Internal memo reveals bullish Activision

Hirschberg says CoD will not suffer fate of Guitar Hero

An internal Activision memo from CEO Eric Hirschberg has shed light on the publisher's strength of belief in flagship series Call of Duty, the steady growth of which Hirschberg takes as a sign of continued longevity.

Two memos were leaked to US gaming site Giant Bomb; one from Hirschberg and another, as yet unpublished, from somebody else in the company. Hirschberg's memo takes the form of a Q&A, with one of the first questions on the list asking: "Isn't Call of Duty today just like Guitar Hero was a few years back?"

"This is a great question and one we have thought about a lot," Hirshberg replies in the February memo. "But there are several key differences between the two franchises worth considering. Guitar Hero quickly reached incredible heights, but then began a steady decline. Call of Duty, on the other hand, has steadily grown every single year of its seven-year existence."

Call of Duty has certainly seen sustained growth since 2004, but it was Modern Warfare which really kicked the series into high gear, culminating in Black Ops 5.6 million day-one sales across the US and UK. One of the major factors in securing, and maintaining , that audience, says Hirschberg, is the online community.

"Guitar Hero was a new genre which had incredible appeal, but which had not stood the test of time," Hirschberg writes. "Call of Duty exists in a genre - first person shooters - that has shown remarkable staying power and wide appeal over a period of decades. Plus, Call of Duty has inspired a massive, persistent, online community of players, making it perhaps the 'stickiest' game of all time."

But the golden goose will not feed itself. Hirschberg is keen to highlight the dangers of complacency, warning that, without innovation, Call of Duty could easily stagnate and falter. That innovation, he says, is something not in short supply at the publisher, but is not something which is always given proper recognition.

"If you really step back and dispassionately look at any measurement - sales, player engagement, hours of online play, performance of DLC - you can absolutely conclude that the potential for this franchise has never been greater.

"In order to achieve this potential, we need to focus: on making games that constantly raise the quality bar; on staying ahead of the innovation curve; on surrounding the brand with a suite of services and an online community that makes our fans never want to leave. Entertainment franchises with staying power are rare. But Call of Duty shows all of the signs of being able to be one of them. It's up to us.

"Activision doesn't always seem to get the credit it deserves in terms of innovation in my opinion, but there is no short supply of it, even in our narrower slate.

"As I said, when you look at this list of projects and the innovations embedded within them, it is a pipeline any company would kill for."

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Latest comments (13)

Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game8 years ago
In the short term, CoD should be safe, but long term I think he's kidding himself.
He himself pointed to innovation, but the problem here is that with a yearly update, whilst if you keep things the same, people will get bored, every significant change to such a key franchise is going to alienate people.
The other thing is it some point something new will come along. Personally (this is an opinion, and could well be wrong) I don't think EA are on the right track with Medal of Honor, I don't think they will steal CoDs thunder with something so reminicent. And perhaps Battlefield, whilst well loved, is just not as accesable.
But the new first person crown could go anywhere. 14 years of legend may or maynot make DNF the biggest thing ever. At Eurogamer next year you couldn't get a go on Brink without waiting 3 hours despite it having more stations than anyone else, and everyone I know who did get a go came off saying it was amazing. This may or may not take the crown. Or it may be some fantasy shooter. It may not be this year or next But what is for sure is that something will explode and start taking gameplay hours away from CoD, and once that starts, we'll see a decline.
What EA have got right is how spread their bets are. If(when?) CoD falters, what is left in Activision's non-blizzard roster? Spyro maybe?
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Joe Winkler trained retail salesman, Expert8 years ago
Very well written Andrew.
The yearly updates will fail someday. EA has at least the Frostbite engine, wich makes shooter more playable. I think Bad Company 2 is the best balanced online shooter to date. Call of Duty just stacks up new "perks" and features like throwing knives to keep people entertained while the battlefield series doesnīt just depend on new graphics but more on their combination between the look and the interaction of the game.
I know destruction isnīt new to the genre (shooting through doors in Goldeneye and considering Red Faction) but it never were as good as in B.BC 2.
I am really looking forward to Brink hoping the mixed genres will combine formidable.
The new CoD will be the best selling game on holiday in 2011, or at least thatīs what I am afraid of.
Letīs just hope to see a "real" new feature this time.
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Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart8 years ago
Guitar Hero failed because of the expensive high margin peripherals right at the time of the deepest recession since the '30s. Hence the deceleration was much quicker than it would probably have been. People could not afford the peripherals. The real problem was there was no growth after everyone bought one. Paying $30 for more songs as a follow up did not prove a financially viable business model. People don't pay for music anymore so why would they in a game? I suspect the dance titles would suffer the same fate (for example I can't see myself buying a Dance Central 2 even though the first is great fun). Though the Ubisoft titles of the Wii seem to be defying that somehow.

CoD in contrast is still growing. The age of the franchise is irrelavent as long as it grows. Look at McDonalds, a stunning growth model and see how they adapted the menu to changing consumer tastes over time. The same will happen to CoD. Yeh, you'll have a Burger King (read Battlefield) occasionally but McDonalds will always reign as the market leader.
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Show all comments (13)
Andreas Firnigl senior designer, Cohort Studios Ltd8 years ago
I think a more succinct comparison would be the FIFA and Pro Evolution/Winning 11 franchises. Or Madden in the US.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
One must ask the question if a mainstream audience even buys games due to their quality. Think of movie licenses as one segment of the market where quality never seemed to get in the way of unit sales. Outside of movie franchises it seems that currently big names are outselling bigger quality. There might be a quality threshold you do not want to fall below, but there is certainly a level of quality beyond which the mainstream cannot see and goes for the bigger name.

What modern Warfare brought to the genre was the setting. Before, the commercial space was dominated by World War 2 and only free games such as Counter-Strike used current setting. MW combined that with the game mechanic of making their players grind and trying to globally rank them. If Activision wants similar success, they need to stay on top of developments in this area, not just make the next game a carbon copy of the existing CoD design.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game8 years ago
I agree that they will be OK as a profitable game for the foreseeable future, but if they sell 6 million copies, which would be very good for most games, that would be a big crisis for CoD, the way they are banking on it. So whilst I think it would be a bit crazy to say it wasn't going to keep selling very well, it may not sell the 15 or 20 million that the last few instalments have achieved. This would be fine if it was part of a strong line up, rather than being one of 3 key titles.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
Let us also not forget that if you removed World of Warcraft from Activision's financial report (it lists both costs and revenue of the MMO), then Activision would be in the red, making a yearly loss of roughly $700 million (at least if they continued paying the same bonuses, which they probably wouldn't). But it goes to show that Activision runs a lot of costs and does have quite a few underperformers in its lineup. Activision knows best which titles of them are financially viable and which are the ones dragging them down. What other choice do they have but to aggressively push their big franchises?

Some reading material on the topic:
[link url=

There you can see the challenges ahead for Activision. We may laugh about EA and their yearly iterations, but those are yearly iteration which worked for 10 years and more now. EA might be the slightly smaller company right now, but they have stamina. If Activision gets bullish internally, then it is probably the competition they feel breathing down their neck.
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Toby Ross Studying Computer Science, University of Warwick8 years ago
Activision's main difficulty will be in managing the transition between consoles. Activision hav edone very well to manage to keep casual players but I don't find many hardcore gamers who still get that excited about it. The same people are the people who make up the bulk of the base in the years after a new console launch.

Come 2014, Call of Duty may finally need to innovate past Modern Warfare, which is what it still essentially is. They may have to win back the fans they've alienated, and that may be quite hard given the growing disillusionment with Activision/IW/Treyarch.

As for the next handful of Call of Duty's? Well, if any game has a change of changing things it's Battlefield 3, wait to see what they show in terms of the online features, but it's a longshot. Modern Warfare 3 must be one of the most widely anticipated games ever (perhaps it is the most widely anticipated game ever?), and while you and I can be pretty much assured it will be a carbon copy of a chinese whisper of Call of Duty 4 with a few bells, a few whistles, and a whole pile of gimmicks tacked on, that will not matter to the major chunk of the people they want to buy their games.

What Battlefield 3 may truly represent is the point where the more experienced games players start to migrate, but I'd still put CoD MW3 as the best selling release date ever as a solid bet.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
I think their last shot at a succesful call of duty game will be Modern Warfare 3... after that I dont see COD performing as well. But businesswise, I guess its a prudent choice to continue milking COD for what its worth. Not take chances doing something different and only do it when the franchise starts declining in sales.

Why fix something that isnt broken right? I think that when that starts to happen, they have time to do something different and they are still on a cushion that the previouse games have provided. Meaning that they are still safe incase a COD game bombs. Even at a great loss they have 2 or maybe even 3 attempts at turning the series around. Its not something many companies have. I guess COD is safe for a long while.

Black ops was only succesful because it came right bahind Modern Warfare2. When gamers were hot and in the need of another modern warefare fix. Black ops was the closest thing to it. Had it not been because of Modern Warfare I dont think it would have sold as well. I myself was not interested in COD till modern warfare and to this day Modern warfare 1 and 2 are the only COD games I find worth playing.

I think Guitar hero died because the game formula established didnt allow for anymore innovation. It worked for a time but the type of gameplay didnt allow for anything differant to be done with it. The natural step up would have been, user created content which harbored alot of legal issues and making the perphirals closer to playing a real instrument, in which case instead of playing guitar hero, why not simply pick up a real guitar and play it.

Besides, with all these artist bragging and bitching about there likeness being used and claiming royalties, suing... I myself wouldnt bother with the series. Half the kids today wouldnt even know about them if it wasnt for guitar hero. And the legalities behind making a game of this nature make it hard to develope. Even if you try to cover all the bases your always open to a legal battle with an artist claiming royalties for a simple thing like a character model looking like him, when it wasnt intentional.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 22nd April 2011 6:23pm

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Thomas Sigrist8 years ago
The quality of CoD peaked in MW1 and had a sharp decline since then. I wouldn't be "bullish" on this franchise at all. Innovation... They didn't innovate with software OR buisness strategie. I'm mean, they can write "DLC" on their innovation banner, but DLC's need strong IP's behind it. And the players really wont thank them for that, some investors will like it, but that's it with Activision's "innovation".
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Ryan Thickett8 years ago
look guys i think that cod can get boring very quickly once the new game comes out people will still buy it. the old cod gets boring, so they release a new one and everyone buys it. every cod is pretty much the same i admit but every time they add new things like better graphics more personalisation which is exactly why people buy it and will continue to buy it for a few years still. cod 5 brought us zombies, which was amazing and everyone loved it, modern warfare 2 brought us amazing maps and and much better graphics than cod 5 although people missed zombies.. so in cod 7 they announced they would bring it back, that generated instant sales. as well people enjoy the whole customisation that comes with cod now, you make your own classes with ever growing pieces of equipment to choose from, as well as gun camo. i mean if the next cod to come out is half as fun to play people are still gunna buy it.
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Gregory Hommel writer 8 years ago
The next COD will probably hav no trouble selling enough copies to warrant yet another installment next year, but the series is in decline without a doubt. I know this because I'm sick of it. One of the smaller reasons is that the quality bar is only being raised incrementally. Kind of like Madden football, but hey, Bobby Kotich has basically said that that is his goal. "Yearly exploitation" I believe it was. That might be a recipe for good business but it's a disastrous recipe for bad games. One of the biggest reasons I grow evermore tired of this franchise is the overpriced DLC. It will always be $14.99 no matter the quality or quantity of the content. I can get twice the content for Sony first party DLC for $4.99. The biggest reason I have sworn off COD games, and vowed to enthusiastically proclaim my love for the competition, is the lack of post launch support. Especially on PS3, there is a period of instability. After that things kind of run smooth for a while before people learning how to glitch and the second wave of sales completelly ruin the game for me. It seems that in every match I can't even get my gun up before I'm dead. I don't know if this is lag or glitching but it's been that way since Modern Warfare. So here's hoping Battlefield 3 is as awesome as it appears to be. Because I will never by another COD game again.
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Joe Winkler trained retail salesman, Expert8 years ago
"Because I will never by another COD game again." Thatīs exactly what I swore after MW 2. Moder Warfare 2 (even if it was from the far better dev. team Infinity Ward) was a big dissapointment. Playing the first week onlnine showed much of the unbalanced gameplay. Every second player had a Shotgun Akimbo and just runned and gunned over the whole map without aming at all.
They patched the game nearly every week to get a good weapon balancing. Thatīs just one of the things, the CoD series missed since MW 1. A lack of innovation and only some yearly updates (add some zombies, add more splatter e.g.) will crack the hardcore fanbase sooner or later.
Problem is: As long as the brand is big enough, there will be enough customers spending money on it.
It works with sport games ever since, so Activision can rely on that for a few more years- wich is sad obviously.
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