One of the many great things about Valve Software’s coveted Steam online content delivery service is that they’re generously public with some of their player statistics. At any time, you can check out steampowered.com/stats/
and see what the day’s most popular Steamworks-compatible PC game is.
As a point of interest to our PC gaming roots here at AusGamers, we’ve been collecting and collating the published peak users per game data from the Steam site, several times a day, for the past four months.
Without exception in recent months -- as you’ll no doubt see if you visit the page yourself at any given time of day -- the combined weight of the mighty Counter-strike and Counter-strike: Source continue to dominate the tally, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Rather, the trend that immediately caught our eye when we charted this scraped data was concerning the next most popular pair of shooters, Activision’s two annual best sellers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (released November 2009) and Call of Duty: Black Ops (released November 2010).
Decline versus Stability
Now it shouldn’t take an advanced degree in graph theory to understand that what we’re seeing in the above image is the gradual decline in the peak number of Black Ops players since the holiday season, versus the relative stability of player numbers in the year-older Modern Warfare 2.
We only started collecting the data on December 13th 2010 -- just under a month after the launch of Black Ops -- but you can still see a hint of where both games were before heading into a slump as many would-be players likely spent Christmas day away from their desktops, followed by another dip on new year’s eve.
So what is the reason for the waining popularity of Black Ops among PC players when compared to it’s franchise predecessor? To tell the truth, we’re really not sure.
Modern Warfare 2 (Metacritic 86
), was developed by the original CoD franchise creators at Infinity Ward, under the direction of the recently departed founders Jason West and Vince Zampella. Every game forged at Infinity Ward, from their original Call of Duty through to Modern Warfare 2, has found huge critical and financial success .
Whereas Black Ops was forged at fellow Activision-owned studio Treyarch, who’s (admittedly several years longer) catalogue includes a large portion of arguable mediocrity. Black Ops itself however, was well-received critically (Metacritic 81
) and has reportedly now become the best selling video game in history, meaning there are now more players out there with a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops than Modern Warfare 2.
The singleplayer portions of each game aren’t too relevant to this analysis, as the separate executable files of the PC versions of both games mean their solo player stats are recorded independently of those of multiplayer. Singleplayer games also obviously die off much more rapidly than a successful multiplayer component.
Following on from Modern Warfare 2’s volatile, lag-riddled player-hosted network model, Black Ops brought back dedicated servers for PC players (frustratingly hamstrung by restricting it to a single global server provider, but a better option the player-hosted games nonetheless). Treyarch also went to greater lengths to offer a more balanced multiplayer game, stopping the perks from tipping the scale as heavily as some of the exploitable fury in MW2 (One Man Army with Danger Close and noob tubes
anyone?). So those points considered and the supposed greater sales of Black Ops, you’d expect the stats to be tipping the other way.
Here's where they fit among the other top Steam PC shooters of the past three months.
So in an effort to make some sense of these figures, we reached out to several people that are still regularly playing either or both games and the main theme among the responses was that Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer is simply just more fun.
Some mentioned only playing Black Ops for clan and ladder matches (as the dedicated server support makes the game more suited for this purpose), but going back to MW2 for general play because it was more enjoyable.
The only real tangible criticism of Black Ops from well-weathered players was the “broken spawn system” (Example video
). A glaring gameplay issue that the powers-that-be have not only expressed no intention of rectifying, but have reportedly
been banning and resetting the accounts
of some players that have exploited it.
Unfortunately we don’t have substantial player data from the console versions to offer a comparison there. Particularly since the Xbox 360 version of Black Ops alone is still (as of late March 2011) peaking at over 500,000 simultaneous players a day, it would be very interesting to see if the same downward trend versus a stable MW2 has also occurred there.
For lack of a more confident conclusion, we can only surmise that Infinity Ward just had the better recipe -- a tastier combination of level design and gameplay that simply overcomes the inferiority of Modern Warfare 2’s flawed network solution. Additionally, perhaps those oft-maligned balance issues actually add a greater degree of sweetness to players using them, than bitterness from those on the receiving end. Whether or not they’ll be able to retain that flavour in Modern Warfare 3 -- with several of their key staff having moved on -- will likely be more interesting still.