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Is Activision Blizzard About to Make a Big Mistake With the "Call of Duty" Franchise?

By Keith Noonan – May 13, 2018 at 12:08PM

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The next release in one of Activision's most important franchises could ship without a much-loved feature.

Activision Blizzard's (ATVI -0.71%) Call of Duty (CoD) is one of the world's most popular video-game franchises and an incredibly reliable source of revenue for the publisher. However, fans of the game could be in for a big change. Reports suggest that the series' next installment, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, will not feature a single-player campaign mode and instead it will include only multiplayer experiences.

While the franchise's multiplayer has been its chief draw in recent years, and the overall industry is focusing more on online gameplay because it tends to be more profitable, a lack of solo modes would likely disappoint a significant portion of the CoD customer base. Call of Duty is one of Activision's most important properties, and a shortage of content in the next big release could have significant implications for the franchise's future. 

The logo for Call of Duty Black Ops 4.

Image source: Activision Blizzard. 

Speculation on the next CoD

Activision is set to do an in-depth reveal for the game on May 17, so the state of single-player for Black Ops 4 will likely be speculation prior to that date. However, an abundance of reports suggesting no single-player points toward that being the case -- marking a big change for the series. 

Call of Duty had its first release in 2003 and has been going strong ever since. The series has seen a new installment on a roughly annual basis since its debut, and every one of the franchise's mainline entries has featured some form of single-player campaign mode. 

While Black Ops 4 may not ship with single-player, Activision will release a CoD solo campaign this year -- an updated version of the story mode from its 2012 release Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That updated release will reportedly not include a version of the game's multiplayer mode -- another sign pointing to Black Ops 4 being multiplayer only. 

Potential downsides of not supporting solo

According to some reports, Black Ops 4 was originally intended to ship with a single-player mode, but development was not far enough along to have the feature ready for the game's scheduled release date. That suggests that single-player might be added to the upcoming game following its release this fall. 

If Black Ops 4 has single-player content that's ready to ship at a later date, Activision could release the expansion as a digital download, or ship an updated physical version of the game. That said, the absence of the feature at launch will likely translate to fewer sales unless the game's other content is compelling enough, or the title ships at a reduced price. 

That's not to say a game can't succeed without a single-player option. Activision Blizzard's own Overwatch has no solo campaign mode and is one of the most successful new games of the last decade, but expectations are different for CoD.

How a multiplayer focus is changing gaming

Single-player is still an important part of many the value proposition for many games, but it's multiplayer modes that tend to drive player engagement in the months after release. The reason for this is pretty simple. A single-player game might be engaging for its first play through, but having experienced the game's story and its scripted events, users might not have much reason to jump back in and play through it again. On the other hand, playing against human opponents tends to be a much more varied experience -- extending the life of the game and paving the way for more in-game spending.

While multiplayer is becoming the driving sales force for most big game companies, there's also a common sentiment among hardcore gamers that titles should have better single-player content. Consumers in this category are a vocal minority that can have a big impact on broader perceptions about brands and companies.

Even if Black Ops 4 winds up being a sales success for Activision, a decision not to include a solo player mode is almost certain to upset a significant portion of the franchise's fans. The competitive online modes have been the series' biggest draw, but the single-player campaigns have been an important part of the overall package. With the shooter genre looking more competitive than ever, shipping without one of the series' defining features could be a problem. 

What happens next?

With information about Black Ops 4 still scarce, it's difficult to say with certainty whether releasing the game as an exclusively multiplayer experience would have a significant negative impact on the franchise. It's possible that the breadth and quality of the game's content could make up for the lack of a single-player mode.

That said, it's hard to get excited about the next release in one of Activision's biggest franchises potentially shipping without a feature that's historically been pretty important. We'll have to wait and see what happens with Black Ops 4, but as a shareholder, I'm not thrilled by the prospect of the next Call of Duty releasing as multiplayer only. 

Keith Noonan owns shares of Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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