Every year since 2006, Activision has managed to churn out yet another Call of Duty title. Sure, they all have a slightly different flavor and typically break some kind of new ground, but by releasing a title that has exponentially grown in popularity over every successive sequel, Activision has essentially created a market in which no other games can thrive.
Take Battlefield 3, for instance. By almost anyone's yardstick, Battlefield 3 was a massive success. EA shipped over 12 million copies, which managed to push their revenue into the billion-dollar range. The game has garnered almost universally critical acclaim and has taken home several prestigious awards. However, when the publisher released last year's sales reports, the mathematicians among us noticed that EA was still sitting in the red with a $340 million net loss due to marketing costs.
Needless to say, it's expensive to compete against the biggest franchise in history.
The thing is, very few other companies on earth would have even attempted to take on Activision. EA did an admirable job, but titles like CoD cast a long shadow. So long, in fact, that competition is nearly impossible.
See, ad agencies are good at convincing people like you and me to spend our money on their product and avoid the competition. If you think about it, there's no really good reason why you can't own a copy of Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3. They're both fundamentally different games, and they don't entirely deserve the comparison. But the people behind their marketing have created a false dichotomy that asks us to choose one and bypass the other.
World of Warcraft is another example. Over 10 million people pay a monthly fee to play that game, which makes it nearly impossible for any other paid MMOs to exist. And, even though Star Wars: The Old Republic has managed to successfully import players from the WoW community, the rate of conversion is so slow that Blizzard should have plenty of time to release their mystery MMO before WoW stops making insane amounts of money.
The question is whether that particular market will actually exist when Blizzard finally releases their next big MMO. Several analysts have predicted that the heyday of the MMORPG is behind us, and that people are moving on to greener pastures. So, is Blizzard actively killing of the future of their most successful genre by not having enough foresight to maintain a little healthy competition? It's definitely possible.
The same might be true of the Call of Duty franchise. I highly doubt that CoD titles are going to be around forever, but by monopolizing the market, they could be creating an unhealthy imbalance that will simply shrink the customer base.
And we may already be seeing the effects of this phenomenon among indie game developers.
In the ancient past (read the 1980's), there was a small handful of developers who were in charge of engineering nearly every game on earth. This is when publishers like Konami and Capcom made their names. Then, in the early 2000s, there was an insurgence of indie developers elbowing their way onto the scene by creating mods for existing titles like Half-Life. Counter-Strike and DOTA are two notable examples, but the list is pretty lengthy.
However, as the mod community was expanding, big-name publishers started gobbling up these independent developers and turning the mods into fully-formed retail releases. Counter-Strike spawned CS 1.6/CS:S, and DOTA spawned an entire genre, but the community itself began to dwindle drastically. Sure, it could be said that the market has shifted toward independent delivery methods like Xbox LIVE and PSN, but it's still nearly impossible to get noticed without an expensive ad campaign. I mean, when was the last time you simply paged through the LIVE Arcade Marketplace?
So here we are in 2012 with a quickly shrinking collection of middle-class titles, with an expansive collection of triple-A titles in one hand and iPhone games in the other. And the only people who have noticed are the indie developers whose complaints are barely audible over the roar of Activision and Bethesda's marketing teams.
It's all pretty disheartening, but only if it turns out to be true.
In 1993, Wesley Snipes and Sylvester Stallone made a stereotypically 90s futuristic action film called Demolition Man. In it, there's a running gag about Taco Bell killing off all the other restaurants on earth. A part of me thinks that this is how big-box publishers like Activision and Bethesda see the marketplace: Do away with your competition and people will be forced to consume your product until Armageddon.
But something tells me that this isn't how things will shake out, even if the industry doesn't have enough self control to stop cannibalizing itself before we find out.
Date: March 26, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*