CalCl of Duty: Its Past and Future

Call yourself a Call of Duty fan? How well do you know the series?

Many gamers today call themselves Call of Duty fans. Rightly so, as each edition of the game stays at the top of the gaming charts until replaced by a newer version. The multiplayer stats on Xbox Live are made up of different versions of Call of Duty, with one normally claiming the top spot, even ahead of games such as Gears of War and Halo. On PS3 there is no real competition at all – whilst other great multi-player games exist such as Uncharted 2 and 3 and Battlefield 3, Call of Duty is king.

However, how many of the current fans had ever played a Call of Duty before Modern Warfare 1? I’m not going to suggest that the franchise was obscure and came from nowhere. That would be daft, but it certainly wasn’t the gaming behemoth that we all know it to be today.

The original Call of Duty was a PC title, soon followed by a version for Mac. It came out a year after Medal of Honour Allied Assault. Medal of Honour was, at the time, THE military shooter. Activision needed to get involved with what was a huge market of military related shooters. Looking back at Medal of Honour, the series already had two previous games (on Playstation 1), but it was the leap to Allied Assault which made the franchise stand out. This game had been developed by a pair of talented designers called Vince Zampella and Jason West. The game’s scale, pace and intensity felt like a Hollywood movie of the type produced by Jeremy Bruckheimer but with the visuals and character development of Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan (the D-Day landing scene in both are often compared).

Whilst Medal of Honour seemed unstoppable as a brand, Activision realised that the brand was only as strong as the people behind the actual games. Zampella and West joined Activision to work on what became Call of Duty. After the initial PC and Mac release, the game wasn’t yet making much of an impact upon the conciousness of gamers outside of the PC world. It wasn’t until the console only version,  ‘Finest Hour’ that the average gamer became aware of the franchise as it moved from PC and Mac to the Playstation2, Gamecube and Xbox. The game was a huge success, perhaps not in the terms we know today, but it did well enough to leave a lasting impression on those who played it (and created a Medal of Honour versus COD type debate similar to PES and Fifa). It’s success setup up the franchise on consoles moving forward.

Medal of Honour had a robust multiplayer aspect to it’s game, but multi-player wasn’t what it was today. On consoles, only the Xbox had a reliable service, and many people didn’t have internet at home, or slow internet at that. In addition, when compared to the multiplayer of the Battlefield games it seemed a little half baked. Call of Duty too, wasn’t anything special in the multi-player arena.

By the time Call of Duty 2 hit the shops, it was clear that the COD we know today was already on it’s way to finalising the formula that still underpins the game series today. The lack of health packs (an idea taken from Halo), with the blood around the screen increasing as you get nearer to death (something we see in ALL FPS games today), the targeting system down the iron sights, the enemy AI (which doesn’t seem to have changed in style) which was based on numbers of enemies throwing themselves at you until you passed an invisible trip wire rather than Halo-esque complex AI routines and so on. As a launch title for the Xbox 360, this led the charge into the ‘next-gen’ whilst the old gen had custom versions of a different game released to keep players wanting COD, engaged.

A year later we had Call of Duty 3, the first game to be part of Activision’s plan to let Vince Zampella
Jason West work on a 2 year cycle with another developer, Treyarch taking the reigns in between. Treyarch’s Call of Duty 3 was a well executed, lovely looking game, continuing the World War 2 tradition. This new ‘tag-team’ approach to COD titles was crucial as that extra development time led to the game that changed it all. Modern Warfare.

Modern Warfare was ground breaking in so many ways. First, it wasn’t about World War 2, Vietnam or any historical conflict. It was about the here and now, and whilst the narrative was completely made up, the overall setting was concurrent with the real conflicts going on across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It featured US and UK soldiers, using modern weapons. The single player campaign had firmly moved away from Spielberg and permanently set-up shop in the world of Jeremy Bruckheimer and films such as Bad Boys and The Rock.

In addition it launched with a fully featured multi-player. This was close quarters multi-player, more Quake 3 than Battlefield, but with a range of game modes and a unique (and now imitated across the industry) class based system where you could level up your skills, weapons and introduced the concept of perks.

Underpinning all of this was a locked 60 frame per second game engine that had been created specifically for this title, but which would go on to underpin all future Call of Duty games for the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation. It was silky smooth and created the concept of ‘twitch’ gameplay, where you have micro-sections to respond. The game was fast, player count high and the maps small. It was digital paint ball.

Continuing with the Activision strategy, following on from the huge success of MW (which by this time had replaced Halo as THE shooter on Xbox) Treyarch took the engine, enhanced it and went back to World War 2, but with a worldwide setting. At first it seemed a step back, due to the World War 2 setting, but the game brought with it some new ideas, such as Co-Op and the infamous Zombies mode. The latter was a throw away idea, Treyarch had no idea it would become so popular.

By now COD was firmly established as THE yearly franchise. Activision realised that with the multi-player they had the FPS equivalent to Madden or Fifa. Players would line up each year to get the latest iteration. The next game in line was MW2, and once again the fans loved it. By now the single player element was becoming predictable. It wasn’t bad, nor was it disappointing, but it was starting to look like it was structurally unable to evolve. The game was a blast to play and the multi-player took the customisation, the perks and the map packs (something of a growing business) to new levels. Activison also introduced a new, co-op focused (it could be played single player) mode called Spec-Ops to the table. Short missions with very specific objectives, which by playing and succeeding, could result in you unlocking further missions. The missions were based upon elements from the single player game, but were short and created a high degree of re-playability, which perhaps the single player campaign did not.

By now it felt like there was a little bit of a competition taking place between Infinity Ward (Vince Zampella and Jason West’s studio) and Treyarch. The engine both were using was Infinity Ward’s but Treyarch was insistent that they had enhanced it and pushed the engine forward. In addition their Black Ops games built upon the narrative established in World at War whilst the Modern Warfare games were becoming more unbelievable and absurd (despite having started by being grounded in a ‘realistic’ setting).

MW3 was released without Vince Zampella and  Jason West who had left Activision (for reasons we will not cover here), and with the support of a new studio called Sledgehammer, due to Infinity Ward losing a lot of key members of staff following the departure of their founders. Once again it was a huge success, but very little new was introduced. The game rounded off the narrative started in Modern Warfare 1, refined the percs and made even more of the Spec-Ops. Activision, by now, were desperate to try to MMO the game and released Elite, a paid for service which allowed Clans to be formed, events to be created, games to be viewed and so on. Elite always felt like an experiment, and the fact that it came bundled with the Hardened edition (which also included all the map packs) seemed to confirm that they were unsure if many people would pay for such a service in isolation. The fact that it launched with awful server capacity for handling all the account activations hitting the system at once was very surprising and took the shine off a major international release.

As 2012 came around people were starting to claim that COD as a franchise had no where to go. The single player whilst impressive was not evolving. The multi-player whilst as good as ever, was also not changing. Treyarch responded by releasing Black Ops2. Once again, their narrative was more believable, more emotional than that offered in Modern Warfare. Black Ops 2 was set in the near future, offering new, yet to be invented weapons (but based on weapons in testing to some degree). Air and land drones started to widen the strategic options during the game. In addition, a mini-RTS, merged with a capture the flag game mechanic was added into the game with missions which could be played more than once, and which depending on the outcome could alter the single player campaign. Treyarch were pulling out all the stops to take the existing engine and COD ‘concept’ and try to bring in new elements to make the game relevant for another 12 months. In addition they took their popular Zombies mode and turned it into it’s own stand alone co-op campaign. As package it was keeping COD relevant.

Meanwhile EA were in the game with two franchises. DICE developed Battlefield was back in town. DICE had already been chipping away at COD with Battlefield Bad Company 1 and 2, but the big prize was Battlefield 3. Whilst that game’s single player was pretty poor, it’s multi-player was huge. Very different to COD, with large maps and vehicular combat. This title started to show gamers that there was another way of having a multi-player experience set in a modern combat setting. EA also started to rekindle the Medal of Honour franchise with this game trying to take on COD directly. MOH failed and EA have now put it to rest. Battlefield though continues to march on with version 4 being announced this month.

So where does this leave the COD franchise? Well it’s already managed to steer itself through one console generation transition. However, it made it’s name using the Infinity Ward engine, which was designed to get the maximum from the current generation of console. New consoles will be able to do 60 frames per second even without having an optimised game engine built around that concept. All games now have the perks and upgrades based on XP. Other games know how to do FPS titles with amazing stories (Halo always had that ability, plus we have Bioshock and other titles), and the other issue with COD is that we all now have multiple versions and are still busy playing our version of choice.

We all know people who are 100% committed to Black Ops2, but others are still very much focused on MW3, and you’ll still find that MW2 has a healthy audience. These titles require a critical mass of players to create a community able to support the game. Activision, it seems, have already accepted that’s CODs best days are behind it, either permanently or at least for now, until the next big new game idea comes to the franchise. They have announced that they expect future versions to sell less year upon year.

Instead, Activision now have Bungie working with them on a full blown shooter come MMO come something with a huge vision titled Destiny! To be honest we don’t really know much about it. However, it represents where Activision want to go when it comes to business models. One would assume it will come with a subscription to access the content in the game on an ongoing basis. They always wanted to do this with COD, but were unable to convert the audience to accept this model.

COD will still be with us for sometime; there WILL be a new version in 2013, and one assumes Treyarch will be back again in 2014. The question out there will be how well will the franchise deal with this console transition? Will it lead from the pack or slowly take a back seat as other brands establish themselves as the new front runners?

What would you do to shake it up and take it to the next level?