November 13, 2009 8:40 pm

Profits of doom

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The world has its first interactive blockbuster
call of duty 2

Ultranationalists have seized power in Moscow and launched an invasion of the US east coast. A splinter group of theirs has turned to terrorism, a Russian nuclear submarine has been hijacked and latest indications are that a missile from the vessel has destroyed the International Space Station.

An American soldier who managed to infiltrate the terrorists has meanwhile found himself forced to remain undercover and aid them as they carry out a grisly airport massacre.

These were the chilling developments that unfolded this week on millions of screens in the US and beyond. For all its realism, though, the action was virtual – which is fortunate both for the world at large and for Bobby Kotick, chief executive of the world’s biggest video game publisher.

Mr Kotick achieved a long-held ambition as he gained the status of Hollywood’s first virtual movie mogul. The head of Activision Blizzard saw the company’s latest title – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – become a bigger launch hit than any mere film in history.

“Being here in Los Angeles for the last 20 years, I always knew that the promise existed to build interactive entertainment for broad audiences and that we were at some point going to deliver something that would beat all box office records,” he says. Setting a new mark in sales for all forms of entertainment, the title grossed $310m (£186m, €208m) from the 4.7m copies sold in the first 24 hours in North America and the UK alone.

“It’s the first true interactive Hollywood blockbuster,” says Mr Kotick, referring to the video game industry’s long journey to match the movie industry in storytelling and convincing characterisation and action.

To all but hardcore gamers interested in combat, the “first-person shooter” genre of games, where players look through gun sights at an enemy, has had all the appeal of a bad martial arts movie. But Modern Warfare 2 is on a level with Hollywood action films such as The Bourne Identity series or a Bond picture in its allure for a more general audience.

“I can’t explain its appeal any better than I can explain the appeal of The Dark Knight or Britney Spears; it’s just a fact that millions of people really like the game,” says Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. “It’s in the ‘special’ category – a game that is approachable, fun, relatively easy to complete and which has a ton of replayability.”

Its success is not just due to its action movie-like qualities. Continuity from the previous Modern Warfare title has also been maintained through “map packs” that offered fresh combat scenes, as well as through online multi-player gaming, which maintained audience involvement and increased anticipation for the new game. The airport massacre scene has drawn alarmed attention from politicians and the media on both sides of the Atlantic, only heightening interest among players.

The release comes at the end of a tough year for the video game and retail industry. Software sales are down in the recession and video game companies have been restructuring and closing studios. Mr Kotick argues that his game’s success could have a wider effect: “Retailers like Toys ‘R’ Us, who never got behind games for 18 to 35-year-olds, got behind this in a big way. I think they realised that to have shoppers coming in buying products for their kids, having a single item that they can buy for themselves is not such a bad idea.”

Modern Warfare 2 tops records set by Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 and Halo 3 in 2007. Available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for $60, or more than $200 for a special edition that includes night goggles, it is being sold into a larger market of console owners. There are now about 58m owners of those consoles, compared with about 21m who had an Xbox or PlayStation in 2007 when the first Modern Warfare appeared.

That first version has sold more than 14m units worldwide, making it the best-selling first-person shooter to date. Todd Greenwald, video game analyst at Signal Hill, a boutique investment bank, says the credit for this goes to Infinity Ward, the Californian studio bought by Activision in 2003. “There are only a few studios out there like this, whether it’s Infinity Ward, or Bungie [Halo] or Rockstar [Grand Theft Auto], that are able to create such high-quality content. It’s just a great game – the graphics, the intensity of the gameplay, the story, it’s just unmatched.”

The company has spent $200m to develop and promote the game but has made that back in less than a day. It expects to go on making money from it for a long time to come with episodic content – more than 7.5m map packs were sold to gamers wanting to extend the life of the game.

Modern Warfare 2 picks up the story line of its predecessor – and all the more gruesomely. The airport scene, for the first time in a video game, is preceded by a warning: “The following mission may be disturbing or offensive to some players. You may skip this mission at any time.”

The mission and its warning have raised familiar questions about the level of violence in video games, in spite of the ‘M’ (Mature) rating given to the game. “A popular new video game actually allows you to be a terrorist and kill people,” said the presenter of a Fox News programme in a segment this week. “Is this fantasy game just a little too real?”

There were media stories in the UK as well, and questions in parliament. Keith Vaz, a Labour MP, asked what the government was doing to protect children from a game that “contains scenes of such brutality that even the manufacturers have put warnings in the game telling people how they can skip particular scenes”.

A debate on video game violence took place in San Francisco on Wednesday when industry leaders were shown Moral Kombat, a new documentary on the subject. The film presents views from all sides on violent games such as Doom – blamed in part for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado – and Mortal Kombat. A panel then discussed the responsibilities of developers, publishers, retailers, the media and parents.

Lorne Lanning, one of the panellists and a developer of the Oddworld game series, sees the airport sequence as deliberately controversial. “The authors knew exactly what they were doing, it’s a pretty predictable media response so it’s not an accident,” he says. “When a game is flagged by the media as controversial, it’s going to sell a lot more units, so there are strategic plays at work here.”

Dean Takahashi, video game author, longtime player and writer for the Venturebeat blog, says he was shocked by the scene. “You really do cross a line when you give the player no options except to be a very evil character. In that scene, you can’t stop the slaughter from happening. Most games give you an option of choosing between being good or evil.”

Still, he maintains, the sequence is softened by few women and no children or elderly people being mowed down, adding that the shock is really in the moral predicament in which players find themselves. “Infinity Ward have a history of taking you to the edge of your comfort zone. I would say it’s defensible content because they are trying to make some kind of point, they’re trying to make you think and they want you to feel exactly what it’s like when there’s violence going on like this.”

Rob Kostich, head of marketing for Call of Duty, says the developer saw it as a story element designed to have an impact on the player at many levels. “It makes you stop dead in your tracks. It makes you realise the atrocity of this given situation.”

Modern Warfare’s sales and the release of Assassin’s Creed by Ubisoft and New Super Mario Bros by Nintendo are expected to make November and December strong months for the industry. Signal Hill’s Mr Greenwald says that for all the attempts by Nintendo to expand the age range of gamers with its motion-controlled Wii console, the new Wii gamers do not buy many titles and Modern Warfare is evidence that the casual player is needed to add to the hardcore gamers who keep coming back to buy games. “They may not buy everything in a year like this, but when a big franchise comes around they are all over it and they are telling their friends.”

Or as Mr Kotick, dealing with that rush, puts it: “I don’t know that there’s anything a company can do itself to plan for a popular cultural phenomenon, but it definitely feels like we’re having one now with Modern Warfare.”

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