Last week, the Call of Duty franchise yet again redefined our measly definition of “success” by selling 6.5 million copies of Modern Warfare 3 in one day, which translates into $400 million from just the U.S. and the U.K. That might be the single biggest currency-for-entertainment exchange in the history of pop culture. (By comparison, movie record-holder Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 made a mere $91 million in its first 24 hours.) It’s the third straight record year for Activision Blizzard, which has essentially created a new early-November holiday by steadily releasing a new Call of Duty game every November. We talked to Activision CEO Bobby Kotick about the franchise’s mega-success, and the vision for the future.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY:Each of the last three Call of Duty games have sold more in that first day. Is the Call of Duty demographic expanding?
BOBBY KOTICK: I think it is. [The games have] become more social experiences. You see people playing with their headsets, with their friends. With Call of Duty Elite, it’s much easier to do that than before. The other thing that we’re noticing is that — with the higher-quality story and more compelling characters — they start to take on some of the characteristics of television and feature films, in terms of their emotional appeal. Those are the kind of changes that are taking place in games that I think are broadening the audience.
Speaking of the story, I just finished off the single-player campaign in Modern Warfare 3, which feels a little bit like a conclusion for this particular set of characters. Is this the end of the Modern Warfare sub-franchise?
We haven’t said anything about the future of Call of Duty, and it probably would be inappropriate to say anything right now.
Given these big sales, I’m guessing there’s no fear of franchise fatigue. Is the rough plan to continue with the annual November release schedule?
I would say that the plan has shifted entirely from focusing on an annual release to focusing on continuous content. When you think about how games like World of Warcraft are played, there is constant content, there are always enhancements to the experience. We have consistent development going on. I think that what you can expect from Call of Duty is a shift — for the benefit of players — to more constant content. Not just interactive content. We have tournament play. We have ladder play. We have linear content, like a show called Friday Night Fights, which highlights in-video live competition between different groups of players. You have to start thinking about Call of Duty more in the way that you would think about television: Weekly, monthly, and annual content, all available to players.
It almost seems to me a little bit as if the Call of Duty franchise is not just a single product; it’s almost become it’s own medium. As far as making that shift, do you foresee a point where there’s not even an annual product release?
Think about the concept of Call of Duty and conflict. There are so many different ways that you can engage in conflict. You have historical battles. You have current-day battles. Black Ops took place in the late ’60s. There’s just so much opportunity to tell these stories, to unfold new characters throughout history. I think that there are very few conceits that work quite like that, but conflict is certainly one of those.
To your point, it’s evolved from being just a videogame to being more of a lifestyle. There’s just so much we can do to expand and enhance the content. We’re just scratching the surface of opportunity. One of the most important things for us was really to figure out: How do we engage new audiences? We really do spend a lot of time listening to our players: What is it that they think would be compelling or engaging, something worthy of spending their time and their money?
Modern Warfare 2 featured the controversial airport sequence, and there’s a similarly disquieting scene in MW3 featuring a little girl. Is there a conscious decision to include a potentially controversial sequence in these games’ campaign storylines?
We generally try to stay away from anything that could be considered gratuitous. I think if it is integral to the story, then it’s something that we will consider. If it’s not integral to the story, then we won’t spend time on it.
This year, there was a lot of discussion about the face-off between Call of Duty and the Battlefield series. Is that something that was on Activision’s rader? Do you worry about another game or franchise horning in on Call of Duty‘s area of the marketplace?
I don’t think we spend very much time worrying about the competition. XBox Live is a good metric. Last week, Black Ops was the most-played game on XBox Live. Modern Warfare 2 was the number 2 most-played game on Xbox Live. Now we’re launching Modern Warfare 3, which I imagine will be the most played game on XBox Live. We cannibalize ourselves.
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