Call of Duty: Ghosts

It's appropriate that the new Call of Duty: Ghosts advertisement stars Megan Fox. Like Fox, Call of Duty could do no wrong back in 2007. Since then, though, Call of Duty has become a fashionable thing to hate.

Like any long-running series, Call of Duty has a long list of controversies to its name. Modern Warfare 2 alone had game-breaking multiplayer bugs, a homophobic commercial and a campaign mission where you gun down hapless civilians. This article isn't about those incidents, though. I'm sure you can find plenty of "Top 10" lists that catalog them.

Instead, I'm more curious about how a series with fair-to-good reviews and amazing sales manages to invite such lasting scorn. It's a hatred that's bigger than just the controversy of the week. The title Call of Duty just pisses people off. You probably already wrote "Fuck Call of Duty" in the comments section, didn't you? If not, do it now and then come back because this is a long-ass article.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong. However, the legal dispute between Infinity Ward and Activision is a good place to start.

Activision Vs. Infinity Ward

INT. ACTIVISION PLEASURE PALACE

ROBERT KOTICK, Activision CEO, lounges on a pile of pillows while being fanned by two interns. JASON WEST, Infinity Ward co-founder, approaches.

WEST: Bobby, can we talk?

KOTICK: Where did you learn to speak the language of publishers, Call of Duty Worker Ant #54?

WEST: My name is Jason West. I run the most profitable studio your company owns?

KOTICK: I was watching a movie called Wild Wild West last night. Any relation?

WEST: I'm not related to that movie, no. I'm a person.

KOTICK: (sighs) Too bad.

WEST: Okay. Anyway, I was just talking with Vince and we were thinking that maybe we could make something, you know, other than Call of Duty games?

Kotick waves his hand at his servant girls. They stop fanning him.

KOTICK: Something other than Call of Duty...?

WEST: Yeah, I mean we've made four of them so far and we were thinking maybe it was time to do something else.

KOTICK: (hopefully) Like a reboot of Call of Duty?

WEST: No, like a new series.

KOTICK: Or an alternate history where rocket launchers are twice as big.

WEST: Not a Call of Duty game. A completely different series.

Kotick sits back in his throne, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

WEST: Also, we'd like our royalties for the last game.

Kotick remains silent for several seconds. Eventually he leans forward, smiling.

KOTICK: You know what, you're right. I think it's time for a change.

WEST: I'm glad we're in agreement.

KOTICK: Guards, please give West his royalties for Modern Warfare 2.

Two security guards approach West.

KOTICK: Oh, but before you do that: throw him out and don't give him his royalties from Modern Warfare 2.

The guards grab West by his arms and drag him away.


I'm exaggerating the situation obviously but many gamers believe some version of that scene. They think that Activision cheated Infinity Ward out of Modern Warfare 2's huge profits and fired the founders because they weren't content with IW becoming a cheap factory for Call of Duty games. Activision obviously disagrees with this interpretation. In their version of the events, West and Vince Zampella were insubordinate opportunists looking to cut a deal with rival publisher EA.

In any sort of developer/publisher dispute, though, gamers' default position is to side with the devs. The developers, after all, are the ones actually building the game. They want to make a fun product while the publishers want to make sure it's efficient, too. If they were parents, the developer would be the mom who lets you ride on the cart at Home Depot while the publisher would be the dad arguing with the clerk about the cost of galvanized screws. You need both mentalities to get the job done but if you've got to choose one or the other, who wouldn't pick the fun parent? Everyone sympathized with West, Zampella and all the Infinity Ward staffers who left with them and criticized Activision for being unimaginative bean counters.

Call of Duty was the collateral damage of this dispute. It became a symbol of Activision's seeming obsession with the bottom line. Rather than being perceived as what it is - a series of pretty good shooters - it's seen by many as a loveless product hawked every fall for maximum profits.

Cash Rule Everything Around Me

It's easy for Activision's detractors to paint them as money-obsessed, even without the West/Zampella incident. There's been a new Call of Duty every year since Call of Duty 2 in 2005. They don't adhere to that annual schedule solely out of love for the series (Infinity Ward was clearly over it by 2009). They do it because it's so goddamn profitable.

You can paint them as unimaginative, but they're far from irrational. You think they're going to stop making annual sequels when each new game makes more money than the last? How else do you expect them to react to that?

INT. ACTIVISION CEO'S OFFICE - NOVEMBER 2009

KOTICK's SECRETARY enters.

SECRETARY: Mr. Kotick, Modern Warfare 2 made $310 million today!

KOTICK: Yessss!


INT. ACTIVISION CEO'S OFFICE - NOVEMBER 2010

KOTICK's SECRETARY enters.

SECRETARY: Mr. Kotick, Black Ops made $360 million today!

KOTICK: This is the wake-up call we needed. Time to stop making new Call of Duty games.


INT. ACTIVISION CEO'S OFFICE - NOVEMBER 2011

KOTICK's SECRETARY enters.

SECRETARY: Mr. Kotick, Modern Warfare 3 made $400 million today!

KOTICK: Damn it, Ginger, why did you talk me out of abandoning Call of Duty? There's no recovering from this disaster. Time to resign.


INT. LA OFICINA DE LA GERENTE GENERAL, CERVEZA TIJUANA - NOVEMBER 2012

KOTICK's SECRETARY enters.

SECRETARY: Senor Kotick, Black Ops 2 ganó $500 millones hoy!

KOTICK: How do you keep finding me?!


Activision is going to continue making Call of Duty games so long as they keep making an absurd amount of money. Hell, they'll make them even if they're only making a half-absurd amount of money. Can you blame them?

The answer is: yes, many of you do blame them. You see the sort of profits that Activision rakes in with a new Call of Duty game and wonder why the innovative game you picked up only earned a fraction of that. It seems unfair that Dishonored earned far less money than Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, doesn't it? Some would even go so far as to blame Black Ops 2 for Dishonored's sales: maybe Arkane's game would've gotten a bigger audience if it didn't have to compete for gamers' attention and money with the 800-pound gorilla that is Call of Duty.

It's possible that Call of Duty is sucking up oxygen and making it harder for new IP's to find an audience. It seems equally likely, though, that the sort of gamers who pick up Dishonored aren't the sort who want to play Black Ops 2. Also, Call of Duty is far from the only big sequel out there. Why does COD soak up more blame than any other huge franchises out there?

Because Call of Duty's the biggest franchise around, it's the biggest target. The phenomenal success that COD enjoys while studios close left and right invites scorn. It's, once again, a symbol. Call of Duty represents the regular triumph of established brands with heavy marketing budgets over innovative products. They're the Goliath to everyone's David - assuming Goliath killed David in sales and David had to make a Kickstarter campaign because he can't find a publisher for his puzzle platformer.

Different Verse, Same As The First

Activision's desire to release a new Call of Duty game every year comes with a cost, though. The developer simply doesn't have the time to deliver a completely original experience each November. There's also not much incentive to do so because, again, making shit-tons of money isn't really conducive to soul-searching.

Each new game in the series follows the same basic formula:
  • Four- to six-hour campaign in which special forces fight mad man with doomsday weapon. Each mission is tightly scripted, with players following a bread crumb trail of objectives from beginning to end.
  • Competitive multiplayer modes such as team deathmatch, capture the flag and territory control. Players outfit their characters with custom perks and equipment and earn more as they gain experience.
  • Co-op modes. Zombies optional.
The developers mix in a few experiments from time to time, like Black Ops' Wager Matches or Black Ops 2' weird real-time strategy missions. These features often feel underdeveloped though and tend to disappear as mysteriously as they arrive. They're like a wacky character added in the eighth season of a sitcom. It's only a distraction from the fact that the main product is pretty much the same.

Here's the kicker, though: this isn't a bad formula. These games are fairly fun. They're not going to win awards but they're far from terrible. If you think Black Ops 2 is the worst shooter ever, you clearly haven't played Shellshock 2, Rogue Warrior or most other games lining the bottom of the GameStop bargain bin.

So, why the hatred? Because releasing similar sequels every year works so damn well for Activision. Activision isn't the first to try this game plan - EA's been doing it for years with their sports games - but they execute it better than anyone. It's like they don't even have to try to outsell your favorite indie game. I'm half-expecting Black Ops 3 to just be Black Ops 2 with a new racing stripe on the box.

I think what really concerns everyone about Activision's Call of Duty strategy is that other publishers might replicate it. They might see COD's massive annual success and decide that they, too, need to double-down on their big franchises. Ubisoft is clearly taking that approach with Assassin's Creed.

This move toward annualized franchises doesn't just hurt the new IP's from rival companies that have to face off against these juggernauts. The amount of resources necessary to make sure there's a sequel in stores every year also sucks up time and resources that could be devoted to smaller, more innovative projects. Ubisoft used 8 studios to make Assassin's Creed 4 but can't spare one to finally finish Beyond Good and Evil 2.

Any gamer looking for something new and fresh to play has to be disturbed by publishers gravitating toward massive, low-risk projects like this. Activision's not the first to do it but because they're so skilled at this approach, they're going to get the blame.

Hate On

"So are you telling me I shouldn't hate Call of Duty as much?"

No, not at all. Call of Duty exists in its current form because of how successful it is. The only way the series is going to change (or end) is if people stop buying it. You have every right to tell your friends it's shit, complain about it on forums, and more.

That being said: you should realize that your campaign probably won't work. There are millions of people who love the shit out of Call of Duty and will buy each sequel no matter what you say. The series could go on for another decade or more. What's more, by the time COD finally dies, you're not going to feel any better. It's just going to be replaced by a franchise you hate just as much.

Chuck Klosterman summed up the sentiment better than I can: "Don't get pissed off over the fact that the way you feel about culture isn't some kind of universal consensus. Because if you do, you will end up feeling betrayed. And it will be your own fault. You will feel bad, and you will deserve it."

If you still feel like hating, the comment section's below. Have at it. Don't expect too much to come of it, though.

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