Activision officially announced the existence of Modern Warfare 3 - the worst kept secret in the long and obvious history of terribly kept secrets - after extensive details of the game's single-player mode were leaked over the weekend. The game will apparently begin shortly after MW2, with fifteen missions that will take players across the globe, from Manhattan to Dubai. In addition to the usual cast, two new characters will be introduced with the aim of putting them centre-stage for later instalments in the series.
Sounds good, and exactly what you'd want out of a Call of Duty single player. Except, does anyone really want that anymore?
I spend most of my gaming time playing single-player modes and it is very rare that I won't run through the missions before getting started on the multiplayer, even if only for practice. Black Ops was one of those rare occasions. For a game I've spent over two days playing, probably no more than two or three hours of that time has been invested in the single-player mode. I don't get the impression that I'm an exception in this either: few people I know who own either that game or the Modern Warfares have expressed much interest in the single-player missions (the original Modern Warfare does best out of the three), but have sunk days into the online deathmatches. Many who were interviewed waiting at the Modern Warfare 2 launch said that multiplayer was all they were interested in. So are Activision spending vast amounts of money on a mode that may go untouched by a large part of the game's audience?
The question of how long an FPS single-player mode should be is a hot topic in gaming circles right now. That length seems to be ever decreasing, with Homefront the latest to come under fire after the marketing campaign put so much onus on its story, which ended up barely lasting five hours. Defenders of the leaner single player practice say that it is quality, not quantity which counts - ignoring Homefront's mostly middling reviews - and that the value of a £45/$60 investment is recouped through the multiplayer modes.
This is true, to an extent. The problem for non-Call of Duty games is that not all of them are such strong bets to be massive sellers. Homefront, for example, has probably sold in the region of 10% of Black Ops' total (an estimate based on VG Chartz numbers), which is a sizeable enough number given what a sales juggernaut Activision's series is, but raises questions about sustainability. How long will those players stick with the game when there is such a vastly greater number of players with which to share a similar experience elsewhere? The number of players is also divided across three platforms, with the 360 version comfortably outstripping the alternatives. If you bought the game on a platform where it has a smaller player base, is that problem not only exacerbated, but exacerbated from a position where there were relatively few players to begin with? If those middle-range FPS' can't hold onto their audiences, are players really getting the value for money that they're promised?
For games that can't guarantee long-term online competition, the story mode needs to be a sufficiently complete experience both for early investors, to mitigate any loss of value over time, and late buyers who may arrive too late to experience the online game at its peak. Whilst a particularly extreme example, when I reviewed Conduit 2, a game SEGA sent quietly to die on the smallest FPS market currently in existance, even after two weeks it was near-impossible to find a full multiplayer lobby. That game may have (unsurprisingly) sold atrociously, but how long is it before players vacate better selling FPS' for more prestigious competition, creating a similar situation?
For the Call of Duty series, this isn't a problem. The brand alone is enough to guarantee a huge install base exclusively for the online modes, that will remain populated over the long-term. While there's no doubt that many players enjoy the Call of Duty single player modes, are they really enough to justify the huge expense that Activision sink into them? The lack of length and replayability makes it unlikely that many people would be buying the games solely for the campaign, which would in turn suggest that losing it would save Activision a great deal of money without any major loss in sales.
I suspect the counter-argument would be that the public perception of a game is still formed through its single-player mode, even if it is significantly less popular than the multiplayer. Black Ops was the Cold War Call of Duty because that's when its missions were set. It would surely be more difficult to market an exclusively multiplayer game because the Cold War trappings of an online-only Black Ops, for example, would have solely defined the appearance of maps and weapons, rather than the tone and settings of a new story. Modern Warfare 3 can promise the exciting scenario of a Russian invasion of Manhattan and even if many of its players don't go on to experience it, that offer of such a large-scale scenario is enough to give the game a certain identity and importance.
There's also the fact that should a new Call of Duty ship without a campaign mode, it would only be seen as lacking something that other games are offering. If the public perception of games is indeed formed through their single-player modes, having a title focused entirely around what is seen as a secondary mode - again, regardless of popularity - would be seen as a lesser investment.
What's interesting is that rumours are growing that Activision might be considering a multiplayer-dedicated Call of Duty after all. There's talk of a title called Call of Duty Elite in development alongside a premium online model, with speculation linking the two together. It's important to note that this is all rumour right now, backed up by zero concrete evidence, but it's hard not to imagine what Activision could be planning, should there be a kernel of truth to any of it. There are many ways that a more story-based experience could theoretically be integrated into an online multiplayer - the contracts in Black Ops were a tiny hint at the direction they could take - or would the game actually be little more than a rebranded MAG (Sony's 256-player online FPS), a significantly more expansive version of what is already on offer?
Whatever should come of those rumours, if anything, Modern Warfare 3 will still need its single-player, even if its impact for many players will only be as an advertising tool. For the Call of Duty series, the single player campaign is helpful in establishing the differences between the latest game and its predecessor. It would be much more difficult to give a sense of importance to such comparisons between multiplayer modes. By next year, should you ask yourself: "What was Modern Warfare 3?", chances are that your answer will be based on what you remember from the single-player, even if the bulk of your time was spent online.
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