Opinion: Call of Duty needs to stop being an annual franchise

In our review for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, I noted how certain features like the multiplayer operator system and ‘Special Ops’ cooperative mode felt half-baked and poorly balanced. Given the reboot’s total scale and scope, particularly in its multiplayer/co-op suite, it’s understandable that not every feature would get the amount of attention it needed before launch. However, the degree to which certain Modern Warfare features feel unfinished or imbalanced is frustrating, because there’s a stupidly simple way such errors could be heavily mitigated if not eliminated entirely.

The chances of it actually happening are about the same as a snowball has of not melting in Hell, but Call of Duty needs to stop being an annual franchise.

The Price of Progress

I’m fully aware that were I to tell Activision’s shareholders they need to stop churning out a new Call of Duty game every year, I’d be laughed out of the room. Despite the uneven reception of more recent Call of Duty games, the franchise’s widespread name recognition and even more widespread fanbase mean that even poorly received games virtually print money for Activision’s coffers.

Plus, let’s be real here, Activision’s execs got a pretty sweet situation set up for themselves. They get to lean on not one but four different developers (Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software, Infinity Ward, and Treyarch) so that they’re guaranteed to receive a massive Call of Duty windfall every year. And if a particular game is spurned by players, it’s the game’s developer who ends up taking the brunt of the backlash, which likely doesn’t matter to Activision since it’s already got said spurned players’ money. Seeing the situation from Activision’s perspective, it’s not surprising that they’d want to keep the status quo.

If, however, a time came when Activision was willing to re-think the whole annualized release schedule (and again, I acknowledge that’s a really, really big if), I think there’d be a way to do so which made Activision, the Call of Duty developers, and (most importantly) the players all happy.

Time to Breathe

Even before Call of Duty games started to slip in their launch-day quality, I never cared much for the franchise’s annual release format. After all, it’s hard to get too excited for a game that you know will be rendered mostly obsolete in a year’s time. This is especially true in an age where similar shooter games like Destiny 2 and Rainbow Six Siege are being supported for three or more years on average. If you knew ahead of time that there was one game which was only guaranteed support for one year and another that would be supported for, at minimum, triple that amount of time, which would you rather invest in?

I think a fair compromise would be to switch to a bi-annual (i.e. a new game every two years) Call of Duty release format at a minimum. Personally I’d prefer a release cadence closer to every three years than two, but I get that we have to consider Activision’s viewpoint as well as those fans who have grown accustomed to a steady flow of new games. I’m not saying a bi-annual release schedule would mean zero launch-day issues or that it’d instantly cure franchise fatigue, but it would have plenty of upsides over the current annual format for sure.

For one thing, a bi-annual release schedule would give each developer more time to, you know, develop each new game. This would mean less pressure to meet milestones and deadlines, more time to properly configure and test gameplay features, more time to gather feedback, and more time to study how the previous game fared and to hopefully learn from its mistakes. Each Call of Duty developer would essentially have double the amount of time they have now to develop a new game.

To be clear, more time wouldn’t guarantee the absence of issues, but I can certainly see several negative aspects in the Modern Warfare reboot alone where developer Infinity Ward clearly didn’t do its due diligence, likely because it was working under a tight schedule. No Call of Duty developer sets out to make a bad game, but when corners have to be cut to meet deadlines, it’s the players (and often the developers at the hands of upset players) who suffer as a result.

But what about Activision’s profit margins, you may ask? After all, a bi-annual release cadence would mean less pressure for developers and (ideally) better games overall, but it’d also mean a severe cutback in profits since Activision would only get its big Call of Duty windfall once every two years instead of a yearly basis. Well, to that I say if Activision’s execs think the only way to ensure maximum profits is to crank out a new Call of Duty game every year, they’re clearly not trying too hard to think outside the box, at least not in the way that they should be thinking.

Value that Matters

To put this as politely as possible, I think we can all agree that Activision knows a thing or two about maximizing its profits for each new Call of Duty game. As recently as last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 the publisher utilized a season pass system which nearly doubles a single game’s $60 price tag for those who want all the content on offer, and who can forget the many Call of Duty games of yore that locked new multiplayer maps, Zombies chapters, and in some cases even weapons and other content behind the map packs included in said season passes?

Of course, with more recent games like the aforementioned Black Ops 4, even the season pass doesn’t guarantee access to everything since certain bits of content are also locked behind microtransaction-based systems like Black Ops 4’s battle pass-esque Contraband Stream or, yes, the dreaded loot boxes. Infinity Ward has technically promised that Modern Warfare won’t have loot boxes and that new maps will be free for all players, but you can rest assured there are other shoes waiting to drop when it comes to Activision’s monetization plans for the reboot.

Now, whether or not these smaller cosmetic microtransactions are worth investing in is something each player has to decide for themselves, and I won’t get into the whole ethics debate of microtransactions here. However, what I will say is that I think a crucial part of maximizing a particular Call of Duty game’s value, especially across a bi-annual support period, is ensuring it has more to offer than just smaller microtransactions. Something like, say, a major content expansion to help fill in the gap year between new games.

Large content expansions have long proven to be an effective way to keep players hooked on a single game over multiple years. Heck, Activision should know that well enough considering how it oversees World of Warcraft developer Blizzard and that it was instrumental in getting Bungie’s multi-year Destiny franchise off the ground before Bungie went independent. If content expansions clearly work for games like World of Warcraft and Destiny 2, who’s to say they couldn’t also work for Call of Duty?

I’m sure there would be some unique logistical issues to figure out over time, but just read through the below bulleted list of a proposed bi-annual Call of Duty release and see if it sounds better to you than how Activision is currently handling things:

  • A Call of Duty developer is tasked with making a new game in the franchise. Since the developer is working under a bi-annual schedule it has roughly six years to finish making the game (assuming there’s still a rotation of the three key developers, Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Sledgehammer Games) instead of the current three or so years.
  • Once the game is launched, it’s guaranteed active support for a minimum of two years, giving the developer plenty of time to refine and tweak gameplay elements, fix issues, and create new post-launch content additions.
  • Activision pulls in profits from game sales and smaller microtransactions throughout this two-year period, with game sales bolstered by the knowledge that the game won’t be rendered obsolete in a year’s time.
  • The game’s developer also works on a major content expansion which arrives roughly a year after the main game’s launch, reinvigorating interest in the core game, drawing in new and returning players, and boosting profits for Activision.
  • Players get to experience the revitalized post-expansion game for an entire year before the next Call of Duty game is released.

Through the above proposed format, Activision would still get yearly profit windfalls (through both major game releases and expansions), developers would get more time to create quality products, and players would the double-whammy benefit of playing a higher quality game with a minimum active support lifecycle of two years instead of one.

I’m not saying it’d be a wholly perfect system, especially since it would require some caveats on both sides (fewer Call of Duty games overall, less profits for Activision, etc.), but I think that, unlike the current annual release system, the positives would far outweigh the negatives.

Given how we’re moving into a new console generation and how games like the Modern Warfare reboot are embracing more consumer-friendly practices like cross-platform support, now might be the perfect time for Activision to reconsider the annualized Call of Duty rollout format. Even if it didn’t go with the bi-annual format, Activision needs to make some sort of change since I honestly don’t think the annual release format is sustainable.

As gaming consoles and hardware become more complex and advanced, strict release schedules with tight turnarounds become harder to maintain, which means quality suffers, fans get upset, developers get blamed, and profits start to dip.

Sure, the profits may not dip enough for Activision to feel spurred into enacting change, but a slow decline is still a decline. I’m just hoping that Activision realizes sooner rather than later that it needs to acknowledge and support the best interests of all relevant parties in the Call of Duty development process, not just its own.