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Guitar Hero is dead.
Mega-publisher Activision Blizzard dropped the hammer on their long-standing franchise yesterday during their Q4 financial conference call. And even as they get out of the music business, Activision's launching Beachhead Studios to oversee "the development of an innovative new digital platform and special services" for its billion-dollar baby, Call of Duty.
That might feel like a dramatic shift in the gaming landscape. It's not. We're just in the middle of a slow-motion explosion…the real damage has yet to come. Guitar Hero's body isn't even cold yet, but it's time to officially start the Call of Duty deathwatch, because Activision's about to run their golden boy completely into the ground.
You're as free as a bird, now….
Their financial report cites "continued declines in the music genre" as the motivation for completely dismantling the Guitar Hero franchise, its dedicated business unit, the DJ Hero spin-off, and the developers responsible for them. It might just as well say "because Call of Duty makes so much money." It's no secret that Activison Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick mandated a new COD every 12 months, plus downloadable content support, and why wouldn't he? These are the top-selling games year after year, and gamers buy the DLC in ludicrous numbers. A $5 price hike (some might say "gouge") over comparable downloadables didn't stop the Stimulus Package — a buggy, insultingly named, two-fifths-recycled map pack for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — from breaking sales records. And it's Kotick's job to repeat those successes as often as humanly possible.
Only more games don't equal more money.
Oversaturating the market with Call of Duty games can only serve to dilute the brand and the ideas behind it until nothing worthwhile remains. The franchise bounced between developers for years with the requisite fluctuations in quality, but now five studios actively work on this one property: Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software, and Beachhead. One COD game a year? I think not. We're about to be swamped in Duty.
We know this will happen because we've seen it happen. Guitar Heroes 1, 2, 3, World Tour, On Tour, 5, Rocks the '80s, Metallica, Aerosmith, Smash Hits, Van Halen, and Band Hero all happened over the course of four short years. Look where the franchise is now…though in all honesty, the series wore out its welcome long ago.
We had to destroy the franchise to save it.
Call of Duty might be next. While former benchwarmer Treyarch and newly minted Sledgehammer tag-team the yearly commercial releases, former champion Infinity Ward (limping along after the entire senior staff departed en masse last spring) and Raven will provide support content. Beachhead's job might be a Halo Waypoint-ish community hub, but it also sounds suspiciously like the long-rumored Call of Duty Online, while "special services" could be the multiplayer fees Kotick's often lovingly spoken about charging. By his reckoning, Call of Duty makes up 60 percent of Xbox Live profits and not one dime goes to Activision. Bobby Kotick wants his multiplayer money.
The scenario unfolding before us might look like this: While Call of Duty Online attempts to sustain a subscription model that has never worked for a first-person shooter (though a few have tried and failed), the new COD title hits like clockwork in November, followed by two or more staggered DLC releases and possibly buffered by smaller, episodic-sized games until the next COD releases a few months later. Repeat ad infinitum.
Here's the problem: Almost nobody plays more than one Call of Duty game at a time. A constant cycle of product adoption, abandonment, and adoption can't possibly sustain forever. Buyer fatigue must set in at some point, if sheer boredom or poor quality doesn't first.
Nice knowin' ya, boys.
Honestly, this tactic reminds me too much of the punishing game-a-year schedule publisher Eidos foisted on Core Design, effectively turning Lara Croft and Tomb Raider from a cultural phenomenon to a warning label in just four years…not unlike Guitar Hero. The pain culminated in Core co-founder Jeremy Heath-Smith swearing at his own game on the floor of a buyer's conference mere months before Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness' release. He just couldn't get Lara to vault a simple garbage bin.
Admittedly, only one team bore that crushing pace, whereas Activision's spreading the COD love pretty thin. It's still fair to wonder how fast the cracks might start to show.
Certainly, it won't take long before a new Call of Duty game stops being an event. They'll become ubiquitous, ignorable, like the endless series of Dynasty Warriors sequels, inspiring more yawns than thrills. Even if the quality maintains, I expect a level of sameness to creep in until the individual games blur into a single, amorphous mess. Maybe they already have. That's what happens when a company takes a greater interest in dollars than in protecting their franchises, nurturing ideas, and making good games.
So tick-tock, Call of Duty. It's a shame, but you're on borrowed time.