Steam Stats Analysis: Have We Passed Peak Call of Duty?
Post by Dan Chenoweth @ 03:34pm 05/11/12 | Comments
With a new Call of Duty game almost upon us, what better time to dig back into the Steam peak players statistics that we’ve been keeping track of for a couple of years.
Activision is poised to launch Call of Duty: Black Ops II worldwide on November 13, 2012, and hope to once again break records for the biggest launch in entertainment history, a bar that they have raised several times with the blockbuster franchise.
Black Ops II has reportedly already broken the record as the most pre-ordered game in North American retailer GameStop’s history, as 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 had done before it, but is that necessarily an indication of growth in the game’s longer term performance, or is it just that more players that would have bought the game once it launched were enticed by this year’s pre-order bonuses (revamp of fan-favourite multiplayer map Nuketown, and a double XP launch weekend)?
Following Activision Blizzard’s second quarter earnings report, several prominent industry analysts weighed in with their thoughts on the growth prospects of the publisher’s CoD-piece with concern that this year’s stimulus package may not be capable of keeping the throbbing franchise upwardly mobile.
Games Industry International reported comments from Ben Schachter of Macquarie Securities saying “we have significant concerns that CoD may have peaked in 2011”.
The same report cited other analysts who share the same concern, but qualified it with uncertainty, such as: if CoD was to lose market share, who would be taking it? And is continued growth in Western retail sales as important now when the brand is making moves into China and continuing to explore other methods of monetisation?
So is there anything we can gleam from the latest Steam data (that we’ve gathered daily from the public website)? Let’s take a look.
The above chart shows the activity of PC players in the last three Call of Duty games, on Steam, over the last two years. Unfortunately we only started collecting the numbers at the end of 2010 (a month after the launch of the first Black Ops), and of course Call of Duty’s primary fanbase lives on the console platforms, so it’s difficult to know if these same trends apply to the multi-platform brand as a whole, but let’s work with what we have.
For further comparison, let’s offset the data for 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 ahead a year, and 2011’s Modern Warfare 3 back a year to see how their movements correlate with the performance of 2010’s Black Ops.
Laid out like this we can clearly see how much Call of Duty: Black Ops underperformed both the newer Modern Warfare 3 for player retention during its first year, and the older Modern Warfare 2 in its second year.
Interestingly, single-player performance has been relatively consistent over all three games, in case there was ever any doubt that their longevity hinged on anything but the multiplayer modes, although we remain surprised at the amount of people still clocking in solo time every day.
It also appears quite conclusive that Modern Warfare 3 is on a path that will fall far short of Modern Warfare 2’s second year performance, but not as poorly as Black Ops. Modern Warfare 3’s current elevated position relative to Black Ops at the same point in its life, indicates that the 2011 title will end up somewhere in between 2009 and 2010’s offerings after Black Ops II arrives.
So what does this all potentially tell us about the fate of Call of Duty: Black Ops II? Well there’s little in this historical data that suggest opening week sales are likely to disappoint Activision, so in that aspect the Call of Duty brand is healthier at this point than players sick of modern military shooters would want to hear.
The quality of the game and subsequent review scores come launch possibly won’t even weigh too heavily on those numbers, as the Activision machine certainly hasn’t been holding back on their usual marketing blitz, with the likes of even Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black and Guy Ritchie telling players to buy the game.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 "Surprise" Trailer
Less certain, however, are its longer term prospects. The biggest red flag is that the original Black Ops was, and continues to be outperformed in player population by the year-older Modern Warfare 2. Whether that’s because Infinity Ward’s game has an X-Factor appeal that Treyarch haven’t been able to capture, or due to some other ethereal market force is unclear, but it does indicate that the Black Ops II developers will have to up their game to keep players coming back this time around.
Before you even consider the new weapon technology afforded by the game’s 2025 near-future setting, Treyarch has re-rolled the dice on some pretty fundamental aspects of Call of Duty multiplayer for Black Ops II. Score streaks that award players on a variety of gameplay actions other than kills, the modification affects of the Pick 10 class-creation system, and the implementation of multi-team games are poised to shake up all the game’s regular modes.
Will player’s warm to these changes as a breath of fresh air, or might they spoil the winning Call of Duty recipe that many genre contenders have been unable to equal?
Clearly in the plus column is the return of the popular cooperative Zombies component that promises to be bigger and better, the new strategic Strikeforce mode that offers a unique new perspective on CoD combat, and a huge push toward eSports with baked-in tournament features and streaming. The Call of Duty: Elite web-service going free for all will certainly help more than hinder too.
But could what is arguably the game’s biggest perceived detractor be enough to dampen all of that? Following the release of every new screenshot and trailer have been streams of commenters mocking the game’s “dated” visual fidelity, and aging engine technology. Despite Treyarch’s insistence that it’s still gorgeous, the vocal gaming public clearly doesn’t share the same rosey view, and in particular, the defence that it runs at 60 frames a second on seven-year-old consoles means little to the PC gaming enthusiast.
If some of the competing shooters in the new year offer something special -- Crysis 3, Battlefield 4, Homefront 2, Bungie’s Destiny -- their fancy rendering effects and higher poly-counts could make a bigger dent than past contenders in the CoD player-base. With the new breed of free-to-play options like Warface, Tribes, and Shadow Company, and the increasingly long tail on others like Team Fortress 2 and Counter-strike, the genre continues to get more and more crowded each year.
So it’s entirely possible that we have seen peak Call of Duty, and we’d say that these figures and factors do more to support than dispel that, but if Black Ops II’s multiplayer components succeed in offering the improvement they promise, the franchise’s best year could still be 2013 -- it just won’t be able to get by on brand power alone.
That said, if Call of Duty’s popularity does indeed recede next year, it still has a comfortably long way to tumble before losing the crown.