With the new Modern Warfare standalone free-to-play game for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, Activision is pushing deeper into the battle royale space, and the impact could be massive.
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With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's standalone free-to-play spin-off, Warzone, Activision is pushing deeper into the battle royale space, and the impact for the publisher could be massive. Not only that, but if successful, Warzone could potentially have implications for the entire video game industry.
Battle royale is not a fad. It started strong with PUBG, which paved the way for making battle royale games a household name and a viable business category for developers to pursue, and the genre has only grown in size and popularity since. Fortnite built upon that success and elevated the genre to incredible new heights inside of gaming and out. Apex Legends helped the category grow even further with its unique innovations and refined gameplay and gunplay.
For its part, Activision was already in the battle royale business prior to Warzone thanks to Black Ops 4's Blackout mode, but that was just a baby step. Blackout was locked behind the paywall of having to already own Black Ops 4--despite the fact that, it was arguably the game's major selling point. But with Warzone, Activision is opening up Call of Duty for everyone. It's a very big deal because, up until this point, the Call of Duty franchise (on console, at least) relied on the annual $60 releases. Warzone subverts that tried-and-true model with a new take.
This is potentially a significant step forward for Call of Duty and the entire gaming industry. If Warzone becomes successful, it could represent a way for publishers to have their cake and eat it too, argues Atreides Management's Gavin Baker. In essence, Activision can make money from the upfront sales of new Call of Duty games every year, and stack even more money on top of that from Warzone.
Activision's mainline Call of Duty franchise is not going anywhere. The publisher already announced that it plans to launch a new frontline release this fall, and rumors peg it to be Black Ops 5 from developer Treyarch. Even though 2020's Call of Duty isn't expected to sell as many copies as the record-breaking Modern Warfare, Call of Duty is always a money-maker. In fact, Call of Duty has been the No.1 best-seller in the US every year this decade except for 2010 and 2013 when Red Dead Redemption and GTA 5 were released respectively. The franchise is a sales juggernaut.
Whatever 2020's Call of Duty turns out to be, Activision will likely sell this new game alongside ongoing development and support for Warzone, creating yet another Call of Duty revenue stream for the company. Free-to-play games have the lowest possible barrier of entry, so they are risky in that Activision is giving it away for free, but also potentially lucrative if they spark. Free-to-play games, when done right, can generate mountains of money through their microtransactions. Just look at Fortnite and Apex. It's also worth mentioning that Activision already operates the free-to-play Call of Duty Mobile, which is steamroller with 150 million installs and a battle royale mode of its own that brings in many millions of dollars every month from microtransactions.
Baker observes that, should Warzone become successful, it could become a model for other developers to follow as they look to expand the profitability of their franchises across multiple releases in the same franchise. It's not a stretch to imagine other shooter series following suit with their own standalone battle royale offerings.
But Warzone also raises some interesting questions about the future of Call of Duty, including what threat of cannibalization might exist. That is to say, if Warzone becomes the next bona fide battle royale phenomenon, could this impact the sales of 2020's Call of Duty? Activision is emphatically marketing Warzone with the tagline "Free Call of Duty" and this raises questions about how players view the franchise. Will the expectation be, going forward, that Call of Duty is a free game like Fortnite or Apex?
Beyond that, Activision has now released a battle royale game or mode for the latest two Call of Duty games. So should fans expect 2020's Call of Duty and those beyond it to also include battle royale modes? There are no answers to these questions yet, and that makes sense.
Activision is clearly experimenting with Warzone, both in terms of creative design and business strategy, so it's too early to say what the impact will be long-term for Activision and the wider industry. What is clear is that Activision is finally delivering on what fans have been asking for: a multiplayer-only, standalone Call of Duty release on console, and that's a very big deal.