It’s little more than thinking out loud right now, as Black Ops 2 multiplayer dominates friends lists in the way that Call Of Duty titles before it has.
What if Call Of Duty was just multiplayer?
What if single player was cut out of the package altogether and Activision focused on the half of the game with more legs, with the DLC and ultimately, by which its long-term success is judged?
It’s intriguing to think about, if only because Activision’s FPS dominates the online landscape for consoles whenever it’s released. However, it’s highly unlikely to happen.
Call Of Duty Marketing Campaign Needs Single Player
This is a bigger deal than you may realise. Every game needs a visible presence through boxart, posters and various assets, such as Shepard for Mass Effect or Nathan Drake for Uncharted.
That’s easy for third-person games but FPS games struggle because you don’t actually see who you’re controlling. It’s why some games create characters specifically for the advertising campaign, such as Medal Of Honor’s bearded soldier. Ubisoft focused on Vaas, the antagonist, for Far Cry 3. The Black Ops games use ambiguous silhouettes.
Activision makes up for this lack of identity with bombastic TV and internet adverts. It’s not about who you’re playing but what you’re seeing, much like the games themselves, as you play spectator to buildings toppling and searing explosions.
In creating Call Of Duty’s campaign, Infinity Ward and Treyarch is also creating a huge catalogue of assets and set-pieces for Activision to use for its marketing campaign. Look at the launch trailer for Black Ops 2. It’s made up entirely of single-player material, focusing on cutscenes and set-pieces over actual gameplay.
Having a campaign also means big names can be drafted in to lend extra weight and credibility to the marketing campaign. It was hard to avoid the knowledge that David S. Goyer wrote the story for Black Ops 2, and that you should care about him because he wrote the story for The Dark Knight Rises.
Multiplayer is a huge draw but it has to serve players over spectacle, and so it just can’t compete on a marketing level because there are no set-pieces to draw from.
Watching a no-scope sniper montage set to Back In Black isn’t the same as watching flaming aircraft carriers, helicopters crashing into huts, men jumping off rainy cliffs, buses sliding down a street, cars driving out of buildings and so on.
To tell people that they’ll get to experience the same action that they’re seeing in the adverts is a powerful message and one that can’t be replicated by multiplayer, which lacks both the spectacle and demands a certain level of player skill before it can really be enjoyed.
No Single Player Means Less Money For Activision
One line of thinking is that Activision can split up Call Of Duty into the single player half and the multiplayer half, so you can get exactly what you want without paying full whack (Zombies or Special Ops falling under the multiplayer half, presumably).
This move wouldn’t be without precedent. Starhawk is one such game that was sold by Sony in distinct ‘halves’, so you could buy the multiplayer only.
Halo 4 had multiplayer on a separate disc to single-player and some owners sold that disc separately on eBay, showing there was demand there for a multiplayer-only experience.
However, the main reason Activision won’t do split Call Of Duty up into distinct halves is that millions are currently forking out for a full-price game, even if they only want to play multiplayer. So to offer up the multiplayer half only with a lower price would mean less money for Activision, which won’t be a particularly attractive route for Activision to take.
Single Player Trumps Other Military FPS Games
A worthy single-player campaign is something every military FPS has struggled with in the past. Homefront had potential but struggled with tone and was far too brief. Battlefield 3 was a glitchy mess and too often, it was dull. Medal Of Honor: Warfighter was also struggled with tone had pacing issues. Crysis 2 had patchy AI undermining its design.
In comparison, Call Of Duty’s campaigns are solid, entertaining affairs and although the series has often had to fight claims that it’s not innovating enough, each title does just about enough to justify each sequel.
Black Ops 2 is hardly the biggest surprise in gaming this year – grab gun, point gun, shoot gun – but its multiple paths and sci-fi setting does help it feel relevant.
Multiplayer is wildly subjective, more so than single-player, as it has to take into account a wider variety of players – those who play with friends versus those who play on their own, those who prefer a hardcore competitive environment versus those who want to blow things up, and so on. So Call Of Duty’s multiplayer versus the competition, particularly Battlefield, is another debate for another time.
But in terms of single-player, Call Of Duty’s campaign is better than rival military FPS games, and that’s a powerful trump card for Activision to have.
Some People Just Want Campaign
“Who plays these games for single player?” is the common war cry when games like Medal Of Honor: Warfighter, Homefront and so on limp past review stage with less than impressive scores. But the fact is, many people do, for different reasons.
The most obvious one is lack of internet. This doesn’t necessarily mean a complete absence of internet (although this can also be a problem) but rather, internet that’s fast enough to sustain Call Of Duty’s multiplayer to levels where you won’t be screaming at your TV with rage.
It’s especially true for those just over 18, where they’re stuck using internet at uni or internet in shared accommodation. It’s not easy playing anything online when you have one room-mate on Netflix, another on Guild Wars 2 and yet another downloading South Park season 8.
The ultra-competitive environment that boils over into hostility also puts potential players off, as they’re either put off by the abuse dribbling down their headsets or the quick kill nature that sees new players endlessly dying over and over again until they can get a handle on how to play.
So the campaign still has a lot of appeal for those, plus we’d imagine the majority of players buy Call Of Duty for both single player and multiplayer.
But as a final point, consider this. Call Of Duty: Black Ops sold 11.66 million to date. Now if only 10% of Call Of Duty players pick it up for campaign mode – and going by anecdotal evidence, that figure feels quite low – that means Activision is missing out on 1.1 million sales.
So again, would Activision really consider making its series multiplayer only and miss out on those sales? It’s highly unlikely.