published Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Video game behemoth ‘Call of Duty’ turns 10 this month

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Activision
  • photo
    The original “Call of Duty” was released Oct. 29, 2003.
    Photo by Activision

"Call of Duty" on through 10

1. “Call of Duty”

2. “Call of Duty 2”

3. “Call of Duty 3”

4. “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare”

5. “Call of Duty: World at War”

6. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”

7. “Call of Duty: Black Ops”

8. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”

9. “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2”

10. “Call of Duty: Ghosts”

When it hit store shelves on Oct. 23, 2003, “Call of Duty” probably seemed like just another entry in the crowded field of first-person shooter games set during World War II. But what could have been another “me, too” title pitting players in a single-handed crusade against the Nazis instead established one of the industry’s most influential video game series.

The franchise’s 10th entry, “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” launches on Nov. 5. Some gamers say a general lack of innovation between entries — plus an increasingly obnoxious fan base — made them lose interest in the series years ago, but others argue that radically changing “Call of Duty’s” core mechanics is unnecessary and could do more harm than good.

Despite its critics’ grumbling, “Call of Duty” has become an 800-pound gorilla in the gaming industry, a franchise in which each sequel soars to the top of the charts, breaking industry-wide sales records — usually ones established by its predecessor. Each of the last four entries in the series has crested $1 billion in sales, a milestone previously exclusive to cinematic blockbusters such as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight.”

With “Black Ops 2,” released last November, to-date sales for the “Call of Duty” have topped $8 billion, according to a news release from Activision, the game’s publisher. Industry analysts are predicting another nine-figure finish for “Ghosts” after its release.

“The main reason why … ‘Call of Duty’ took over the market share and became the most important shooter in the world … is that it … stick[s] to the same basic gameplay and the same basic features that keep people coming back,” says Thomas Smith.

DIGITS OF WAR

“Call of Duty” is one of the world’s most popular gaming franchises, but just how popular is it? In August, “Call of Duty” publisher Activision released some mind-boggling stats about the series:

• 100 million — people have played “Call of Duty” games, about 20 million more than the population of Germany

• 32.3 quadrillion — shots have been fired by players in all “Call of Duty” matches, enough 9 mm bullets to create a line equal to 3,200 round trips from the Earth to the Sun

• 31 billion — “care packages” (in-game item drops) have been delivered to players since “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” released in 2009, enough crates to build the Great Wall of China 100 times over

• 5 billion — cars have been destroyed in “Call of Duty” matches, about $155 billion in damage based on the average cost of a car in the U.S.

• 25 billion — collective hours have been spent by gamers in “Call of Duty” matches, the equivalent of about 2.85 million years

• 15 — days after the release of “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2,” the game hit $1 billion in sales

• 8 — pro-gamers earned more than $100,000 each from “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” tournaments in the eight months following its November 2012 launch

Source: Activision

By day, Smith, 25, works for Trenton, Ga.-based golf cart wholesaler T&T Golf Carts. Three to five times a week, however, he hops online to play “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” with members of Chattanooga Fight or Die, a local “clan” of “Call of Duty” gamers he co-founded with Josiah Smith (no relation to Thomas Smith).

Thomas Smith has been playing “Call of Duty” since the second title, “Call of Duty 2,” but his love of the series hit fever pitch with 2007’s “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,” a game that some critics consider the franchise’s high point, in part because of the rabid online community it spawned.

“Though the single-player lacks length, the multiplayer should keep you invested in ‘COD4’ for the long winter,” wrote IGN.com reviewer Hilary Goldstein. “This is a truly fantastic multiplayer offering that’s as deep as any other online game available.”

Subsequent games in the series were equally well-received. On Jan. 22, Larry Hryb, the director of programming for Microsoft’s Xbox Live gaming network, posted a list of the service’s most-played games in 2012 to his blog, “Xbox Live’s Major Nelson.” Two “Call of Duty” titles — “Black Ops 2” and “Modern Warfare 3” — were first and second, respectively.

Even older “Call of Duty” games have retained strong followings. The original “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” which was released in 2010, was the service’s fifth most-played on Hryb’s list, and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” — then a three-year-old title — closed out the Top 10.

“Call of Duty’s” developers came close to perfecting online multiplayer in 2007, Smith argues, and they’ve handled it with kid gloves ever since.

“They’ve just kept making ‘Call of Duty’ what it is and making small tweaks and improvements without trying to make a new game,” he says. “The fan base will keep growing because it’s such a good concept.”

SETTING A STANDARD

The original “Call of Duty” was the first title to be developed by Infinity Ward, a studio established by members of the team that designed “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault,” then considered to be one of the best World War II shooters ever.

The series’ debut had all the genre’s conventions, such as set-piece scripted events, authentic period weaponry and varied missions. Infinity Ward set the title apart by giving players intelligent, computer-controlled squad mates, instead of setting them up as a “lone wolf” savior, and also by crafting a campaign that let gamers see the war from the perspective of different soldiers.

TIMELINE

• Oct. 29, 2003 — “Call of Duty” (PC exclusive)

Metacritic rating: 91 percent

• Sept. 14, 2004 — “Call of Duty: United Offensive” (expansion pack)

Metacritic rating: 87 percent

• Nov. 16, 2004 — “Call of Duty: Finest Hour” (console exclusive)

Metacritic rating: 74 percent

• Oct. 25, 2005 — “Call of Duty 2”

Metacritic rating: 87.5 percent

• Nov. 1, 2005 — “Call of Duty 2: Big Red One” (console exclusive)

Metacritic rating: 77 percent

• Nov. 7, 2006 — “Call of Duty 3” (console exclusive)

Metacritic rating: 81 percent

• Nov. 7, 2007 — “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare”

Metacritic rating: 93 percent

• Nov. 11, 2008 — “Call of Duty: World at War”

Metacritic rating: 84 percent

• Nov. 11, 2009 — “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”

Metacritic rating: 91 percent

• Dec. 2, 2009 — “Call of Duty Classic” (down-loadable only)

Metacritic rating: 75 percent

• Nov. 9, 2010 — “Call of Duty: Black Ops”

Metacritic rating: 85 percent

• Nov. 8, 2011 — “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”

Metacritic rating: 88 percent

• Nov. 13, 2012 — “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2”

Metacritic rating: 80 percent

• Nov. 5, 2013 — “Call of Duty: Ghosts”

Metacritic rating: Pending release

Critics loved “Call of Duty,” giving it an overall rating of 91 percent, according to aggregate review site Metacritic.com.

“There’s a good argument to be made that it’s the best WWII shooter ever,” wrote Sal Accardo in a perfect five-star review of the game published in 2003 on GameSpy.com. “It feels as if Infinity Ward looked at (the 2002 video game) ‘Allied Assault’ … said, ‘We can do this better,’ and then went out and did it.”

The characteristics that set “Call of Duty” apart from its peers carried over into its many sequels, although the series eventually broke out of the WWII mold with “Modern Warfare,” which is set in the present day, and the “Black Ops” titles, which have featured campaigns set during the Cold War and the near future.

After a two-year break between the original “Call of Duty” and its 2005 sequel, “Call of Duty 2,” the franchise has consistently held to an annual release cycle that has made new “Call of Duty” titles among the most-anticipated releases of each holiday season.

According to Activision, the most recent release, “Black Ops 2,” set sales records by earning $500 million in 24 hours after its launch on Nov. 13, 2012. More than 16,000 stores hosted midnight launches for the game. Within 15 days, it hit $1 billion, a speed record that was only broken by the release this year of “Grand Theft Auto V,” which managed the same feat in just three days.

“We believe ‘Call of Duty [Black Ops 2]’ is the biggest entertainment launch of the year for the fourth year in a row,” reads a statement by Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, released two days after “Black Ops 2” came out. “‘Call of Duty’ has become more than a product people buy, it’s a brand people buy into. And every November, we do more than just the launch of a game. We kick off an annual, unofficial but worldwide phenomenon called the ‘Call of Duty’ season.”

GRUMBLINGS OF DISCONTENT

Although “Call of Duty” has its legions of fans and sales figures to prove its continuing popularity, it is not without its critics. Many who say they’ve lost interest in the series suggest the lack of significant changes between releases shows that its developers have complacently traded innovation for a formulaic design that sells well.

Despite generally positive critical reception, user reviews of “Call of Duty” titles have seen a general downward trend as the series ages. The average user rating of the first five titles in the franchise is 78 percent. The last four titles, however, have averaged just 45 percent.

To keep up with the rapid pace required to release new entries on an annual basis, Activision in 2005 began farming out development of “Call of Duty” to a second company, Treyarch Studios, which alternated with Infinity Ward to release new titles, including “Black Ops” and its sequel, as well as 2008’s “World at War,” the series’ last entry set in World War II.

Regardless of the studio responsible, however, “Call of Duty” titles often come under attack by a vocal group of gamers who suggest they are churned out too quickly and lack innovation.

“I should say this game is proof of [Treyarch’s] attitude towards their fans,” reads a review of “Black Ops 2” posted to Metacritic by a user named Intoxicone, who scored the game zero out of 10. “Yet again Activision and their … cash cow have released the exact same game. It looks like ‘Modern Warfare 3’ and it has the same bugs as ‘Modern Warfare 3.’”

“It’s the same thing over and over again,” says Keith Loines of Chattanooga.

Loines has played every entry in the series and pre-ordered “Ghosts,” but he stopped playing “Black Ops 2,” just a few months after it hit shelves.

“[The game became] point and shoot, point and shoot, listen to an 8-year-old scream profanities into their mic,” he says. “It just got old.”

Those 8-year-olds are another reason “Call of Duty” has lost luster, some fans say. While the online experience is one of the series’ calling cards, many longtime gamers say multiplayer matches have become an exercise in frustration, thanks to a soundtrack of obscenities hurled by pre-adolescent or teenagers, judging by the sound of their voices in the in-game chat feature.

“‘Call of Duty’ is actually a decent game [series], but its fan base drags it down,” writes Tris Vickery of Chattanooga in a post to the Times Free Press Facebook page. “If I want to hear horrible things about myself and my mother, I would just go to a family reunion and save $60.”

As a result, some fans say their support of the series is reluctant, at best.

“The amount of crap you have to deal with when playing multiplayer keeps me playing standalone only,” says Tim Martin, a “Call of Duty” fan and general manager of Martin Microwave Inc. on Standifer Gap Road. “I really hate being cussed out by an 8-year-old. Love the games, though.”

Despite its detractors, industry analysts expect “Call of Duty: Ghosts” once more to rocket to the top of the sales charts. In a May 1 article on Forbes.com, video game analyst Michael Pachter of financial services and investing firm Wedbush Securities says he thinks “Ghosts” will sell “within 10 percent of the last two versions [‘Modern Warfare 3’ and ‘Black Ops 2’].” The firm told CNN Money in August that it predicted sales for “Ghosts” could exceed 20 million units, producing yet another $1 billion hit for Activision.

At least one local of “Call of Duty” fan says she’s excited about “Ghosts,” even though she’s grown weary of some aspects of the series, such as its over-saturation of the market by releasing a new game every year.

“They seem to be more greedy than they used to,” writes Louise Ferree Bohannon of Cleveland, Tenn., on the Times Free Press Facebook page. “Releasing a game once a year instead of every other is too much.

“But even with those [issues], I will stay a fan because I enjoy the game, the people — for the most part — and it’s my stress reliever.”

After all, she adds, “killing people that annoy you in real life is illegal.”

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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