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Call of Duty must evolve or die

Opinion: Duncan Harris asks if the series is being cash cowed, like Guitar Hero...

Call of Duty's numbers are unholy. It sold over two million copies of Modern Warfare in month one, more than five and a half million Black Ops on day one. It's the billion dollar franchise - literally - with a stranglehold on the entire shooter genre.

It is, to quote Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg from a leaked memo, 'perhaps the stickiest game of all time' - an online phenomenon that made XP, Killstreaks and Perks part of our language. And it's dead. Dead on its feet and about to fall.

Activision know it, we know it, and if they don't act now to restart its heart... it's over. 'Isn't Call of Duty today just like Guitar Hero was a few years back?', asks Hirshberg in the same memo, in an attempt to recognise - and dispell - growing dissent. However, the User ratings on Metacritic have plummeted from 8.9 for Modern Warfare to a wretched 5.8 for both MW2 and Black Ops.

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Complaints point to stagnation and over-saturation. Are these low scores from juvenile saboteurs? Battlefield fanboys? The victims of brand fatigue? Or a toxic mix of all three?

Activision's series has the 'network effect', so sales are driven by friends keeping up with friends. This means lag between people tiring of CoD and actually stopping buying it. A collapse could be years away, but it is coming, and CoD's enemies are not sitting around waiting.

After wresting the critical high ground from Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer with its FIFA games, EA knows how to fight a war of attrition - and how to win it. It's about matching your foe's every move, reducing its ability to innovate, turning its dominance into stalemate and - eventually - defeat. So this fight's about a lot more than just Battlefield 3 and MW3.

We're seeing the early skirmishes already, starting with the defection of CoD creators Vince Zampella and Jason West (plus many more from Infinity Ward) from Activision to the EA-funded Respawn.

So what weapons do EA wield besides Battlefield? There's Respawn's first game, which we know is a sci-fi shooter - perfectly placed to compete with Sledgehammer's rumoured Call of Duty: Future Warfare. With almost 40 key staff defecting from Infinity Ward, EA can happily market this as 'the new game from the creators of CoD'.

We also know that Battlefield-maker DICE has the best tech. Its sparkly new Frostbite 2.0 engine is built for the future, while Infinity Ward's tech - extended, shored up and repainted many times in the 12 years since its debut in Quake III Arena - is long overdue for demolition.

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And we know that EA plans the same alternating release schedule for Battlefield and Medal Of Honor as Activision has for Modern Warfare and Black Ops. What this does is lock Call of Duty into an unending tug-of-war over market share in which it can never afford to relax. Faced with the need to build and advertise at least one war game every year, Activision won't be able to make the CoD of tomorrow different enough to the one of today.

Battlefield, on the other hand - a sophisticated class-based shooter with stunning looks - stands ready to steal players graduating from CoD's hamster wheel of headshots and unlocks. What can Activision do? It's already given EA a taste of its own staff-stealing medicine - Sledgehammer is led by Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, the men behind EA's surprise horror smash, Dead Space.

And there's Elite, of course, the subscriber service designed to 'enrich' CoD's multiplayer with premium features such as stat tracking and DLC access, something that should drive investments in time as well as cash. Analysts estimate revenues up to $200 per gamer for each future CoD - anyone switching to Battlefield or MoH would be throwing that money away. It's the loyalty card to end them all.

But none of Activision's manoeuvres address the real issue. The Call of Duty template is stone dead on its feet, and a few extra CCs of set-piece adrenaline can only keep it twitching for so long. What it needs now is a massive shock to its heart: the shock of fundamental change.

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