Opinion: Publishers Are Chasing The ‘Call Of Duty’ Audience – And It’s A Big Mistake
In recent weeks, I’ve found myself mulling over the folly with which major games companies are adapting and re-branding key franchises, in order to appeal to the ‘Call of Duty audience’.
Last year, Capcom admitted they were taking Resident Evil down a more action-oriented route in order to attract CoD fans, going so far as to describe winning over affectionados of the famous series as a “dream” goal.
Similarly, EA claimed that they were making Dead Space even more gung-ho so that they could appeal to a “wider audience” – with a stated aim of shifting a cool five million copies.
Consequently, Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 moved away from traditional survival-horror pretty much altogether. Both fell over themselves to include mechanics, themes and gameplay elements common to high-profile shooters: introducing cover-based combat against human enemies, and dominating their narratives with blockbuster set-pieces and blistering shoot-outs, rather than genuine fear.
They wanted the shooter crowd. They wanted the CoD crowd.
But what was the end result of these efforts? Certainly not what Capcom and EA expected.
Now, it would be fair to point out that neither game has sold badly. In fact, both have been among the biggest-selling releases of the past six months.
But the key thing to remember is that their commercial performance fell way short of expectations – and tellingly failed to match the success of their predecessors – despite the publishers modifying the franchises specifically to broaden their appeal.
No doubt execs at Capcom and EA are busy scratching their heads, puzzling over spreadsheets and staring dumbly in disbelief at the situation.
After all, they made sure that they gunned for the CoD audience as hard as they possibly could. They threw-out scary horror in favour of empowering combat, full-throttle action and thrilling spectacle – everything that those CoD players love so much.
So why hasn’t the strategy paid off?
Well, it’s not exactly rocket science. There are two very simple explanations for why adapting an already-popular franchise to chase the CoD audience is a very bad move for publishers.
The first reason is that you inevitably piss off your core fanbase by doing so. In the months building up to the release of both Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3, internet comment threads and forums were packed full of disgruntled enthusiasts of these series, raging at changes they saw as ‘dumbing down’ or destroying their beloved gaming IPs.
Resident Evil fans expressed disbelief at the introduction of brawling melee combat and cover-based shooting; Dead Space fans attacked the introduction of human enemies, universal ammo, co-op and – you’ve guessed it – cover-based shooting. Foremost in both sets of complaints was the desire for a more traditional survival-horror approach, and a sense of anxiety over the all-out shooter aesthetic that both series seemed to be adopting.
Now, despite attempts from Capcom and EA to allay these concerns, the simple truth is that many of these gamers stayed away at launch when they might have otherwise picked up the releases Day One. If someone falls in love with a particular game series, and then you make drastic alterations to that series that are perceived to alter the fundamental feel and quality of the experience, you really shouldn’t be surprised if they steer clear.
The second reason, however, may be even more of a bitter pill for the publishers to swallow. In short: the ‘Call of Duty audience’ simply isn’t there for the taking.
Call of Duty is a phenomenon. And, more relevantly for the purposes of our discussion, it is a complete anomaly.
Two years ago, the colossally-successful franchise passed a jaw-dropping 100 million total sales. This last December, Black Ops 2 made a whopping $1 billion in its first two weeks of release.
Its commercial clout, vast financial returns and established presence in mainstream popular culture are well-documented – and it’s no wonder that companies such as EA and Capcom want a piece of this action. They’re in the business of making money after all: and CoD makes a lot of money.
But the success of CoD is a complete and utter freak. No other franchise created in the past ten years can touch it, and it’s even over-taking the total sales of popular series created decades before its inception.
The simple fact is, it’s foolish for companies like EA and Capcom to think that they can emulate – or even begin to get near – the same kind of performance simply by adapting existing series to resemble it.
One reason for this is that, like it or not, Call of Duty is most definitely a ‘zeitgeist’ series – a creation that has made an indelible mark on this gaming generation and become a benchmark for all shooters in general. And history has shown that simply attempting to imitate such a series will never get you anywhere.
Call Of Duty got there first. It has the reputation. It has the name. It has the brand. And no-one is going to muscle in on its patch at this point, unless they themselves become the next defining experience.
But the starker reality is that CoD’s impressive following is driven primarily by a huge level of interest from individuals who, frankly, couldn’t give a shit about other games.
I know quite a few Xbox360 and PS3 owners who pretty much only own Call of Duty games. Nothing else. They buy the latest installment in the series when it comes out, try the campaign and have fun playing online throughout the year, and then pick-up the next one when it releases.
They’re not interested in other experiences. They’re not bothered about broadening their gaming horizons. They’re really not gamers at all in the strict sense of the word: they got into CoD because it’s popular and high-profile, and has made its way into the public consciousness – and now they dabble in that, and that alone, in much the same way as many people might just catch one major blockbuster at the cinema all year.
These kinds of casual enthusiasts account for a considerable percentage of the CoD audience. But even if we’re talking about the hardcore shooter crowd, these are generally gamers who are pretty much into FPS franchises such as Halo and CoD exclusively – and they’re not necessarily going to be attracted by a retro-fitted survival-horror series that has decided to suddenly ramp up the action stakes, particularly as an IP such as Dead Space makes use of a running narrative, and its sequels may therefore appear slightly inaccessible to outsiders.
It is extremely naive of publishers to think that the Call of Duty audience will be interested in a pre-existing franchise that suddenly decides to be a shooter. The vast majority of people who make up CoD’s colossal fanbase have a particular special interest in that all-conquering juggernaut of a series, and are quite happy sticking with what they know.
In the current climate, all altering an existing franchise to try and attract the CoD audience achieves is the alienation of your core, passionate fanbase – as EA and Capcom have both learned to their cost.