Can 'Call of Duty: Ghosts' Challenge 'GTA 5's' Billion Dollar Sales Record?

The year's next great video game event has begun. The most dedicated fans of the Call of Duty franchise picked up their copies of the newest entry in the series -- Call of Duty: Ghosts -- at the stroke of midnight. In the arms race between video game publishers, the attention is focused squarely on exactly how many millions made the purchase throughout the game's first day of availability. In September, Take-Two Interactive's (NASDAQ: TTWO  )  Grand Theft Auto 5 crossed $800 million in sales during its first day at retail, and crossed a billion in sales in just three days. 

That historic haul broke Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's record of reaching a billion in sales in 15 days. In total, Guinness World Records confirmed that GTA 5 broke six world sales records in its first three days of release. 

Not surprisingly, Call of Duty publisher Activision Blizzard  (NASDAQ: ATVI  ) wants its title back. In an interview with MCV, Activision's UK senior brand manager summed up the company's sales ambitions: 

"Congratulations to the team at Rockstar for their success. We look forward to getting the record back before the next GTA title."

While you have to respect the tit-for-tat bluster, defeating Take-Two's GTA 5 sales record looks unlikely for Call of Duty: Ghosts. 

A franchise still growing, or in decline?

Unlike GTA, which only comes out every fourth or fifth year, Call of Duty is a yearly event. The franchise really began hitting its stride with the introduction of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare back in 2008. That release moved Call of Duty into the upper echelon of video game franchises, selling over 13 million copies. 

The table below lays out the continuing growth of the Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto franchises. 

Game

Release Year

Sales

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

2007

Over 13 million copies sold

Grand Theft Auto 4

2008

First week sales of $500 million. To date, over 25 million copies sold.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

2009

$550 million in sales across first five days. Over $1 billion in lifetime sales.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

2010

$650 million in its first five days.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

2011

$775 million in its first five days. Reached a billion in sales in 16 days.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

2012

$800 million in its first five days. Reached a billion in sales in 15 days.

Grand Theft Auto 5

2013

$1 billion in its first three days. Has racked up more than $1.74 billion in sales since its September launch.

Source: Company press releases and conference calls

After Grand Theft Auto 4 established the high-water mark for video game launches in 2008, every Call of Duty game managed to build larger launch weeks. 

However, note the slowdown between 2011's Modern Warfare 3 and 2012's Black Ops 2. While the $800 million Black Ops 2 pulled in over its first five days is nothing to scoff at, it also just barely edged Modern Warfare 3 by $25 million. 

Also, that $800 million total for Black Ops 2 was across the first five days. Grand Theft Auto 5 upped the ante by getting to a billion in just three days. Add it all up, and the GTA 5's sales record looks pretty secure. 

Late momentum building?

There is a distinct perception that Call of Duty could be in the beginning stages of decline. After all, new editions of the game are now a yearly event, and today's launch of Call of Duty: Ghosts is the 10th version of the game. It's hard staying on top the video game world for such a prolonged period. 

Part of the perception was fed by an August conference call where Activision admitted that pre-orders for the game were running behind last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The series has made press releases touting new record breaking launches an annual tradition, so it's understandable that a step back in demand for the newest game could lead to discussion of whether the series had peaked. 

However, pre-orders for Call of Duty: Ghosts seem to have accelerated since August. In September, an Activision press release quoted a Gamestop vice president saying that Call of Duty: Ghosts was on pace to be "the most pre-ordered title of the year." 

One of the "problems" surrounding Call of Duty: Ghost's release is that the game was released today for current generation consoles like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but not until the 15th and 22nd for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, respectively. 

That presents two problems for pre-orders and analyzing the game's first week sales in general. 

1) With different versions of the game hitting at different times, anyone buying the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 version won't be included in first week sales. 

2) Pre-ordering a game doesn't make a lot of sense if you don't know what console you'll own in four months. It only makes sense that pre-orders for the game would be running slow, as consumers may be waiting for reviews and game line-ups before deciding whether to buy an Xbox One or PS4.

Add it all up, and it's hardly surprising that pre-orders were light across the summer but accelerated as consumers made up their minds and put in pre-orders for next generation systems as well. 

Is the game any good?

We've seen the mixed signals on Call of Duty: Ghost's potential to challenge video game sales records. On one hand, pre-order momentum seems to have picked up substantially since August. Yet, staggered release dates on different consoles and evidence that the popularity of Call of Duty as a franchise is slowing points to a slower start than not only GTA 5, but also Call of Duty: Black Ops 2Overall, I'd wager that the game sees a dip from sales of Black Ops 2 and falls well short of GTA 5. 

Yet, while it is exciting watching records fall, the biggest storyline around Ghosts is whether it's actually a good game that moves the series forward. A review from Polygon starts out, "Call of Duty: Ghosts is the best evidence in years of a franchise going through the motions." 

Other reviews for the game are less scathing, but generally tell the same story that Ghosts brings little innovation or added excitement to the franchise. Contrast that to Grand Theft Auto 5, which is seeing the best reviews of any game released this year. 

Middling reviews could cause some buyers to hold back on getting the game in its first few days of release, which further hurts Call of Duty: Ghost's chances of breaking sales records. That's a concern that'll bruise Activision's ego; they won't reclaim their sales record from GTA 5.

However, if video game buyers agree with reviewers that the series is starting to feel redundant and stop buying the game every year, breaking sales records will feel like an afterthought. Instead, Activision will be facing the problem of how to keep a billion-dollar franchise from bleeding sales. With the company's World of Warcraft franchise seeing its subscriber count fall from over 12 million to less than 8 million in a few years, it'd have its hands full with two of video game's best franchises in serious trouble. 

Activision will surely post some impressive sales figures for Call of Duty: Ghosts in coming weeks. It's a dominant franchise with a loyal following that will buy the game by the millions regardless of reviews. That will be the story reported across the media in coming weeks. 

Yet, the more important story will be whether declining quality and inventiveness in the series show cracks in the foundation, which could make either Ghosts or Black Ops 2 the high-water mark for the series.

 


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 05, 2013, at 5:39 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    No. Mediocre reviews will slow sales.

  • Report this Comment On November 06, 2013, at 12:25 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    It appears that I was wrong. "Appears" being the key word. Activision took the sleazy route and reported "sell-in" numbers not "sell-through" numbers. The reviews are mediocre, they don't have 1080p on the xbone, they got caught re-using an old animation from Modern Warfare 2, reports of frame-rate issues on the PS4 version . . . things kinda smell at Activision.

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