Beyond the flashing flatscreens, blaring speakers and “booth babes” at last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, there was no bigger showdown at the video game industry’s annual extravaganza than the one brewing between “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” from Activision Blizzard Inc. and “Battlefield 3” from Electronic Arts Inc.
For the past four years, Activision reigned supreme with its “Call of Duty” franchise, breaking game sales records and earning critical acclaim for its polished shoot-’em-up realism. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based publisher may finally have a worthy adversary when EA releases “Battlefield 3” on Oct. 25, two weeks before “Modern Warfare 3” comes out Nov. 8.
“Naturally, it’s good for the consumers to have one of these heavyweight fights that’s going on right now,” said Karl-Magnus Troedsson, general manager at Stockholm, Sweden-based “Battlefield 3” developer DICE. “The objective isn’t winning for the competition; it’s about winning over ourselves, to ensure that we make the best game that we have ever done.”
While the goal of “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” is the same — shoot combatants, preferably in the head — when their newest sequels are released this fall, they will share several other similarities. Most notably, both are set amid modern-day worldwide conflicts with soldiers fighting on expansive urban battlegrounds in such cities as Paris and New York.
DICE developers are plotting for “Battlefield 3” to look sleeker than previous editions. They’ve developed a new version of their Frostbite game engine to craft the sequel, which promises more realistic graphics, fuller sound and amplified environmental destruction. The engine is also being used to create the racing game “Need for Speed: The Run.”
“With our new Frostbite 2 technology, we feel like we have a strong offering,” said Frank Gibeau, president of EA Games. “We’re a generation ahead of what’s out there. It looks spectacular. From a marketing standpoint, we’re going all out. We’re going to spend a lot of money. It’ll probably be the biggest budget for the company this year — if not ever.”
During E3, at the front of the Los Angeles Convention Center’s South Hall, EA previewed a “Battlefield 3” multiplayer level set within the tunnels and streets of Paris. Meanwhile, at the back of the sprawling expo, Activision showed off a “Modern Warfare 3” co-op level that tasked players with surviving waves of enemies, including suicide bomber dogs.
“If ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’ is a Hollywood-ish action play, ‘Battlefield 3’ is more like a documentary,” tweeted Hideo Kojima, the Tokyo, Japan-based developer behind the third-person “Metal Gear” franchise. “While play-related rail games are the mainstream after the success of ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Uncharted,’ this stoic attitude is fresh.”
Throughout most of the last decade, EA and Activision were equal rivals when it came to military shooters, regularly deploying new chapters in their respective World War II franchises, beginning with the original “Medal of Honor” in 1999 and “Call of Duty” in 2003, but Activision was the first to recognize gamers had grown bored of blasting Nazis.
With the release of developer Infinity Ward’s “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” in 2007, Activision brought the battle to the 21st century. The contemporary iteration introduced terrorists as adversaries and laser-sighted rifles as weapons. The leap forward paid off. It was the best-selling game of that year, going on to sell more than 13 million copies.
Activision continued to dominate in 2009 with “Modern Warfare 2,” which sold more than 20 million copies. The hype also helped propel editions by Treyarch, the other studio developing “Call of Duty” games, to the top of sales charts. Treyarch’s Cold War-era “Call of Duty: Black Ops” has sold more than 22 million copies worldwide since last year’s launch.
The “Battlefield” franchise, which has always been geared more toward PC than console gamers, lacks the same firepower as “Call of Duty.” The last full-fledged “Battlefield” game, last year’s “Battlefield: Bad Company 2,” sold a respectable number of copies: more than seven million, which seems small when compared to the staggering haul taken by “Call of Duty.”
“‘Battlefield’ wants to take them on directly, but they’re trying to do it through innovation, and I don’t know if that’s necessary,” said Brian Crecente, editor of gaming blog Kotaku. “I think it’s more about polish and delivering an experience that can really be replayed online. That’s where ‘Battlefield’ is going to have to take on ‘Modern Warfare 3.”’
“Modern Warfare 3” is again being developed by Encino, Calif.-based Infinity Ward, but this time in tandem with San Francisco-based Sledgehammer Games and Madison, Wis.-based Raven Software, which is working on the game’s online multiplayer mode. The collaborative approach to developing the third “Modern Warfare” installment could prove hazardous.
Adam Sessler, host and editorial director of G4’s gaming series “X-Play,” said sales of “Modern Warfare 3” definitely won’t tank but bad buzz that the “Call of Duty” saga is becoming repetitive might affect the franchise, especially after Activision ousted the heads of Infinity Ward and several other employees followed them out the door last year.
“The three words ‘Call of Duty’ almost ensure a certain number of sales,” said Sessler. “I could see this being the beginning of a decline. I don’t know what the quality of the game will be. It should be just fine, but this is from a new Infinity Ward, so whether they hold to the standard established with the first two ‘Modern Warfare’ games is uncertain.”
EA already unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down the “Call of Duty” juggernaut last year by perking up its “Medal of Honor” series with a present-day Afghanistan chapter that only sold about four million copies. The praise that “Battlefield 3” earned from this year’s E3 attendees might mean that EA could actually make a dent in the armor of “Call of Duty” this time.
“We know the competition is out there,” said Glen Schofield, general manager at Sledgehammer Games. “It’s really about how we’re going to make these millions and millions of fans — who write in and talk to us every day through emails, tweets, everything — how are we going to make the millions of fans happy, not how are we going to beat the other guys.”