Few things are as successful as the Call of Duty franchise. Activision has the strongest intellectual property in the gaming industry, and it seems that little will challenge the preeminent first-person-shooter series.
Why? Above all, they’re great titles. Even a curmudgeonly gamer like myself can admit to having a metric ton of fun with them.
For players, certain types of experiences can get stale quickly. One needs to look no further than music games, skateboarding games, or minigame collections to see how hot genres can quickly bottom out.
While one could argue that COD remains in demand due to the popularity of first-person shooters, this notion doesn’t tell the full story.
I suspect the genre is popular because of Call of Duty, not the other way around.
If you look at the qualities of each title, a pattern emerges, and one cannot help but think that this was designed on purpose.
These characteristics are easily grouped into a couple of categories. Is the installment a safe hit or a risky, new venture? And what is the general theme?
Few can imagine any Call of Duty game to be risky. You could probably put the name and logo on anything and it will sell well. What I refer to here is the introduction of a new theme or setting. Is it something we haven’t seen before?
The second category has to do with the exact nature of the chosen theme. So far, we've seen three types of setups for COD games: World War 2, the Cold War, and modern warfare.
Once this criteria is charted out, patterns emerge.
Call of Duty – breakout hit
Call of Duty 2 — safe hit, World War 2 theme
Call of Duty 3 — safe hit, World War 2 theme
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare — risky, modern-warfare theme
Call of Duty: World at War — safe hit, World War 2 theme
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — safe hit, modern-warfare theme
Call of Duty: Black Ops — risky, Cold War theme
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 — safe hit, modern-warfare theme
The first pattern: Two “safe” Call of Duty games are released followed by the introduction of a new setting.
The second pattern: Developers alternate themes, eventually phasing one out in favor of something new.
We can see how the three themes were implemented. World War 2 was phased out and replaced by the modern-warfare setting, and the Cold War was just recently introduced.
Ultimately, the formula can be described in a few simple steps. Develop a theme. Introduce another theme. Phase out the older theme. Then, replace it with another brand new theme.
If this pattern continues one can predict the following:
Modern Warfare 3 will be the last in that storyline
We'll see a release with the Black Ops theme in 2012
A new setting will be introduced in 2013
The last Black Ops title will be released in 2014
Will this bear out? Who knows? Things change. Maybe Modern Warfare 3 will be so popular that Activision won’t have much choice but to make another sequel…. That said, it seems that people are experiencing a little fatigue with this iteration of the franchise, much like they did after the release of World at War. Likewise, what if a new Call of Duty setting ended up as a failure? One suspects the developers could return to their successful catalog and shake up the pattern.
Rumors have mentioned that a new generation of consoles will arrive in 2013. Will we see a COD title with a new setting at the launches of these platforms? Probably not.
Which advantages do these release patterns have? They provide yearly games that regularly introduce new elements while ensuring a consistent stream of hits, minimizing risk and hedging bets.
I cannot say for certain that this was the exact plan. What I can say is this: The people at Activision are too smart to not have noticed.