The Call of Duty franchise is often criticised for not changing enough between its annual instalments. Sure, if you were to compare the most recent release, Black Ops III to the original Call of Duty, you’d see quite a stark difference. But that change didn’t come about quickly, occurring across 12 games in as many years.
While the franchise is still an industry juggernaut, you could argue that it peaked in terms of its creative output around 2009 with the release of the universally acclaimed Modern Warfare 2. With the hardcore community growing increasingly jaded and disillusioned with the franchise, initial impressions of Infinite Warfare hint at the most progressive and subversive entry in years. So why is it that its reveal trailer is YouTube’s second most disliked video of all time?
Since 2012, every Call of Duty game has been set in the near/far future. The reason for that could be down to the emphasis on enhanced player mobility in shooters in the last few years; it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to have players running along walls and double jumping in WW2, after all.
Or perhaps the recent efforts of the genre in general, not just of Call of Duty, to move as far into the future, to be as far removed from reality as possible, is a reflection of developers wanting to keep politics out of their games. Of wanting to avoid the potential controversy of having anything meaningful to say about the modern world and the conflicts that might arouse, however cowardly - and ultimately futile - that may be.
It is very possible, then, that all of the hate being thrown at Infinite Warfare is simply the result of fans having pallets in need of a good scrub; which could also explain why Battlefield 1 seems to have just about every gamer under the sun backing it, despite its WW1 setting being little more than a mask of cheap skin cream on an aging formula.
And so, when with every new installment Call of Duty drifts further into the future. Its fans feel ignored, indignant even “when game devs DON'T LISTEN”, commented one YouTuber on Infinite Warfare’s now infamous reveal trailer. In that respect, Activision and Call of Duty’s various developers could be seen to be out of touch with their audience who want the series to return to the past/present, which, not coincidentally, is when the most beloved Call of Duty games were set.
The idea, however, that it is the responsibility of game developers, or anyone in any creative industry, for that matter, to bend to the will of their audience is worse than fallacious, it’s entirely distorted. I’m not going to pretend that Infinite Warfare is some avant-garde, on-the-fringe experiment, but when its developers create something that deviates from the formula, something that isn’t to your specific taste, that’s your problem, not theirs. Call of Duty fans aren’t upset because the series isn’t changing enough, they’re upset because the series isn’t changing in a way that they personally find agreeable.
Just because you buy it every year does not make Call of Duty your intellectual property; you are not entitled to shape or to mold however you see fit. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to buy it. Vote for change with your wallet, not by whining on the internet that life isn’t fair because this year’s Call of Duty has spaceships in it.
This kind of twisted attitude isn’t new to the gaming industry. Ubisoft must have observed it when fans of the Assassin’s Creed series simultaneously demanded that it evolve and revert back to the days when having two hidden blades tucked up your sleeve seemed revolutionary. Similarly, when Microsoft revealed their Xbox One for the first time, they were condemned for flying in the face of the status quo, while Sony were lauded as God’s gift to man because they kept things firmly locked in homeostasis. And why? Because Microsoft’s idea for an ambitious, but ultimately flawed, DRM (digital rights management) scheme wasn’t shared by consumers.
Such a corrupted sense of entitlement is damaging to vitality of the industry, because it infringes on creative freedom. When creators aren’t afforded the space necessary to experiment, no one profits. When consumers demurred over the Xbox One, it didn’t encourage Microsoft to learn from what went wrong, it forced them to hit the undo button.
In the same way, Infinity Ward isn't going to come away from reading the comments on their Infinite Warfare trailer with anything constructive. They’ll treat Call of Duty like a busted hard drive and restore it to the last time it wasn’t so fucked, which may seem like a good thing to some, but it’s myopic.
It is unlikely that Call of Duty will ever reascend to the heights of 2009, because the next time that Infinity Ward takes a crack at the series, it’ll be with a game that's a safe bet. It won’t be something that's innovative or refreshing, because when they tried to experiment with new ideas, like space battles and zero gravity environments, they were nailed to the wall.
So, when in a few years time the allure of a Call of Duty set in the past/present wears thin; when the same old, tiresome thing gets pushed out the door every year because it sells, when no risks are being taken, the only way out is to break the cycle.
If you want Call of Duty to change for the better, you need to step back and let it change for the better.