[Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris looks forward from the tumultuous midnight launch of Call Of Duty: Black Ops to ask where Activision's franchise goes from here, examining what Infinity Ward's shifts mean for 2011's CoD installment and beyond.]
As bleary eyed GameStop employees recover from last night's midnight launches and fans begin tearing through Call Of Duty: Black Ops, Activision's phenomenally successful franchise stands at something of a crossroads.
The fate of Black Ops is hardly in doubt, of course. Pre-orders are already telling us that it will dominate software industry sales this year.
And while Activision is publicly saying it doesn't expect the game to meet Modern Warfare 2's numbers, several analysts feel that's just the company taking a conservative stand to protect itself against investor backlash if the numbers really do fall short.
But the game is something of a crucial one for Activision. With the sudden February firings of Jason West and Vince Zampella, studio heads of Infinity Ward and the executive team that created the series, Activision pissed off the core gamer demographic. And in a series like Call of Duty, that can come back to haunt you.
"Black Ops is a pretty critical test for Activision," Colin Sebastian of Lazard Capital Markets tells Gamasutra. "What's more important for the game? Is it the franchise itself or is it the developer behind the game? If Treyarch can sell just as many units as Infinity Ward, then that would mean the franchise is more important."
The core is a tricky group to nail down, though. They have long memories about perceived slights, but are conveniently plagued with amnesia when it comes to their knee-jerk vows of boycotts. The mass market, meanwhile, has never heard of West and Zampella, and probably wouldn't care much if it had.
"I think unless you follow the play by play in this industry, you probably aren't even aware of the drama," says Sebastian. "You're more interested in the game experience, not whether a parent company is treating the people at a subsidiary well or not."
"This isn't a situation where it's a company employing children making shoes in Indonesia. It's about executives asking for millions of dollars. I don't know if there's any sympathy for Infinity Ward in terms of the mass market."
Call of Duty is a leading indicator game, though. Last year's version was such a hit that this year's was an automatic buy for many players. The bigger question is: What about 2011?
Had things not gone down at Infinity Ward as they did, Modern Warfare 3 would almost certainly be next year's installment. That's still the odds on favorite in some camps, but it's not a certainty.
Infinity Ward is still around, and working on something, even though it has suffered significant staff departures beyond West and Zampella. But Sledgehammer Games, run by Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, formerly of EA's Visceral Games unit, is the wildcard. The group is working on a FPS Call of Duty game, something Activision publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg implied on last week's earnings call would be next up.
"This [next] Call of Duty title will be first-person shooter, just to make sure there's no misunderstanding there," he said, without directly mentioning Sledgehammer.
That unit hasn't talked specifically about what it's doing with the franchise. But industry sources say Sledgehammer's Call of Duty will be set in the future and feature, for lack of a better term, space Marines, a very big step for a franchise that has historically based itself on realism.
Meanwhile, rumors of an MMO version of the franchise continue to circulate, though no date or team has been attached to those.
Given this, it's not too surprising that Activision doesn't think Call of Duty is nearing any sort of slowdown.
"We have more development resources dedicated to Call of Duty than we've ever had before," said COO Thomas Tippl in the earnings call. "We think there's a tremendous amount of appetite for Call of Duty content as well as services. We still have a large geographic expansion opportunity ahead of us. So we are very bullish on the franchise."
"We believe that the growth opportunity in Call of Duty has never been stronger than what it is today for us, particularly given the strength of our development teams and the consumer excitement and the equity behind the brand or of the metrics that we are looking at reaching our all-time records."
That optimism may be well placed. Sebastian notes that as the launch date has approached, the only thing people have been talking about is the game. And if Black Ops Metacritic scores come in high, say, in the 80-90 range, in addition to the certain strong sales, the franchise could continue to grow for many years to come.
"I would say there's no empirical evidence that it has peaked and is now headed the other way," he says. "If you look at Madden, it had a 16-year run of increasing sales every year. There are precedents that when it's such a well-loved franchise, it can grow for years."