Activision is starting to tease the new Call of Duty, reportedly called Black Ops: Cold War, with some weird Xbox store listings that may be an ARG, or may be an accident, I’m still not quite sure. But this is the longest I think we’ve ever gone without knowing what the new Call of Duty will be this fall, and it’s a weird year for a number of reasons.
The first, obviously, is COVID, which has derailed everything and eliminated the E3 news cycle where we normally would have heard about the new Call of Duty, most likely. The second is the fact that this new Black Ops game was kind of put together on a scramble, after Sledgehammer’s original game was scrapped and they were assigned to help Treyarch make another new Black Ops game a year early instead. This reinforces the point that despite trying to be on a three year cycle, Call of Duty really only has two successful sub-franchises, Modern Warfare and Black Ops.
But now there’s another wrench in the works, Call of Duty Warzone, which has been a massive success in its own right, and yet a free battle royale was something that Activision was hesitant to try for a while. Namely because of how it could potentially impact the yearly fall release. But now we’re in that situation, and I find myself wondering if Warzone will help or hurt Black Ops: Cold War this fall.
Certainly, Warzone, now essentially a permanent fixture in Call of Duty, not to be phased out like Blackout, can be used to promote Black Ops. We have already seen some teases in Warzone that seem to point to Cold War-like Russian phone messages and nuke codes and possibly hidden submarines. So it’s free marketing in the form of a literal full game.
I expect the cross promotion will go much deeper than that, as Warzone will no doubt get operators and guns from Black Ops: Cold War once that goes live. The implication is that Warzone will continue to exist alongside whatever new Call of Duty there is, and may even continue to share progress with it, like we’re seeing now with Modern Warfare.
And yet there’s the obvious problem. If Warzone is the game that most Call of Duty players want to be playing over the traditional campaign/multiplayer/zombie structure of a full $60 fall release, will that hurt sales?
I think the answer, to a certain extent, has to be yes. By definition, if Warzone players can get a Black Ops “refresh” of the mode, that’s enough for them to just stick with what they already like without bothering to pay for a new game.
And yet I’m not sure how much it matters in the end.
Call of Duty remains such a strong franchise, the bestselling game of the year, every year there isn’t a new Grand Theft Auto out, so it can certainly afford sales dips. And past that, Warzone may be free to play, but it’s absolutely a revenue stream all the same. Warzone seasons last around two months, and the battle pass costs $10. That’s $60 a year right there just from Warzone, in addition to any money players might spend on operators and blueprints and such. So I would not be surprised to see Activision gain a lot more than they lose even if Warzone does siphon some box sales away from a game like Cold War. Warzone was absolutely the right move for the market, and may in fact prove to be the last truly massively successful battle royale we see in the space.
Call of Duty is immortal, but what it looks like as a franchise has change irrevocably with Warzone. Looking forward to seeing how that plays out this fall.