Weighing up the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Sony’s Call of Duty DLC Deal

Following an alliance with Microsoft and Xbox platforms that spanned over half a decade, PlayStation is now the new home of Call of Duty. Spurred by Destiny’s sales figures on PS platforms, Sony and Activision are poised to continue their mutually beneficial partnership for Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, the latest installment in the action behemoth that will whisk the series into the year 2065.

Swapping the green corner for the blue corner, the deal means that all DLC for the shooter will now enjoy a 30-day period of exclusivity on Sony’s platforms, not to mention early access to the game’s multiplayer beta come August. But with sales for Call of Duty on a gradual decline, has the Japanese publisher inherited a waning giant?

Changing of the Guard

In a time when bona fide first-party exclusives exist as a rarity, these licensing agreements are by no means surprising. Longer lead times on AAA first-party games has proven to be one of this generation’s more intriguing subplots, fanning the flame for HD remasters to become the de facto appetizer for new content, all the while consigning platform holders to search far and wide for exclusivity deals — deals designed to lock down a bigger portion of the third-party mindshare.

And there is perhaps no bigger audience to barter over in the console space than that belonging to Call of Duty.

Make no mistake, Activision’s billion dollar baby is still one of the biggest names in modern gaming, with enough clout and prominence to transcend that crucial threshold between the core and the casual.

Black Ops 3 E3 2015

In 2014, week-one sales for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare proved to be more than Destiny, Titanfall and Wolfenstein: The New Order combined in the UK. Call of Duty’s once-trailblazing pace may be faltering, but it’s staying power as a franchise — particularly among the more casual consumers — cannot be overstated. The numbers don’t lie, either; according to Activision, the series has reaped $10 billion in the last decade, and has grown into a true sales juggernaut since its humble, WWII-set debut on PC in 2003.

Given the ubiquitous nature of social media, we have the ability to surround ourselves with like-minded people, each with a vested interest in the gaming industry. As such, it becomes easy to lose sight of the series’ reputation beyond our proverbial horizons.

The Lion’s Share

And that’s just the thing. When you consider that Microsoft and Activision’s fruitful partnership encompassed six years and as many Call of Duty titles, much of the install base is already tethered to Xbox systems. Plus, the fact that the franchise’s eSports community was effectively birthed on Microsoft’s platforms, where Xbox has acted as a close sponsor hitherto, means that a change of the guard isn’t likely to uproot a user base in one fell swoop.

Should Sony witness an increase in market share for CoD, it will likely be over the course of the next two-to-three years, as opposed to an overnight exodus from Xbox hardware. Now, that’s not to undermine the importance of map packs; perhaps more so than any other franchise, downloadable content is the linchpin than ensures the latest Call of Duty remains prominent all year round, lest it deploy as a flash in the pan every November.

Trumpeted by the YouTube and Twitch faithful with each passing iteration, it is here where the switcheroo will have the biggest impact among the community. Being first on the Internet is everything; but being first on video streaming platforms is indispensable, where many channels are dependent on early access to the industry’s biggest releases in order to drive that all-important view count.

Will this prompt YouTube and Twitch streamers to align with PlayStation and Sony’s new-fangled DLC deal, thereby having a trickle-down effect to the average consumer? Time will tell.

Then again, with Call of Duty showcasing early symptoms of franchise fatigue, will it be a case of too little, too late for Sony’s acquisition? Ever since Modern Warfare 3 raced to 26.5 million units strong in 2011, sales figures for the high-octane series have only been going in one direction.

Despite solid reviews and a barnstorming UK debut, Advanced Warfare marked the third consecutive installment to launch with fewer sales than its predecessor, and though Activision’s gung-ho shooter still pulls in chart-topping numbers at retail, this year-on-year stoop is cause for concern.

A Fading Star?

Yes, Sledgehammer Games’ maiden stint at the helm produced a series high in digital sales, but it wasn’t enough to cushion the 27% fall in retail sales from Ghosts over the same period in the States.

Part franchise fatigue, part lack of innovation behind the pixels, Call of Duty’s status as the industry’s invincible blockbuster is fading fast, which will only result in diminishing returns for Sony. Can Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 prevent the series from losing its once steadfast grip on relevancy?

Call of Duty Black Ops

Releasing under Activision’s three-tier development cycle — one which covers Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games and Treyarch — the futuristic title is bringing substantial changes to the single-player campaign in the form of four player co-op. Multiplayer on the other hand will be built around Specialist classes, whereas the fan-favorite Zombies Mode will boast its own progression system.

Truth be told, it’s the latter two that could prove crucial for Sony’s exclusivity arrangement. In their heyday, the attachment rate for Call of Duty’s map packs was staggering, with 18 million of Black Ops’ 23 mil install base picking up the game’s maiden DLC, First Strike — that’s a whopping 85%. Whether these numbers carry over to Treyarch’s latest is up for question, but the allure of Call of Duty content packs and the enthusiasm they invoke is there for all to see. Slaying waves of undead is better with friends, after all.

Evolve, or Die Trying

By comparison, Sony’s timed-exclusive content for Destiny has been less-than-stellar up until now, but history has taught us that Call of Duty DLC is often par of the course; neither disappointing or revolutionary, the series’ map packs are effective means of keeping fingers twitching and profits high.

And though a 30-day, finite hold on additional content may seem immaterial in the grand scheme of things, the message it sends is critical. For years Sony has lagged behind in the first-person shooter department, and despite Killzone and Resistance’s best efforts, Xbox has housed one of the industry’s more prolific genres.

Now, using a similar strategy as that employed for Destiny last year, Sony will take aim at the Call of Duty market to not only mitigate the company’s sparse holiday slate, but to ensure that the publisher has a horse in the race against Halo 5: Guardians. However, is this a short-term solution to a long-term problem?

Third-party exclusive content can only go so far in filling the FPS-shaped void on PlayStation’s roster, and the best possible outcome of this deal is for the company to coax the Call of Duty faithful onto PS platforms one Black Ops 3 map pack at a time.

Black Ops 3Header 3

Again, only after its November launch will we be able to gauge the impact of Activision’s change of allegiance, and whether Sony’s exclusivity deal is reflected in the platform-by-platform sales.

Couple this with the fact that November 2015 is shaping up to be one of the most crowded Novembers in years — EA’s Need for Speed reboot, Star Wars Battlefront, Rise of the Tomb Raider and, crucially, Fallout 4 — and Call of Duty is left facing one of its most defining holiday seasons since Infinity Ward’s shooter first leaped from PC more than a decade ago.

As for Sony, the platform holder is evidently playing the long game with Call of Duty. Executives on both sides of the handshake have pointed to the momentum of the PlayStation 4, its Destiny install base, and how the “timing was right” for the platform changeover.

Money Talks

What that means in the short-term for Sony is likely a slightly bigger portion of sales for Call of Duty Black Ops 3, but barring any major disruptions, it is next year’s instalment — likely to be helmed by Infinity Ward — that could witness the more tangible shift of audience numbers onto PlayStation hardware.

No word yet on how long the agreement between both parties will run for, though as-yet-confirmed reports hint that it stretches for three years. Mind you, with sales of the franchise experiencing a slow and steady decline, one has to ask whether Activision’s blockbuster series will still have the same cache in three years’ time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of PlayStation LifeStyle or its staff.