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Scott Steinberg: What next for Call of Duty?

Scott ponders the departure of Infinity Ward's bosses

Oddly enough for a decorated war hero, the Call of Duty series increasingly seems to be staring down the possibility of a dishonorable discharge. Publisher Activision not only recently announced the formation of a new business unit designed to offer multiple CoD-branded titles in various genres from a number of different developers (including a new title from Treyarch this Fall and an action-adventure spin-off from Sledgehammer Games in 2011, with plans also in the works for additional downloadable content...). A nasty lawsuit and allegations of insubordination are also floating about in the wake of the sudden and well-publicized departure of Infinity Ward studio heads Vince Zampella and Jason West.

All of which got us thinking: What does this mean for the franchise as a whole, and how well will it sit with the millions of fans who made Modern Warfare 2 one of the biggest video game launches in history? Allow yours truly to pontificate.

My suspicion: That these steps indicate that Activision will attempt to make the franchise even more of an annualized, tentpole property and broader universe that goes beyond a simple line of first-person shooters than in the past. Just as Microsoft has worked to parlay Halo into comics, books, toys, movies and more, and Rockstar Games has transformed the world of Grand Theft Auto into a broader canvas upon which dozens of individual stories can be told, so too is Activision aiming to position the Call of Duty universe as a dynamic world with room for multiple narratives to be told in numerous ways (e.g. game genres) and on a variety of different hardware platforms. The same way that Guitar Hero has existed in multiple forms and operated under the purview of myriad developers, so too will Activision likely aim to maximize profits and mitigate risk here by combining operations surrounding the brand under a single business unit, while also decentralizing power so it's not contained in the hands of a single studio (i.e. Infinity Ward) and staggering various types of releases over a more regular schedule. As revealed by the publisher, we can certainly expect even more sequels, spin-offs, tie-ins and add-ons stamped with the Call of Duty moniker across a variety of gaming devices soon.

However, there's a significant risk here in terms of diluting the franchise's impact and oversaturating the market with titles which fail to live up to the quality and popularity levels of their predecessors. Which is a polite way of saying that yes, spin-offs and expansions can work - Halo Wars offered a pleasing new take on an existing series, and World of Warcraft, the world's most successful MMO, is itself an anomaly, with the franchise having originally begun life as a line of real-time strategy games. But it's entirely possible that we may also soon end up with the equivalent of Hotel Mario and Resident Evil: Survivor here, or worse - Mortal Kombat: Special Forces.

Another big question: Will Infinity Ward remain a key development studio behind future Call of Duty titles? I'd suspect yes, albeit not in the same form we've come to expect, which is a diplomatic way of saying that I anticipate that the studio will be tasked with more assembly line style work in addition to producing occasional marquee outings every few years. Whereas studio resources have previously primarily been devoted to a single blockbuster title that takes multiple years to produce, going forward, I suspect you'll also begin to see some of its resources siphoned off to create smaller, supporting downloadable and expansion content (map packs, game add-ons, etc.) for existing Call of Duty titles and other new franchise-branded properties as well.

We'll likely see responsibility for blockbuster offerings shuffled or spread between multiple studios too, as Activision works to maximize all resources contained within the new business unit and capitalize upon economies of scale. As the publisher has pointed out, it plans to experiment with "new digital business models" and play with "high-margin digital online content" - that means someone, somewhere within the organization has to provide a cost-affordable, steady supply of ongoing material to sell between flagship releases.

So where does this leave the franchise as a whole, and what should we expect to see from it going forward? In all probability, a more schizophrenic approach to addressing the target subject matter, and one that covers multiple eras, theaters of war and fields of combat. On the bright side, to be fair, the Call of Duty brand lends itself well to just about any 20th century, contemporary or near-future battlefield scenario. Whether or not players are going to accept its transition from trusted gaming companion to faceless corporate commodity remains to be seen, however. Some series dilution (read: there's bound to be a stinker or two in there, especially as the publisher experiments with new approaches to design, content delivery and sales) is all but inevitable, though. Just look at where the Tony Hawk series sits today vs. 10 years ago...

As for whether it's the right move for the series, well, define "right move." Is it smart for the publisher to hedge its bets by maximizing opportunities to capitalize on the brand on all fronts and spreading its risk across multiple properties and cost-effective digital content plays? Is there wisdom in not concentrating the power behind a flagship franchise in the hands of a single development studio and team of executives? Do shareholders benefit more from the creation of a business unit with dedicated resources devoted to producing predictable, annualized returns? Maybe so. But the right move for Activision isn't necessarily the right move for players. We're bound to see some major growing pains here, but hopefully the Call of Duty franchise will emerge stronger - not just bruised and bloodied - from this crucible in the end.

In terms of what's next for West and Zampella, my best guess is more over-the-top blockbuster action combat experiences and a new all-star development studio. After years of working on a single property with a long-standing team, I suspect they're more than ready to hit the ground running and spread their creative wings.

Whatever happens to Call of Duty as a franchise itself, perhaps the bigger question we should be asking is as follows. What does it say about the video game industry as a whole that the largest publisher in the world, working with what is arguably the field's most successful franchise, feels the need to so fundamentally retool its business strategy? Make no mistake - this is a move designed to better position the franchise as a bedrock property going forward that can be capitalized on in numerous ways, and give it the versatility needed to remain nimble enough to progress as the industry continues to evolve at a breakneck clip over the coming months and years.

Once upon a time, it was enough to sell roughly five million copies of a blockbuster game at retail in a single day - you could sit back and count your money. Now, it isn't just wise to be proactive and position a brand of this magnitude as what's effectively a standalone, self-sustaining company unto itself for purposes of maximizing its commercial potential. You also have to infuse it with the same resources you would any start-up, so it remains top of mind between new product launches, proves versatile enough to weather fundamental changes in the marketplace, has the wherewithal to evolve and capitalize on rising trends as they manifest and boasts enough resiliency to stay relevant over increasingly longer product and platform lifecycles.

Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.VideoGameAnalyst.net.