Iteration is a conundrum. Do it too much, you’ll run out of ideas and lose sight of what the project was initially. Don’t do it enough, and enthusiasm will die out faster than you can salvage it. But when the money is good and demand is high, it’s a risk companies are willing to take.
Games are perfect examples of this. Key franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto take their time and release a new, iterative sequel outshining its predecessor in myriad ways while also garnering massive amounts of hype. They feel new and fresh, a return to a familiar place, even if that familiar place is recognizable in name only.
On the other side are massive too-big-to-fail franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty, games that essentially challenged and redesigned modern multiplayer shooters on consoles into something much different from what came before.
Both currently rest in a strange place, where years of mostly annual releases have entrenched them further and further into an identity with little to no opportunity for major changes in formula. Dedicated fan bases know what to expect from these franchises, and the franchises have learned how to change enough to slightly update games while keeping their core identities intact.
Now, we’re seeing both Battlefield and Call of Duty reach a tipping point, a fork in the road where they must choose how to alter their franchises enough to build up their fan bases once more. Given this opportunity, development studios DICE and Infinity Ward are changing their franchises in radical ways, and their successes or failures could inform the viability of their continued success for years to come.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Okay, the name is dumb. Let’s just sit back and appreciate how much it sounds like a combination of two words picked from a lottery-style PR machine. It says so much without saying anything at all, and it’s lacking a great deal of individuality.
But, the game itself looks to change things up dramatically when it releases this fall. Not just via kill streaks or weaponry, but by embracing the clichéd sequential evolution many action franchises have used in the past: Call of Duty, but in space.
Call of Duty has been stuck on a near-future tear for several years now, utilizing tech we see today with minor upgrades, armor sets, and more LED flourishes along the barrel of a gun. It’s the future, but it’s the near future. Don’t worry, all that you know and love about Call of Duty will still be here, but with a few minor tweaks to take you out of feeling like a soldier deployed to modern-day Iraq.
But with Infinite Warfare (seriously, that name), Infinity Ward has abandoned a large portion of what “makes” a Call of Duty game iconic and is instead focusing on a threat attacking Earth from space.
It’s a story of humankind’s obsession over dominance and how even the greatest technological advancements in the world cannot keep us from engaging in our most base instincts. Overpopulation has led to the Earth’s resources being nearly exhausted, leaving humanity to launch a campaign to settle colonies in space and mine for needed resources.
But, a radical fundamentalist group of insurgents decide to claim those resources for themselves, launching an aggressive violence campaign that eventually leads to war in space and on planetary surfaces.
It’s a massive departure from the past, leaving behind vaguely middle eastern-looking cities, favelas, and crumbling buildings for spacecraft, planets, and true future military tech. And all this while keeping the active, violent feel of a traditional Call of Duty game.
Should Infinite Warfare become a success, what would be next? Where could the series go after this point? Advanced Warfare introduced new pacing and capabilities with its exo skeleton combat, Black Ops III’s characters and world looked amazing, and it’s a very different product when compared to its counterparts from mere years ago.
But this is the trouble with iteration. Infinity Ward have painted themselves into a corner, stuck and unable to move while the paint dries and they see all of their ideas form together in one conglomerate with little room for change. Call of Duty has an identity, a format, a precedent. To do anything drastic in an attempt to innovate and mix things up would be almost guaranteed to alienate the core audience and jumble the franchise’s identity. Because of this, it’s highly likely the franchise will make radical changes over the next few years in order to find its footing and regain viability again.
How radical will these changes be? Funny you should ask.
Back in Time with Battlefield 1
Whereas Call of Duty is soaring through the stratosphere into the final frontier, Battlefield is going back. Way, way back, to the often-overlooked setting of World War I.
World War I is arguably one of the most dynamic settings for a shooter, with its bizarre combination of old vs. new technology, vastly diverse locations, and brutal battle strategies utilized by the soldiers on all sides. There’s a massive spread of weapons, vehicles, locations, and opportunities present in this turn-of-the-century setting than previously seen in any of the other Battlefield games, and granted everything is balanced well, it could make for an interesting and well-developed fight.
But, like Call of Duty, Battlefield is also in a strange transitional period, caught between what it was and what it could be. Granted, Battlefield does not have as extensive or rigid a history as Call of Duty. It’s jumped around a handful of eras, and its focus on team-based play and vehicles over pure run-and-gun action affords it a bit more flexibility than its Activision-published counterpart.
But that doesn’t mean it has carte blanche to do anything or go anywhere it pleases. Battlefield’s dedicated player base is a very passionate one, and they will have expectations that will need to be met in order for Battlefield to maintain its viability.
So, when the dust has settled, the tanks have demolished the trenches, and the horses have gone out to pasture, where can Battlefield go next? More importantly, what does the drastic jump from modern military shooter to futuristic sci-fi war and World War I say about the current state of the FPS?
Embracing the Future
Culturally, we’re no longer as obsessed with the idea of hunting terrorists and being the good guys like we were 10 years ago. We’re tired of gray, drab environments, bleak odds, and grit. Now, we’ve softened on our once somber tone, and I’m even hopeful we might eventually leave it altogether.
Granted, there will always be a market for realistic military shooters focusing on tactical combat and squad-based fighting. But it’s no longer the norm, no longer the same dusty motif plastered on every other game box at retail stores. Now, we’ve ventured into a lighter age of massive action set pieces, alternate history stories, cartoonish team-based shooters, and even brilliant revivals of old franchises.
Call of Duty and Battlefield 1 are proof of this. Ever the stoic, unchanging benchmarks, now even these franchises have begun to respond to people’s shifting opinions by abandoning its cigar-chomping, fatigue-wearing roots and instead venturing out into vastly different areas.
It’s a wise move. For either of these franchises to survive, they’re going to have to face the same iteration conundrum head on, figuring out ways to change the formula and introduce new elements while still retaining its identity. Right now, they’re in a pubescent state of sorts, going through changes and reinventing themselves while simultaneously preparing for the future. And with two games embracing two very different ideas, players win with a more diverse offering of products.
Truly, it’s anyone’s guess where either of these franchises will be in five years. But with one going back in time and another going forward, they’re both purchasing added longevity by embracing their potential to be something goofier and more extreme than ever before.