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When Call of Duty looks like more of the same, no wonder fewer people buy it

Maybe the series needs a reboot

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Infinity Ward/Activision

CNBC reports — citing two analysts with the private, subscriber-only data provided by NPD — that sales of physical copies of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare in November were down 50 percent compared to November 2015 for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. The game launched Nov. 4.

Let's not get hot-takey yet, because we have no idea what the online sales picture is like. But let's do ask ourselves what the reaction would be in the gaming conversation if that report was applied to Madden, NBA 2K or FIFA, three series frequently accused of being the same thing, year after year. It would probably provoke an existential crisis about the entire genre.

Shooters are healthy (especially this year) and probably always will be, but it's fair to wonder if it was a wise idea to take a military shooter so far into the future that its military is unrecognizable next to a brand-X sci-fi game, no matter how well done.

Go back about six months, when the first trailer went out for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Gamers crapped all over it, downvoting it more than 370,000 times on YouTube in its first three days. (It's now at about 3.3 million dislikes, to 560,000 likes.)

Even with numbers this large it still seems like a trivial way to assess something, and for sure the reaction comes from people who may have had no intention of buying any Call of Duty game. But it was enough to get Activision chief executive Eric Hirshberg to talk about it in a call with investors. Among other points, he made this one:

"We've seen this in the franchise before. The reveal trailer for Black Ops 2, which took the franchise into the future for the first time, had the most dislikes of any reveal trailer we had ever made at that time. And that went on to become our most successful game ever."

The numbers cited by CNBC (they come from the analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen Group and another unidentified analyst) now make that YouTube rejection a little more material to the discussion. Moreover, the sales numbers match a similar decline reported in the U.K. (When accounting for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 sales alone, because Infinite Warfare had no Xbox 360 or PlayStation 4 launch, it's a 43.6 percent drop.)

No one knows what online sales have contributed, of course, because we've only had online sales for, what, 10 years? and, gosh, no one knows how to really measure that (or, more likely, is willing to participate meaningfully in its measurement). Electronic Arts has put online sales at around a third of its business. That makes retail sales of something as mainstream as Call of Duty a very credible exit poll, at least, and when someone's down that much this early, even if all the precincts aren't reporting it's enough to call the race.

I am not a video games developer or publishing executive. I don't look at focus group data or market research. Maybe Activision had good intel that people did want this kind of thing. marketed in this way. But I am a video games consumer, and my reaction to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare this year was: yep, more of the same.

I didn't recognize anything in the trailers, which assume or expect a lot of interest in a storyline that has no anchor in history. (To be fair, I don't know what the story is in Titanfall 2, either, but that doesn't come from a lineage that includes World War II, the Cold War, or present-day conflicts.) And rolling out another athlete playing pretend soldiers with a self-deprecating Hollywood star, while cutting another royalty check to Axl Rose, is a surefire formula for making it all look like more of the same.

Except for space vehicles, I can't make an instant distinction between Advanced Warfare (2014), Black Ops 3 (2015) and Infinite Warfare (2016). But I can tell you what Titanfall 2 is about (mechs) or Battlefield 1 (World War I) or even Battlefront (Star Wars), which gets a sequel next year.

Even the best sports video games are tarred as warmed-over reskins of their previous release, but at least they have rosters, uniforms and stadia to update or introduce. Call of Duty has no similar asset to make an up-to-date copy the most preferred version.

So if Call of Duty in 2017 looks like more of Call of Duty in 2016, as 2016 did in 2015, people will probably take their money elsewhere, or simply hang onto it. This is why superhero franchises are constantly rebooted in comic books and the movies. Maybe Call of Duty could use one, too.

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