The numbers are in, and it’s pretty evident at this point that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has done pretty well for Activision. While retail sales are down, digital revenues are higher than ever, meaning the performance of the game overall has at least held steady, if not grown over the previous years. And all of this has happened in spite of what may be one of the most controversial changes made to a Call of Duty game in recent years—the omission of the single player campaign entirely.
While it is true that Call of Duty’s general success with the mainstream is on the back of its multiplayer modes, the single player modes have still helped them sell their games year on year. The single player campaigns usually determine the overall aesthetic and setting of the game. Those aesthetics help differentiate the games year on year, in addition to catching a wider audience—for instance, even if I have no interest in Call of Duty, I may be interested in picking up WW2 because I like WW2 stories.
That plus, fairly or unfairly, the general perception on the market is that a game isn’t “complete” if it doesn’t ship without a single player mode. Remember the hullabaloo around the original Titanfall’s release, for example, when it omitted a traditional single player mode in favor of going entirely multiplayer?
"The success of Overwatch, for example, a multiplayer shooter with no single player mode whatsoever, has probably done wonders in selling the concept of a shooter without a campaign to the masses."
The truth is, however, over the last few years, we’ve seen that perception begin to be diluted a bit. The success of Overwatch, for example, a multiplayer shooter with no single player mode whatsoever, has probably done wonders in selling the concept of a shooter without a campaign to the masses. Titanfall itself, in spite of the controversy and the exclusivity, ended up doing very well in the long run. The original Star Wars Battlefront lacked a campaign, and ended up doing very well. Rainbow Six: Siege is probably the most successful game in its series ever, and it lacks a single player component entirely. Even something like Fortnite is popular and disseminated only on the basis of the multiplayer battle royale mode—I venture to guess most of the game’s larger player base isn’t even aware that Save The World is even a thing.
Indeed, this doubling down on their strengths is something we have started to see across the board in the last few years. After attempting to add multiplayer in traditionally single player franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham, God of War, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario, we have seen the recent instalments for all of them eschew their multiplayer trappings and double down on delivering a high quality single player component instead. The games in question have greatly benefitted from this focus on their single player, and a lack of resources being spread thin. If it works for single player, why would it not work for multiplayer?
"After attempting to add multiplayer in traditionally single player franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham, God of War, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario, we have seen the recent instalments for all of them eschew their multiplayer trappings and double down on delivering a high quality single player component instead."
And it’s true—the multiplayer in Black Ops 4 is inherently satisfying and fun. Blackout, despite probably being an eleventh hour addition, plays far better than any other battle royale game on the market. Even the traditional multiplayer modes are fun. Yes, there are a whole host of other issues with Black ops 4, but the core multiplayer loop of the game is incredibly fun, and probably benefited immensely from Treyarch not having to worry about having to produce a six hour campaign as well, that few people would have played anyway.
And now, the gambit has worked—in spite of the skepticism and the doubts people may have had about the success of this Call of Duty (me foremost among them), it’s clear it has done very well. Of course, a large part of that probably has to do with the brand cachet that Call of Duty and especially Black Ops have—but you can’t use that to handwave all of the game’s success away.
So here we are, then—a full priced multiplayer only shooter doing well on the market. It’s not the first one to, of course, as we’ve already noted—but it’s the latest in a steadily longer list, and it’s probably the one with the least caveats attached to its success. So what does this mean? What could the success of Black Ops 4 bode for the future of mainstream shooters?
"Put simply, the success of Black Ops 4 (… and Fortnite, and PUBG, and Siege, and Overwatch, and Battlefront) will probably embolden the developers of a lot of multiplayer games to ship without a single player component."
Put simply, the success of Black Ops 4 (… and Fortnite, and PUBG, and Siege, and Overwatch, and Battlefront) will probably embolden the developers of a lot of multiplayer games to ship without a single player component. Instead of multiplayer games wasting resources on having a single player component to try and hit that box on the checklist, we will probably see them be more comfortable with being multiplayer only propositions. After all, the last few years are evidence that there is a large market for that kind of a game, across all price points.
The same mentality has also started to percolate for single player games too, as we discussed already. This is good news for everyone involved, across the board: your games will be great at what they do, and not try to waste your time, and their own, trying to be something they are not. If you want a great multiplayer game, there’s going to be many on the market, without any single player campaign taking resources away from making the multiplayer better. If you want a great single player game, there’ll be loads on the market, without a multiplayer mode shoehorned in out of a sense of obligation, and taking from the single player’s quality.
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