Can Call of Duty Maintain its Momentum?

Saying Call of Duty is a successful franchise is about as deep as saying the sky is blue. The series is an absolute blockbuster, consistently outselling everything around it (and beating its own records) year after year. It has one of the widest fan bases of any game in the industry,  is still one of the most popular games on online multiplayer services such as Xbox Live, and it has continually been a hit since its birth on the last generation of consoles.

But despite its prowess and overpowering presence in the industry, one does have to wonder…how long can they keep this up?

The recent announcement of Black Ops 2 raised more than a few eyebrows within the gaming community. Under the development of veteran team Treyarch, the game is abandoning its comfortable modern setting and is heading for an entirely different one: the future.

In Black Ops 2, America has been overrun by technology gone haywire at the hands of terrorists. Add to that a tense cold war over rare resources and some interesting mechanics and time periods, and we’re looking at a pretty stark departure for a series that has grown as comfortable as a pair of worn shoes.

The idea of being set in the future, however, is exactly what has created so much buzz around the game itself. Is it risky? Is it perhaps too different? Will it feel foreign and weird to fans?

Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia commented on the change in a recent interview with Gamasutra.

“We spend a lot of time trying to figure that out,” he says of the idea with keeping the series fresh while still maintaining all of the conventions that fans have come to love and recognize. “When you’re in a franchise, you have to pay attention to a lot of different things, since you have people coming back year after year.”

Lamia mentions that they listened to the criticism of Call of Duty’s linear nature to help them put a whole new spin on the often most overlooked part of the game itself: the single-player campaign.

While it will still maintain the sort of linear quality native to Call of Duty games of old, Black Ops 2 is introducing more of a story element with choice-based sequences that will directly effect the narritive as it unfolds. The change gives players the opportunity to feel like they have more of a stake in the story, adding a new layer of immersive gameplay that has not been seen in previous Call of Duty games.

He also says that he wants to offer the team a fair amount of room to flex their creative muscles, but knows that there are limits to have far you can change things within a blockbuster franchise before it starts to alienate fans.

“Based on the reception we’ve gotten over the past few years, clearly there are plenty of people who are happy with what they’ve gotten before, but for us, on a creative level, we always want to try something new, just so long as it still feels like Call of Duty,” Lamia said.

While I’m no megafan myself, I do enjoy playing Call of Duty, and I respect the franchise for all it has been able to accomplish. Love or hate them, they are some good games that have done interesting things for gaming. If they weren’t good games, then they wouldn’t have enjoyed the outrageous success that they have. It’s as simple as that.

But no matter what runaway franchise comes along in gaming, there is one truth that still remains: there comes a time when momentum is no longer sustainable, and the franchise itself will lose steam, making way for another franchise that will take its place and eventually go on to run its own course as well. That is the way of things.

This is where Lamia is spot on. What Black Ops 2 is doing is risky. It’s different. It’s a drastic step outside the norm.

But it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

If they can continue to spark interest, to fine tune things, to challenge the very foundation the game is set on while maintaining that delicate balance of keeping everything that players love about it intact, it will continue to survive for a long, long time.

I’m no market analyst, but allow me to present this fact to you; on its very first day for pre-orders, Black Ops 2 surpassed the marks of both Modern Warfare 3 and the original Black Ops.

And there’s a reason for this. Black Ops 2 looks interesting. It’s sparked debate. It has people intrigued because it is so different, and they want to see what that could mean for the franchise itself.

Despite the fact that this franchise, along with all other franchises, will eventually lose steam within the industry, at this moment in time, Black Ops 2 is looking to enjoy runaway success just as good as (if not better than) MW3 (which grossed $775 million in its first five days). And if the team at Treyarch can deliver not only the conventions fans have come to know and love, but also change up the game enough to keep it fresh, it’s likely Call of Duty will remain at the top for quite some time.