Video game publisher Activision has reinforcements to bolster its prized Call of Duty franchise.
For years, Activision-owned studios Infinity Ward and Treyarch have taken turns developing annual installments of the billion-dollar series. The next release, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, due Nov. 4 for PlayStation and Xbox One, is being developed by another of the publisher's studios, Sledgehammer Games.
By beefing up its creative cadre, Activision gives each of the three development studios an additional year to make ever-more-expansive games. Each of the past five releases in the Call of Duty series has topped $1 billion in sales.
That success helps publisher Activision Blizzard maintain its status as the No. 1 publisher in the U.S. "We wanted to ensure that one of the most valuable franchises in all of entertainment has the very best graphics, most engaging story, great new play mechanics and is incredibly fun to play," said CEO Bobby Kotick during a conference call earlier this month after the company's first quarter earnings were released.
The developers at Sledgehammer Games are looking toward the future, too. Recent Call of Duty games have been set a few years in the future, but Advanced Warfare transports players four decades ahead — to 2054 — and a time where you will believe a soldier can fly.
Or at least propel themselves high into the air, thanks to an exoskeleton that's a cousin to the energy thruster-propelled suits in the Iron Man movies. "The exo gives you the ability to boost-jump, it gives you speed and verticality that Call of Duty has never had," says Michael Condrey, co-founder of Sledgehammer Games, which co-developed 2011's Modern Warfare 3 with Infinity Ward.
Beyond limited flight, the exoskeleton has other powers including increased strength and Predator-like cloaking. "We clearly came out of Modern Warfare 3 with a strong desire to innovate for the fans," Condrey says. The exoskeleton and everything it allows you to do "is a game changer."
The game's story involves a wounded-in-action Marine, Private Mitchell, who is outfitted with advanced technology courtesy of Atlas Corp., a private military contractor. As Atlas is called on to help counter terrorist group KVA, the firm's power grows. The game's story explores "what happens when Tier One operators can be bought by the highest bidder?" Condrey says.
Sledgehammer approached actor Kevin Spacey to portray Atlas CEO Jonathan Irons before "the House of Cards zeitgeist took off," Condrey says. "For him, it was a really an opportunity to explore a new medium and to reach new fans."
With the help of the same cutting-edge performance-capture systems that James Cameron used on Avatar and high-resolution facial cameras, Spacey brings a new level of acting to video games, says Sledgehammer co-founder Glen Schofield. "He makes suggestions to the script and has really gotten into the role of Jonathan Irons. It is truly an honor to work with him. He is an acting legend, and to have him in our game is humbling to say the least," Schofield says. "Fans are going to be treated to a truly remarkable actor who brings his character to life."
Condrey says Sledgehammer is focused on creating a "true next generation" game for the PCs and the PS4 and Xbox One, both launched in November 2013. Other developers will handle versions for the PS3 and Xbox 360.
So far the studio has kept under wraps its multiplayer version of the game, which is of utmost importance, McNamara says, because so many players spend months devoted to it after the game's release. But Condrey promises it will satisfy.
The three-year, three-team cycle should help foster variety and innovation, says Andy McNamara, editor-in-chief of Game Informer. The magazine got the first look at the game and features it on the cover of its current issue. "As a long-term strategy for the Call of Duty brand, this change is hugely important as it gives the teams time to execute and iterate," he says.
The move should pay off, says Wedbush Securities equity research managing director Michael Pachter. Advanced Warfare could sell 23 million to 25 million copies, surpassing the sales of 2013's Call of Duty Ghosts, which sold about 21 million, he says. "This team is really good and had an extra year, and there is no (new) Battlefield or Grand Theft Auto (game as competition) to drain wallets. Consumers love this brand."