'Call of Duty' Regains Its Mojo

The first-person shooter franchise hit new sales highs after its Oct. 28 release.

The most popular shooter video game franchise of all time is back.

On Tuesday, Activision reported that its latest release “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II” became the No. 1 “Call of Duty” launch of all time, grossing more than $800 million in the first three days of its release.

After years of slumping, the game is seemingly regaining its throne—receiving generally positive reviews from critics and players and becoming the highest-grossing title in the franchise since 2011’s “Modern Warfare 3”.

Activision announced the record success in a press release to media and investors on Tuesday. The fine print, as pointed out by Axios, is that “Modern Warfare 3” earned $775 million in its first five days in 2011, which, calculating for inflation, would be more than $1 billion. Games are also more expensive now than they were in 2011, now costing $69.99 across PC, the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, versus the previous price point of $59.99 on older-generation consoles.

But the success of the latest installment in Activision’s most popular series is still nothing to scoff at, and it comes at a crucial time for the company, which is under legal fire for sexual harassment and with regulatory concerns for its impending acquisition by Microsoft.

“Call of Duty” more specifically has been the subject of some of that regulatory heat, with both PlayStation executives and U.K. regulators concerned over whether the title will remain on PlayStation after selling to the Xbox manufacturer.

In an interview Sunday with long-time YouTube celebrity Justine “iJustine” Ezarik and her sister Jenna, Xbox chief Phil Spencer reaffirmed his commitment to keep “Call of Duty” on PlayStation.

“We’re not taking ‘Call of Duty’ from PlayStation,” Spencer said. “That’s not our intent. Our intent is not to do that. As long as there’s a PlayStation out there to ship to, our intent is that we continue to ship ‘Call of Duty’ on PlayStation.

“Similar to what we’ve done with ‘Minecraft’ since we’ve owned that. We’ve expanded the places where people can play ‘Minecraft’, we’ve not reduced the places.”

Microsoft has notably not shipped a version of “Minecraft” to the PlayStation 5, but a playable version for the PlayStation 4 does work on its predecessor.

In the interview, Spencer went on to say he’d love to bring “Call of Duty” to the Nintendo Switch for the first time. For Spencer and Xbox, the goal is no longer to necessarily be the console winner—it’s to connect with gamers everywhere, regardless of platform, a model pioneered by “Fortnite” and emulated by many game studios thereafter.

The success of “Modern Warfare II”—aptly named after the title that made “Call of Duty” so famous among gamers, the 2009 title of the same name—is an endorsement of Activision leadership, at a crucial time. It not only bodes well for them short-term, but in their ability to survive the Microsoft acquisition next summer, where that company will be tasked with cleaning up a very messy ship.

“Modern Warfare II” is the first “Call of Duty” title to have the majority of its development cycle occur under Johanna Faries.

Faries is a career NFL executive who left America’s most successful sports league four years ago to spearhead the Call of Duty League. Within three years of taking the job, Faries moved from an esports-focused employee to being the general manager of the entire “Call of Duty” franchise.

“Congratulations & thank you to the droves of people who have worked tirelessly as one team for such a moment as this — for the ‘Call of Duty’ community, for ‘Modern Warfare II’, and for each other,” Faries wrote in a LinkedIn post Tuesday. “As someone who often prays for the well-being of my amazing colleagues, and that their hard and humble work be blessed, it's clear as ever to Whom all the glory goes. Bravo all. Let's keep raising the bar.”

Faries is a different type of executive than her boss Bobby Kotick, who’s come under intense scrutiny as the company has been sued for sexual harassment and seen several of its divisions unionize. Activision employees I’ve spoken to describe Faries as “empathetic,”“intelligent” and “driven,” qualities that have gotten her buy-in from the staffs at Infinity Ward and Treyarch, the “Call of Duty” developers.

“Modern Warfare II” has also garnered quite good critic’s reviews, too. Metacritic rates the game as a 77, a generally favorable score based on other reviews from notable gaming publications. Its predecessor, “Call of Duty: Vanguard,” received a mixed 73. At the stores, “Vanguard” underperformed, with the company withholding sale data after a disappointing launch.

Key to the success of “Modern Warfare II” will be how it adapts. It will be the first “Call of Duty” game that has a two-year life cycle and not a one year. Each November, Activision releases a new “Call of Duty” game, alternating between Infinity Ward and Treyarch in charge of development, with other studios assisting. But not this time—”Modern Warfare II” will be the main game until 2024.

Lastly, though, what makes the game’s success most impressive is that it still competes for play time investment versus “Call of Duty: Warzone”, the free-to-play spin-off battle royale game that has become one of Activision’s most successful titles. That game has a major update—”2.0”—coming on Nov. 16, which will likely eat into the monthly active user numbers of the main title, but rather than skipping the paid “Call of Duty” title altogether, it seems players want both.

It’s a big week for Activision as its most important title gets its mojo back.