Imagine, for a moment, that Activision announced this year’s Call of Duty last year, back when they were also announcing last year’s, too. Madness, you might think, but is it any less mad than what actually happened?
Nearly a year ago, Activision announced that its Call of Duty for 2016 would be a sci-fi shooter called Infinite Warfare. This went over poorly. The prospect of space-ship battles and zero-g combat annoyed many series fans. They fumed that the Call of Duty and its increasingly future-leaning annual releases had abandoned its roots. Infinite Warfare’s trailer became one of the most down-voted YouTube videos of all time.
As fan venom for Infinite Warfare intensified, Activision spun. Company president Eric Hirshberg told investors that Call of Duty trailers had been bashed before and still led to success. This could happen again.
For six months, however, fan anger continued. Some people warmed to the game. Subsequent trailers and demos showed some promise. Infinite Warfare eventually got decent reviews, though by then many shooter fans had given up on the game. Some surely gravitated to rival series Battlefield, which had slipped back to World War I. (Infinite Warfare still sold millions, but Activision noted that it didn’t meet sales expectations.)
What no one at Activision mentioned publicly at all in 2016 was a fact that many of them knew and that would likely have pleased many of those angry fans: Call of Duty was indeed going back to its origins with a World War II entry in 2017. The space game of 2016 was a detour from which they’d soon return.
We can all guess why Activision didn’t just level with all those people hating on the game: didn’t want to get ahead of themselves, didn’t want to confuse things further, since 2016 was already getting a bonus Call of Duty in the form of a remaster of 2007’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, didn’t want to dare risk giving people more justification to skip the game and wait for next year’s.
Do people really think this way? Are you a slave to habit who will skip this year’s Call of Duty, Madden or Mario if the people publishing them tell you something about the version coming out next year?
It’s a different industry, but over in the world of movies, they don’t do this. Disney doesn’t worry that their announcements about a new Avengers movie will keep you from seeing the next Guardians of the Galaxy. Nor do they fear you’ll skip Star Wars Episode VIII if they start revealing details of the Han Solo movie that will follow.
In games, though, game publishers seldom let the reality of video game production get in the way of a game’s marketing cycle. They would seemingly sooner let one development team’s game game smashed prematurely by an unhappy public than throw an appeasing bone to upset fans and tell them something about the game coming a year after. Maybe these game publishers sometimes have good reason. Maybe the plans for next year’s game aren’t locked in, but with multi-year productions like Call of Duty, they usually are. The series’ new World War II game was in development long before Infinite Warfare’s trailer had its first downvote. Sledgehammer, the developer of Call of Duty: WWII, admitted as much on a stream yesterday, saying that they’ve been working quietly on this game for two and a half years.
This is how it usually works, though. If you’re a Metroid fan unhappy with the next Metroid, Nintendo just won’t tell you what else might be next for that series. Do they not know? Or do they simply worry it’ll hurt the sales of the next release? If you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan who isn’t digging the location of this year’s game, Ubisoft isn’t going to tell you where next year’s is (and they might defend this practice by pointing out that sometimes plans change). You are expected to be excited about the next game and not think about what’s beyond.
What we have with Call of Duty, though is a concrete example of where telling the public about the next game might have helped. Infinite Warfare got mauled by unhappy fans for months, all the while the publisher held off on telling those fans the very thing that might have made them happy, all in service, it seems to the idea that you announce one big Call of Duty at a time. Maybe the new game gets announced with a teaser. Or with a trailer and livestream. Or maybe it even just leaks through the press. But you just don’t announce two new games at the same time. No. Can’t imagine that.