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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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Johnny Minkley avatar
Johnny Minkley: Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.
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