The Call of Duty franchise has been one of the most influential series in modern gaming. Always within the Top 5 best-selling games of any given year, the series has been dominating the First Person Shooter genre for close to two decades now. Even despite yearly releases since 2005, the series has been able to reinvent itself and stay fresh, no doubt contributing to its longevity.
From a multitude of settings to tweaks to multiplayer progression or new additions like co-op or Battle Royale modes, Call of Duty has been able to maintain a consistent quality with each title. Each year’s Call of Duty offered something new and different than the last, however small or large those differences might be. But something has changed in recent years and with the upcoming release of Modern Warfare III, the series is finally starting to suffer from something it has avoided for most of its lifespan, stagnation.
Above and Beyond
Activision had a foolproof plan when it came to pumping out titles in their flagship franchise. Its creator, Infinity Ward, would release a title one year. The following year, then-newcomer Treyarch would do the same, changing up the setting, game modes, mechanics, etc. Soon, after a few Modern Warfare and Black Ops games, Sledgehammer Games was brought in. The trio of developers kept the Call of Duty assembly line cranking, giving 2-3 years of development time for each studio.
Things were good, for a time. Titles would be announced and the hype was dialed up to 11. When release day came, critics would give 8s and 9s across the board. Each title would sell better than the last, reeling in sales that dwarfed its competitors. There were bumps in the road like Call of Duty Ghosts but these bumps were more metaphorical than financial. Then, something happened that seemed to have changed the trajectory of the series tremendously.
After the tumultuous lead-up to Infinite Warfare in 2016, Activision might have seen the writing on the wall. Analysts calculated that Infinite Warfare sales dropped nearly 50% from the previous year’s Black Ops III. Their cash cow was vulnerable for the first time in its then-decade of dominance. By no means a failure, Infinite Warfare was the first time the series came under fire by more than just hardcore fans. From then on, the series would tighten up on its releases and try to play it safe.
World War II, Black Ops, and Modern Warfare titles have been the norm since 2017 with little to no deviation. Coupling this restriction with Activision tying every title since 2019 into an amorphous blob of a Live Service system has made Call of Duty feel handcuffed. Very little in the way of creative or unique locales, settings, or stories. Not to mention the marriage to the generic three-pillar structure of Campaign, PVE, and PVP from title to title regardless of if it fits thematically. This trajectory has all led to 2023’s entry, Modern Warfare III.
Modern Warfare III is the first direct sequel to be released just a year after its predecessor in the entire history of Call of Duty. On one hand, it’s impressive it took almost 20 years for that to happen but, alternatively, it makes Modern Warfare III look suspicious in doing so. With no original maps at launch, cross-progression with last year’s Modern Warfare II, and the ever-popular Zombies mode for the first time in a Modern Warfare title, the picture starts to become clearer.
The initial reaction from most of the fanbase when Modern Warfare III was revealed was cynically labeling it Modern Warfare II DLC. That take isn’t too far off base. Since Call of Duty adopted the Live Service model of constant updates and Battle Pass riddled Seasons, it became harder to justify a yearly release. This is something Ubisoft rightly learned with Assassin’s Creed. With Modern Warfare III, it’s not only hard to justify, it’s almost become cannibalistic.
Since this migration to the Live Service model, each Call of Duty title has progressed far beyond any upcoming release. Vanguard was still getting content updates and bug-fix patches after Modern Warfare II was released. The same can be said for Cold War after Vanguard’s release and so on and so forth. The only reason it made sense to continue support for a previous title is because that content was exclusive to that title.
A new map or operator dropping in Cold War didn’t carry over or have any bearing on Vanguard because each game was its own self-contained ecosystem. Modern Warfare III changes this, making its existence less justifiable in the process. For the majority of players who pick up Call of Duty every year, multiplayer is usually the reason. Why migrate to Modern Warfare III when Modern Warfare II isn’t even a year old yet? When a “vast amount of content” is carried over from one game to the next?
It made sense to make the jump from Ghosts to Advanced Warfare because it’s a whole new story, a new setting, new weapons, and new mechanics. Overall, a whole new take on Call of Duty, for better or for worse. Despite the criticism of titles like Infinite Warfare, each year’s version of Call of Duty was different and unique from what came before and after. How does Activision make Modern Warfare III stand out from last year’s version? Weaponized nostalgia of course.
All 16 maps at launch are remade maps from Modern Warfare 2 (2009). Zombies are being dangled in front of the fanbase like a carrot on a stick. Callbacks like the Gulag, “No Russian” and the antagonist Vladimir Makarov are prevalent in the campaign trailer. Cut features like the return of the classic mini-map, end-of-match map voting, the War game mode, and slide canceling are being touted on Social Media as selling points.
All of these moves indicate a holding pattern of sorts. Modern Warfare III feels, at least at the moment, like an EA product like Madden or FIFA. Just new enough to sell to the masses but those masses have to squint to figure out what’s exactly new. Either that or whatever was old is now new again. This is an entirely new problem for Call of Duty and the way Activision has shifted its priority and focus for the series is the culprit.
Too Many Cooks
As previously mentioned, Activision had an excellent, albeit simple, plan in place for releasing Call of Duty year in and year out. But as costs and budgets rose, the singular developer-per-entry strategy that had carried the series in the past was not sustainable. In recent years, Activision has slowly but surely amassed a force the size of a small town to work on Call of Duty. Over 3,000 people across a multitude of studios such as Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Sledgehammer Games, Benox, Raven Software, and Toys For Bob have a hand in the series and not just a single release.
Modern Warfare III appears to be all hands on deck. Despite Modern Warfare being Infinity Ward’s baby, it appears they’re taking on more of an advisory role. Sledgehammer is in charge of the campaign in partnership with Infinity Ward. Treyarch is aiding in the Zombies mode with Sledgehammer assisting as well. Additional development across multiplayer and Warzone integration is taken on by Activision Shanghai, Beenox, Demonware, High Moon Studios, Raven Software, and Toys for Bob. That’s almost 10 studios working on a single release in one manner or another. Not to mention a number of these 10 studios are also simultaneously kneedeep in development for Call of Duty 2024.
Not only can that not be cheap, but it might also not be as efficient as Activision wishes it was. With possibly too many hands in the cookie jar per se, several Call of Duty titles in recent years have had rough developments. Some were canceled or the lead developers were pushed out in favor of another. Call of Duty in 2020 was initially headed up by Sledgehammer Games, aiming to create a game set in Vietnam. Due to mismanagement and dysfunction, Activision handed the reins over to Treyarch who was able to salvage what had already been worked to release Black Ops Cold War.
Speaking of Black Ops, one of the most infamous cases of this is Black Ops IIII’s lack of a campaign, a first in the series. While Treyarch and Activision were adamant a traditional campaign was never planned, it was revealed sometime later that wasn’t always the case. A co-op campaign was planned for Black Ops IIII but was cut due to technical issues and a reduced development cycle. There was also confirmation of Sledgehammer’s Advanced Warfare 2 being canned internally in favor of the “boots-on-the-ground” title WWII.
This is less of a condemnation of the people and teams behind these games and more of Activision and its iron grip on a franchise that arguably got them to where they are now. Activision’s unwillingness to allow the series room to grow beyond the Modern Warfare, Black Ops, and World War II molds has constrained the series. Gluing each new title to an overarching Live Service platform has tightened those restraints. With rising budgets and elongated development cycles, Activision has allocated roughly 30% of its workforce to Call of Duty in one fashion or another to maintain its yearly release schedule. Not only has this harmed the studios that work on these titles but its resulted in these titles becoming more homogenized over time.
At one point in time, Activision had the Call of Duty franchise running like a well-oiled machine. Now it’s tasking 10 studios to sell $70 DLC to last year’s game with very little reason for it to exist in the first place. And with a Black Ops Cold War sequel rumored for next year and Modern Warfare titles continuing for years to come, Call of Duty’s slow and painful stagnation is set to continue. At least for the moment, Modern Warfare III proves the series needs at least a year off more than any title in previous years. Give the fans, devs, and series time to breathe. And go back to when each release was unique and could stand on its own two feet, boots optional.