Why Call of Duty has lasted 20 years without triggering franchise exhaustion | Rob Kostich

After 20 years, Call of Duty has hit more milestones than most other video games. As of last year, Activision’s first-person shooter combat franchise had hit $30 billion in lifetime revenue and 425 million premium copies sold to date.

The game debuted in 2003 as a rival to Medal of Honor, and it has outlasted that franchise. It reinvented itself with the launch of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and did so again in 2019 with Call of Duty: Mobile and in 2020 with Call of Duty: Warzone.

Call of Duty: Mobile reached over 650 million people, and Warzone topped 125 million downloads in its first year. And now there are more than 3,000 developers working on the Call of Duty franchise. It’s easy to find people who say they are tired of the franchise, but somehow they keep on buying the games.

More than those numbers, Call of Duty has given a lot of us a common gaming culture. We know what it means to frag an enemy, the joy of taking out a camper, and the companionship of talking with Warzone teammates late at night in the midst of a battle royale match. I enjoy the moment of getting in a last shot that carries the team to victory. OK, well, may that doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to happen.


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What is surprising about Call of Duty is its resilience. Activision tripled down on its investment by getting three studios to work on games at once so it could deliver a Call of Duty game every single year. Then it put tons of developers on it at once to take the premium franchise to free to play with both the mobile version and the battle royale version. Activision delivered Call of Duty as a game service, and still the players didn’t burn out on too much content. It’s the game that keeps on giving.

I spoke with Rob Kostich, president of Activision, about the historic moments of the Call of Duty franchise and divergences like Call of Duty: Roman Wars and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. He talked about the opportunities ahead, the pluses and minuses of passionate fans, and keeping them happy. Kostich said the company has Call of Duty planned out through 2027. Let’s hope they keep getting it right.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Rob Kostich
Rob Kostich, president o Activision.

GamesBeat: The 20th anniversary is a nice occasion. How do you feel about [hitting such high numbers]?

Rob Kostich: I feel great. I think about what’s happened in the world of entertainment and a franchise that has stood the test of time. To me, what’s really incredible over these 20 years is I look at it – actually, when I look forward from where we are today, I think our opportunities in front of us are greater than anything we’ve had before us. It’s really exciting. I just feel like the teams have so much passion and ambition and things they want to do. It continues to be really, really fun and we’re just really fortunate, all of us to work on such a great franchise.

GamesBeat: Yeah. How does that happen? How does something last that long?

Kostich: Look at its core, I think we have – obviously, I’m a little biased. I think we have just a great core action experience. Whether you choose to play that in a narrative sense through campaign, whether you enjoy that particular aspect, whether you enjoy some of the PvE modes, but that core action experience has always held tightly and we’ve been able to really continue to evolve, make it better, improve really aspect of the game over the years. There’s no shortage of stories and ideas, stories that we can tell and ideas that we want to try. That’s how we keep it going really. We keep it going through I think two things also as well, which is a community that is endlessly passionate about this franchise, and we’re completely thankful for their passionate support, and importantly the people that we have here. We have incredibly talented folks who really love this franchise and our work each and every day to see how they can push it forward for the community.

GamesBeat: Yeah. Just on the passion side, if you’ve got fans in the hundreds of millions, it almost seems like you just hear completely contradictory feedback. Who do you know [who to listen to]? Which type of feedback do you believe?

Kostich: We obviously listen to all of it. We try to have a very balanced point of view as to how we go forward, and our only desire is to make as great of an experience as we can for as many people as we possibly can around the world is they enjoy Call of Duty. All of it throughout our process, we listen, we certainly learn by things that we’ve done in the past, things that have been successful, maybe even things that haven’t been successful in the past. Then we also, as we go through any iteration of any new game, any new phase, we’re constantly testing that with players and making sure we’re hitting the right words. Ultimately, the most important test of anything is just how does the game feel in your hands, when you’re playing it, how does it feel? That’s what we pay particular attention to as we’re going through new iterations.

GamesBeat: What’s your favorite Call of Duty?

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Kostich: I love all my children. Look, I have particular passion, I would say, for the very first Modern Warfare, our first Modern Warfare back in 2007. I wasn’t even working on the franchise at the time. The first game I worked on was on Warfare 2 in 2009. I remember the first time I really saw it, we had a big sales meeting in January that year before the game came out. I remember Vince and Jason got on stage, they showed the game. It was unlike anything I had seen before and I was just completely blown away. I’m like, I’m going to get stuck into that game for sure. The game comes out, I bring it home. First thing I did is, probably 10:00 at night, popped in the campaign. I got into bed probably 5:00 in the morning, and my wife was like, what were you doing? I’m like, that was awesome. It was awesome. Matt brought in a lot of new innovations and franchise on the MP side, perks, a lot of customization things. That game in particular, started something for us where it just sold incredibly well that year, but the tail on it was really strong. Then when Modern Warfare 2, came out in 2009, that was like the hockey stick where it all really, really took off and a series of great games, the Black Ops games, original Black Ops II. All those games back in the day were so fantastic and so fun. We continue to try to outdo them each and every year. Yeah.

GamesBeat: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s easier question than picking your favorite child, but what memorable experience stick with you, I guess, as far as just the things you’ve done in these games, I guess?

Kostich: Certainly, what I described in the original Modern Warfare, the other one with a little bit of a soft spot in my heart was actually in World War II. I taught my son how to play a Call of Duty on War Mode and we played War Mode endlessly. It was a good onboarding for him and just that time I got to spend with him. Sadly, he is way better than I’m now. The order of magnitude better. What it makes you realize is the impact that these games can have on people, on friendships, on connection, Warzone is certainly taking that to a new level and I think that drives a lot of our passion too. Our ability to connect people who really love this franchise, have fun together, those are really some special moments that we see in the community all the time.

GamesBeat: Yeah. For me, I think it’s definitely playing Warzone during the pandemic with people who were friends at 11:00 at night and we’re chattering away at a time when we couldn’t go outside. That was very meaningful to be able to just chat with people.

Kostich: It’s really nice. For us is like your thoughts that are deep. We have so many great stories from the community of how it brought them together during a very difficult time for a lot of people. If we can play a small role in making the people happy along the way and giving them a good outlet, that’s really an awesome place to be.

GamesBeat: Yeah. If you look back on different milestones that were, say, big moments in Call of Duty history, like there’s some obvious big ones, I guess. I don’t know if you’ve thought about what were the most important ones?

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Kostich: I think there’s a lot of important things. I think Modern Warfare 2, back in 2009, really launched us in a different stratosphere in terms of impact and popularity. The games that followed actually leveraged that quite a bit, whether it’s a Black Ops series and Treyarch has done a fantastic job there in the other Modern Warfare games. The other really big, I think, transition moment for us was really Warzone. We started to expand into the free to play part of the business. We actually started with Call of Duty Mobile in October of 2019 when we launched that product. Then March of ’20 the Warzone came out. This wasn’t a no-brainer decision because we had a great business for so many years with the annual leases of Call of Duty. And this was a new thing in terms of going to free to play, what impact it would have on our business. Our fundamental belief was our business was somewhat limited because it was always behind a premium, so pay a fee to get in. Being able to give everyone access to a Call of Duty experience, which obviously we believe is a really fun experience would be great for the overall franchise.

It certainly has been proven to be true our business is stronger than ever. We’ve seen over the last few years have been incredible. The engagement that we’re driving, all those things and the connections we’re able to make around the world, has been fantastic. Also, through free to play, we’ve opened up new markets, whether it’s India, whether it’s Latin America, whether it’s Asia. It just made the brand work global and creates an opportunity for us to have even greater impact as we had in the future.

GamesBeat: Yeah. I thought that, say, maybe one of the greatest moments in merchandising there was really when you could log into Warzone on one window or just look at the next window and buy the premium game. It’s like if you didn’t have those large windows right in front of you there maybe you wouldn’t have had so many people converting that made the premium game much more successful, I guess.

Kostich: We certainly saw a lot of that. People got a good experience with Call of Duty and the free to play components of it, and then a lot of them wanted to play more. They got in, they enjoyed other parts of the game. Actually, our ecosystem is fairly unique the way we actually pull it all together. A lot of games are either premium or free to play. We blend the two worlds a little bit, and it’s been really great for our community. It’s been great for the business as well.

An Asian woman character mantling in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

GamesBeat: Yeah. I guess there were some painful moments in history, and I don’t necessarily want to rehash that, but theoretically I could see what the discussion or the tug of war was, I guess. I know Vince and Jason left at a point. That was very contentious time. It seemed like it was the point where Call of Duty moved from one studio to three studios. That decision to do that opened up the opportunity to launch a high-quality Call of Duty every year, but you also lost the founders there, I guess. I wonder about that moment. How did you, say, maybe you guys know that, that was maybe the right direction to go and that the franchise could take it, could take having a new game every year as opposed to one every few years that was also really high quality?

Kostich: We had some experience, I would say. If you went back to even the Tony Hawk days, back with Tony Hawk, we were able to see success on an annual basis in those early days. We felt like if you had the right franchise, you had the right resources aligned to the franchise, you can actually build something on a more annual basis. A lot of games, the sports games obviously do that, and they have the perfect creative conceit to do it because there’s a new season starting every year with sports. With Call of Duty, we continued to push on that aspect and just saw that our fans really wanted that new experience and they loved it. It was really just the variations have probably just been – and it’s always up to us and our execution, but the interest and passion has always been there. Again, we’re super thankful for that.

GamesBeat: It’s ratcheted up again, I guess, in different ways where there’s just so many more studios working on Call of Duty as well. That seemed to been the thing that’s happened in the last few years where you get nine studios or 10 studios working on each game, I guess?

Kostich: Yeah, we have an awesome group of folks who work on this day in and day out. Games have changed quite a bit. They’re a lot harder to make. They’re way more labor intensive now than they’ve ever been, and so it does require just more resource to get any one game done. I would say the other thing that changed things for us too is just Warzone, because that’s a more of an evergreen type of thing for us, dealing with the seasons and seasonal content in addition to the premium games that we’re doing. It requires that level of resource to fulfill every aspect of the franchise. We’ve been very focused on that and our teams have done, I think, a really good job of managing that. The scope and size of dev teams nowadays compared to what it was when we started is dramatically different.

GamesBeat: How do you look at a problem that could potentially be there, like say franchise exhaustion. I don’t know. Different aspects of Call of Duty, like say, it looks like World War II is out of fashion now and maybe people have had their fill or it’s maybe just because Modern Warfare is just so much better as an experience. I don’t know. How do you feel about those different kinds of questions and when to decide one way or another, like which way should we go?

ATV battle in Call of Duty: Warzone..
ATV battle in Call of Duty: Warzone..

Kostich: You hear what is said from the community every now and then which is, is interest the ebb and flow a little bit. What’s always been true is, if you go back to Modern Warfare in 2019 when we launched that game, that game was wildly successful. It’s really about us getting it right and putting the right game out there for the community, one that they really thoroughly enjoy across all aspects and that’s on us. That’s on us to deliver the community’s expectations. Whenever we’ve done that, they’ve never said, I can’t believe there’s another Call of Duty coming out. They get excited for it. Our job is really innovation and surprising and delighting the community first and foremost. If we do that right, to your point, it hasn’t been perfect every single year throughout our history, but more often than not, I think we’ve been pretty successful.

GamesBeat: Yeah. If there’s a miss, how do you guys maybe learn from that? If one year is off and it’s lower sales than the previous year or something, how do you bounce back?

Kostich: We’re constantly in our planning phase, our long-term planning phase. Right now, we have games planned out all the way through ’27 for the things that we’re working on. All those things are great learning experiences. Anything that’s happened in the past is a great learning experience. We’ve got a massive focus group around the world who tells us what they think each and every day about the franchise that we pay particular attention to. Look, we’ve learned. I think we’ve done a lot of games in the future. We probably went as far there as we possibly could. We win some of the games in the past. You start to see the sweet spot over time really resonates with the community. If you looked at our history, it’s over time fairly consistently. You see things like the Modern Warfare and Black Ops franchises really popular. We’ve had certainly some other games that have done really, really well, like the original World War II game from Sledgehammer in 2017 did really, really well as well. It’s a balance, I think most importantly, that we feel like we actually provide good differentiated experiences, good things for people to get in, get stuck in and feel like they’re experiencing new kinds of fun.

GamesBeat: How about some interesting decisions, like say you guys did do Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare but you didn’t do Call of Duty: Romans. How do you know when to pull that trigger, I guess?

Kostich: I think ultimately for us, the weapons are a hugely important part of the Call of Duty game. You think about what narratively does that allow you to do, whatever time period that you’re in. The challenge is when you go into World War II or even earlier, there’s less flexibility when you’re trying to maintain somewhat realistic tone, which is important to Call of Duty. By the way, our fans very strongly define what Call of Duty is and isn’t. Once you get into the modern era, you have a lot more flexibility. You get in the future a little bit, there’s even more flexibility with what you can do with weapons. The Black Ops area is super interesting because Black Ops is all about secret stuff no one knows about. There’s a lot of applied creativity built into Black Ops, which is always really fun for developers to get after as well. We got to make sure that our fans have what they want and they can actually explore the gameplay and the range of gateway they can come with some of the content we can put in there.

GamesBeat: Yeah. What do you think some of the more creative moments were for Call of Duty?

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

Kostich: It’s a good question. Actually, it’s a really good question. I think –

GamesBeat: I did like the shotgun that set people on fire.

Kostich: Yeah, people had fun with that one.

GamesBeat: That was the Black Ops One. Yeah.

Kostich: I can look at almost every one of our games and you can see what our teams have done. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say one was way more creative than the other. I think they try to do different things. I think even Black Ops III, a game that with its movement and what it tried to do was a very different experience, very well designed by Treyarch in that case. Modern warfare games have been excellent. Fans have enjoyed those across all the Black Ops games in general. It’s hard to really say honestly on that question. I think there’s been so much of what’s built in each and every year that I get excited about.

Sniping in Call of Duty: Mobile.
Sniping in Call of Duty: Mobile.

GamesBeat: Yeah. Mobile too is an interesting set of choices for you, I guess. Call of Duty: Mobile was hugely successful in so many ways, but it was a separate set of players and ecosystem than Warzone. Now you have the opportunity to bring them together, and so I think everybody’s waiting to slaughter all the mobile players, right?

Kostich: Globally, we have cross-progression, not cross-play.

GamesBeat: Okay. Yeah.

Kostich: You need to do that anyhow technically because there’s still a little bit of differences there that you have to account for on the design side. I think just bringing together, we’re really excited about just the ability to even offer a cross-progression across PC, a console PC over to mobile. This is a big push for us, one that we’re very much looking forward to for this to launch and to further compliment here’s an experience that you can have now on virtually every platform out there in a really fun way. I’ll tell you that Warzone’s mobile game is looking and playing great. Really excited about it.

GamesBeat: Do you think players are going to split in an interesting way between playing with the controller and playing on the touchscreen?

Kostich: I don’t know. The nature of mobile is the way people play it. Most people are just on the go. I think we’ll see a lot of good crossover between console and PC, but you have regions around the world where that’s just their primary device and that’s how they play. Obviously, whether it be in Asia where mobile devices are fairly massive, certainly in Latin America and other parts of the world, this is oftentimes a primary device in our ability to provide what we hope to provide, which is the best-in-class experience that you can see both visually and from a gameplay perspective. We think fans are going to have a lot of fun with it. We’re really excited about those prospects.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

GamesBeat: Yeah. Then do you think of it as like mobile is the top of the funnel and it just brings people into the environment of Call of Duty and they could move into different parts of it, especially the ones that will generate more revenue, I guess?

Kostich: I think mobile, first and foremost, is about providing a great access point to players around the world. Many players around the world, they’re on a game only gaming device or phone. Then there’s others who will go over to console PC and play as well. I think it really serves both purposes. It introduces the world to a great Call of Duty experience, and it might be the primary way they play, but it also gives an opportunity for them to really try it out, and then also if they really enjoy it, try out some of the other things that we make each and every year.

EA has finally shipped its Battlefield Season 1 DLC Zero Hour.
EA’s Battlefield Season 1 DLC Zero Hour.

GamesBeat: As far as the overall shooter market goes, how have you thought about that? It doesn’t seem to have been a cakewalk to always be the dominant game, I guess. There’s always a Battlefield coming up now and then, and I think battle rorale had this tremendous impact on the whole market. You guys had to adapt to that, and it seems like there’s been a lot of adaptation that you’ve had to do.

Kostich: There’s no doubt we faced a lot of competition out there, which in of itself I think is a testament to the team and what they’re able to do each and every year to keep Call of Duty going and also just the passion of our community. Those things we’re always super thankful for. Of course, yeah, we do adapt. The idea always behind it is why we went free to play in the first place, which is, again, we have this great experience that we know and love, somewhat limited by the fact that it’s only available – it was only available to premium experiences. Now all of a sudden, expanding the accessibility of Call of Duty to players around the world, it’s just been a great thing. It’s been good for the franchise, it’s been good for the brand, it’s been good for the business. Overall, what I’m most focused on is how do we get the most people possible having fun with Call of Duty around the world. If we do a good job of that, they’re engaging, they’re playing, they’re connecting with their friends and doing those things, I believe success will follow.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3’s Battery.

GamesBeat: Yeah. How do you also conquer some problems that have always been there, I guess? I guess there’s some players who will always be toxic and players who will cheat and players that will not welcome new players, I guess.

Kostich: That’s obviously been something we’ve really focused on. I’m sure you have seen our ricochet effort in terms of what we do to watch the game and make sure we win all the cheaters and hackers as much as we possibly can. We now have an effort with Modulate, which anti-toxic chat moderating that. It has been a beta test for us, and we’ll roll it out this fall as well. We’re really pushing on everywhere we possibly can to provide a really great experience. We want at the end of the day, as many people to be able to come together and just have fun playing Call of Duty. In a lot of games, anytime there’s a competitive aspect, there can be some toxicity, and it’s on us to moderate that as much as we possibly can. I’ll say the tools are getting better and better and better in that regard. Hopefully as we end in the future, it’ll just be a better experience for everyone.

GamesBeat: Yeah. It still feels like there are things that could be done to just have Call of Duty all the time, Call of Duty everywhere, I guess. Call of Duty amusement parks, Call of Duty metaverse. How do you feel about these things that might be opportunities of the future?

Kostich: We’ve looked at a lot of those things. We’ve looked at multimedia. We’ve had proposals on these parks. There’s a lot of things. Throughout the years, we’ve always got the most benefit when we just focused on our core gameplay. We’re still, I would say, mostly focused on how many people can we get to enjoy playing Call of Duty around the world. What are the business models? What are the gameplay? What are the things that we have to do to make sure it’s really accessible and really fun for every type of player around the world? Ultimately, that engagement in our game is by far the biggest thing that drives our success.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

GamesBeat: Yeah. What’s the ballpark for how many studios now and how many developers is it? There was once upon a time, I think I knew it was maybe 2,000 developers and 10 studios, but I’m actually not sure right now.

Kostich: [It’s 3,000]. Like I said, these games are quite labor-intensive now. You see everyone doing this, all the big games are – quite big teams are trying to pull these things together. They’re monumental efforts. Competition is real, and so we’re just focused on, again, just how we can deliver our players’ expectations, and to do so nowadays, it takes a lot more than it used to back in the day.

GamesBeat: Yeah. Then we did graduate from the three studios, one every year, into many studios working all the time, every day on Call of Duty. I don’t know if that’s the Assassin’s Creed model, maybe. I don’t know. I know Ubisoft would enlist all the studios to finish certain games when they were coming out. Do you think of this time as having a certain model that’s very different from just five years ago, I guess?

Plunder mode in Warzone.

Kostich: What I would say, Dean, is that I don’t know that the model has changed that much. We still have studios who lead the way. What I will say is we have studios helping out more so now in terms of like, if you’re not part of a new map in like a Warzone world, it takes a lot of work as we think about the seasons and things that we do for any one game. When we first started Call of Duty, first game was just a piece of game that we launched and we started getting into map perks from there and a lot of that work was contained within a studio. Now, the effort is significant across seasons, the season of content, the free to play aspects of the franchise, but we absolutely still have key leadership on each and every game. You see in the credits of our game, there’s always going to be a lot of studios because we want to obviously pay respect to everyone who has participated in helping us get there to the finish line. It just takes more and more people now. That’s probably the reflection you see, but I don’t think our focus has really changed at all over time.

GamesBeat: Yeah. I remember this one story that Andy Grove used to tell at Intel about Intel dealing with so much competition and everybody jamming into its memory chip business. It was a very big business, and they felt like they had to be in it. He said, “If they fired us and brought in some new CEO, what would the new CEO do?” Gordon Moore said to him, “Well, they would probably shut down the memory business and focus on this PC thing, this PC processors business.” Then Grove said, “Well, why don’t we just walk out the door and come back in and do that?” It is an interesting thing that someday you have to kill off your baby and maybe have a new thing ready. How would you think about that? Like, say, is there a life beyond Call of Duty?

Call of Duty: Warzone

Kostich: I still look at Call of Duty, like I said at the beginning, I see so much great opportunity for us in the future. In many respects, this is just the beginning. Again, that’s crazy to say after 20 years. Obviously, as Activision Publishing, we’ve had a lot of success over the years with whether it be Skylanders or Destiny or Guitar Hero or Tony Hawk, or a number of things that we put out in the world. We’re always looking for that. We have some ideas in the opera that unfortunately I’m not going to talk further about today. The real challenge, Dean, or anything else, is just making sure that we can get the right talent focused on those initiatives. Given the size of these games and these franchises nowadays, it’s gotten harder and harder I think, to break out, probably more so than ever before. We’re always focused on that and how do we expand beyond Call of Duty. At the same time, as I look at it from a company perspective, we think about it, we have great franchises across our company, whether it’s Candy Crush, whether it’s Diablo, whether it’s Overwatch, whether it’s Warcraft, whether it’s Call of Duty. There’s great franchises that we have, but obviously we’re always looking to add to that in the smartest way possible.

GamesBeat: What can you do with Microsoft’s resources?

Phil Spencer is CEO of Microsoft Gaming.
Phil Spencer is CEO of Microsoft Gaming.

Kostich: That’s a great question. While preliminary approval in the UK was a critical milestone toward closing, we still need to allow the regulatory process to run its course. As we’ve said previously this deal is good for the industry and will bring more games to more players. In terms of access to resources, being able to tap into Microsoft’s technology and suite of tools would benefit our teams to create even greater, more immersive experiences for our players. Ultimately, it’s about bringing our development team’s creative visions to life in this hyper competitive environment. The prospect of joining Microsoft is an extraordinary opportunity for our team and our players, and we look forward to an outcome soon.

GamesBeat: Yeah. Then there’s AI that can help you out. Right?

Kostich: Yeah. That topic has come up quite a bit lately, obviously, in all aspects of entertainment. For us, the way we look at it right now honestly is just how does it help us make better games. There’s a lot of really interesting applications, a lot of tools that are coming to the forefront, a lot of them that still need to be vetted quite frankly, in a lot of ways, but we’re always looking at how does it just help us make better games. If we do that and use the tools to make better games, I think our community will be pretty happy.

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