Before October 2011, there was an arms race between two heavyweight first-person shooter titles, Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty – Modern Warfare 3. It was not so much an arms race per se but a battle of hype. The discussion fell along the lines of Battlefield 3′s innovation and high graphics quality with Call of Duty’s massive brand recall and annual update. While a lot of digital ink was used up to discuss the relative merits of these two different fps titles, there was one line of conversation that did not get as much attention as it should have. Still, the conversation did, however briefly, touch on whether annual releases hurt or help a video game brand. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you would probably know that the Call of Duty series is released annually.
Given the rapidity of releases for such a high production value/complicated game, many gamers (some of them Battlefield 3 fans) wondered aloud that the annual pace of COD releases hurts its brand. The logic goes as follows: unless you are selling baguettes, you can’t possibly crank out product quickly and have that product be worth buying. In essence, if Activision is going to crank out high quality games at a rapid clip, they can’t do so without some key element of the game suffering. Whether it is a shoddy or hole-filled story line or, worse, no real improvement in game play as to warrant a new game release, the fear of COD being turned into an annual commodity was an issue that did have some traction last year but the conversation was overtaken by other issues-like Battlefield 3′s initially buggy beta release.
Now that we are looking at a holiday shopping season release for Call of Duty – Black Ops 2, the annual release versus quality issue is cropping up again. Different year, same gripe. Check out any of the larger game blogs and you’d see the same familiar argument and claims that this year’s COD release is merely a “re-skinned” version of an earlier version. Apart from having your game accused of being “on rails”, few accusations are worse, to a developer’s ear at least, than people claiming that your latest installment is a “re-skin” of a previous game. The same claims are there. Should COD wait until they have enough game play and core component advancements before they whip out a release? Sadly, given the success of Modern Warfare 3 and, from all indications so far, the excitement about Black Ops 2, there doesn’t appear to be much incentive for Activision to change what it’s doing. This is where the real problem is-complacency due to success.
The hard truth is that the video game industry can be almost as unforgiving as Hollywood. All you need is a few flops on your hands and all of a sudden, your title is chopped liver. Instead of taking the delivery speed down a notch and sticking to its current delivery pace, Activision might be setting itself up for a situation where it can’t recover from a bad release. Don’t believe me? Just look at what happened to EA Sports’ NBA coverage. It used to rule that space and a few missteps saw it lose control of the basketball simulation space to NBA 2K. It’s not like Activision has few competitors in the fps space-it is one of the most fiercely competitive video game niches on the market. All it takes is a couple of duds and Activision may be saying goodbye to the billion dollar paydays its been accustomed to these past years.