That’s a lot of map packs…

Nowadays I often get the feeling that the words Call of Duty are likened to a particularly nasty phrase or that one swearword that everyone feels ashamed to say in public. Most comments and chatter among hardcore enthusiasts is that Battlefield 3 will be superior and the overpriced DLC and exploitation of a franchise has made Call of Duty a place where few wish to tread. However, the fault doesn’t squarely lie at the feet of Activision because it appears no matter how much they charge, people are willing to pay.

At an investors event yesterday, Activision ceo Eric Hirshberg made a lot of attendees smile manically as he revealed a whopping 18 million map packs have been sold for Black Ops making the company a teeny bit richer. The packs sell for around $15 each so times that by 18 million and your calculator just may melt in the process. Compare that to the previous Call of Duty games and it shows how popular Black Ops has become. Treyarch’s World at War sold nine million map packs in the same amount of time as Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2 sold eleven million. The former went for $10 a pop whereas from MW2 onwards, packs have become the now standard $15.

Critically, Black Ops wasn’t as loved as Modern Warfare 2 and the fact that Treyarch, thought of as the ‘B-team’ studio, worked on meant those who cared where slightly dubious of its quality. I may not have enjoyed Black Ops as much as MW2 but it was still an enjoyable game and clearly more favoured by the larger mainstream audience. Hirshberg added to his earlier claim saying how consumer engagement is at an all time high, making people think twice about brandishing the franchise as one that is on its way out:

“There are over 30 million unique players of Black Ops who collectively have amassed, incredibly, more than 2.3 billion hours of play. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than a quarter of a million years of play and that means our millions of fans spend more time per day on Black Ops multiplayer than they do on Facebook.”

So where does that leave Call of Duty? With figure like this it certainly isn’t going anywhere soon. The paid-for stat-tracking service, Call of Duty Elite, surpassing two million Beta registrations not to mention pre-orders of Modern Warfare 3 looking to best those of Black Ops, the fall of the FPS may be a little while yet. Not that I’d want it to. Say what you will, there’s still room in the industry for games like Call of Duty and the more choice we have of what to play the better. And if we’re pissed at high prices for DLC map packs unfortunately we only have ourselves to blame. Well, maybe not directly…

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Then I saw this trailer, now I’m a believer

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I don’t think I’m alone when I say I enjoyed the hell out of Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare and was pretty excited about a sequel, side-stepping World at War due to my fatigue of playing WWII shooters. When Modern Warfare 2 came around the buzz was immense with it going on to break all sorts of records for first day sales and the oodles of money Activision made off the franchise. Then things got ugly. Activision fired two of Infinity Ward’s studio heads, Jason West and Vince Zampella for reasons still not entirely known which caused a great deal of unrest within the develop team behind what are considered the ‘real’ Call of Duty games.

Doubts of the franchise’s future were hushed when Black Ops came out last year and despite feeling like someone’s grabbing you by the shoulders and screaming in your face when playing, Black Ops smashes all previous sales records. But the ill feeling towards Call of Duty as a series and shooters as a whole is seemingly at the highest it’s ever been so with a crippled Infinity Ward expected to release Modern Warfare 3 later this year, I for one doubted whether they’d be capable of producing something to top what I’ve previously played.

The game leaked in almost its entirety not long ago with Kotaku revealing the details of the storyline from start to finish. It’s world war 3, Captain Price will return to kick some mean Russian dude’s butt visiting various locations around the world in typical CoD form. That was pretty much to be expected and to be honest, not all that interesting. I mean, really, is there much love for the main protagonists for the franchise or are they cleverly voiced vessels to continue a Hollywood pleasing storyline? EA’s Battlefield Bad Company series was better at giving personality to its heroes and the big contender for CoD‘s crown, Battlefield 3, is looking stunning and might just come out on top this holiday season.

Or that’s what I thought until I saw the first gameplay trailer for Modern Warfare 3 which debuted last night. It’s big, brash and bold and as you would expect for a CoD game. But something about it has rekindled my desire to play another CoD experience. I don’t know what exactly it is either, I can’t quite put my finger on it but the short snippets of footage do a really good job of winning back some of the hype that Battlefield has won. Modern Warfare 3 takes players to America, England, Germany and France and it was the turmoil in London that roused my interest. Not because I’d wish that level of harm to the capital of England (yeah it’s busy and a bit smelly in places but still a decent place), but seeing familiar landmarks and recognisable features like British Police cars used as cover extends the feeling of realism when playing games like this. American and some European locations are often recreated in video games with a striking level of detail but little old England isn’t aways greatly portrayed and if Infinity Ward – together with Sledgehammer Games who are lending a helping development hand – can do the city justice, UK gamers may get that fuzzy sensation of feeling like really being a part of the action.

I know I’m picking up on one, possibly minor part of a trailer that shows some awesome graphics and summer blockbuster action sequences but it’s a part that stood out for me the most and if that’s all it takes to reignite the flame in a departing fan, the trailer has done its job and more. Modern Warfare 3 is coming November 8th this year and if Activision keep pumping out trailers like this, I may be forced to go to another midnight sale for a Call of Duty game. Something I promised myself last year I’d never do again.

Randy’s solo campaign

Publishers are forcing developers to waste time on multiplayer modes just to plump up a game’s feature set believes Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford, who criticised the practise to Edge yesterday. He states how there’s an obsession within the industry to keep up with the blockbuster releases like Call of Duty instead of treating each game differently depending on their content.

“Let’s forget about what the actual promise of a game is and whether it’s suited to a narrative or competitive experience,” he said. “Take that off the table for a minute and just think about the concept-free feature list: campaign, co-op, how many players? How many guns? How long is the campaign? When you boil it down to that, you take the ability to make good decisions out of the picture. And the reason they do it is because they notice that the biggest blockbusters offer a little bit for every kind of consumer. You have people that want co-op and competitive, and players who want to immerse themselves in deep fiction. But the concept has to speak to that automatically; it can’t be forced. That’s the problem.”

Call of Duty, particularly Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, may well be the driving force behind a lot of eager publishers nowadays but a forced multiplayer mode is something that’s affected game’s throughout this generation. In the early days of the Xbox 360, The Darkness was an FPS that featured a beloved single player campaign and awkward multiplayer due to this need for online action. Some critics even verbally shook their fists at BioShock because it neglected multiplayer functionality which no doubt brought about the inclusion of one to the second game.

But Pitchford does understand why publishers decide to learn on developers for multiplayer content, casting aside the artistic integrity. It’s because games are a business. Research data suggests adding more features to your game will boost sales and unfortunately review scores. I say unfortunately because to me, if you have a great single player campaign then anything in addition to that is a bonus not a necessity to get say a nine instead of an eight out of ten. A good example that Pitchford uses is the Dead Space series whose first game was purely a solo affair yet the sequel was not: ”It’s ceiling-limited; it’ll never do 20 million units. The best imaginable is a peak of four or five million units if everything works perfectly in your favour. So the bean counters go: ‘How do I get a higher ceiling?’ And they look at games that have multiplayer. They’re wrong, of course. What they should do instead is say that they’re comfortable with the ceiling, and get as close to the ceiling as possible. Put in whatever investment’s required to focus it on what the promise is all about.”

It’s interesting that Pitchford used EA’s Dead Space as it was the same title website Develop used when speaking to EA Games label president Frank Gibeau. He said the company are working towards making their game ‘better connected’ with things like co-op or multiplayer modes. Develop proposed that Dead Space had neither and worked fine with Gibeau and the PR manager clarifying how their studios won’t be forced to include these features but instead educated on how to do so. Like the possibility of Facebook or Twitter interactivity. However even those seemingly harmless additions would take up developers’ time and resources. It’s a debate which will continue for a while yet I’d imagine.

How do you kill a giant? Be better than it.

John Riccitiello has a dream. Not one as lofty or famous as the dreams of other leaders but one that’s just as difficult to achieve. He, the boss of EA, believes that Activision’s Call of Duty franchise can be toppled from being the public’s number one FPS. His plan (via Kotaku) is simple: “Make a better game. And make a better game again.” Last year, Modern Warfare 2 broke all kinds of entertainment records and this year, Black Ops strode past those numbers with ease. Before any review was even read, Activision already had gamers queuing at midnight. So their brand is a seemingly infallible one but rather than battle it head on, Riccitiello would prefer his game – whatever it will be – to receive a higher Metacritic score. “If I had to pick the story I’d like to play out next year is we ship a 90[%] and they ship an 85[%].” He clearly considers the internet’s review hub as an acute indicator of a game’s quality. Riccitiello added: “What I’ve witnessed a couple of times in the games industry is the way you unseat a market leader is you make a better game a couple of times in a row. “ EA have indeed tried their best to do just that with Battlefield Bad Company 2 and Medal of Honor. The problem they had was how both games borrowed a couple of elements from Call of Duty (more so with Medal of Honor) and when your main focus is on toppling the competition, you don’t tend to have a 90% quality game.

Choosing to ignore Medal of Honor‘s combined score, Riccitiello cites Black Ops and Battlefield Bad Company 2‘s Metacritic average as a noteworthy comparison. He said he thought it was “interesting” that they both received 88%. But when BBC2 was reviewed by 75 critics and Blops had 84, the results aren’t exactly scientific. Still, Riccitiello thinks that DICE who developed the Battlefield games (and MoH‘s multiplayer) are the studio who can put an end to Activision’s rule: “We knew we were building on [the] Unreal [graphics technology] for Medal of Honor which wasn’t our foot-forward tact. We knew that going in. Our next game [Battlefield 3] is being built on the second generation of Frostbite which I think is at least in my opinion is a class act for FPS. I think we’re going to lift the game pretty dramatically in the first-person shooter category.” I hope so and was talking to a friend about this today, how FPSs are in need of something new.

EA performed pretty well this year with their shooters but as is the way with company bosses, Riccitiello wants more out of 2011 and again states DICE with the next Battlefield to be the ones that can deliver just that: “I have great expectations to do a lot better in 2011 than in 2010 on the strength of a couple of products like Bulletstorm and Crysis [2], but most importantly for us, Battlefield 3, which I feel incredibly good about.” He added : “Over time we can take the lead.” However, it’ll take both changes from Activision and EA to elicit a shift in dominance. The next Call of Duty game will have to be a sub-standard version of its former self and Battlefield 3 needs to best it in every way. That should sow the seeds of doubt in consumers’ minds and they may just start to believe their friend who always says how superior Battlefield is to CoD.  And of course EA are publishing the next game from Jason West and Vince Zampella, former key members of the Call of Duty series. All eyes will eagerly be on them to see if they can produce a golden egg for EA as they previously did for Activision.

It’s almost time. Call of Duty: Black Ops launch trailer arrives

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The next instalment of Activision’s hugely popular franchise Call of Duty: Black Ops is soon to be upon us with a mere nine (or would that be eight and a half now?) days to go. Not as if a great deal of promotion or indeed hype is needed to sell the game but nevertheless, a launch trailer has been made for our viewing pleasure, filled with the kind of editing and shots expected of the series.

Can Treyarch fill the gaping hole left by the crumbling of Infinity Ward and produce something with the longevity of Modern Warfare 2? Or will soured gamers shun the title, pledging allegiance to the broken studio? I’m guessing it’ll be considerably more of the former.

Call of Duty: Black Ops revealed

UPDATE: Further to my earlier comments/findings, more and more sources are claiming that Black Ops will take place in Vietnam as well as other locations too.

To keep the hype train alive for uber franchise Call of Duty, Activision have today announced Call of Duty: Black Ops. Little else has been revealed other than what we already know like how it’s being developed by Treyarch (the team behind Call of Duty 3 and World at War) and is doubtful heavily rumoured to be set in Vietnam. The official website offers only an early blog from Treyarch saying “We at Treyarch are excited to reveal our latest development – Call of Duty: Black Ops! Be sure to head over to CallOfDuty.com/blackops as more details begin to unfold! Follow @JD_2020 and @Treyarch on Twitter for the latest news & discussions regarding Black Ops.”

A few important question will hopefully be answered in the coming months like will Black Ops have dedicated servers? Will we have to pay an additional cost for said online gaming? And can it possibly live up to the explosive popularity of Modern Warfare 2? Most likely since if a game has Call of Duty in the title, it generally sells just fine. Call of Duty: Black Ops will be released 9th November this year.

Activision shakes up Infinity Ward

What the devil is going on at Infinity Ward? Developers of top FPS franchise Call of Duty lost two lead designers yesterday when Activision’s heavies removed them from the studio. Jason West and Vince Zampella are at the center of apparent ‘insubordination’ claims by Activision, owners of Infinity Ward. A full statement from the publishing giants reads as follows:

“The Company is concluding an internal human resources inquiry into breaches of contract and insubordination by two senior employees at Infinity Ward,” Acitivsion states in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “This matter is expected to involve the departure of key personnel and litigation. At present, the Company does not expect this matter to have a material impact on the Company.”

No material impact on the company? They were clearly lead designers for a reason so their absence will almost definitely have some form of impact. Relationships between the developers and Activision have been said to be ‘tense’ at the best of times, possibility related to their game engine and IP handed over to given to another developer, Treyarch. They were behind Call of Duty 3 and World at War, both said to be dips in the series quality.

This is an all too familiar state of affairs for the studio however as the founding members originally worked on Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for EA but walked out to form Infinity Ward back in 2002 when they became unhappy with the publishers. So although it’s quite an unfortunate for both West and Zampella, it may be to their advantage. Working on the record breaking FPS Modern Warfare 2 will be one hell of an accolade to have on you CV and we could see another successful studio raise from these proverbial ashes.

{Thanks G4}