Call of Duty’s multiplayer audience has split into two factions, and that’s starting to get more noticeable. I wonder if this is going to be a problem for Activision in the years ahead.
In a nutshell, there are fans of Treyarch, creator of the Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty: Black Ops II games, and there are fans of Infinity Ward, the studio under which Call of Duty shoot to massive popularity with Modern Warfare in 2007 and who’s making this year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts. If you ask fans what their favorite versions of the game are, you’ll get some different answers.
So far, this doesn’t seem to have hurt Activision or the Call of Duty franchise. But the problem of diverging tastes could divide the market. Players may avoid picking up a copy of Call of Duty every single year, as the two studios alternate their game launches every other year. The players who are loyal to one studio may stick with their favorite developer’s game for two years so that they don’t have to buy a version with completely different options in multiplayer. That kind of split is more extreme, and so far, players really seem to want variety and get a different experience every single year.
But with the revelation of the multiplayer combat mode this week, the differences in philosophy between Treyarch and Infinity Ward are becoming more striking. Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II moved into the realm of science fiction last year, as it was in the future, where weaponry and drones were much more powerful. But Call of Duty: Ghosts is set in the closer, near future, where weapons are much more conventional and contemporary. Gone are some of the staples of Black Ops II multiplayer, such as gunsight reticles that made it a lot easier to shoot people. The drones aren’t quite as fancy and the electro-shock charges that protected your back are also absent. Instead, Infinity Ward has created an “IED” mine that sticks to any surface and blows up anybody who runs by it.
I had just gotten used to using these innovative weapons so that I could survive longer on the virtual battlefield. But Infinity Ward has done away with them, adding dogs and soldier customization. It’s as if the two studios are part of a different company, according to GamesBeat’s own Jeff Grubb. The two studios are working on Call of Duty, but they have a different universe with different events and no common storyline or chronology. The games are also different on a tactical level. In Black Ops II, you can do a “dolphin dive” where you dive into a prone position. You can’t do that in Infinity Ward games. Treyarch built tools such as Theater Mode and in-game livestreaming to encourage players to record and share their combat experiences. So far, it appears that Infinity Ward isn’t using those features for Ghosts.
The games from the different studios don’t cross-pollinate each other. I could see how some of the most dedicated players, such as professional gamers, may decide to focus on one studio’s game over the other’s. I’ve talked to a variety of players who have stayed with an older game rather than move to the new one just because of these small differences. And, again, this is not a good thing for sales, especially as the games diverge further.
Mark Rubin, the executive producer of Call of Duty: Ghosts for Infinity Ward, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the two studios operate very independently.
“What it comes down to is, we’re in different cycles,” he said. “Right now we’re in crunch mode, getting the game finished. We’re doing press and PR. They’re in the preproduction phase. We’re so out of sync from a production standpoint that there’s not a lot of opportunity for crossover. We’re going to ease off this game into DLC and move on to making the next game, and then they’ll be in their crunch. It just never quite allows us to work together like that.
“Both teams try to give to both [the noobs, or new players, and the veterans]. We have such a huge community that we have every type of player you could imagine. We have every type of casual player, noncasual player, hardcore player, e-sports player. We have to try to cater to everybody, which is a huge challenge. But the two studios take different routes to get to that. They’re different, and that’s a good thing. It adds a little variety to what Call of Duty has to offer.”
As for the difference between the games, he said, “Unless you’re a pro player, you may not notice this, but the movement is slightly slower or faster on one or the other. The health is slightly lower or higher. The pro guys notice it right away. They’ll play either. They like both. But there is definitely a philosophy difference between the two studios.”
In some respects, the differences among the Call of Duty studios are a good thing. Gamers like variety. The studios change things up so that players don’t get too familiar with the exact same game from year to year. If Electronic Arts made the Madden NFL Football games the same way every year, there would be no reason to buy a new game every year. I feel that way with Call of Duty. But so far, I don’t see the weapons and the playstyle that became my favorite tools from last year’s game in this year’s game. This worries me a bit.
The studios did have their sibling rivalry in the past. The cofounders of Infinity Ward, Jason West and Vince Zampella, left to start their own firm in 2010. Activision’s corporate leadership wanted to expand the Call of Duty franchise so that it would come out every year, and it wanted to make Treyarch an equal studio in that cycle, in contrast to being a stepchild studio as it was in the past. That tension led to a blowup, and Activision and the Infinity Ward founders sued each other. The acrimonious suit exposed a lot of tension. The lawsuits were eventually settled. But these underscore that Treyarch and Infinity Ward were very different entities.
I don’t want to suggest that there is lingering acrimony between the sister studios. It may be there, but I have no hard facts on that. It doesn’t seem like we have the Hatfields and McCoys here just yet.
Maybe Activision wants the studios to compete with each other so they don’t get lazy, my colleague Jeff says. Still, I find these differences within the same Call of Duty franchise to be very strange. At Ubisoft, by contrast, we don’t have a different Assassin’s Creed with a completely different chronology, storyline, and tactical gameplay every year. That game is clearly produced by the same company, even though the individual games are made by hundreds of developers in far-flung studios. With more studios like Activision’s Sledgehammer Games working on other unannounced Call of Duty games, I would guess that the divergence will continue.
Oddly enough, there seems to be more shared lineage between Infinity Ward and its competitor, Respawn Entertainment, that was founded by West and Zampella. Respawn showed its game, the sci-fi shooter game Titanfall, earlier this summer. It felt a lot like playing Infinity Ward games. I don’t want to make too much of this difference yet, especially since I haven’t played that much of the new multiplayer in Call of Duty: Ghosts. But it’s a trend worth watching, and it could be a problem for the future of the world’s most popular game franchise.
Whose approach to multiplayer do you like better? Take our poll below and explain your view in the comments.