With today's leak/release of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, 2014's upcoming entry in the annualized military shooter series, I got to thinking:
Could Call of Duty be episodic?
It's perhaps not a coincidence that the appearance (and excellent acting) of House of Cards' Kevin Spacey in the latest CoD trailer kickstarted my train of thought from heading in this direction, but there is some precedence.
Over the past few years, we've seen Telltale Games really make waves with their television-esque handling of games like The Walking Dead and A Wolf Among Us (with more series on the way). Before that, we got Alan Wake, which was released as a boxed game but was structured in episodes, complete with "Previously on..." segments. Even, to a lesser extent, 2008's flawed Alone in the Dark tinkered with the premise of episodic gaming.
So why not one of gaming's biggest franchise?
THE GREAT DIVIDE
As Call of Duty has grown up as a franchise, its fan base, much like it's development, has splintered between single player and multiplayer enthusiasts. I fall squarely into the (admittedly smaller) camp of players that has always been more interested in the single player, story-driven campaigns. They're not particularly well-written nor do they offer unique insights into the human condition: rather, they are the gaming equivalent of the summer blockbuster film.
An episodic release structure could allow those of us only interested in the campaign to pay just for the content we want, instead of facing a steep $60 price tag for all the multiplayer modes that may see very little action. In fact, this reason is why I've rented the last few CoD and hurried to finish them in a night or two, attempting to beat the clock on my local Red Box kiosk's daily charges. However, I can admit that trying to rush through the frenetic campaigns lessens the enjoyment that a more properly paced playthrough might elicit.
A MATTER OF LENGTH
As with all games, CoD campaigns are longer than any films, but they do clock in on the shorter side of most games at around six hours per iteration. While this can be tackled in a single weekend without too much CPS (couch potato syndrome), it's not exactly a chunk of entertainment to be consumed in one-sitting for the average adult. Compare that to the one and a half hours that an episode of The Walking Dead game takes--that's truly movie-length and can be easily consumed on a whim.
Having bite-sized episodes doled out over a period of time could help players savor the action a little more by providing a much-needed respite from the non-stop action, a CoD signature trait. Coming into each episode with a fresh face, ready to dive back in might actually amp up the intensity; very often, I've found that I'm somewhat dulled to the eightieth explosion and high speed infiltration during a standard outing with the series. It's possible that the writers might even find a little more time to focus on the story and give it some added weight.
LOOK WHO'S TALKING NOW
I realize I've referenced Telltale's The Walking Dead far too many times by now, but there is just so much that's working with their approach to gaming, especially for a working adult with only so much time to play games. I'm going to mention them one more time, though, because the other aspect of their games from which CoD could really benefit is the conversations that stem from a format that allows more people to stay up-to-date with the story.
With most games, you've either finished it, you're at some ambiguous spot in the middle, or you haven't started. Unless everyone has completed a game, it's hard to know when it's safe to have a conversation with someone that won't veer into spoiler territory. With smaller, episodic content, it's a lot easier to quickly ask, "Have you played episode #_?" and, because each episode is shorter, it's a lot easier for more of your friends to be current with the game series and, therefore, be available to discuss the latest plot points.
We do this with TV all the time, and it's part of why certain shows become part of the cultural fabric--a fixture of the zeitgeist. More games need to be doing this! Gaming is a quickly maturing medium, and there's no reason it shouldn't be part of more water cooler conversations right alongside shows like House of Cards or Game of Thrones.
As great an idea as I think it is, the fact is that Activision seems hellbent on sticking to the $60 full package for Call of Duty. Really, can you blame them? The series continues to sell ridiculously well year in and year out, giving them little incentive to mess with a winning formula.
But there's no reason they couldn't experiment with an alternate release structure: keep the full boxed copy with both single and multiplayer for traditionalists and offer those of us looking for more à la carte content a different way to consume only the content we want. And, who knows? Kevin Spacey is the latest poster boy for a show that bucks tradition: House of Cards is only available to stream via Netflix.
Maybe he can use some of his Frank Underwood "charisma" to change some minds.