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Call of Duty: No, it's not "review proof"

Other analysts chime in to counter Cowen and Company's assertion about the impact of reviews on game sales

Yesterday, Cowen and Company analyst Doug Creutz commented on the sales of Activision's Call of Duty: Ghosts, which has already sold-in $1 billion despite seeing less than stellar reviews from the media (an average rating in the mid-70s). Creutz asserted that because the Call of Duty brand has become so strong, fans are likely to pick up the newest editions yearly, regardless of reviews.

Analysts GamesIndustry International chatted with, however, beg to differ. "I know Doug, like him a lot, but he's wrong," said Wedbush Securities' Michael Pachter. "Reviews matter at the margin, and certainly can help or hurt sales by 10 percent. In Call of Duty's case, 10 percent is 2 million units. I'm not sure that a 76 average Metacritic score is enough to hurt sales by that much, but it doesn't help."

Indeed, there's a reason that Activision reported sell-in numbers and not sell-through to consumers. On the earnings call, executives mentioned that they expect top franchises like Call of Duty and Skylanders to follow a different sales curve, in part due to the console transition and in part due to the fact that Black Friday comes later. Regardless, for people who haven't yet purchased Ghosts, you have to wonder what impact the lower review scores will have on their decision to buy or not.

"Review Scores have always ranked in the top three among metrics that correlate the most positively to game sales"

Jesse Divnich

"Strong franchises like Call of Duty: Ghosts tend to benefit from a halo effect (no pun intended), but no game is 'review proof.' A franchise's increasingly stronger past performance does not guarantee that sales records will continue to be broken. Reviews are important and affect sales performance -- titles with higher review scores typically sell more units. Positive pre-release coverage enhances pre-sale transactions as well as sales at and around launch. Research backs up all of these assumptions. Gamers and publishers are very aware of review scores and metacritic scores are used as indications of quality and potential popularity," noted independent analyst Billy Pidgeon.

He continued, "It's also very useful to consider consumer rankings when estimating expected sales performance. If scores have been in decline for two or three versions of a hit franchise, a drop in sales could be in effect or due. If scores are down across a genre, that genre could be cooling. With first-person shooters like CoD, Battlefield and Halo, multiplayer session frequency and popularity is a strong net effect and atypical declines in player population could precipitate title or genre sales declines. Pending PS4 and Xbox One launches are another big factor to consider here -- there could be some cooling in sales of high performance franchises. During this console transition, overall software sales should be strong, but I expect fewer record breaking sales by title in the near-term."

As Pidgeon notes, research shows that reviews certainly seem to have an impact, and EEDAR is one of the firms tracking that impact. Analyst Jesse Divnich told us, "Review Scores have always ranked in the top three among metrics that correlate the most positively to game sales. However, their influence fluctuates when additional variables are added."

"One trend we've observed is that the correlation between Review Scores and Unit Sales declines by 24 percent from games launched early in a launch cycle (the first third) compared to games launched late in a launch cycle (the last third). While a positive, and very relevant, relationship still exists, it is still a considerable but explainable decline."

He further explained, "During the early years of a console cycle, consumers are far more likely to try new intellectual properties or purchase games of existing brands they've never played before. But with this willingness to try something new, consumers will still mitigate the risk of uncertainty through research. Whether that is asking advice within one's social circle or reading articles online/print, there is some level of high correlation back to the quality of the game which is best captured with the aggregated review score."

To Creutz's point, Divnich did acknowledge that brand loyalty carries a lot of weight as well. "After one or even two strong releases, a brand loyalty bond is created which is stronger than the influence of outside factors such as review scores," he added. "Consumers are willing to overlook one bad review score of their favorite movie brand if they've had multiple positive experiences with previous iterations. One set of bad review scores is unlikely to break that loyalty bond. We are, after all, creatures of habit. One mediocre set of reviews is unlikely to impact sales from loyalists. It would definitely impact newcomers into the market, but at year eight into a cycle, those rarely exist."

Ultimately, "no brand is review score proof," Divnich remarked, "but some are more resistant than others."

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Latest comments (12)

Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart7 years ago
A mid 70s average score for Call of Duty is good and consistent given the previous scores of CoD games. Furthermore Call of Duty fans know reviewers hate it and knock it while they love playing it so they ignore reviews and assume they are Battlefiled fanboys (like PC Gamer). This love/hate gets worse every iteration as frustrated reviewers pinning for 'innovation' keep kicking it and yet the CoD fans keep ignoring them and keep buying it. The reality is a fast paced Military based FPS is a genre in itself. People tend to ignore this. Battlefield crosses over in places. But for a pure team Military FPS genre Cod is king of the hill. When people talk CoD decline what people are really saying is that 40 million players will suddenly become tired of that genre and want to play Psychonauts [insert innovation etc] instead. They won't. And the churn is minimal as while people may leave young people grow up and then start playing the game everyone plays. It will go on and on.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes7 years ago
"Indeed, there's a reason that Activision reported sell-in numbers and not sell-through to consumers."

Would that be because it's completely standard practice in our industry to report sell-in numbers? It's actually impossible for Activision to have sell through numbers for a start (at this juncture). Nothing is review proof in the long term, but Ghosts seems to be suffering as much a "hmm, maybe it's time to take them down a peg" style reviews as much as anything, all the criticisms aimed at Ghosts could have been thrown at the last three iterations. Maybe Destructoid received a really nice pressie from EA.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Richard Browne on 7th November 2013 5:35pm

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Jasmine Henry Freelance Journalist 7 years ago
I completely understand that Activision expects to sell shedloads of copies of Call of Duty every year but haven't they learnt from their past mistakes? Everyone points to Guitar Hero when talking about this sort of thing and rightfully so. Activision failed to innovate and now that series doesn't exist due to a massive drop off in sales.

Even if they don't think they'll be too impacted by the quality of their own game surely the quality of other titles, like Battlefield 4, as mentioned and Killzone Shadow Fall and Destiny and all of the other great yet to be released first person shooters will come in to play? The Call of Duty franchise absolutely has more years to go but the house of cards is inevitably going to come toppling down, thanks to competitors, fatigued fans and review scores and the sooner Activision realise that, the better.
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Show all comments (12)
Anthony Chan7 years ago
@Jasmine I agree with you on BF4, but do not agree with you on Killzone or Destiny. As Graham stated, this genre is very special. CoD cannot be compared to other FPS, because it generates different interests in a whole totally different breed of gamer.

Destiny can be compared to Halo, Killzone, or any non-realistic FPS. The binding concept is the guns used. Because the guns are real and in military service this (sadly) provides a level of fantasy that is farther reaching than Halo.

The FPS-er mentality is different from the CoD-er mentality. The CoD-er regards what they are doing not as a video game (hence why I agree with the statements regarding non-gamers from Infinity Ward) but as a team sport and a fantasy. CoD (and BF4) provides sense of macho-ism and sadly gives them a "feel" of the meaning behing Hoo-RAH and comraderie without even going to war.

Unfortunately being an alien for some reason does not give the CoD-er the same feeling, nor firing a non-existent weapon. Worse, it seems killing aliens does not give the CoD-er the same satisfaction as killing a terrorist :(

This is why CoD will always exist. Because in their niche market they (and BF4) are the best of the best.

Note: What a lot of analysts do not recognize is the effect of being the best FIRST. One of our case studies involved Blizzard and World of Warcraft. WoW is one game where because they were the best first, their reign is "superpower" level (just like a geographical superpower they will fall but their decline is a long ways away). WoW "casualized" the MMO genre at the right stage of its life and captured the non-gamer market to immortalize its position. As a result, many games who are in the same genre will sell very well, but none will every truly unseat WoW from its seat as supreme. The closest in recent memory is GW2. Even that game did not manage to dethrone WoW. In addition, many games will unfortunately be compare to WoW at a disadvantage (ie "ToR is like WoW but in the Star Wars universe, I wish they had a better dungeon finder tool"). ToR on its on merits as a video game is great, story is even better than WoW. But it will always be compared in its current state to WoW's current stage and this is devastating to ToR.

BF4 and CoD are the same. Both are distinct enough in the FPS market that they will have thrones of their own. However every newcomer will be compared to the current set of funtions and benefits of playing a mature and well oiled MILITARY FPS. One example would be Spec Ops: The Line. A great game, and very good on its own merits - but cannot unseat CoD or BF4. Another flaw @Jasmine, is that you compare BF4 to CoD. However if you have played both games deeply enough, you will recognize the ebb and flow for each of their multiplayer scenarios are quite different. I find BF4 geared towards grand objective team-based combat where vehicles are required because the maps are so huge. CoD has always been about medium to small sized maps that excel at Close Quarter Combat and some sniping - perfect for deathmatches. Also CoD does not have the realism that BF4 has (but nowhere as far fetched as what Titanfall or Destiny will be) - ie you may actually score some kills jumping across a roof and firing below you with your AK-47 assault rifle.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 7th November 2013 6:09pm

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Pete Thompson Editor 7 years ago
I gotta agree with Graham again.. I glanced over a few reviews for Ghost's last night and it would seem that every year the same sites moan about CoD being the same ol same ol every year, instead of an writing an unbiased review of the game on its merits as a new title with new features that gamer's (my self included) obviously want to play every year..
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
This is a single player perspective:


Move-Take Cover-Aim-PopUp-Move-Take Cover-Aim-PopUp-Move-Take Cover-Aim-PopUp-Move-Take Cover-Aim-PopUp-Move-Take Cover-Aim-PopUp-Move-Take Cover-Aim-PopUp-Move-Take Cover-Aim-PopUp.

Now play the original Doom. No cover, no movement penalty, no segmentation of actions, no cutscenes, just enter the flow and glide through. A lot of games might be called fps, or thrid person cover shooter, but there are significant differences in how they play. Compare trotting Gears of War to Vanquish. Compare games favoring running backwards and shooting, to games forcing you to push forward. Compare games favoring stop and go with dialoge breaks with games relentlessy keeping the pace up. Games in which you pick up a gun to fight, couldn't be more different from another. With tastes being different, it is no surprise the same reviewers will come to similar conclusion, if a franchise chooses to stick to its formula.

Even more so, worlds apart with lightyears of empty space in between.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 7th November 2013 6:59pm

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Benjamin Kratsch Freelance Journalist, GLP Media7 years ago
In all honesty: It's tough to review Call of Duty, because from an editorial standpoint there is a lot missing:
no character depth, lack of an intelligent story, lack of gameplay innovation (Black Ops had RTS elements; Ghosts doesn't) - Buuut - it's fun. It's as simple as that: I had a blast playing through it. It's an adrenaline rush like with a Die Hard Movie or something and the multiplayer is a ton of fun as well if you have your friends around and do some teamwork.

So my guess is: A lot of those reviewers actually have fun. There were review events and we had such a good time playing in a tournament against other teams and stuff. But when they a writing the review it's like they do the math and the score is way lower than they felt about the game when they played it.

I mean I don't understand why Activison doesn't just pay 5000 dollar or something per month for a really good writer - they could get rid of those problems so easily, which obviously pisses of the press. Just give your characters background and make people care about them. When you have to rescue Ajax for example you don't emotionally care, because he is just a random dude. Gears3 or Battlefield4 are much stronger in that regard.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Benjamin Kratsch on 7th November 2013 11:36pm

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Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart7 years ago
I still can't beleive they killed Ghost back in MW2. That still riles.
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Shawn Clapper Programmer 7 years ago
They need to be more clear that this $1 Billion information Activision is pushing is what has been sold to retailers and is not an indicator of amount sold to customers.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago
Yes Call of Duty pretty much is review proof and ironically it's the idiotic, bribe and back hand taking journalists that are responsible for the situation. I find it frankly laughable that it's journalist that are now complaining when someone finally points out that they have pretty much lied their way out of any meaningful relevance in the industry.

The amount of times over the last 10 years that certain games, despite huge bugs, obvious unfinished code etc. etc , have somehow gained 10/10 ratings and been praised for their originality any polish is uncountable. Now, when those gamers following the franchises don't even bother to read the review anymore and simply say it's an obvious 10/10 so I'll just auto buy it.

The journalists suddenly get upset (likely because Activision doesn't need them anymore so doesn't have to spend the media budget to woo them). Just look at the GTA series. Anyone who's played the latest one and can honestly tell me they have any intention of actually finishing it or that they didn't get super fed up of driving about and finally just grabbed taxies everywhere out of frustration. I will simply nod at them and call them a lair under my breath.

In this instance I think this is just reality catching up to the gaming press. They've become so un-trustworthy that they've effectively made themselves redundant. Maybe it's time for that long overdue clean-up that they were talking about a few months back and that suddenly went all silent.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent7 years ago
Yes Call of Duty pretty much is review proof and ironically it's the idiotic, bribe and back hand taking journalists that are responsible for the situation. I find it frankly laughable that it's journalist that are now complaining when someone finally points out that they have pretty much lied their way out of any meaningful relevance in the industry.
Personally, I'm glad to work in a profession in which I'm ethically burdened enough to have to cite established or empirical sources before spreading paranoid and/or apocryphal generalisations.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 9th November 2013 4:03pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Go to Amazon.
Read user reviews for Ghosts.
Read user reviews for Black Ops2

Even if all the negative word of mouth does not impact sales too much this year, the franchise will carry an heavier burden next year.
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