a lot of Call of Duty hate out there, and I certainly can empathize. The single-player campaign, for all its AAA glitz and gunfire, is a pretty uninspiring experience. The multiplayer is quite good, but doesn’t change much one year to the next.
But the thing that Activision has done extremely well with its best-selling franchise is give fans what they want. This may be the key to the game’s ongoing success—year after year, the lack of major innovation, the incremental changes and polish around the edges, the neglect of the story and single-player gameplay in favor of robust multiplayer…this is what the fans of the franchise want.
You can disagree with me about that, but it’s extremely difficult to disagree with those sales figures. We’re well past fluke territory.
Other video game companies (including Activision’s second half) might do well to glean what they can from Activision’s success. Imagine if the Mass Effect series had followed a similar approach, not changing too much from one game to the next, and focusing more on polish and incremental improvements than on more drastic changes. Or if Diablo III had carried over more of the spirit and feel of its predecessor rather than take such a radically different direction.
Innovation is important, but staying true to a series and its fans is just as vital. Player fatigue may be a problem Activision will need to cope with at some point, but out-and-out player rebellion is not in the cards. Playing it safe may not be as sexy as taking big risks, but there’s something savvy about giving fans what they want year after year, game after game, and Call of Duty’s ongoing sales domination is evidence enough of that.