Call of Duty is a yearly franchise. It shouldn’t be, but it is. With each new installment, the player base, like herds of sheep, moves to new and greener pastures. What happens to those games that get left behind? To those communities? Each Call of Duty is different (though many folks will likely try and tell you otherwise). They are all different in good and bad ways, and we currently exist in the worst era of the franchise by a comfortable margin. Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2019) was the canary in the coal mine, and now 5 years on, the mine has collapsed in on itself. And yet, the games still sell an obscene amount of copies, and the fanbase stays attached to it. It’s gamer Stockholm Syndrome. Call of Duty used to be great—incredible, even. Those older games still exist. Most of their servers are still active. They’re barren but active. This brings me back to my question from earlier: What happens to those games that get left behind?
I recently reinstalled Call of Duty: WWII. Of the post-Call of Duty: Black Ops II (my favorite Call of Duty multiplayer experience), it is far and away my favorite one. The gunplay feels amazing, the progression is compelling, the roster of firearms is fun, and the maps are a blast. Plus, in a lot of ways, I think it is still the best-looking Call of Duty game (I will probably elaborate on this if I ever write in detail about the Call of Duty campaigns). It released in 2017, was divisive for valid (loot crate mania) and not very valid (COD fans being idiots, per usual) reasons, and while the game was super popular, it felt like the general consensus was that this game was an off year release. Fans played it, because Call of Duty players always play the new Call of Duty, but it seemed like they were just biding time until the next Call of Duty release in 2018. Upon reinstalling it, and knowing that it wasn’t the most popular Call of Duty release, I expected the game to be dead.
Call of Duty: WWII is not quite dead. It’s close. Holding onto life, matches can be found here in there (mainly in the ever-popular Team Deathmatch and Domination modes), and that’s about it. I’ve been playing it every day and it is like a portal back into 2017 for me. That was a weird year for me, and this game was like my rock in a year that was anything but steady. I’m glad people still play it, but I can’t help but feel a deep sadness at seeing how it is a shell of what it once was. Nothing quite showcases that as much as the Headquarters mode. This was a selling point for the game—the first in-game player hub in a Call of Duty game. Players could hang out together between matches, explore the Headquarters area, pick up challenges, rank up, test guns in the firing range, and during seasonal events, the Headquarters would be done up in Christmas lights or jack-o-lanterns. It was interesting and I spent a lot of time there. Like the commuter college I was at at the time, it was a stopgap. A place people spent time at in-between everything else. It was ephemeral by intent, if not by design. And now it is dead. Where the Headquarters used to be crowded with players, it is now akin to a ghost town. My player character is there, alongside a few other players, and we are just there holding on, trying to combat time and grasp for what once was. But time is time, and it always moves on. Headquarters is a microcosm—a perfect example, really—of what happens to Call of Duty games every single year, as the next new entry releases.
For the most part, old Call of Duty multiplayer environments are ghost towns. Some folks hang around, they found the game they liked the most, and they stuck with it. Or maybe, like me, in some ways they yearn for time gone by, and so they reinstall these games in order to try and feel something. And then 10 minutes pass while you look for a viable, hacker-free multiplayer match. The rose-tinted glasses are shattered and all you’re left with is the reality that your old memories of a specific game at its peak can never be recreated. They’re memories and nothing more. That’s me with Call of Duty: WWII, I guess.
But why? Why is there an incessant desire to release a new Call of Duty every calendar year? Why are players okay with unshackling themselves from a multiplayer suite they’ve likely spent hundreds of hours with, only to do it all over again in a game that is likely worse than the one that came before it? Call of Duty creates a new ghost town every single year, while also releasing a new game (or town, for the metaphor, you know, just follow me here) that feels worse, offers players less, and just isn’t as fun to play. It is the machine of capital in motion. Pull folks from something they like and offer them something lesser at the same (or a higher) price. Do it every year. Once it becomes normalized, no consumers (or very few) will balk at the practice because it is what they expect; what they’ve been conditioned to expect. And those games that get left behind are left to die. The players that remain will be loyal to those old games, but as time passes, their loyalty will give way to reality and they’ll likely end up buying whatever the new Call of Duty is.
I’ve been that person. I’ve held onto the same Call of Duty multiplayer for years (Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: WWII, to be specific) and just not bought the games that followed them. But time passed. Player counts dipped and dipped. Reality set in. With my tail between my legs, I went and bought whatever the new Call of Duty game was. Modern Warfare (2019) was a breaking point. Since then, I’ve dabbled in the series off and on (mainly the campaigns), but have just found myself with a big multiplayer gap. The type of multiplayer FPS that Call of Duty is very important to me, and I love playing them, but that love has long gone. They get worse and worse. And so I return to older games very often. Now, I find myself holding against hope to the dwindling player count in Call of Duty: WWII. This series, and almost any production at a mass scale, does (or will) create ghost towns. And now I am the resident of one of them. Call of Duty does not need a yearly release cycle, and I think we are at a point where even the most casual Call of Duty player would echo that sentiment, but Activision knows what a cow they have. And they’re going to milk it until it's dead and buried. What then? The servers that keep all these ghost towns alive will one day, in all likelihood, turn off, and then those ghost towns will truly die. Until then, I’ll continue to try and rekindle the fire that once was in old Call of Duty multiplayer experiences that I still play. Maybe the series can get better. In fact, I’m sure it could. I’m sure individual contributors who work on these games desperately want them to be better, but when a mad desire for profit over anything else is added to the equation, the equilibrium breaks, and the executives do what they do best. They kill the thing for profit.