Analysis | New Call of Duty still spectacle in guise of a game
Popular franchise shackles single player into tight script and limits interactive play
It's November, so there are a few things we can count on. The leaves will fall from the trees, rabid shoppers will pack malls for Black Friday deals, and the new Call of Duty video game will smash sales records.
The latest instalment of the mega-popular military shooter video game, Modern Warfare 3, made its splash with a huge midnight madness launch around the world on Tuesday. The game, the eighth in the series, will add to the Call of Duty franchise's already monstrous take of 100 million units sold and more than $5 billion in revenue earned.
But perhaps lost amid all the numbers and hoopla is one pertinent question: Is Call of Duty even a game?
For its single-player stories, the features that in many games are seen as most important, it's debatable.
Player has little agency
A game can be defined in many ways, but in the medium of video games, it's generally considered an interaction with a piece of electronic entertainment. More to the point, the beauty of just about every game — electronic or otherwise —is that it means something different to each player, because he or she experiences it uniquely.
In that way, games — especially video games — are akin to art. It's also what distinguishes video games from more passive media, such as movies and television.
Call of Duty titles, however, have tighter scripts than a politician's press conference. In Modern Warfare 3, players take the role of several protagonist soldiers who have been charged with stopping the mad schemes of Makarov, an ultranationalist Russian terrorist. Makarov has taken control of his country's government and invaded the United States and several European countries.
The player must stop him and restore normalcy to the world. What follows is an epic roller coaster of a ride, with gun battles down Wall Street, tank warfare in Hamburg and the jaw-dropping toppling of the Eiffel Tower.
But, while the player bears witness to all these spectacles, nothing he or she does can prevent or otherwise affect them. Indeed, for much of the game, the hapless player is ordered around by teammates and told exactly where to go. On-screen instructions tell the player when to duck, glowing spots on the wall indicate where to place explosive charges, and cohorts point out sniper positions on rooftops. There's no way for a player to feel like anything more than a passenger on this ride.
This is what makes it difficult for Call of Duty instalments to be considered games. There are no two ways to experience them, so the millions of people who buy them play them the exact same way. That can't be helped because deviating even slightly from the script results in the player's death, which means starting over until they get what they're supposed to do right. Call of Duty's stories are therefore more like hybrids of movies and amusement park rides than games.
Multiplayer mode is where franchise shines
That said, the single-player campaigns are almost incidental to the series. Many people buy the games for their online multiplayer components, which allow for shoot-em-up action between up to 18 people. At any given moment, more than seven million people around the world are online playing Call of Duty games with each other.
Not only does this mode provide a unique individual experience every single time, it encourages customization, improvisation, practice, strategy and technique. It also lets players have voice communications with friends and acquaintances while playing. They can choose to chat about the weather outside or, more likely, formulate strategies on how to beat their opponents and trash talk each other.
Call of Duty's online component is therefore the antithesis of its single-player mode and can be considered a game by just about any definition.
While it's easy to shrug this duality off as simply a package that provides a variety of entertainment options, it's actually problematic for the games industry.
Bad for games industry
Publishers don't generally disclose how much their games cost to produce, but Call of Duty budgets have been estimated at around $50 million. By pouring so much money into developing two completely separate experiences, and then seeing huge success with its formula, publisher Activision has set an unfortunate standard that its competitors must follow.
Got a great single-player game in the works? Better double the budget and give it a big multiplayer mode, too. Is your multiplayer game fantastic? It might not sell unless you add a huge single-player story, thereby jacking up your costs.
As games director Raphael van Lierop lamented in a speech at the Montreal International Games Summit last week, this Call of Duty-fuelled trend is bad. Bigger budgets on blockbusters means less money for other games. With bigger investments in fewer games, publishers are also more apt to stick to tried-and-true winning formulas, rather than experimenting and innovating.
The answer, he said, is to perhaps separate the spectacle from the game. Rather than asking people to pay $70 for a complete Call of Duty title, how about giving them the multiplayer only for $30?
It's not a bad idea, but then the question won't be whether Call of Duty is a game but whether anyone will be willing to pay $30 for just the spectacle?