New Call of Duty biz unit unveiled, Sledgehammer COD confirmed, Asian MMOG spin-off planned

[UPDATE] Activision unveils department focused on expanding franchise, confirms rumors Bay Area studio working on COD "action-adventure" title; mystery COD title due in 2011; massively multiplayer licensing in negotiations; Infinity Ward apparently involved only in MW2 expansions.

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The day after a dramatic shake-up at Modern Warfare 2 developer Infinity Ward, Activision Blizzard has officially revealed its plans for the studio's signature Call of Duty series. As suspected, those will not include studio president Jason West and CEO Vince Zampella, who "are no longer with Infinity Ward," according to a statement. Two Activision Publishing executives, chief technology officer Steve Pearce and head of production Steve Ackrich "will lead Infinity Ward on an interim basis."

Activision has officially revealed its covert plans for the Call of Duty series.
Activision has officially revealed its covert plans for the Call of Duty series.

In fact, Activision's Call of Duty plans largely exclude the studio that created the signature first-person shooter series. In an announcement this afternoon, the company said it is forming a massive new business unit dedicated entirely to expanding the first-person shooter franchise.

However, other than the two upcoming Modern Warfare 2 map packs, the announcement does not mention Infinity Ward at all. This means the studio could be focusing on the "unique new IP" it announced in 2008 when many of its top developers renewed their contracts.

In a statement, Activision Blizzard said that the new business unit will "expand the Call of Duty brand with the same focus seen in its Blizzard Entertainment business unit. This will include a focus on high-margin digital online content and further the brand as the leading action entertainment franchise in new geographies, new genres and with new digital business models."

As suspected, the next Call of Duty will be developed by Treyarch and will arrive sometime later this year. According to rumors last year, it will be set during either the Cold War or the Vietnam War. Activision did not offer any new details about the game's plot, setting, or launch.

However, Activision did confirm a long-standing rumor that a second Call of Duty game is in the works at a non-Infinity Ward studio. That shop is indeed Sledgehammer Games, the San Francisco Bay Area studio Activision formed last year by hiring two key Dead Space developers away from Electronic Arts. The unnamed title "will extend the franchise into the action-adventure genre," according to the statement, lending weight to rumors the project is a third-person spin-off of the series.

[UPDATE & CORRECTION] In addition to the Sledgehammer COD game, which has no release date, there is another COD due out in 2011 from an unknown studio--which could even possibly be Infinity Ward. GameSpot initially reported that the Sledgehammer game was due out in 2011 and regrets the error.

Were that not enough news, Activision also confirmed that it is moving forward on CEO Bobby Kotick's stated desire to expand the Call of Duty brand into massively multiplayer gaming. The company said that it is "in discussions with a select number of partners to bring the franchise to Asia, one of the fastest growing regions for online multiplayer games in the world." The majority of those games are based on the microtransaction-based business model. A Call of Duty version of such a game might resemble Electronic Arts' free-to-play war shooter Battlefield: Heroes, launched last year.

The man leading the new Call of Duty unit certainly has experience in the East. He is Philip Earl, current head of Activision Publishing's Asia Pacific operations and a former senior executive at Nestle and Procter & Gamble.

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