There’s no bigger game than Call of Duty. And so it was a natural for us to discuss its cultural impact at our conference GamesBeat at The Game Awards.
We were lucky to open our event with Johanna Faries, general manager of Call of Duty and senior vice president at Activision. I spoke with her and TikTok’s Annie Bellfield, team lead for console and cross-platform gaming at TikTok, about how the game has maintained its cultural relevance over the past two decades.
Here’s a story about the talk. You can also watch it yourself in the video. TikTok sponsored the session.
Bellfield opened by asking Faries about the history of behind the cultural relevance. She noted how TikTok trends may take off and last for minutes, days or event years. But staying top of mind for 20 years is quite a feat. The hashtag Call of Duty has garnered 98 billion views to date on TikTok alone, Bellfield said.
Two decades of success
Faries noted the recognition is appreciated as video games often launch and they’re talked about for a brief time and then never mentioned again.
“I think part of that secret sauce that we talked about why 20 years, why is that significant. In many ways, Call of Duty’s both positioned itself as more than a game. So brand love has come in from culture,” Faries said. “When we talk about relevance — the franchise was really thinking about that — and putting on a masterclass in many ways well before any of us were in the industry, and it set a new tone for the cool factor around gaming writ large. So that that’s one piece of the marketing positioning.”
She noted that the slogan, “There’s a soldier in all of us” was meant to think expansively about the blockbuster intellectual property, well beyond just the core game loop. It also mattered a lot that Call of Duty shifted from occasional releases to a yearly cycle for new releases. That came from having three studios working on a game simultaneously, with staggered releases.
“People were setting their watches to every October or November because they knew a big Call of Duty was about to come,” Faries said.
The cadence shattered expectations about franchise game publishing, and it is still very singular in that way, Faries said.
I noted there is a lot of pressure and responsibility that comes with staying on top for so many years.
Faries noted that the brand is “always on.” The company has a bias for action with both the big annual releases as well as the live operations with Call of Duty: Warzone and Call of Duty: Mobile, which are both free-to-play titles meant to bring people into the franchise. Those games have added hundreds of millions of fans to the audience. (And I’ve added videos of my first Warzone wins this season).
She noted that Warzone is coming to mobile soon, plus a number of other partnerships. She noted there are both fans having a great time and fans who aren’t and want something fixed.
“You have to accept that feedback loop, embrace that. But we talk a lot about being agile,” she said. “As we put something out there, you have to have this readiness to understand the community is now going to take whatever we put out there and make it their own. And you have to be in that conversation. And we have to understand how to hyper listen and then react strategically based on making sure that the players are happy but also where we want to be three or five years from now.”
Bellfield noted that the feedback on TikTok comes fast and it takes agility to respond when people aren’t happy. Players see the social community as almost an extension of the game community.
I noted how I’ve been playing Call of Duty since it was a nerdy World War II historical experience. And now it has risen to become the center of all gaming. It’s been interesting to me to see the rise of streaming who talk about the game every day, where they specialize in only Call of Duty. When Warzone came out during the pandemic, I could talk to people in the game late at night at a time when I couldn’t go out and gather with friends. That gave me permission to play Call of Duty more extensively than I had ever done before, rather than trying to play every new game that came out. I asked how they dealt with that pressure that comes with the success.
Faries noted that there would be no Call of Duty without the best and brightest game developers behind it. She noted that the company has to recruit from around the globe. In the past, a Call of Duty team would be under 100 people. Now there are more than 3,000 people all over the world developing Call of Duty all the time.
“That just gives you a sense of scale. This thing is such a behemoth, and you need that type of top talent to be able to put out that kind of content all the time and do the right partnerships all the time,” Faries said. I think the other part about being number one is it comes with cynicism baked into it. We’re in the era of high expectations. You’ve been with the franchise for as long as it’s been around.”
The expectations from fans — whether for the new Warzone that dropped this week — or an upcoming premium release, Activision has to shape the right expectations and please the core fans, which is true for every brand. She noted that Call of Duty has evolved as a franchise around different platforms like mobile. It has different regional expectations and you have to partner with the right people for the region.
“It takes an always-on mindset,” she said. “It’s incredible how we’ve architected our way into development, how we’ve architected our way into marketing and brand positioning. And we take it very, very seriously. When we think about publishing and the commercial end game, we ship and we ship when we say we’re going to ship and we run into those fires head on and usually it’s an incredible next iteration of innovation. So that just the adrenaline rush of working on it.”
Bellfield asked how the approaches are different across the regions. Faries noted that the brand works with creators, influencers and the press who put their own stamp on things and engages with deep partnerships with them. She said in the last four or five years there has been expansive investment in different regions of the globe thanks to the multi-platform expansion. That opens the door to things like mobile esports. She noted that Minnesota is a major hub when it comes to esports competition.
“It’s very dynamic. The regional opportunity is is incredibly fruitful for us. And I think we actually have only just started to crack it,” Faries said.
To keep game discovery strong, Activision has created events like Call of Duty Next for the core followers of the game. It invited 200 to 300 of the biggest names in streaming and content creation to Los Angeles. Then the team created a high-production value event and broadcast it across all the different partner and media channels to say what was coming next in a kind of “OTT experience.” Call of Duty Next has essentially become a new platform, Faries said.
Bellfield noted there is a lot of crossover between Call of Duty and different communities, like sports, celebrities, fashion and more on TikTok and other platforms.
“I think that’s really cool to to expand and be a part of culture and you know, gaming is no longer just gaming,” Bellfield said. “It’s mainstream culture. It’s been fun to watch you guys really push the boundary.”
I noted how the mobile and Warzone games are free-to-play and are at the top of the funnel, and if players want to upgrade to the premium game they can do so with a single click next to the Warzone menu. Something like TikTok is even above the free-to-play games in terms of being the first thing that would-be players engage with. I asked Faries, who worked for the NFL for 12 years, if there was experience that she could carry over from being at the mainstream of sports.
More global than the NFL
She said it was similar in terms of being a huge IP that was a part of culture. Still, she noted the NFL was one vertical within sports alongside others like the NBA or NHL. She noted that Call of Duty shows up in “every relevant vertical you can imagine,” she said. She noted there are partnerships with fashion brands, A-list Hollywood talent, sports stars, music and more. There are partners across Asia, Latin America and other fast-growing regions on these fronts — and even in places like France and Italy.
“All of [the partnerships] were synergistic. They all did that because they knew that that was just for the taking. It wasn’t like they were pushed. These artists are asking to be a part of the conversation and putting their flair on it,” Faries said.
She noted how Call of Duty is more global than the NFL.
“I don’t think I have to beat the drum too hard with this room. I mean, gaming is positioned for the future of how consumers consume anything,” she said. “It’s in real time, and it’s personalized. It’s on the platform of your choice. It’s interactive. In that way, I think we’re very well positioned.”
Asked how Call of Duty measures success, Faries said it’s not different from other brands. They look at the quantity and the quality of marketing results and the audience strategy. She noted Activision is known for its rigor about the data. She said the firm analyzes and pivots as needed, in terms of commercial success as well as success on the social and platform partnerships. But she said measuring success on a qualitative level is harder.
Taking bets and dealing with the community feedback
“There’s something about the cultural passion that people hold for Call of Duty, even the most cynical. I’ve been in rooms with people who have been curious about a certain launch or a gameplay feature that they hate, and there’s a lot of passion and flying around and you sit in those rooms [and listen],” she said.
I noted it was great to get rid of multi-shot kills for snipers in Warzone and bring back single-shot sniper kills.
“Exactly,” Faries said. “The Zombies community — not to nerd out too much. We just launched a completely new open world expansive way to play Zombies. Sounds great. Sounds obvious, not easy. When you’re breaking into Modern Warfare, there’s canon and universe and usually that Zombies experience is not shown in Modern Warfare as a sub franchise. So you have a whole segment of our audience who’s like, we’ll see about this. And it’s a different way to play Zombies. Even the gameplay architecture is different. And so those are the bets you’ve got to take.”
She added, “It’s something where we measure that, and we can feel it. You can feel when it’s hitting and credit to everyone on the development side for Modern Warfare is Zombies mode is probably the best rated ‘third mode’ in a decade, and I’m not making that up. And you know, we listen, and we see that, so you feel it. And sometimes you can’t always measure it.”
Bellfield asked how they act on that data. Faries said that when she took on the general manager role, she saw an opportunity to be more transparent in the communication with the community. The team could converse more frequently and be more vulnerable.
“This opened up a different way to engage with our community and our players, to really want to listen and take notes, but to also show up and maybe admit when things aren’t quite right and own it right, and then just get into this frequency of communication and dialogue, where the conversation is going to make us better as game developers and publishers,” Faries said. “So let’s just get in the trench with whatever the feedback might be, good or bad. What we’ve drawn from that has paid so many dividends. I can’t even I can’t even tell you. And I think it’s really changed the way that a lot of both core players were in our system, but also fans outside of COD and who have perceived the brand.”
Fans may not be happy about what the developers say, but they listen and appreciate the transparency.
As a last question, I noted the Spider-Man quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I wondered how she handles that responsibility. This was her chance to address any elephants in the room, like the sexual harassment litigation against Activision Blizzard. And she did in an oblique way.
“We have so much work to still do as a brand. And so it’s awesome to be 20 years old, and yet, I can’t wait for it to be 120 years old, right?,” she said. “And we think about it that way. If we’re really young, the areas of improvement that we’re hyper invested in is the player experience.”
That means she cares about the integrity of the play, the Fair Play Alliance, Ricochet anti-cheating, anti-toxicity efforts, and really “shoring that up as a 24/7/365 initiative for Activision to make sure that when people come in, no matter who you are, you’re having a positive, fair, inclusive experience,” she said.
That’s easy to say and hard to do. She noted that the company has made strides in a short time, with a more expansive lens in recruiting talent to help take Call of Duty to the next level in the next two decades.
“We need the people who are in the building now. We’re going to need a lot of cross-functional wisdom to come in and create a more nuanced conversation about relevance over the next couple of decades,” she said. “And then it’s an exciting time in that regard. But it’s not platitudes. We really know there’s a lot of work to still carve out for ourselves both from an innovation perspective, but also to meet and exceed players expectations and we’re looking forward to it. We take it on the chin. We’re ready for it.”
Bellfield thanked Faries for her thought leadership and pushing Call of Duty higher in gaming culture.
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