Is Call of Duty Really in Decline?

Johnny Minkley looks at the figures behind fresh claims that Activision's heavyweight is losing its edge

Picture the scene. It's January 2011, in the august surroundings of BAFTA's Piccadilly HQ, and a room full of journalists and broadcasters is noisily arguing about Call of Duty.

It was the annual gathering of the media panel to determine which ten games would be shortlisted and put to the public vote for the GAME Award at the 2011 Games BAFTAs.

The panel was split between those who felt Call of Duty: Black Ops should controversially be cast aside, and those (including me) who felt it would be preposterous to rule out a game of such popularity and acclaim from an audience award.

Anyway, sanity prevailed and, inevitably, it was the public's choice. After the prize had been handed out to Treyarch on the night, one of my fellow panelists wandered over and whispered conspiratorially: "See? I knew we shouldn't have put it through."

I relate this tale merely to illustrate how profoundly, passionately divisive Call of Duty has become both within the industry and amongst gamers. Not that a reminder was required given the reaction to this week's headlines.

"Sales of Call of Duty start to slump"; "Can Modern Warfare 4 save CoD from decline?"; "Has Call of Duty run out of steam?"

These all stemmed from a US report in which analysts noted that US sales of Modern Warfare 3 were 4.2 percent down on what the previous instalment, Black Ops, achieved in the same period the year before. More significantly, during March MW3 sold fewer than half the number Black Ops did in March 2011.

Slowing sales, a shorter tail, the first chinks in Activision's armour: decisive signs of a colossus in decline? The author of the first headline I quoted above subsequently tweeted: "Call of Duty is dying. Discuss." Okay, let's do that.

The US report doesn't quote sales figures, but it does put MW3's relative decline within the context of a market down 26 per cent in value on the previous month, the fourth monthly dip in a row.

I don't have access to US sales data, but I have been trawling through UK numbers to see if the trend is repeated over here. As ever, copyright prevents me from giving exact figures, but relative terms paint the picture clearly enough.

While Modern Warfare 3 is a little down on the previous instalment, it nevertheless bucks the general trend in the UK market as it has done in the US

Total boxed sales of Modern Warfare 3 in the UK to date (week 15 of 2012) are 7.6 percent down on what Black Ops had sold at this point in 2011 - after exactly the same number of weeks at retail (plus one day).

As for whether UK sales are tailing off, taking as a sample the last four weeks and comparing those with the corresponding period last year, it turns out Modern Warfare 3 is actually doing better by a third. (Prior to that, Black Ops enjoyed a big boost across weeks seven, eight and nine of 2011 before dropping off again).

We can go back further still. Modern Warfare 3's figures are virtually identical to Modern Warfare 2's for the same period (only 0.3 percent in it); and a whopping 73 percent up on 2008's World at War.

So rather than indicating decline, the figures if anything suggest series sales may have peaked. But while MW3 is a little down on the previous instalment, it nevertheless bucks the general trend in the UK market (as it has done in the US), where physical software sales are down by an eye-watering 28.8 percent year-on-year.

Not only that, but it has done so in the face of the fiercest competition in years, with EA declaring all-out marketing war with last year's Battlefield 3. Which, though well short of CoD's numbers, moved a heck of a lot of copies and still failed to dent its rival's sales, nor did it prevent Modern Warfare 3 from romping to $1 billion in sales in just 16 days - one day quicker than James Cameron's Avatar.

Consider also that Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games managed to produce a blockbuster of huge critical and commercial success in the torrid period after Jason West and Vince Zampella were sacked, working under the shadow of lawsuits and widespread doubts about the remaining team's ability.

And consider that, in a bid to consolidate the business and the community, Activision launched Call of Duty Elite, which had 1.5 million paying subscribers as of February, with a further 5.5m signed up for free membership.

So while sales may have peaked, I'm struggling to see any evidence of terminal decline. Part of the problem with Call of Duty is its sheer size and success have bred snobbery, contempt and envy as much as adulation.

While there are thoughtful, persuasive arguments on both sides about the relative merits of single- and multiplayer components within the series and versus the competition, all too often I see Call of Duty snootily dismissed out of hand as idiotic, recycled entertainment for mouth-breathing cretins with anger management issues.

The simple truth is, Activision's studios have given fans of this distinct genre of blockbuster entertainment what they want, better than anyone else. I'm fairly sure most gamers aren't sheep-like halfwits who will blindly buy up whatever old rubbish a publisher knocks out, and investing in the expensive hobby of gaming is rarely a trivial matter. If consumers feel they're being taken for granted or ripped off, or that success has made a studio complacent, they'll just go elsewhere.

Just ask Konami. Having disastrously fumbled the last console transition, its once beloved, successful Pro Evolution Soccer series now looks, in UK sales terms, doomed to relegation as EA's FIFA claims title after title. Meanwhile, Activision itself is unlikely to have done yet with licking the deep wounds left by Guitar Hero, the billion-dollar franchise it ran into the ground.

Part of the problem with Call of Duty is its sheer size and success have bred snobbery, contempt and envy as much as adulation

Of course, each year Activision repeats the existing Call of Duty formula, it becomes that much harder to conjure new ways to top it. So far, Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer have risen to the challenge magnificently. This year the difficulty goes up another notch.

While suggestions of Call of Duty's imminent demise, then, are greatly exaggerated, the concern for Activision is not the current version's sales, rather ensuring its audience continues to care.

After all, there were no furious arguments during this year's BAFTA panel when it came to the matter of putting Modern Warfare 3 on the shortlist. This time, however, the public voted for Battlefield 3.

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Latest comments (13)

Jonathan O'Connor10 years ago
BLOPS came out pretty much unopposed in the market, MW3 had a huge competitor in Battlefield 3 (which sold 13m units). I would say the fact that BF3 only ate 4% of it's fan base is pretty good going. I'm pretty sure the analyst in question took this into consideration, it's not like analysts sometimes look at raw data and come to the wrong conclusion just to grab a headline and boost their profile.....
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Nick Parker Consultant 10 years ago
Well done Johnny, good to see some analysis of the numbers. MW3 didn't just have battlefield as competition, the final quarter 2012 was one of the most fruitful in terms of heavy weight IP launches - Skyrim, SWTOR plus the usual perennials of FIFA and Assassins Creed all selling in respectable quantities. I'd like to see the total revenues for MW3 vs BLOPS in a couple of years to include all digital content then judge the market trend for COD.
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Martyn Brown Managing Director, Insight For Hire10 years ago
Recession, weakening retail perhaps playing a part?
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Show all comments (13)
Terence Gage Freelance writer 10 years ago
Another thing to consider is that although MW3's tail may appear shorter than BLOPS', were its day 1 sales bigger? It could just mean that more consumers are buying on launch rather than waiting until it has been out for months. Also, as pointed out, no other COD instalment has had a serious competitor in the form of Battlefield 3 before - both games have been huge successes of course, but considering the sheer weight of marketing behind BF3 I'm surprised it didn't make a bigger dent in MW3's sales. On the other hand, considering the PS3 & 360 are probably selling, what, 10+ million units between them per year in the West, it could be suggested that COD's sales are not growing at the rate one might expect.
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Tommy Thompson Lecturer in BSc (Hons) Computer Games Programming., University of Derby10 years ago
Still, even if the facts backed the rhetoric, the game has sold over 27 million copies. Mere single digit decline would not be that concerning given the continued growth since the days of Modern Warfare and World at War.

I guess it just helps fan the flames of the internet literati.
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 10 years ago
@ Preetpal

Your comment is exactly the kind of dismissive, idiotic generalisation Johnny references in this article - didn't you read it?!

COD will not die whilst tens of millions of people still buy every instalment. It's obviously popular, it's obviously what a lot of consumers want, and if you really think other game genres no longer exist I suggest you look further than the top 5 selling games in Tesco.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game10 years ago
Another factor is Steam sales. Are these included in the numbers, as Steam seems to be growing significantly every year.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up10 years ago
In my own personal opinion.....

Every franchise has to expand and stay relevant. This is no different. I feel that doing the same again, could potentially kill it though. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the single player missions branch out into anti terrorism and espionage given that there’s a bit less of an appetite for warfare in the real world, by western governments these days (the main markets). Its no coincidence that the franchise has been at its most successful when real world warfare/activity was at its peak. I’m sure the guys are prototyping all sorts behind the scenes to keep it interesting.
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This summer, COD has to save the planet again with Scorcher VII and coming soon in Christmas with IceAge apocalypse IX. Who are you gonna call for a FPS multiplier?
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Pete Thompson Editor 10 years ago
@ Jonathan O'Connor

As i remember it in the run up to BLOPS release day all we heard about from EA was how good Medal of Honor was with their barrage of Medal of Honor spin..

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pete Thompson on 17th April 2012 6:05pm

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Hugo Trepanier Senior Game Designer, Ludia10 years ago
The problem with COD may not be its current sales figures but its potential for repetitiveness over time. People really got bored of the overused WWII theme a few years back and now the same trend is slowly occurring with the modern warfare theme (not just with COD but with FPS genre in general).

I think for a strong and sane market we need more diversity. A solid future wars COD game would certainly be a welcome addition to the series. Or why not go the Assassin's Creed way and take a cue from the past? They could do like Dirt recently did with Showdown and start a spin-off series with a different focus (imagine for instance a stealth-based COD).

There are tons of other conflicts to explore and they can all be just as cinematic and exciting as the current generation of COD games, and more.
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James Verity10 years ago
seeing MW3 in Tesco at £25 says it all... never has a COD game ever not held its full price until MW3...

the problem with the COD series now is every version including the latest has the same old glitches going under maps (quickscoping), cheats and hackers wrecking the biggest part of the game, the Online bit... and what does anyone do about those that infest the leader boards with their cheating for all to see, thats right they pass the buck, Infinity Ward say's its Activision's problem, Sony says its Activison's problem, and Activison don't care who's problem it is, but its not theres, because they got all the money...

Devs, Publishers and Console manufacturers should be going out their way to ban gamers accounts that cheat and hack in online games... no matter who owns the system and no matter who owns the game running on it... just the ban accounts that cheat and hack online gaming...

Edited 2 times. Last edit by James Verity on 17th April 2012 7:25pm

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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent10 years ago
A thorough, factual, well-researched piece of journalism. Unlike the headlines that forced it into existence.
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