“It always seems to happen like that,” Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg explained, recognizing a trend. “We're all plugged into the same cultural rhythms to a certain extent. Specifically to us, three years ago when we greenlit this thing, we definitely just thought it was time to take the franchise back to its roots.”
With news that Call of Duty is returning to its origins with the recently confirmed Call of Duty: WWII, Hirshberg spoke with Polygon in advance of the game’s reveal tomorrow about why it was time to return to World War II, where the Call of Duty franchise is at and the tension between being consistent and keeping the series fresh.
“I wouldn't refer to it as a pitch, it's a conversation,” Hirshberg said, when asked how studio Sledgehammer Games found itself at the helm of this “back to its roots” installment. Just how it is that Sledgehammer Games found its sophomore Call of Duty effort a departure from 2014’s well-received Advanced Warfare is at the heart of how Activision thinks about its key property.
As stewards of the franchise, a rung above the studios making the actual games, Hirshberg and his team at Activision are responsible for juggling three parallel game development schedules for one game franchise. And in 2014, they decided it was time to take the series back to World War II after what would be nearly a decade away from it. Around the same time, Electronic Arts was making a bet years into the future that it was time for Battlefield to return to a historical setting for last year’s World War I-set Battlefield 1. I asked Hirshberg where this realization that the audience was ready to go back came from.
“Well I certainly can't comment on any influences that might have an impact on our competitors, I can speak for us and you know I totally acknowledge that these things do seem to happen in waves like this,” he said. “I mean three years ago when we dreamed up this game and decided it was time to go back to our roots, we could not have known at that time that the year we would launch it would be a year in which there would be several World War II movies in the theaters and that there would be other competitors going back to historical settings.”
While Activision may have recognized that it was time for a reset, Sledgehammer Games was next in line to deliver a Call of Duty game. I asked Hirshberg if this decision was delivered to the team or if it was generated from them?
“In this particular case I do think the impetus for the discussion started with those of us who manage the franchise overall. But it was a discussion and not a pitch,” Hirshberg said, “because we know that without a lot of passion and a lot of vision from the team, and a lot of excitement from the team, we’re never going to be successful without those things. So the conversation took on a life of its own very quickly.
“These things are always a dialogue because you have to have a creative team that’s passionate about the opportunity, because I don't know too many great or successful games that have come out of teams that weren't passionate about making them. The good news is that when we sat down with Michael [Condrey] and Glen [Schofield] and the leaders at Sledgehammer, they were immediately super excited about it and they came back with a huge vision not just for how to take us back to our roots, but a lot of new ideas to make it fresh as well.
For more on our impressions from the game’s reveal event, check back Wednesday, April 26 at 1 p.m. ET.
A hard reset is well-timed after the negative reception of last year’s Infinite Warfare, which pushed the franchise’s boots-on-the-ground legacy further than ever. Of course, when greenlighting WWII, Hirshberg and team couldn’t have known that Infinite Warfare would be something of a lightning rod for the audience. (Disclosure: I really liked Infinite Warfare!)
“I think it's a really good game,” Hirshberg said about last year’s installment. “I think it can be simultaneously true that it was a really high quality game that Infinity Ward did a really terrific job with and the game was delivered at a very high level, creatively — and that it might have been the wrong game at the wrong moment in terms of getting that rhythm right with the audience and with the culture.”
Making bets as to what will resonate with audiences years out is made more complicated by Activision’s move to a three-year cycle, which started with Sledgehammer Games’ first Call of Duty title, Advanced Warfare.
“The advantages of a three-year cycle are clear: There’s more time to innovate, there’s more time to polish, there’s more time to iterate, there’s more time for all the things that gamers care most about development teams having. At the same time, it increases the degree of difficulty, to an extent, getting that balancing act right,” Hirshberg explained, referring to the balance between consistency and freshness, a theme he returned to throughout our call. “The good news is we’ve gotten it right more often than not and more often than most. But I think, in the case of last year, I think both things were true.”
The same process that guided Infinite Warfare to its space setting after the lackluster launch of 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts also recognized that the series needed to return to its roots. The desire to retain a sense of the familiar while also reaching for something new, seems to have been taken to an extreme at the moment WWII was greenlit nearly three years ago.
Hirshberg and his team decided the audience was ready for a throwback to the series’ beginning and, despite shipping the well-received, future-oriented Advanced Warfare prior, Sledgehammer Games was the studio to do it.
A full reset
Treyarch Studios, the team behind Call of Duty’s Black Ops series, and Infinity Ward, the team behind the excellent but ultimately misfired Infinite Warfare, both appear to find themselves unburdened from sub-franchise expectations and free to find new stories.
Even as the Call of Duty series continues to claim the top sales spot every year, its future seems more open-ended as a franchise than it has since the introduction of Modern Warfare in 2007.
With the release of Advanced Warfare, following Ghosts and Black Ops 2, Activision seemed poised to repeat the success it had with Modern Warfare and then Black Ops, with development teams trading off on trilogies, allowing time for one to finish while another is still running its course.
“[The parallel] trilogy concept you talked about, that’s really only happened for a very brief overlap in actuality,” Hirshberg said. “Black Ops 1 came right before Modern Warfare 3, so there was a year or year-and-a-half of overlap where those two coexisted.”
While that brief overlap may be true, it’s also true that there hasn’t been a series of three “new” Call of Duty games divorced from an existing sub-franchise or setting in its history. It’s hard to imagine that Activision wouldn’t have been happy with either Ghosts or Infinite Warfare becoming viable sub-franchises.
“When a sub-franchise has legs and catches momentum, of course we follow that as we did with Modern Warfare, as we’ve done with Black Ops,” Hirshberg said. “Look even within those sub-franchises, look at the three Black Ops games, those three games have a lot of diversity from game to game. Across that series there’s different time periods, different movement mechanics, different lead characters.”
When asked if the apparent clean slate for Call of Duty presented a unique challenge, Hirshberg pushed back. “I think the franchise is Call of Duty,” he said. “The sub-franchises have mattered much less than the overall franchise.”
For Hirshberg, Call of Duty is less about setting or character continuity than it is a familiar set of mechanics. “I think that Call of Duty, the franchise, is about a core set of tenets that make the game the best moment-to-moment shooter out there, combined with the relentless commitment to finding ways to keep things fresh and trying new things.”
Call of Duty’s challenge as a franchise is to consistently find the new, fresh things every year. That annual release schedule, with its focus on new features and settings coupled to familiar mechanics, is at the heart of Call of Duty’s success. This is no secret, but it presents unique challenges when taken to the competitive scene.
The esports challenge
How does Call of Duty become a top-tier competitive game when its audience, at any given point, is:
- Split across three and sometimes even four iterations of the franchise
- Running on multiple platforms, including last-gen consoles, current-gen consoles, PC and even Nintendo systems
- Further divided between players with access to the paid DLC maps and players without
Compare this to a competitive staple like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which was released in 2012, is played primarily on PC, and where paid upgrades are cosmetic in nature.
While maintaining a massive aggregate audience is certainly an advantage not every would-be esport has, Call of Duty’s singular multi-title, multi-platform install base has created a similarly unique challenge at a time when success in the booming space is more of a necessity than a choice.
“It’s a very complex and interesting set of problems for us to solve,” Hirshberg said. “I would say it’s a matter of prioritization. Call of Duty is first and foremost about what’s going to make for a fun game. For that pursuit, I think our annual release and the diversity we’ve brought to the franchise with that model, is a huge asset. Obviously there are things about the game, the core mechanics, that make it the best moment-to-moment shooter experience out there, that lends itself very well to esports as well. Which is why it’s been the most viewed esport, at least on console, for many years now.
“That said, the underlying strategy is different from other games that are big in esports and I think you’re right, it creates interesting challenges. But I also think that it can create an advantage because it keeps it fresh for viewers. The challenges we’re talking about are challenges for the players, which I think makes Call of Duty esports players the most elite, because there is an element of adaptation in addition to skill, but for viewers there’s a new reason to show up not just to play the new game every year but to watch the new season as well. It cuts both ways.
“At the end of the day, esports is something we’ve been focused on for a long time. It’s a strategic priority for us, with Call of Duty, and for Activision Blizzard overall. We’re committed to making it a great esports experience and we think we can strike the right balance between keeping it fresh and keeping it consistent.”
The right game at the right time
The tension between a need to keep releasing new games, every year, each one tasked with contributing something new to the now 14-year-old franchise, while also retaining what it is that makes the franchise itself is at the heart of Hirshberg’s franchise management strategy.
“There’s no other franchise in any medium that I can think of that’s got an annual release, first of all, also that stayed on top of the charts for this many years in a row, Hirshberg said. “The most important thing is to find a way to strike ... the right balance. If the game’s not familiar enough, then it doesn’t deliver on the things that people love about the franchise. And if it’s not fresh enough, they can get bored. And we’ve dealt with both ends of that continuum.
“But when you get that balance right, I think that’s when you get the best games and the best fan response and the best results overall. I think this is one of those years where it feels like the right game at the right time being made by the right team.”