Jan 21, 2022 - Technology

Microsoft hints at Call of Duty 's future, as series stumbles

Screenshot of a tweet from Phil Spencer's account against a blue background

Screenshot: Twitter

Gamers and games media are scrutinizing a 46-word tweet from Microsoft gaming CEO Phil Spencer to see if it indicates that new releases of Activision flagship franchise Call of Duty will continue to come to PlayStation, should Microsoft successfully buy Activision.

Why it matters: If Call of Duty leaves Sony’s platforms, millions of players would have to seek the game on PC or Xbox, devices they may not own.

The tweet: "Had good calls this week with leaders at Sony. I confirmed our intent to honor all existing agreements upon acquisition of Activision Blizzard and our desire to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation. Sony is an important part of our industry, and we value our relationship."

  • For the half-full crowd, that’s Spencer saying that PlayStation players will keep getting new Call of Duty games.
  • For the skeptics, "desire" doesn’t equal a guarantee.

The intrigue: Microsoft has taken different approaches with multi-billion-dollar gaming acquisitions.

  • It has kept Mojang’s Minecraft on myriad platforms, including those of rivals Sony and Nintendo.
  • But last year it announced Bethesda’s highly anticipated Starfield just for PC and Xbox, despite the studio’s previous hits also going to PlayStation.

Between the lines: Call of Duty has long been a dominant franchise, but it’s in the middle of a transformation that makes its long-term status unclear.

  • In 2020, Activision supplemented its annual CoD releases with a perpetually updated free-to-play battle royale game Warzone and the Tencent-made Call of Duty Mobile.
  • Demand is high enough to rank 2021’s and 2020’s annual Call of Duty games as the two best-selling games in the U.S. in the past year, according to the NPD group.
  • But bugs have infuriated players (and emboldened critics of company management), leading to this week’s postponement of new content for the main CoD releases.

Warning signs: Demand for Call of Duty appears to have softened across the board.

  • Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has himself signaled that November's Call of Duty Vanguard is underperforming.
  • Industry tracker YipitData notes that in-game bookings (transactions) for Call of Duty games' post-release seasons, usually good money-makers for Activision, tend to decline by the third or fourth season each year. They say it is “troubling” that booking for the first post-release season of Vanguard are tracking lower than late seasons of prior games.
  • The mobile CoD is having issues, too. Its revenue exceeded $500 million last year, according to SensorTower analyst Dennis Yeh, but the game’s launch in China, which had boosted performance early last year "has quickly tapered off."
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