Ever since Modern Warfare 2 surpassed $3 billion in revenue, the gaming community has watched with interest as each subsequent Call of Duty installment carried the record-breaking bar even higher. At the same time, fans of the series (as well as detractors) have wondered if (and when) the mega-successful bubble might burst.
Now, after setting a new franchise milestone, with $1 billion in week one sales, it’s looking as though Black Ops 2 might be the first title in Call of Duty console history to sell less copies (long term) than its predecessor. Of course, a decline in sales does not mean that the game (and larger series) won’t continue to bring in big bucks for Activision but has Call of Duty reached its peak?
The news comes from Gamasutra, who crunched NPD numbers for first month Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops 2 sales and found that, comparatively, console series sales have declined by 14 percent overall this year (so far). To be clear, the report is based on comparisons using PS3 and Xbox 360 numbers – not PC (though its unlikely that console gamer patterns are significantly different in this case).
According to a report from industry analysts Cowen and Company, based on adjustments for available days on the market, even if Blacks Ops 2 had move 7.9 million copies in the first month across all console platforms (including Wii U and handhelds), it would have still seen an 11 percent drop from Modern Warfare 3. Black Ops 2 has only sold around 7.4 million – and, while Wii U and handheld numbers are not available, there’s no reason to think they’d make up that 1.4 million difference (especially with only 400k Wii U’s on the market in November).
Black Ops 2 is still a massive success for Activision; however, looking at Gamasutra‘s comparative chart, it’s clear that, should that first month sales decline continue into 2013, some gamers no longer consider Call of Duty titles a must-have annual purchase – as the year over year differences are, at the very least, tightening:
That said, analyzing NPD numbers is not an exact science and there are other factors that could play into the perceived month one sales decline – as pointed out by Longbow Research’s James Hardiman (via MCVUK):
“We do not believe that Activision did itself any favours by putting out a press release touting that Black Ops II had crossed $1bn in just 15 days, faster than the 16 days required for Modern Warfare 3 to reach the $1bn mark […] What management did not mention is the fact that with an earlier release date, Modern Warfare 3 was able to reach $1bn a day before Thanksgiving, whereas Black Ops II was not able to get there until after Cyber Monday.”
The earlier Modern Warfare 3 release date is accounted for in Gamasutra‘s calculations but NOT the increased revenue that was likely generated by a pre-Black Friday launch (likely helping to push the game’s own $1 billion number in 16 days). Still, Hardiman’s insight doesn’t undercut possible decline in the Call of Duty series – though it may indicate that Modern Warfare 3 sales were a bit inflated and, as a result, the Black Ops 2 drop might not be quite as sharp as the numbers appear. It’s also worth noting that with higher month one numbers, there might not have been as many Modern Warfare 3 purchases throughout December 2011 – meaning Black Ops 2 could still gain some ground before 2012 is over.
Players have also pointed to direct competition from the highly-anticipated release of fellow shooter Halo 4 as a possible reason for lower Black Ops 2 numbers but, given that Gamasutra reports Call of Duty sales falloff on both PS3 and Xbox 360, it’s unfair to use the Microsoft exclusive as a scapegoat – especially considering Modern Warfare 3 went toe-to-toe with Battlefield 3 across all platforms last year.
Not to mention, even if Halo 4 did have a dramatic impact on Call of Duty sales this year, it would still serve as potential symptom in Call of Duty decline – i.e. some potential Black Ops 2 players did choose Halo 4 over the latest Call of Duty title. That’s the challenge that Activision now faces with the Call of Duty series, whether Black Ops 2 represents a downturn or not: There’s no doubt that the Call of Duty brand is very strong but with so many great titles available in the market, how can the publisher bring enough shooter fans back with each installment in order to continue record-setting sales year after year after year after year after year?
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Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is available now for the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and PC.