With the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, the franchise may very have changed forever. The blockbuster single-player campaigns that had for so long been a hallmark are no more, and in its place, a “game as a service” design with a multiplayer focus. Specifically, one that doubles down on an industry trend with the Blackout battle royale mode.
It was a decision that understandably split the fanbase, but not one that actually caused as much disruption as I thought it would. Perhaps the narrative that Activision believed its various stats about average campaign completions versus multiplayer hours and all the rest of it was spot on? Maybe players aren’t as interested in a solid single-player campaign as we all thought?
Certainly, the hype for Black Ops 4 didn’t seem to suffer in the build-up to its launch, and it’s certainly recorded some impressive opening weekend revenue figures. As you’d expect, the press release spins the numbers into something that sounds like a triumphant victory lap.
Activision boasts Black Ops 4 is off to a “blockbuster start,” citing a whopping $500 million launch over its first three days. Elsewhere, they mention hours and games played as the highest in the series’ history, as well as the greatest viewership numbers on Twitch. The split between digital and retail sales is also a key takeaway noted in the copy, touted as “record breaking.”
The release certainly paints a picture of a publisher exceptionally pleased with the performance of its latest game. But I’m not so sure the figures they’re actually speaking to tell the whole story. Let’s break it down:
- The $500 million launch is level with last year’s Call of Duty: WW2. So year on year, the trajectory is flat with a game that isn’t among the series’ most successful. It’s behind Black Ops 3’s $550 million, and Black Ops 2 actually achieved $500 million in a single day.
- Hours and games played as the highest in the series’ history shouldn’t come as a great surprise given the nature of the Blackout battle royale mode. Each server is holding more players and matches cycle more frequently than a standard multiplayer game.
- It’s the same story with the Twitch viewership, too. Impressive, certainly, but really just a byproduct of battle royale being an in-vogue game mode.
- The digital sales trend shouldn’t come as any surprise given the enormous 50GB patch required for consumers purchasing the physical disc. What’s more, the bonuses and extra content in the deluxe versions are all digital, with only special edition physical versions three times the asking price of the standard providing the same level of content.
Look, I’m not trying to rain on Activision’s parade. Call of Duty Black Ops 4 has performed very well, typical of the series. I’m absolutely not suggesting any of the numbers have been exaggerated. In fact, I buy into this narrative that they’re very pleased with the sales figures. It’s just that I don’t think it is for the reasons they’re stating here.
All the numbers and figures they’re touting above are just noise. We’ve seen the previous Call of Duty games hit bigger sales figures, and all the other stats are skewed in favor of a game based on a massively popular multiplayer fad. The real bottom line as to why Black Ops 4 represents a big success for Activision perhaps lies more in the fact that they haven’t had to spend extra money developing a single-player campaign in the first place.
Let’s not forget that’s the reason that facet of the game was ditched originally. It’s all about the return of investment. For Activision to have its studios develop hugely expensive single-player modes, it truly has to be a feature they consider the majority of their players want, because it’s damn expensive.
I have no experience developing video games but you’d have to imagine that limiting Black Ops 4 to Blackout, conventional multiplayer modes, and Zombies was a far less costly. So, hey, if the numbers are flat year-on-year or even down from the franchises’ best-sellers, the profit margin is way up. No wonder they’re so pleased.