Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.
Activision juggernaut Call of Duty has made entertainment history once more with the release of Modern Warfare 3, which sold 6.5 million copies in its first day of release, The Guardian reported.
In 24 hours CoD:MW3 made $400 million in the U.S. and UK alone, shaming opening day sales for Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the July release that set the highest-grossing opening day for the film industry at $91 million.
“Other than Call of Duty, there has never been another entertainment franchise that has set opening day records three years in a row,” said Activision Blizzard chief executive Bobby Kotick, referring to records set by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in 2009 and Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010. “Life-to-date sales for the Call of Duty franchise exceed worldwide theatrical box office for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, two of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time,” Kotick said.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 builds upon the highly successfully model of quasi-realistic, larger-than-life, shoot-em-up gameplay that has been bringing in the dollars since CoD:MW’s release in 2007.
But CoD:MW3 doesn’t innovate as much it tweaks, polishes, streamlines. Activision struck gold with this formula and they’re not about to gamble away a huge potential for profit to take their game new places: like anyone who could feasibly stuff their California King with Benjamins, they’re quite comfortable where they are, thank you.
Whether this is good development and not just good business is hard to say: CoD:MW3 is uncannily similar to its predecessors, but really, aside from inspiring an eye-roll or two, its sameness does little to detract from the pleasure of playing—if you liked the other games you’ll probably like this one, just don’t come looking for anything groundbreaking.
That is simply unacceptable for Internet pundits: almost immediately after CoD:MW3’s release, gaming forums lit up with condemnations and calls to boycott what some saw as a $60 repackaging of MW2.
In a thoughtful Guardian article on the online vitriol surrounding CoD, Keith Stuart traced complaints of CoD’s supposed unoriginality back to the outspoken Battlefield 3 crowd and the manufactured flame war between the two franchises.
“EA has pitched its Battlefield 3 title very much against Modern Warfare—both in its advertising and in some barbed pre-release interviews—and this has fostered a factional atmosphere,” Stuart said. “Gamers love a platform battle.”
While gamers’ complaints might be valid, the sad reality is that too often, it is not dedication to, but deviation from the formula that condemns games to the bargain bin. Stuart quotes editor of Official Xbox Magazine Jon Hicks: “If you look through the annals of gaming history the titles that do change significantly year on year are the ones that get quite heavily punished. People like to demand change, but increasingly they then don’t buy it.”
Of course, some annually released franchises maintain the same strategy of non-deviation, make huge profits but do not receive the same criticism CoD does: sports games like EA’s FIFA series.
Hicks suggests that we group CoD with games like FIFA, and he might have it right—games that have carved out a distinct space within competitive gaming can only afford to perfect mechanics and smooth edges; anything more and they risk upsetting the carefully constructed mechanics that make their franchise more of a sport than a game.
This perspective allows a comparison of CoD:MW3 to Blizzard’s Starcraft 2, another game that opted out of drastic formal changes and chose instead to perfect its balance—this streamlining has lead in part to Starcraft’s astronomical growth as a competitive “e-sport” with prize-pools up to $170,000, not to mention the two South Korean television channels dedicated to professional matches.
However we choose to conceive of it, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is quite simply a well-made game, offering an absorbing campaign and deeper-than-ever multiplayer: this is a game that knows exactly what it wants to do, and does it explosively well.