The creators of Call of Duty are doing the unthinkable. After more than 16 years of annual releases and top-charting sales milestones, the shooter series is skipping a year.
A Bloomberg story published late Tuesday detailed Activision Blizzard’s plans to press pause on its most successful game property in 2023, with the intention of releasing a new game from subsidiary Infinity Ward later this year and then waiting until 2024 to release another main entry in the long-running shooter series. It would be the first year Activision hasn’t released a new Call of Duty since 2005, when there was a two-year gap between the first Call of Duty in 2003 and its sequel.
The publisher did not deny the news, with an Activision spokesperson saying the company has “an exciting slate of premium and free-to-play Call of Duty experiences for this year, next year and beyond,” and that it looks “forward to sharing more details when the time is right.” Bloomberg reports that while Activision won’t release a new Call of Duty in 2023, it does plan to release a new free-to-play game. Infinity Ward’s title due out later this year will be a sequel to the 2019 Modern Warfare reboot coinciding with a sequel to the Warzone battle royale mode. Treyarch is said to be working on the entry after Modern Warfare 2, and that the decision to skip next year's release involved delaying that game to 2024.
The decision, though subject to change due to Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard, could have a substantial ripple effect on video game retail and the stability of the traditional, boxed game product. Each new entry of Call of Duty has been the bestselling console game in North America almost every year since 2009, and it’s often the case that a prior year’s entry ranks in the top five or even three bestselling games of the year due to Activision’s late holiday release schedule. If Call of Duty shifts away from its annual model, it could accelerate already fast-moving trends in the console industry and further align console gaming with its mobile and PC counterparts.
“This would be a huge blow to retail, and to the premium gaming segment as a whole. Would also accelerate the shift away from premium releases where consumers purchase upfront, to games supported by sales of [downloadable content/microtransactions],” wrote Mat Piscatella, executive director of Games at the NPD Group, which has tracked North American gaming retail spend for the entirety of Call of Duty’s 19-year existence. “Not sure that acceleration could be slowed afterwards.”
Piscatella’s comment strikes at the heart of why such a decision might prove to be a major turning point for the traditional console gaming industry, which has for years been slowly shifting away from boxed products purchased at retail to digitally downloaded free-to-play games that monetize through in-game purchases.
“Subscription spending growth [is] already turning exponential, and recurring spending already becoming [a] majority of spend on consoles,” Piscatella said. “This would basically cause a leap forward in those trends. Big repercussions [are] possible if true.”
There’s already plenty of data that suggests these shifts are inevitable. In 2020, in part due to the pandemic, a majority of major console game publishers reported that more consumers bought games digitally than at physical retail, tipping the scales toward digital for the first time.
Sony said in 2021 that 68% of all PlayStation games purchased were downloaded digitally, and 66% of all of PlayStation revenue last year came from digital game sales, microtransactions and downloadable content, according to Niko Partners’ Daniel Ahmad. Just 4% of Sony’s 2021 revenue came from physical game sales, compared to 32% for microtransactions and other digital content.
Many of these shifts are true for Microsoft’s Xbox business as well, which reported record revenue last year thanks to big jumps in its services and hardware segments. Yet Microsoft has gone even further away from traditional boxed products and upfront purchasing with its Xbox Game Pass platform. By releasing games digitally onto Game Pass on Day One, Microsoft has achieved unprecedented milestones for its first-part releases, including more than 20 million players for Halo Infinite and more than 18 million for Forza Horizon 5.
Meanwhile, the biggest and fastest-growing segment in the game industry is the mobile one, which accounts for more than half of the $180 billion spent on games last year, according to Newzoo. For years, the top-grossing games in the world have not been those you purchase for $60, but free-to-play giants on PC and mobile like Fortnite, PUBG Mobile, Genshin Impact and Roblox. A record-breaking eight mobile games surpassed $1 billion in player spending in 2021, according to Sensor Tower. (It is no coincidence that one of Activision’s fastest-growing properties is none other than Call of Duty Mobile, made in collaboration with Tencent.)
For Activision, shifting away from the annual release makes sense. The company has for years now employed four different studios of hundreds of employees each to develop Call of Duty games simultaneously, typically on roughly three-year development cycles.
That way, when one game comes out from one studio around November every year, there’s always another game two-thirds of the way through its cycle and ready to release the following year. This breakneck pace has turned Call of Duty into one of the most financially successful video game franchises in history and a major factor in Microsoft’s decision to purchase Activision Blizzard for nearly $70 billion.
But this development cycle has also created immense problems for Activision. Call of Duty games have grown stale, and in many cases beloved parts of the series — like its campaign mode and cooperative “zombies” horde mode — have been left undeveloped or treated as throwaway side projects that get built up just long enough to last until the next Call of Duty game is announced. A shift in theme to more experimental storytelling and futuristic combat starting in 2013 led to years of fan backlash, as Activision struggled to find ways to keep the game fresh while constrained to an annual release model.
Developer burnout due to crunch and poor working conditions for contract testers has led to significant churn and reports of toxic workplace cultures at studios like Treyarch, part of a broader reckoning for Activision Blizzard as it navigates current workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuits and investigations.
Activision attempted to have it both ways starting in 2020 by releasing Warzone, a battle royale mode that has since become a massive revenue driver for the franchise. But Warzone has become overbearing and bloated, its literal file size often too large for players to conveniently update it without having to remove other games from their hard drive. And Bloomberg reported that last year’s entry, Vanguard, underperformed, partly due to cannibalization from the more successful 2020 release Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and the ongoing popularity of Warzone.
This year, Activision plans to release a Modern Warfare sequel and reboot Warzone, so the battle royale platform will no longer have to cater to three different generations of Call of Duty games. This should in theory set up Call of Duty for a brighter future in which it doesn't have to be the bestselling retail game every year. Infinity Ward and its partner studios can instead focus on turning the series into a proper live service platform that can live on for longer than 12 months at a time. For players, this too will be a breath of fresh air because they can invest time — and potentially money, through in-game purchases — in a platform that should stick around for longer.
This is by no means a guarantee Activision won’t shift back to an annual model in the future. But by deciding to skip 2023, the publisher is sending a strong signal to fans and the broader game industry that times are changing, and its old release strategy and development cycle doesn’t work as well anymore. If Call of Duty is to survive and stay relevant for decades to come, it needs to slow down and start treating its product more like a living platform and much less like a traditional product burned onto a Blu-ray Disc.