Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the last iteration of Activision’s long-running series, earned $1 billion in two weeks, with $500 million of that coming in the first 24 hours. Call of Duty: Ghosts (out November 5th) is the 10th title in a franchise that’s sold over 100 million copies. Perhaps you’re questioning what exactly needs “fixing” for a game that’s likely to earn more than the GDP of a small island nation. You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder, but money isn’t everything: As a pop culture phenomenon, Call of Duty (CoD) represents a unique ambassador into the wider cultural relevance games continue to have. Its ugly reputation as the game of choice for poorly behaved teens reflects badly on a diverse community with an average age in their 30s (not that some 30-year-olds act much better than said teens). When morning shows, talk radio and politicians want to scapegoat bad behavior on video games, CoD’s reputation makes it too easy. Plus, there’s been a CoD release every year for the past eight years. While the designers have every reason to rest on their laurels, the series has gotten lazy in its lack of innovation. With that in mind, here are some suggestions on how Activision can restore some dignity (and probably lose lots of money) for the immensely popular CoD.
Get a New Engine
The framework that powers the series is now over ten years old. Ghosts is the first game in the series that’s getting a release on next-gen platforms (the Xbox One and the Playstation 4) but will use tech from the beginning of the last generation of consoles. With a ridiculous release rate of one title a year, it’s easy to understand why the developers haven’t put the work into a new game engine, but with the silly amounts of money that CoD mints, you’d think they’d have some dollars to set aside for a little R&D for the wave of new systems.
Make It Harder
The main draw to every game in the series is its excellent online multiplayer mode. A fast and frenetic arcade experience with a shallow learning curve, easy rewards and enough depth to keep gamers coming back for hundreds of hours, it’s an experience honed to near perfection and designed to get gamers addicted. While like in any game, there’s a large skill gap between the best and the worst, the host of gimmicks and some perhaps overly friendly hit-boxes make CoD less a test of skill and more a frustrating game of chance. Upping the learning curve might weed out a preponderance of users willing to question their opponents’ race, sexual preference and motherly reputations.
Change the POV
As a primarily American series, it’s no wonder why nearly every CoD protagonist is American. In the single-player, as various GIs and special ops members, CoD gamers have gone to war with: the Germans (sometimes as zombies), the Japanese and what feels like the Russians (with some South American assists) one million times. But playing from the other side’s perspective or throwing in an unconventional opponent (holy shit, the Belgians!) could refresh players fed up with Ivans.
Because this is real.
Stop Making War Awesome
Many will recognize this ad campaign for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. In it, Jonah Hill and Sam Worthington hilariously kill (and die) on battlefields across the globe. The tagline was “There’s a Soldier in All of Us.” But is there really? Games like Spec Ops: The Line have proven the possibility of creating titles that don’t glorify warfare. The terrifying bleed between the video game world and the military world is real enough; encouraging it with campaigns that exploit the horror of war as entertainment are, perhaps, not the classiest of ways to sell a product. While a tenuous link between aggression and video games has been demonstrated in studies, it’s equally troubling to think of the possible political desensitizing of war via military shooters. This isn’t about teens robbing a liquor store and blaming Grand Theft Auto, it’s the unconscious influences on an adult ten years from now evaluating a president’s justification to bomb a foreign country. Assigning that kind of responsibility to a video game can seem ridiculous, but here’s the CoD mission Death From Above, and here’s footage from a real Apache attack helicopter. If you’ve played the former 1,000 times, how much is the latter ever going to impact you? Attempting to challenge and confront gamers with reality of war beyond that of a virtual super solider might inspire more of the kind of critical thinking every society needs.