Call of Duty was the best-selling console franchise of 2016, but…
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite weakening sales for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Activision is reporting that the Call of Duty franchise was the best-selling console franchise of 2016. That makes seven times in eight years that Activision’s property has been the top console series.
While that’s impressive, there are a few important asterisks on that.
To begin with, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s week one sales were 50 percent less than 2015’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III. Activision stated that the decrease in sales was expected, however, given that Black Ops III was the continuation of a sub-series, while Infinite Warfare is a new property-within-a-property.
That also begs the question how much of the industry leading Call of Duty sales in 2016 were due to Infinite Warfare and how many sales were Black Ops III. If the sales figures were mostly due to the previous game, that could mean trouble for the franchise.
Activision currently utilizes three developers for COD – Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Sledgehammer – on a three-year development cycle. Assuming there is a Call of Duty game in 2017 (and there almost certainly will be), it will come from Sledgehammer. That could mean a sequel to Advanced Warfare, or it might mean a new game in the series. Neither really jump out as blockbusters.
The sales figures are also specific to consoles and so don’t include PC gamers, and they also don’t include console bundles with a game. Still, there are worse problems to have.
Even if the series does take a step back in terms of sales, it will likely still be a hugely profitable property. While the games may not sell as well as they used to, those that do buy it are fairly consistent in purchasing DLC, of which COD traditionally offers four packs for $15 each (or a one-time additional fee of $50). There are also plenty of in-game microtransactions that help keep the series in the black. If you want to play COD online, you really need to buy the additional map packs. That alone should make it profitable.
But profitable and healthy are two different things.
It may be a good time for Activision to take a page from Ubisoft’s playbook and give the franchise a break to build anticipation and consider new ways to approach the series. Ubisoft is doing so with the Assassin’s Creed series, even after the release of the heavily praised Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and the high-profile release of a live-action movie. Call of Duty may benefit from the same treatment.
Of course, Assassin’s Creed doesn’t have nearly the competition that COD does. Granted, there are many games very similar to Ubisoft’s open world games, but there are plenty of top notch FPS games with online multiplayer componetns to compete. In the last few months alone we’ve seen two hugely popular competitors in Titanfall 2 and Overwatch. More will come. While Assassin’s Creed also faces competition, it’s a different kind of competition.
COD is also known as an annual franchise. For many, the release of the new game is an event, much like the release of the new Madden. People take time off work for it and skip school. It’s been a tradition of sorts, and for the last eight years the only franchise to outsell COD is Grand Theft Auto, and that was just for one year. Stopping the annual tradition would have repercussions.
Activision may be concerned – and rightly so – that taking time off could give others a chance at establishing dominance. There’s also the eSports angle to consider. Activision puts a huge emphasis on the COD Championships. The sponsorship deals are intricate and complex, with multiple corporations involved. Pulling out is easier said than done.
This is all academic though. For now, Call of Duty is thriving. Infinite Warfare may have lost some of the luster that the previous iterations offered, but it’s still a best-seller. For now, at least.