While Grand Theft Auto may remain the industry's true juggernaut, pretty much the only single franchise whose launch is capable of spiking software sales figures for an entire year and pushing all rivals out of the field in the process, Call of Duty has become the industry's banner carrier in a different way. GTA's extraordinary launches are such enormous events precisely because Rockstar wisely chose to avoid the annual update treadmill with the game; Call of Duty, meanwhile, has managed to continue a steady streak of enormous launches despite the punishing requirements of such a schedule.
It's hard to overstate just how important this difference in approach is to a game franchise. GTA's main instalments are all developed by the same studio, Rockstar North, meaning that each subsequent game begins its lengthy gestation after the launch of the previous title. The result is that the ball is rarely if ever dropped in terms of quality; no untested team gets to mess things up in an "off-year". Each new GTA game follows a clear evolutionary path from the previous game, as the studio learns and develops its approach; a major advantage over the "three steps forward, two steps back" games that result from an annual update cycle with different teams working on different schedules. Finally, GTA's spaced out launches give each one the sense of being a genuinely enormous event, and the games continue to sell at a solid price point for many months after launch, a feat which is otherwise only achieved in this industry by Nintendo's key titles.
"The sheer scale of GTA's success has made it into an unbalancing factor in the publisher's figures"
Again, this contrasts with the annual update cycle for games like Call of Duty; on a couple of occasions, new CoD games have arguably truncated the sales of their predecessors when they launched. All of these benefits, however, are outweighed by the big problem with such an irregular launch cycle, namely that it plays merry hell with Take Two's financial performance. The sheer scale of GTA's success has made it into an unbalancing factor in the publisher's figures; it means that from the perspective of the markets, everything else Take Two does is relegated to being a "snack between GTAs". The "snack" quarters in the company's financials are by no means bad, but they end up being compared, desperately unfairly, to the GTA quarters, and analysts fret endlessly over whether the company is a one-trick pony and how far down the tubes it will go if GTA ever falters. Of course, annual updates also make more money - in the short term, arguably; GTA may be genuinely evergreen due to its slow update cycle, where annually updated games, apart from sports titles, tend inevitably to lose steam). But even if they didn't, it's hard to imagine a company like Activision risking a "spiky" set of financial results. Huge companies don't just want to make more money; they want to make more money in a predictable way, with a nice growth curve and no nasty dips that make shareholders lose confidence.
Thus we end up with the situation now facing the Call of Duty franchise. We're a long day from the heady days of Infinity Ward's groundbreaking CoD 4: Modern Warfare. As of this year, there are now three separate studios working on the franchise, with the instalment that launched this week, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare ("CODAW", which is fun to say but not remotely as fun as "CODBLOPS" was a few years back) being the first full game in the franchise from Sledgehammer. This is one interesting approach to keeping the quality of the games high in spite of the annual treadmill; the other key approach being employed by Activision is to throw money at the franchise like confetti at a particularly exuberant wedding, with CODAW's most eye-opening use of cash being the suitcases full of it which were presumably delivered to Kevin Spacey's door in order to persuade him to dress up in a motion capture gimp suit and deliver a villainous performance that's at times delightfully Frank Underwood but all too often disappointingly Lex Luthor.
"This year's game has had great critical response thus far, so it represents an important test - given that the quality bar has arguably been returned to a solid level"
Keeping the quality bar high is an extraordinarily important task for Activision - be it through giving studios the time they need to genuinely polish their franchise instalments, or hiring famous faces to do their best with the games' B-movie scripts (seriously, CODAW's singleplayer campaign was apparently written by a 15 year old off his tits on Mountain Dew and Doritos who had just watched Michael Bay's Transformers movies back-to-back and emerged with the sole complaint that "there weren't enough explosions"). Last year's CoD: Ghosts was judged both critically and commercially as a slip for the series, which may be partially responsible for the lower pre-orders for this year's instalment which have been tracked by many analysts.
This year's game has had great critical response thus far, so it represents an important test - given that the quality bar has arguably been returned to a solid level (it's all subjective, of course, but the overall tenor of the coverage is positive), will sales also get back to an even keel? Or was CoD Ghosts' weak commercial showing the start of a slide for the series which can only be reversed by a truly radical reinvention? Consumer fatigue, after all, is absolutely a real thing. It's even tougher for games that for movies; the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies could probably continue for many years to come, since they only ask consumers for a couple of hours of time every few months. CoD players invest dozens upon dozens of hours in each game (in some cases, hundreds), which makes it much more likely that they'll burn out; that at some point, they'll reach an annual update that's just a step too far for them. The best defence against this is keeping the franchise fresh, consistently reinvigorated with new ideas, and of course, keeping the quality bar high; but even that may not halt the slow decline
"CoD players invest dozens upon dozens of hours in each game (in some cases, hundreds), which makes it much more likely that they'll burn out"
This year could go either way for COD. Pre-orders are definitely down on the previous year, which does not bode well, but that doesn't take into account digital pre-orders - and it's worth noting that on the new-gen consoles there appears to be a very strong trend towards digital pre-orders and first week digital purchases. Activision claims that purchase intent is tracking high, although that's Schrödinger's Statistic to a large extent - you don't know for sure if it's remotely accurate or not until you open the box with the sales figures inside.
Still, all in all there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. There are also reasons to be cautiously pessimistic. One of the biggest problems facing COD this year is, oddly, one of Activision's own successes - Destiny, which has attracted and continues to enthral a very large number of the core FPS fans who might otherwise be expected to devote themselves to CODAW. It seems plausible that the long gap between Destiny's launch and the appearance of the first content pack, The Dark Below, is at least partially in order to give players a lull in which investing in COD will seem appealing; it will be interesting to see if that actually works.
"if this year's numbers can't match last year's it will be taken as clear evidence that a peak has been passed"
The single biggest challenge, however, lies within COD itself. It's a remarkably successful game and will continue to sell well for years to come, but if this year's numbers can't match last year's (even in spite of much more positive critical reception and consumer word-of-mouth), it will be taken as clear evidence that a peak has been passed. Consumer fatigue, high competition and perhaps a lingering sense of being burned by Ghosts are all potentially damaging factors for the franchise this year; should they conspire to push sales down even by a few percentage points year-on-year, tough questions will have to be asked about the future of Activision's annual cash- Indeed, in that instance, one might ask some tough questions about Activision itself.
It's odd, perhaps, to question a company's prospects when it has just announced record financials, but it's entirely possible that this is a peak for the publisher. World of Warcraft is far from its peak figures, in spite of occasional bumps when expansions are launched, and Blizzard's putative replacement, Titan, has been cancelled. Destiny has yet to prove itself as a franchise despite an amazing launch, and as I indicated last year, I'm not sure that Activision and the game's fanbase see eye-to-eye on how it's going to develop over the coming years. If Call of Duty also shows itself to be coming off the boil, then only Hearthstone will remain as a truly unblemished bright spot in Activision's line-up. The markets will, no doubt, have noticed this already; Call of Duty Advanced Warfare's performance is going to be subjected to intense scrutiny over the coming weeks and months, as analysts and investors attempt to divine Activision's future from this crucial data point.