Ah, I love the smell of a good internet war in the morning. No, there hasn't been some well deserved internet vigilantism and no there isn't a middle-eastern coup being livestreamed via Twitter, nothing unimportant like that. No, a new Call of Duty has been released and everyone who's anyone has said how awful it is. While reviewers have at least let it down gently, suggesting that it's single player is dull, multiplayer features have been removed and that it's all getting a bit tiresome, the internet has reacted much harder.
People that bought the game – and I suspect some that haven't – have bombed the CoD: Ghosts metacritic rating, hammering it down to the lowest levels on all platforms. Not quite to the extent of SimCity after its disastrous launch, but clearly this game has got people incensed.
And perhaps, with good reason. To some, Call of Duty and its recent release, Ghosts, is everything wrong with gaming. It represents the epitome of corridor shooter technology, it barely refreshes the gameplay year on year and it somehow drives 12 year olds to scream unholy obscenities at us through their Xbox 360 mic. But despite this, the game sells and it sells big. Retailers shipped in over a billion dollars worth of copies just to make sure they had enough stock to cover the launch and subsequent buys leading up to Christmas. Call of Duty is an enormous, behemoth of a game franchise and yet apparently it sucks.
Why? Because it's the chart music of gaming.
There's a reason your buddy Dave has an Xbox 360 and it's not because he was an early adopter of HD-DVDs. It's so he can play his two favourite games: Call of Duty and FIFA. There might be another game or two in his collection, perhaps a Pro Evolution Soccer, or a racing title depending on how deep his sports interest go, but for the most part, it's CoD and FIFA. My brother was the same way. He got to uni, he had some loan money: he bought an Xbox and Call of Duty, despite never having played a shooter in his life.
But why? Why would someone want to play these very specific, very similarly made and marketed titles, despite having little interest in the rest of the platform's vast library? Because they're not a gamer. It's the same reason that some people only listen to top 40 chart music, or only watch blockbuster movies, or only read top 10 books: they're not fans of the medium, they're fans of the products that's are marketed to people that aren't fans of the medium.
That might sound patronising, like I consider myself some benchmark for what a true form of any media is – far from it. I like what I like and sometimes that's mainstream, sometimes it's not. I don't judge what I enjoy based on how it might be perceived by someone else, as I'm sure 90 per cent of non-13 year old girls do. But that doesn't mean that the manufacturers of these products don't.
Let's take an example from a different platform. Children's movies, they make absolutely boat loads of money. If you have a film and can either make it a PG or a 15, guess which one is going to make more money on average? The one with the larger potential audience. Similarly most popular songs aren't to do with mental health problems, or mining for oil in the arctic, they're instead about dancing in a club, having sex, or drinking, because these are much more relatable experiences and therefore are much more likely to have a broader audience. They're also practically guaranteed to have a beat or hook that will get stuck in your head, because who doesn't love musical based addiction?
Call of Duty does things in a similar fashion. It's explosive and attention grabbing, it's very easy to pick up and play and has a difficulty curve that's so shallow, some believe it's ruined a generation of competitive shooter players, because it holds their hand too much. Random spawns, wide cones of fire, over-powered kill streak rewards, all make it that much easier for people to feel empowered, which you could say was the point of a video game, but that's harder to justify when multiplayer is such a big component.
And it is. Multiplayer is the thing that keeps people playing CoD long enough to market the next one too them. But it's got Esports elements too – though admittedly less of them in Ghosts – and a massively overblown single player, corridor shooter experience AND cooperative missions and even some alien horde mode ripped right out of Gears of War. Call of Duty has a little bit of everything to please as many people as possible, or in reality, to get as many people to buy it as possible.
That's why it's being released on so many platforms too. There's an Xbox 360 version, a PC version, a PS3 version, a Wii U version and soon to be released Xbox One and PS4 versions. All of these platforms have different hardware capabilities and that means there needs to be different effects and graphical tweaks for each one. No wonder there's been so many problems with graphical fidelity and frame rates.
Nothing to see here… Source: SpeedyW
But that's one of its best selling points as a franchise. No matter what platform you have, you can buy it. It may not work like it's supposed to and it may not even be that good, but you can play it, which means you and your friends can play it together. On top of that, a new one is released every single year thanks to the leapfrogging team work of Treyarch and Infinity Ward, which means not only can you make it an annual purchase right alongside the latest FIFA, but it stays in the headlines. Call of Duty is a game that has the success and player base to break out of the typical gamer and tech press and get mainstream coverage. It's the scapegoat for mentally ill murderers and it's a household name, outside of the gamer community.
But breaking out of that bubble means its audience is less game-educated than with other, more niche titles and that's a big factor in Call of Duty's continued success. Looking back at movies for a second, remember Avatar? It managed to draw in enough people that hadn't been to see a big-budget, effects driven action movie for many years, so of course those people were blown away by the special effects, some so much that they became depressed they couldn't visit Pandora themselves. I'd argue that if you showed these people five other blockbuster action movies, teeming with CGI, they'd be equally impressed, at least on a technical level. Similarly, many Call of Duty gamers stick to a very limited number of games, so when they play the new one, of course it's awesome, it's newer and prettier and perhaps a little better than the last one. They have no idea what improvements and trends might be going on in gaming as a whole, because they don't play anything else.
CoD gamers aren't fans of the franchise because it's the best game available, they're fans because they have no idea what else is out there and it's the game their mates play.
Which is why it's funny that there's this pseudo face off between Call of Duty and Battlefield, two gaming franchises that have become more and more like one another as the years have gone on and yet they attract very different audiences and enjoy far different reputations in the gaming collective mindset. While both feature expensively produced, set piece driven and ultimately unsatisfying, single player campaigns, fleshed out multiplayer options with plenty of run and gun gameplay, high level visuals ( I know they're not perfect, but neither of them are 8bit indies) burgeoning Esports communities and millions of fans, the latter group's ones, perceive themselves very differently.
CoD gamers might be seen as the jocks of the gaming world, but Battlefield fans think they're “real gamers.” I hate to break it to you though guys, you're not. You're FPS hipsters. Battlefield might be the underdog – despite being made by a developer wholly owned by EA games, supposedly the most hated company around – and sure the maps are bigger and there's more of an emphasis on vehicles, but is there really that much difference between it and Call of Duty? It's a shooter based in a near future setting, with easy pick up and play control schemes and an online multiplayer focus. Sound familiar?
Battlefield fans that lord it over their CoD counterparts are as bad as those people that watch nothing but foreign movies and claim that you can't be entertained unless you're reading subtitles, except in the case of Battlefield they're just watching a sub'd English movie.
But that's alright guys. Don't worry about it, really. That's the whole point of this piece. Whether you're a “real” gamer or not, you enjoy playing games and you know what? So does everyone that picks up a mouse or a controller. It doesn't matter if you're part of the PC gaming “master race,” or have a Wii and like Mario Party. We all like escapism and with gaming it comes in oh so many forms, it makes for a really exciting landscape to explore.
So don't be that ‘too cool for the room' guy. Maybe instead of telling everyone how crap Call of Duty is, you try and introduce Dave to something that he'll enjoy. No, not some uber-deep text based RPG that only you and your nerd friends would like (what's it called, it sounds awesome!), but something he can ease into AND find some more depth in. How about a beat 'em up?
If you don't like the way Call of Duty is going, it's fine, don't buy it. That's the biggest contribution you can make to a change in its development style. But you can also help educate the other side, not by telling them how much what they enjoy sucks, but how much other great stuff is out there. So relax. It's a game and some people that aren't you, enjoy it. That's ok. You can't control what they do, but you can control what you do. Take some time and spread the word about good games, or if you don't want to do that, shut up and play Battlefield, or whatever other game you're playing. Ultimately as long as we're all playing games we enjoy, who cares.
Kitguru Says: Point is guys, nothing is ever going to change with Call of Duty unless the culture changes first. It doesn't matter what I think, what you think or what the reviewers think: if it sells, it gets made. The only way to make the franchise better, or give the poor guys at Infinity Ward and Treyarch a chance to do something different with their careers, is to vote with your wallet and show non-gamers what a wealth of brilliance there is out there.