Report: Call of Duty’s annual release wobbles, but Treyarch moves up to save it

Call of Duty’s production is in trouble, but the franchise will still hit its 16th annual release in 2020, according to another bang-up report from Kotaku about what’s going on inside Activision’s stable of studios.

The report by Jason Schreier details how even a three-year schedule is a very tight timeframe for building something of Call of Duty’s scale, and leaves the reader realizing how unprecedented that series’ annual run really is and how it’s almost taken for granted today. Call of Duty has published a game every year since 2005, which is every year of the preceding two console generations. In that span it has often been the biggest selling game in those years, and became a cultural phenomenon, particularly since 2007’s Modern Warfare.

But, Kotaku says, Call of Duty’s 2020 game will be led by Treyarch, since the collaboration of Sledgehammer Games and longtime support studio Raven Software — now given a leadership role — was not going well. That means Treyarch is in charge of delivering a Black Ops game two years after 2018’s Black Ops 4, with Sledgehammer and Raven providing support. Schreier spoke to some developers who are anxious about the kind of overtime this might entail (especially as this game should bridge two console generations, if the next one is launching in 2020). Others at Treyarch were more sanguine, saying they already have a solid design in place that can handle the accelerated schedule.

Series founder Infinity Ward is behind this year’s as-yet-unannounced Call of Duty, which is almost assuredly the next Modern Warfare. This is around the time of year when Activision makes a big pre-E3 announcement of where the series is going next. Sledgehammer is the youngest arm in a rotation that has turned out a Call of Duty every year during the past two console generations.

Sledgehammer supported Infinity Ward on 2011’s Modern Warfare 3, the last time one of Call of Duty’s subseries published on two years’ rest. Sledgehammer had Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare all to itself for 2014, then a well-received Call of Duty: WWII in 2017. Apparently it’s not the lead studio on the 2020 game. That has led to tension between its staff and Raven Software’s, Schreier reported. Raven is one of Activision’s oldest in-house studios but has been mainly a support operation for the past decade, most recently taking the lead on Activision’s China-only Call of Duty Online.

More than just a piece of industry scuttlebutt, Kotaku’s report underlines the fact that there really hasn’t been anything like Call of Duty’s death-and-taxes certainty of a launch every November. Sports video games don’t really count, as those are deeply iterative works, although developers at EA Sports, 2K Sports, Konami and Sony San Diego would likely have something to say about fast-paced schedules as well.

Electronic Arts tried to put something similar together with its Battlefield and Medal of Honor series from 2010 to 2018, but two disappointing Medal of Honor entries mothballed that series, and Battlefield’s weird foray into police drama, Battlefield Hardline, was delayed from 2014 into 2015. Otherwise, the only thing close to what Activision has pulled off since George W. Bush’s second inauguration would be something like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. From 2009 to 2015 it published on PC and consoles every year, (and in 2012 and 2014 even doubled up with separate titles for the PS Vita and Xbox 360).

That came to an end in 2016, after a glitch-filled Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014) and lukewarm response to Syndicate (2015) led to Ubisoft “stepping back and re-examining” the franchise. There won’t be an Assassin’s Creed for 2019, either, but the series is in much better shape after two strong launches with Origins and Odyssey. A third Watch Dogs, though not officially announced, may take its place this year as its predecessor did for Assassin’s Creed in 2016. We’ll probably find out in a couple of weeks.

Activision seems resolute on hitting that annual milestone, and esports may be a big reason why. The Call of Duty World League began in 2016 and its seasons have all begun within two months of the current game’s launch. It’s a big part of the league’s appeal and watchability, and of course the league delivers a promotional benefit to the brand at large.

Activision Blizzard owns that league, and earlier this month announced the first five cities given berths in another, franchise-based Call of Duty League. ESPN reported that Activision had asked as much as $25 million per team from those looking to buy in.

What’s more, Kotaku said word was that Black Ops 4 hasn’t presented the kind of revenue stream Activision had hoped for. Activision itself in February lowered sales expectations for the 2019 Call of Duty, although it said at the time that Black Ops 4’s initial sales were strong. Whatever the case, Kotaku said executives have contemplating a free-to-play component for this year’s Call of Duty. Executives said in February that it will have a campaign, and Kotaku yesterday said Call of Duty 2020 will, too.


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