Monday, February 13, 2012

How to Fix Call of Duty, Part 1: What Can They Do

I have been a Call of Duty (CoD) fan since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (CoD4), the game that somewhat revolutionized the way first-person shooters were played (things like killstreaks, perks, weapon attachments). I've dutifully bought every CoD game on release day since then. I even preordered MW3's "Hardened" edition (and I hate preordering games). So I can rightfully say that I'm a CoD fan.

The gaming community is pretty torn about CoD. Hardcore gamers swear that CoD caters to noobs too much. CoD gamers say that competing titles are too slow or complicated... or they don't say anything at all, as CoD is pretty much the FPS king at the moment. But there are always people arguing about CoD; it's a very polarizing franchise. CoD can even be polarizing to a single person; I am torn about MW3 and the future of the franchise.

CoD's publisher, Activision, and primary developers, Infinity Ward (IW) and Treyarch, have continued to innovate on with each new CoD game. World at War added Zombies mode and co-op play; Modern Warfare 2 added customizable killstreaks, pro perks, and spec ops; Black Ops added CoD points, wager matches, theater mode, and improved scoreboards. Each game also came with new or updated weapons and game modes. None of these updates substantially changed the game in the same way CoD4 did, but this incremental innovation* was welcomed by most gamers. The latest edition of CoD, Modern Warfare 3 (MW3), also brought some innovation in the form of new game modes, "pointstreaks" improvements ,and Survival mode.

* A primer on incremental innovation vs. radical innovation, from the excellent book Making Innovation Work by Davila, Epstein, and Shelton:
Incremental innovation leads to small improvements to existing products and business processes. It can be thought of as an exercise in problem-solving where the goal is clear but how to get there needs to be solved. At the opposite end, radical innovation results in new products or services delivered in entirely new ways. It can be thought of as an exercise in exploration where there might be something relevant in a particular direction but what will be found is unknown. 
However, what really has bothered many of us CoD gamers is that each new CoD title brought with it a substantial set of negatives along with the innovations. World at War had severe balancing issues, MW2 had hackers and its own balance problems, Black Ops had terrible lag/network and balance issues, and now MW3 suffers from challenging spawns, lag/network issues, and, again, balance issues. Why can't each version of the game be better and stronger than the last? Why does each title have to take two steps forward and two steps back at the same time? It's gotten to the point where people still play older versions of CoD because they can't stand the newer versions*. In fact, Black Ops, MW2, and CoD4 all appear regularly on the top 20 weekly Xbox Live titles list.

* Check out i3ears' "BEAR to COMMANDER" series for proof (and some laughs too). 

But that last point underscores why Activision, IW, and Treyarch don't care to fix these problems: Call of Duty sells like wildfire. MW3 sold 9 million copies in it's first MONTH of availability, and that doesn't even count the additional revenue they will get with DLC*. Why should they spend any time fixing problems when they can just work on the next CoD title or DLC pack.

* DLC is a blog post for another day, my friends.

My problem with this way of thinking is that Activision/IW/Treyarch can have their cake and eat it too if they are willing to make a longer-term investment in the game and community. I'm thinking of the model known as "bungee balancing" (think bungee cords; not at all related with the developer Bungie). Let's say, oh, I don't know, akimbo FMG9's are overpowered in MW3*. To find the "optimum" configuration, IW should make a drastic change that dramatically weakens the akimbo FMG9's and then monitor the overall weapon performance. Are they too weak now? Strengthen them. In this way, IW can zero in on the optimum configuration. (If you're familiar with algorithms, you should notice that bungee balancing is like a binary search.) IW could bungee balance spawn logic as well (using heatmaps as the data).

* They should be able to easily see what guns are overpowered by comparing relative weapon performance. Say players in general are at 0.9K/D player in general but a 2.0K/D player with akimbo FMG9's. That would be a clear example that akimbo FMG9's are overpowered. 

Now, I get that the lag/network issues can't just be easily worked out in this fashion, as they are much harder to test and verify. I have no easy answer for these issues, other than to say that Activision/IW/Treyarch should spend the time and money necessary to fix these issues in the next CoD title, as lag issues tend to drive gamers nuts.

We still have the question of why Activition/IW/Treyarch should care*. This sort of work isn't cheap. IW would have to have a powerful set of statistics collections and tools to manage this data. It requires a lot of effort from Robert Bowling (IW's creative strategist) and his team to identify problems and propose and implement solutions. Every update would require a full testing cycle (and title updates would require certification as well). We're talking about a lot of changes and a lot of money. Why would Activision want to seemingly waste money on this sort of work while they sell hojillions of copies?

* I don't give any credence to the conspiracy theories that Activision ensures that every CoD title has unfixed issues in order to convince gamers to buy the next CoD title. 

The answer is the long term. Sure, MW3 (essentially, CoD8) broke all previous sales records for a game, so it looks like the series is going nowhere but up. However, if you look past the sales figures, you see a lot of "CoD Fatigue" out there. Long-time CoD fans, such as myself, are starting to tire of the series. Now, for the next 10 months, Activision doesn't care about me. I bought MW3 and CoD:Elite, so they already have all the money they can get from me for MW3. But is Activision really only looking forward one year? That's not a model for long-term sustainability if you ask me.
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